In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
Japanese whisky continues to gain global status, so much so that we’ve basically bought the big producers out, and they’ve had to replace products with younger and alternative expressions. Reinforcements are on the way and there’s still plenty to go around, but in the mean time, we should take a moment to learn more about the stuff. So what is Japanese whisky, and is it the same as Scotch?
To get the geography out of the way, Scotch of course hails from Scotland and Japanese whisky hails from… Japan. So besides that point of differentiation, are they otherwise the same?
Japanese whisky has numerous similarities to Scotch, and the category essentially got its start by bringing home firsthand knowledge and expertise from Scotland. Therefore, as with malt whisky in Scotland, malt whisky in Japan is double distilled in copper pot stills. Also as with Scotland, grain whisky, which incorporates any other grain in addition to malted barley, is produced and is made using column stills.
Another similarity is that Japanese whisky has both single malt whisky, and blends. A single malt whisky, whether in Japan or Scotland or the United States, is a 100% malted barley whisky made at a single distillery. Take a look inside one of the major Japanese whisky distilleries though, and that’s where the differences start to come into play.
In Scotland, each malt distillery produces essentially a single type of whisky. They may age it in assorted different barrels and put it to use in all kinds of different ways, but it all starts life as the same distillate. If production needs to increase, they buy new replicas, but not larger ones, and not ones of different sizes or shapes. A blended Scotch may then incorporate a handful but potentially dozens of whiskies from different distilleries, pulling in all of the specific and distinctive qualities that each distillery is known for producing.
In Japan, the large whisky companies essentially do all of that in house. At Yamazaki, they have seven unique sets of stills, capable of producing a full portfolio’s worth of different styles.
Therefore, even a Yamazaki single malt incorporates whisky made from those various shapes and sizes, which produce whiskies with different characteristics. Accounting for the different stills, as well as types of casks and fermentation, Yamazaki makes up to 70 different malt whiskies. Suntory’s second malt distillery, Hakushu, makes up to 40 varieties. A blended whisky from their company, such as Hibiki or Suntory Toki, may include whisky from both of their malt distilleries, as well as their grain distillery, Chita.
The key point then, again, is that their single malts are made in a fundamentally different way from those in Scotland, despite sharing the same DNA as a 100% malted barley whisky double distilled in copper pot stills from a single distillery.
So, is Japanese whisky the same as Scotch? Yes. But no.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.