How Japanese Whisky is taking over the world

Shinjiro Torii opened the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki, an area between Kyoto and Osaka, in 1923.

During a time when most Japanese drank only sake, this visionary entrepreneur had transformed a small shop selling imported wines into the successful Kotobukiya company, which was later renamed Suntory. He believed the next step to expanding his business was making and distributing whisky in Japan. Back then, he probably never expected the product to surpass the quality of Scotch. But last year, Jim Murray, a highly respected whisky critic, named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best in the world for its fruity notes, delicate sweetness, and “near indescribable genius.”

The Yamazaki distillery, owned by Suntory (the Japanese brewing and distilling company) rises out of lush green hills dotted with bamboo forests and Shinto shrines. Nearby lies a former tea room built by Master Sen no Rikyu, a 16th century tea master who’s credited with perfecting the Japanese tea ceremony. He was particularly fond of the region’s crystal clear waters for brewing. Torii later had similar reasons for establishing his whisky distillery there. 2015 marks the 92nd year of whisky making in Japan, and all of Suntory’s whiskies (the company also operates the Hakashu distillery west of Tokyo) are more popular than ever. Suntory currently has 800,000 whisky casks in stock, but it’s not enough to keep up with worldwide demand.