Asian Whiskies – Shooting Stars Eager to Impress
Know about these 2 nations that made it into the international whisky league and their most important producers.
At the beginning of November 2014, online portals and print media were overflowing with headlines such as “Bitter defeat for Scots” or “Humiliation for Scotland”, but what sounds like the usual paroles in football, was something completely different.
Whisky guru Jim Murray had done the unthinkable – in his annual Whisky Bible he crowned the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 the world's best Whisky and with that dethroned a whole nation, many, if not most Whisky lovers considered to be unbeatable when it comes to the water of life.
What followed literally overnight was a turmoil in the Whisky world and the beginning of the global triumph of Japanese whisky. Not that there hadn't been any Asian whiskies around before that, insiders always had their eyes on the land of the rising sun, but this event worked as a game changer for a whole continent.
Let's have a look at 2 nations that made it into the international whisky league and their most important producers.
First up is Japan. Like most Asian whisky producers, this country has a relatively young whisky making history that started with the foundation of the first single malt distillery Yamazaki in 1923. Belonging to Suntory (today Beam Suntory), it is till date the uncrowned queen of Japanese whisky distilleries – both in terms of production volume as well as popularity.
Its founder Shinjiro Torri was an experienced businessman, importing European wine among other things and also producing his own plum wine. In order to provide a solid knowledge base for his distillery, he sent one of his workers to Scotland to learn the art of distillation – chemist Masataka Taketsuru, who gathered experience in different Scotch whisky distilleries over the course of three years and then returned home with enough knowledge to start the process. Knowing that the Scots put a lot of effort in choosing the right spot for a whisky distillery, Torri and Taketsuru went searching for the ideal terrain for a Japanese distillery, which had to provide enough soft water above all. They found it at the foot of Mount Tenno between Osaka and Kyoto. Taketsuru though had recommended the Hokkaido peninsula, whose climate is similar to the climate in Scotland. He later left Torri's company, founded Nikka Whisky and erected his own distillery on Hokkaido: Yoichi.
The first whisky they sold emulated the Scottish style of the time, being very peaty, which didn't go down well with the Japanese taste. So, they decided to cater more to the Japanese taste by creating less smoky, fruitier whisky, and so the success story of the company started and along that paved the way for more distilleries to open and try their luck.
Today names like Karuizawa, Chichibu, Nikka, Hakushu and Hibiki are well known not exclusively among insiders. The fan following around the globe is steadily growing and what we see are Single Malts and blends that have developed their own unique style - from light and precise to smoky and fat.
Outside of Japan, not many Asian nations are producing whisky. There are distilleries starting to pop up here and there, even in unexpected countries like Indonesia and Bhutan, but few have produced anything for export so far. But there are two more countries that have caught spirits lovers' attention lately – India and Taiwan, and we are having a closer look into the green island off the coast of China.
Founded in 2005 Kavalan is the distillery that put Taiwanese whisky on the map, and it has been wowing drinkers around the world since it launched its first whisky in 2008. The company behind the brand, King Car, is originally known for mass producing bottled water and canned coffee but was inspired by the country’s relatively huge consumption for Scotch in recent years.
Upon opening the distillery's main ambition was to create a fruit-centred spirit style and experiment with multiple cask types.
One of the most fascinating aspects of whisky production on this island is the rapid maturation caused by Taiwan’s tropical climate. The percentage of angel's share can be as high as 12% to 15%, whereas in Scotland it is closer to 2%. The resulting shorter maturation period means that in just four to six years a whisky can be produced that is arguably comparable to a Scotch that has been aged for 15 or 25 years.
Kavalan and fellow distillery Nantou is successfully utilising the tropical climate that accelerates the interaction of the spirit with the wood barrels and is able to provide an interesting perspective for those who tend to judge whiskeys quality based on its age.
Within only a decade Taiwan has earned itself a reputation as a favourite category and destination for whisky connoisseurs. The future looks equally bright. Kavalan has announced plans to increase its production capacity to produce 9 million litres, which would make it one of the largest single malt whisky distilleries in the world and comparable in size to the oldest official Scottish distillery, The Glenlivet.
So, what to make of the hype around these Asian shooting stars? Are these whiskies with their numerous awards really better than their Scottish role models? Has Scotland been resting on its laurels for too long? Maybe not quite. But for sure the whisky world has to acknowledge the simple fact that Scotland is not the only country that produces pleasurable, exciting and extraordinary malts. It might have the longest tradition in doing so, but that alone is no longer guaranteeing its supremacy.
After all, it is diversity that makes this product so fascinating and it is definitely worth being open-minded and appreciate the enrichment these spirits offer. Because one thing is sure: Asian whiskies are no passing fad - they are here to stay.