Japanese Whisky

by Brian Ashcraft (Author), Yuji Kawasaki (Author) and Idzuhiko Ueda (Photographer) 

Immerse yourself in the relatively young but utterly delicious world of Japanese whisky.

Author info

Brian Ashcraft is an Osaka-based columnist for The Japan Times and the senior contributing editor for Kotaku. He is the author of several books on contemporary Japanese culture.

Idzuhiko Ueda is a photographer who has been documenting traditional Japanese arts for over 30 years.

Yuji Kawasaki has run a popular review blog, One More Glass of Whisky, since 2013.

Whisky, that golden spirit perfectly distilled in the hilly island homelands of Scotland, ireland … and Japan! Though Japan has only been in the business for about a century, whiskys of the land of the rising Sun are sweeping up international awards all over the place, and connoisseurs have taken note of the new kid (or drink) in town. Though native whisky enjoyed decades of popularity within Japan in the postwar period, it wasn’t internationally known until that famous scene in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, where an aging American actor flies to Japan to shoot a commercial for Suntory Whisky. Japanese whisky has come a long way since then: in his 2015 edition of the Whisky Bible, leading critic Jim Murray declared a Japanese single malt the world’s best whisky, setting off a global thirst that continues today.

Tuttle publishing’s new book, Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, takes readers through this creative, intoxicating world, from the drink’s late-nineteenth-century origins to its varied contemporary flavours. The book is great for newbies and old hands alike, offering answers to the most basic questions—like why there’s no “e” in Japanese whisky (that’s a nod to its Scottish influences)—and including more than a hundred independently scored reviews from leading whisky blogger Yuji Kawasaki.

First, the book puts whisky into the grand scheme of Japanese history and offers many fascinating anecdotes about the industry’s trials and triumphs. Not long after whisky made landfall, the distillation methods were adapted to create a “new style” of shochu, a traditional Japanese beverage. Counterfeit whiskys followed suit, and everyday Japanese were initially happy with the wannabe stuff, but the royal family wasn’t: in 1907, it issued an imperial warrant for Buchanan’s royal House-hold Blended Scotch Whisky, a drink made especially for the British royal family. This early enthusiasm for would-be whisky as well as the real deal led to native distillers experimenting, combining Scottish-style distillation with some old Japanese elements, creating a smooth, uniquely Japanese way to imbibe the brown stuff. Once distillers found their own style, some early attempts at exporting Japanese whisky failed—a 1934 Chicago Tribune article claimed that Japanese whisky seemed “among the most terrible” things to import in post-prohibition America—but its popularity increased at home, leading, eventually, to its breakout onto the global stage.

In addition to this rich history, the book details some elements that make these whiskys unique, from the use of mizunara wood and Japanese barley, to the only-in-Japan production methods used by contemporary distillers. And Kawasaki’s evaluations have a mouthwatering preview for experts looking for a reliable guide for everything from single malts to grain whiskys and blends. readers familiar with Japanese whisky probably know the “dragon and tiger” rivalry of the two major distilleries, Suntory and Nikka, and in addition to plenty of tasting notes from the big two, the book offers notes on whiskys from Hombo Shuzo, Kirin, Venture and more.

Any whisky enthusiast will be a fan of this book, which adds plenty of in-depth knowledge and tons of fun anecdotes to every sip, and includes full-colour, never-before-published archival images—from turn-of-the-century photographs and handwritten distilling notes, to cheesy ’80s advertisements and a handy map of all the country’s leading distilleries.

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