The growing global interest in Japanese whisky over the past two decades has kept people waiting for the “next big thing” in Japanese spirits. Is it gin?
While gin has been distilled in Japan since 1936, it did not compete with other spirits like whisky and shochu for decades.
In 2016, the Kyoto distillery released the KI NO BI gin, the first gin to embrace unique Japanese botanicals in its distillation process. Shortly after, pioneers of Japanese spirits, Suntory and Nikka, followed by releasing their own craft gins.
The Japanese gin industry has boomed ever since, with more than 30 distilleries now producing their own brands.
Although not a spirit, sake is perhaps the most famous Japanese bevarage.
The fermented, rice-based drink has existed in Japan for as long as rice has grown. By the 15th century, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were brewing sake.
Sake’s alcohol by volume is around 15%. This versatile drink pairs well with both cold food, like sushi and sashimi, and strong flavors like tempura, takoyaki, and steak.
There are two main distinctions between sake types: the amount of rice polished off of it, and whether or not the brewer added distilled alcohol or other ingredients after brewing.
Often confused with 'Japanese vodka’, Shochu is a distilled liquor with it's alcoholic content typically sitting between 20 - 25%.
Shochu does have some things in common with vodka; it is a clear spirit, low in calories, and can be made from different raw materials. But, they are not the same thing.
There’s a wider variety of shochu compared to vodka, and more variables to differ. For example, shochu can be distilled once or multiple times, it can be aged in wood or fermented with mold.
Shochu is also lighter than vodka, it contains zero sugar and has about a quarter of the calories per ounce of vodka.
In the early 20th century, a chemist named Masataka Taketsuru, from a respected brewing family, traveled to Scotland to study the creation of alcoholic beverages. When he moved back to Japan, with a new-found love for Scotch, he began making whisky with fellow enthusiast Shinjiro Tori.
Taketsuru wanted to build a distillery in a climate and landscape similar to that of Scotland, Tori, on the other hand, preferred to build his distillery in Yamazaki for the water resources.
From this point in history, the two biggest Japanese whisky brands have been Suntory, by Torii, and Nikka, by Taketsuru.
Japanese whisky has a distinct aroma, as distilleries are often influenced by their surrounding nature, including the water source and the floral blossom.