Secrets of the world's top whisky: Japanese water and Spanish casks

Thu Dec 4, 2014 10:22am EST
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By Thomas Wilson

YAMAZAKI, Japan (Reuters) - Nestled at the foot of wooded hills near the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, the Yamazaki whisky distillery feels a long way from the northerly glens of Scotch's spiritual home.

Despite its unlikely birthplace, last month Yamazaki's Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 trumped more than 1,000 challengers to be named the world's best whisky by prominent critic Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible 2015.

The first Japanese whisky to claim the crown owes its success to adroit exploitation of climate and water, special casks and a keen awareness of the Japanese palate, the company says.

In Yamazaki's cavernous cellar, 2,000 barrels emit a heady scent as the whiskies mature, the casks breathing as the seasons change to produce a flavor praised as "near indescribable genius" by Murray.

"Hot summers make for a complex, deep aroma," said Shinji Fukuyo, chief blender at Beam Suntory, which owns Yamazaki.

Taken from the wells of a nearby town, the distillery's water is prized for its mineral content and softness, while maturation occurs in hard-to-come-by sherry casks, specially crafted from oak in northern Spain.

The popularity of whisky in Japan has ebbed and flowed since Masataka Taketsuru, the son of a sake brewer, returned from Scotland in 1918, establishing the country's first distillery at Yamazaki five years later.

As the good times rolled in Japan's 1980s bubble-era, Scotch mixed with water became an indispensable part of business culture.   Continued...

Two samples of whisky are seen in the whisky library of Suntory Holdings' Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto town, Osaka prefecture, near Kyoto, December 1, 2014.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter