Japanese sake, we know: We drink this so-called “rice wine” (which technically is closer to a beer) both cold and warm with sushi and then some from a delicate little cup — or, in more traditional scenarios, a small wooden box.
But in Japan, another spirit is gaining ground — and it looks a lot like Scotland’s most famous export. Japanese whisky has become more popular thanks to an increasing awareness in its homeland, and strong demand in the States and elsewhere. Gracing menus at high-end lounges and sold at a growing number of spirits shops, Japanese whisky is just as good as your favorite scotch, if not better. In fact, the quality is so good that it commonly wins over scotch in whisky competitions.
Most of Japan’s whisky distilleries welcome visitors with English-speaking tours and shops selling both exported and limited-release products. Not to mention, the country’s excellent domestic train routes make it easy to navigate straight to the source of your new favorite tipple.
Japan’s first whisky distillery and the mother of them all, Yamazaki is at the top of the list of must-visit distilleries. Established by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii in 1923, it is a 15-minute train ride from Kyoto, and the stunning whisky library — with more than 7,000 cataloged bottles elegantly displayed — is worth a transcontinental plane ticket alone. Don’t leave without a taste on the tour: Last year, the World Whiskies Awards named Yamazaki 25 Year Old the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky. After the tour, learn more about the award-winning brand in the Yamazaki Whisky Museum.
Also owned by Suntory, Hakushu is nestled in the Japanese Southern Alps approximately two and a half hours west of Tokyo via train. In a beautiful wooded setting, the grounds smell of fir trees and are hushed with the noise of local birds, identified in Hakushu’s campus avian sanctuary. Like Yamazaki, Hakushu boasts impressive accolades: A Suntory blend of whiskies from the two distilleries, Hibiki 21 Year Old, won World’s Best Blended Whisky at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards. Take the tour (conducted in Japanese but with audio guides in English, French and Chinese) and enjoy a sample of the housemade spirits.
Second to Suntory is the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., which owns this handsome distillery located about an hour and a half west of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido — the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and the last to be developed. Mountains surround three sides of the distillery with the fourth bordered by the sea, lending Yoichi its peaty, masculine flavor, akin to that of an Islay scotch whisky. Brush up on your Japanese as tours here are only given in the native tongue, but they do include a tasting of the malts produced at Yoichi.
Also owned by Nikka, Miyagikyo was built in its location near Sendai City in northern Japan because of the combination of its clean air, mild humidity and water access. Surrounded by two rivers, the picturesque setting lends Miyagikyo a soft, mild malt. Only Japanese tours (that include a tasting) are offered here.
Two hours southwest of Nagano, the Hombo Shuzo Co.-owned Mars Shinshu sits in a lovely wooded area higher in altitude (2,600 feet) than any other distillery in the country, leaving it blanketed with snow in the wintertime. It reopened only a few years ago after having shuttered in 1992 — a sign that Japanese whisky is on the rise. Warm up after your tour with a tasting and a look around the gift shop.
Located at the base of Mt. Fuji, this Kirin-owned distillery was founded in the 1970s by an international partnership of alcohol industry gurus Seagram’s from Canada, Chivas Brothers of Scotland, Four Roses from America and Kirin. Just a little more than a two-hour drive from Tokyo, its site is at the base of the mountain and capitalizes on the area’s mineral-rich soil and underground water vein, which yields spring water that’s perfect for making whisky. Free tours are available every day except Wednesdays.
Photos Courtesy of Lauren Viera