Japanese whisky turns 100 as craft distilleries transform the industry. Shizuoka Distillery, a pioneer in Japan’s new wave of independent whiskey manufacturers, produces its spirits to meet the growing demand for whisky worldwide in a still that burns cedar harvested from forests in the surrounding area.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of whiskey production in Japan, beginning with market leader Suntory’s first distillery in Yamazaki in 1923. This year marks the 100th anniversary of whisky production in Japan.
At the turn of the century, there were more than one hundred licensed distilleries in the nation, twice as many as there were ten years before. Each of these distilleries strives to imprint in a market that is continuously increasing.
The cedar fire, which Shizuoka claims to be the only wood-fueled burning beneath a whiskey still in the world, is one of the numerous innovations these distilleries adopt to differentiate themselves from the competition.
And even though their companies are relatively small compared to beverage behemoths such as Suntory, their goals are global. A trip to Scotland inspired Taiko Nakamura, who is now 54 years old, to found Shizuoka Distillery in 2016.
“I saw this distillery, and I was amazed that this tiny place in the mountainous countryside was selling whisky across the globe,” he said. “So I thought it would be fun to make my whisky and have people worldwide enjoy it.”
The business has seen both a boom and a crisis since the rise of artisan whiskey production in Japan.
PREFERRING QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Long considered to be an inferior imitation of Scotch, Japanese single malts and blended whiskies started collecting international honors around 2008, which sparked high worldwide demand that virtually drank the supply dry by about the year 2015.
Due to the severe lack of supply, prices shot through the roof. In 2020, Ichiro’s Malt, a pioneer in Japanese artisan whisky, sold a collection of 54 bottles of whiskey for $1.5 million at an auction in Hong Kong. The previous week, Sotheby’s held an auction for what it claimed to be the world’s most valuable collection of Japanese whiskey. A bottle that cost 300,000 pounds ($373,830) and was 52 years old was the collection’s focal point.
The significant producers, Suntory and Nikka, which is a unit of beer manufacturer Asahi Group (2502.T), have spent the past decade increasing their production and stock of the spirit. According to the rules of 2021, the spirit needs to be aged for at least three years before it can be considered “Japanese whisky.”
Suntory, the largest and most well-known whiskey producer in Japan, recently invested 10 billion yen (about $67 million) to improve its facilities, one of which is located in Yamazaki.
The head blender at Suntory, Shinji Fukuyo, expressed his excitement about the emergence of a new generation of Japanese distillers and stated that the company is eager to offer guidance to emerging companies “as long as it contributes to maintaining and improving the quality of Japanese whisky as a whole.”
Additionally, money from overseas is coming into the market. Following the establishment of Komasa Kanosuke Distillery in 2017 by a producer of traditional shochu liquor, the global beverage giant Diageo purchased an undisclosed share in the company in 2021.
According to a story published in March by the Nikkei newspaper, the Kentucky-based IJW Whiskey Company has established a Japanese subsidiary named Cedarfield. Cedarfield is constructing a distillery on the island of Hokkaido that will be the largest in Japan.
A spokesman from Cedarfield declined to comment on the following intentions of the firm: Some people in the business are worried that Japan’s image might be damaged if the new supply that has been flooding the market is of low quality. These new supplies are coming from a large number of new players.
“That’s a real fear in the industry,” said Casey Wahl, an American expatriate who founded Kamui Whisky on the island of Rishiri in Japan’s far north. Wahl is the one who established Kamui Whisky.
According to Nakamura of Shizuoka, artisans like him can do nothing more than respect the process and wait for the outcomes.
“I believe we need to put all our effort into making Japanese whisky that lives up to the quality of the Japanese whiskies made by our predecessors,” stated the president.