Japanese whisky turns 100 as craft distilleries transform industry

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Taiko Nakamura samples whisky barreled in the year he founded at his distillery in Shizuoka, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan October 25, 2023. REUTERS/Rocky Swift/File Photo

SHIZUOKA CITY, Japan, Nov 21 (Reuters) – In a still fuelled by cedar from nearby forests, Shizuoka Distillery, a leader in Japan’s new wave of independent whisky makers, crafts its spirits to tap into surging global demand.

This year marks the 100 year anniversary of whisky making in Japan since the founding of market leader Suntory’s first distillery in Yamazaki in 1923.

And at the century mark, there are now more than 100 licensed distilleries in the country – twice as much as 10 years ago – with each one vying to make its mark in a rapidly expanding market.

The cedar fire – which Shizuoka claims is the world’s only wood fuelled blaze beneath a whisky still – is one of several novelties these distilleries are using to set themselves apart.

And even though their businesses are small compared to drinks giants like Suntory, their ambitions are world-class.

Taiko Nakamura, 54, was inspired to set up Shizuoka Distillery in 2016 by a trip to Scotland.

“I saw this distillery, and I was amazed that this tiny place in the mountainous countryside was selling whisky across the globe,” he said. “So I thought it would be fun to make my own whisky and then have people from all over the world enjoy it.”

Japanese whisky turns 100 as craft distilleries transform industry

The explosion of craft whisky in Japan follows a boom and bust in the industry.


Long viewed as an inferior copycat of Scotch, Japanese single malts and blended whiskies started racking up international awards around 2008, sparking intense global demand that effectively drank the supply dry by around 2015.

The shortage sent prices into the stratosphere. A set of 54 bottles from Ichiro’s Malt, a trailblazer in Japanese craft whisky, sold for $1.5 million in 2020 at a Hong Kong auction. Last week, Sotheby’s offered what it claimed was the most valuable collection of Japanese whisky at auction, headlined by a 52-year old bottle that sold for 300,000 pounds ($373,830).

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