It seems like Japanese whisky is an entirely new phenomenon sparked off by a few whisky reviewers. Early in 2014 when this whisky went on sale, the clamour to obtain a bottle was fevered even though the price was in the early hundreds. It was certainly a watershed moment for Japanese whisky and, perhaps, even for the whisky market and whisky drinkers as a whole. Whiskies produced outside of Scotland and the USA were of course on the radar, but often devalued somewhat (save for Japan’s own legendary but closed Karuizawa distillery). With Murray’s accolade, the horizon was broadened, and Japan seemingly suddenly appeared to be a legitimate whisky producing country of which everybody wanted a piece.
Now, Japanese whisky can be found everywhere (to a certain extent). All supermarkets feature something from the Suntory, as do newsagents, while independent wine, beer and spirits merchants will feature something from the Nikka portfolio. Indeed, to have any kind of legitimacy, you need to stock Japanese whisky.
To attribute a general style to all whiskies from this slender country is erroneous. Often, they will be described as elegant, balanced and fine boned, but these terms arguably are wrapped up in the broader cultural stereotypes of Japanese culture as being detailed, contemplative and refined. Of course, there are certain whiskies that articulate these qualities with the utmost skill, however there are other whiskies that would not be out of place in a line-up of the most bruising, bonfire and peat smoked whiskies from Islay. Japan, to put it in broad terms, is home to a wide variety of styles that are made in a wide variety of ways and in a wide variety of locations.
Describing the Japanese whisky industry in the same terms as the Scottish industry is difficult as there is simply not the variety of producers and regions that can lay claim to their own distinct styles. The market is dominated by two producers: Nikka and Suntory. From the UK perspective, these two supply the majority of our Japanese whiskies, under the Nikka, Hibiki, Hakushu and Yamazaki labels. However, more producers are establishing footholds in the UK, with Ichiro and Mars building up customers of late. It makes most sense, therefore, to first establish the history of Japanese whisky and the general market, before discussing Nikka and Suntory as if they were regions in themselves.