A bottle of Hibiki Suntory Japanese whisky
What Sets Japanese Whisky Apart From Its American Counterpart
Japanese whiskies are highly sought after despite being relative newcomers to the market. Commercial production began in 1923, whereas U.S. distillers date back over 250 years.
U.S. and Irish distillers make whiskey; in Japan, Scotland and elsewhere, they make whisky. However, the difference between whisky and whiskey is about more than just an ‘e’.
It resembles Scotch whisky more closely than its American cousins largely because the skills used in Japanese whisky-making were imported from Speyside and other Scottish regions.
A whisky’s flavor is influenced by how it's aged. Many Japanese distillers use mizunara oak barrels, which produce a peaty, smoky taste, and not the sweet notes of bourbon or rye.
The climate, altitude, and water source of a distillery also contribute to a whisky’s flavor. These vary hugely across Japanese brands, leading to many subtle differences in taste.
In the U.S., distillers must comply with legally defined rules: bourbon is made with at least 51% corn; rye from at least 51% rye; and corn whiskey with a minimum 80% corn.
The Japanese distillers have made huge progress in 100 years. In 2020, one of their whiskys beat its Gaelic antecedents to the title of best single malt at the World Whisky Awards.