Japanese Signel MaltA world of whisky in miniature

With distilleries across the whole country, Japan produces a wide variety of single malts - from rich and peaty, to light and floral, and even fresh and fruity.

Humble Beginnings

The early years of Japanese whisky are dominated by two men: Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. Taketsuru was famously sent to Scotland in 1918 to learn about whisky-making, studying in Glasgow and getting hands-on experience in Speyside and Campbeltown before returning to Japan with a head full of facts and a Scottish wife.

When he joined forces with Torii in about 1921, Taketsuru’s vision was to build a distillery on the remote northern island of Hokkaido – the part of the country he thought most mirrored Scotland. However, Torii feared this was too far from the main markets of central Honshu, vetoed the idea and instead built Yamazaki on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1923.

Taketsuru swallowed his reservations and worked as Yamazaki’s first distillery manager before leaving in 1934 to strike out on his own and finally realise his dream: the building of the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido.

Eighty years later, the companies founded by Torii and Taketsuru – Suntory and Nikka respectively – still dominate the Japanese whisky industry. But, unlike the twin monoliths of Scotch whisky, Diageo and Pernod Ricard, they don’t have dozens of distilleries, but only four between them.

CHAMELEONS OF DISTILLATION

While Scotland took centuries to build up a critical mass of about 100 malt distilleries, all with subtly different styles, Japan wanted to move faster, and with just a small number of sites. What’s more, Suntory and Nikka don’t trade whisky with each other – which, as in Scotland, would increase their blending options.

What developed was a very different model of distillation: plants like Yamazaki which produce a multiplicity of styles thanks to an eclectic collection of still shapes and sizes, plus a range of peated/unpeated barley, different yeast strains, fermentations, cut points – not to mention a number of cask options including the distinctive mizunara or Japanese oak.

These chameleons of distillation – Suntory stablemate Hakushu and Nikka’s two plants, Yoichi and Miyagikyou, follow a broadly similar philosophy – play havoc with the notion of ‘single’ malt, and yet there is a common thread that unites their bottlings, from Yamazaki’s floral roundness to Hakushu’s precision; and from Miyagikyou’s spiced fruit to Yoichi’s heavy smoke.

Typical Character and Style of Japanese Signel Malt

  • Honeysuckle Honeysuckle
  • Toffee Toffee
  • Orange Orange
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