Japanese Whiskies

What Makes A Whisky Real Japanese: Top 7 Things To Know


Japan Red Spiritual Gate in water

Japanese whisky has become a global phenomenon. Their distinct flavors and methods of distillation make them some of the most sought after whiskies in the world. So what makes a real Japanese whisky? What are its secrets? 

In this article, we will explore key elements that makes a real Japanese whisky, from the raw ingredients to the art of blending, barrels and aging.What does it mean to be 100% real Japanese whisky. Here’s our top 7 things to know. 

Wine & Spirits Journal: Top 7 list of what makes a whisky 100% real Japanese


7) Japan has been making distilled spirits from grain for around 500 years.


If you’ve tried Sake or Shochu you’ve tasted the heritage of Japanese spirits. Shochu is distilled spirit commonly made from rice, barley and sweet potatoes. It is unaged and colorless, but made with a level of complexity and detail that is strictly maintained and protected for hundreds of years. This was happening long before the Scotch-style whisky method had arrived in Japan. In Japan and throughout Asia, Shochu is a considered a national treasure.


6) Japanese whisky is spelled without the “e” out of respect for the Scotch whisky-making style.


The Japanese have been making Scotch-style whisky for the past 100 years. There is no “e” in Japanese whisky out of respect and admiration for the Scotch whisky method.


Most of today’s Japanese whiskies are made in the Scotch style. There is a Japanese gentleman who is long considered the father of Scotch-style whisky for Japan.

Masataka Taketsuru arrived in Scotland in 1918 and apprenticed at a number of Scotch distilleries before studying chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He married a Scottish bride and returned to Japan with his handwritten notes on making Scotch whisky. 


His notes are in a museum now. What an amazing story! I have complete admiration for Scotch whisky tradition. We wouldn’t be here without it. 


Though Taketsuru may be the most well-known Japanese whisky pioneer, he wasn’t the first. That honor goes to a Japanese biochemist living in the United States during the late 1900s.


The same year “the father of Japanese whisky,” Masataka Taketsuro was born, the Japanese biochemist by the name of Jokichi Takamine married an American woman and settled in Chicago and began producing Koji-fermented whiskey in Peoria, Illinois.


5) The Japanese whisky malting process called Koji-kin predates malted barley (or Scotch-style whisky) by a generation.


The Japanese word “Koji” directly translates to the word “malted” in English. Koji is a type of mold that grows on rice and has been used in Japan for centuries in fermentation. 


Dr. Jokichi Takamine, tried to teach the U.S. spirits industry how to use Japanese yeast cultures to make whiskey more efficiently. But traditional maltsters felt threatened by Takamine’s patented technique and in 1890 a mysterious fire burned his distillery to the ground. Today, there’s a whiskey called Takamine that not only carries his name but uses his process for malting. 


4) World whisky generally refers to whisky produced in Scotland, but bottled and sometimes blended with rice whisky in Japan.


Turns out that “rare expensive” bottle of Japanese whisky you might have bought may contain no whisky made in Japan. It’s important to do your research before you buy. Producers have been importing whisky distilled from anywhere in the world, bottling it in Japan and labeling it “Japanese whisky”.  


3) What does it mean to be real Japanese whisky?


The skeptical, or uninformed, are blindly following the interests of big business when they repeat:  “real Japanese whisky is made like Scotch whisky.” That statement is simply not true. 


So what are we classifying as real Japanese whisky–– Scotch whisky made in Japan?! That doesn’t make sense. Like saying we don’t grow corn in Japan so we’re going to import all of it from Kentucky. Then we’re going to call it real Japanese Bourbon? I don’t think American Bourbon makers would be too happy.


A lesson on what is real Japanese whisky and what is not from Liquor Museum Bar, Kyoto, Japan
A lesson on what is real Japanese whisky and what is not from Liquor Museum Bar, Kyoto, Japan: Super Nikka whisky

2) Where Scotch, Canadian and American whiskies use barley, corn, wheat, rye as their base, Japanese also use rice grains. 


There is long history of rice grain in Asian culture, as there is corn grain and bourbon whiskey here in the United States. I’ve recently come across a few rice grain whiskeys online that I’m eager to try. 


1) Japanese whisky, like all whiskey, are aged in wooden casks. 


The use and types of barrels are an art to themselves. Most whisky casks are made from either American white oak or European oak. The types of barrels and the aging process are a powerful element in the art of whiskey making. 


American oak gives a softer, sweeter taste with notes of vanilla and caramel, while European oak is spicier and has a stronger wood input. European oak grows in northern Spain and Portugal. 


French oak is used to age wine and cognac. It delivers notes of vanilla, pepper and subtle spiciness. 


Here are the official standards for Japanese whisky expected to be made into Japanese law. 


According to Japanese Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association guidelines, released on February 12th 2021, all Japanese whisky must contain malted grains, but are also allowed to contain other cereal grains. Guidelines also require that all production – from fermentation to bottling – be done in Japan.

Japanese Whisky Standards



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