Japanese Whisky: Facts, Figures and Taste


Ulf's first contact with alcohol in general was at the European Club in the city of Abadan in Persia (now Iran), at the age of 15. It was the then famous blend whisky 'Black & White', which now is a bit hard to find. His infatuation was instant and intensive, and life lasting. And he had begun an un-systematic journey through the realm of whiskies over time, and around the globe.
During a string of years his libation was the usual, traditional whisky blends, with an ice cube...
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Ulf's first contact with alcohol in general was at the European Club in the city of Abadan in Persia (now Iran), at the age of 15. It was the then famous blend whisky 'Black & White', which now is a bit hard to find. His infatuation was instant and intensive, and life lasting. And he had begun an un-systematic journey through the realm of whiskies over time, and around the globe.
During a string of years his libation was the usual, traditional whisky blends, with an ice cube or a dash of soda water. Suddenly, around 1970, he found his salvation and his road. The Savoir was the Macallan. And the road was not for Mandalay, but for Speyside and their single malt whiskies. Later in life he de facto made a pilgrimage to Mandalay to fetch a bottle of a locally produced malt whisky. Other whisky path he followed brought him to Japan and its rich whisky culture.
In the early 80's when swamped with Single Malts he not only bought in a hotchpotch fashion but also in quantities larger than possible to consume. Several bottles were just slowly evaporating and dust collecting. No orderly investigation was applied like the subjects for his prime passion then, sampling wines and taking tasting notes. At one of these wine tasting exercises he was struck by the idea of utilizing the technique and the descriptive wine lingo to systematically explore his accumulated heap of Single Malts.
At the end of the 80's his Swedish wine-freak friends asked him to escort them through what they described as the 'jungle' of whiskies. It forced him to work out a lecture and a tasting scheme. During the period of 1989-1999 more than 3.000 individuals absorbed Single Malts and, hopefully, knowledge under histutorship. This activity was recognized and by that he received an invitation to join the illustrious 'Keeper of the Quaich', in 1995. John Grant of Glenfarclas was his mentor.
The local, Swedish, interest in whisky underpinned by himself and other 'evangelists' led to an inflation in organized societies, circles and groups centred around not only the fluid, its history, geography, sociology and methods of production but also to organize group travels to visit the birth places of whiskies. And, not to forget, advise in cask investment matters. Today, Sweden harbours the highest density of such special interest groups in relation to its population. For instance, on the web only, there are 80+ whisky clubs to be found. All listing and reporting their scheduled activities regularly. Ulf happen to be a member of honour at some, and member of the board at others.
Ulf's previous book Rare Malts was awarded the title 'Best book about Spirits in the world 2006' at the 'Book Oscar' ceremony held in Beijing April 2007. He also contributed to the Asian segment of DK's Eyewitness Companion 'Whisky'.
Besides organising themed, structured whisky tastings, Ulf's special interest lies in collecting volumes dealing with the subject 'whisky', and his extensive library includes 200+ titles spanning from mid 1700 to today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9789163320934
  • Publisher: DataAnalys Scandinavia AB
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 11.20 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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3.1. The early years

The art of distilling a mash, made from grain or other cultivated or wild flora products, was not introduced to Japan with the arrival of whisky making technology at the end of the 1880s; it was already known by then.

The knowledge of alcohol production by fermenting like wine or brewing like beer making emerged in the dawning of Japan's evolving culture. Like other pre or parallel cultures this knowledge was either reinvented or acquired from the outside. The third form of conversion into alcohol by distilling is of later date

The classic alcoholic, fermented fluid in Japan is the Sake. The history of Sake is not well documented and there are multiple theories on how it was developed. One theory suggests that the brewing of rice started in China, along the Yangtze River and was subsequently exported to Japan. Another theory traces Sake brewing back to 3rd century in Japan with the advent of wet rice cultivation. The combination of water and rice lying around together would have resulted in molds and fermentation. It is a parallel to the theory of the development of beer production where cereal stored in leaking vessels absorbed water which too would have resulted in molds and fermentation.

Sake is produced by fermentation of polished rice. The process of polishing removes protein from the exterior of the rice grain, leaving behind starch. The more thorough the polishing is the fewer congeners are left behind which generally leads to a more desirable Sake product. There are multiple steps in the fermentation process - the first step converts starch to sugar by an enzyme action. The sugar is then converted to alcohol by influenceof yeast. Sake brewing differs from beer and whisky mash brewing in a significant way. In sake brewing, the enzyme for the starch conversion comes from the action of a mold called koji, but in beer and whisky mash brewing the enzymes comes from the malt itself. In detail the steps are: Rice is inoculated with the mold koji-kin, which then becomes kome-koji or malt rice. A portion of the malt rice is added to the mash for conversion from starch to sugar. A yeast culture, or shubo, is then added to convert the sugars to ethanol. This second step greatly increases Sake's alcohol content (18%-25% by volume). After fermentation, the product is usually filtered as it becomes heavily clouded with rice solids. As the product degrades quickly it is consumed fresh and rarely aged. In Japanese, a Sake brewery is called a kura or warehouse.

So with all gathered knowledge and refinement of the art of fermentation, in place, the society was well equipped to take the next step on the ladder of evolution, the metamorphosis process known as distillation. Its output, the distillate, became known as Shochu, pronounced 'show-chew'. When written in Japanese kanji characters the first character stands for 'to burn' and the second for 'to concentrate'. Hence, the name Shochu implies a distilled spirit that has been 'concentrated by fire'.

The art of distillation is believed to have arrived to the shores of Japan as early as the 1500 century and from a source which is thought to have been the mountainous regions of China. The understanding of distillation is known to have been in the public domain here already in the 13th or 14th century but may have occurred much earlier. Alternative theories suggest that the knowledge first arrived through South-East Asia whilst others would say that it came through Korea. A legend claims that Shochu, in a primitive form called awamori or millet brandy, was first introduced to the Japanese Ryukyu Islands, a part of the current Okinawa Prefecture, through Indo-China. The distilling techniques of Shochu, the legend says, travelled from here through the Amami Ooshima archipelago, and then further to Kagoshima from where it was spread throughout the entire country of Japan.

By the mid of the 1500s, Shochu was available to the general public according to a document which surfaced during repair work on a shrine in 1954. Although the exact place of origin of Shochu on Japanese soil is unknown this is the oldest document mentioning the drink. It was found in Koriyama Hachiman, a shrine in Okuchi-Kagoshima on Kyushu Island. The document, graffiti on a wooden plank in the roof, was scribbled down by two carpenters working here in 1559. It says 'The high priest was so stingy he never once gave us Shochu to drink. What a nuisance!' Another historical note about distilled alcohol appears to have been made at least as far back as the 16th century. It was written when the missionary Francis Xavier visited Kagoshima Prefecture in 1549. He recorded that 'the Japanese drink arrack made from rice [...] but I have not seen a single drunkard. That is because once inebriated they immediately lie down and go to sleep'. Arrack was Xavier's descriptor for alcohols made from distilled rice mash.

The technique that initially came to use was the single distillation method or kasutori and it was practiced to the end of the Edo period (1603-1868). The following period, the Meiji Restoration, lead to a comprehensive modernization of the country. For Shochu production it meant that new methods for distillation were introduced. Machinery for continuous distillation (Coffey or patent stills) was imported from Great Britain, making cheap serial mass-production of high-purity Shochu possible. But also and more important was the introducing of pot still distillation enabling the Shochu producer to work in a batch oriented environment like their Scottish whisky making colleagues abroad. The multitude of distilling versions and base products to make fermentable mash from that emerged made it necessary to introduce a classification system. By law, there are two primary Shochu classifications in play. The first, the mass produced version, is koshu (Grade A) which has been distilled several times in a continuous still. Multiple distillation smoothes out the rough spots resulting in a beverage that is generally flavourless and odourless. The second is the otsushu (Grade B) variety. This is distilled only once, which means that the drink has a more distinctive flavor and aroma. The pot stills are similar to the ones used in Scotland. A third classification was later added as the honkaku (Grade C). The Kyushu Otsurui Shochu Producers' Association lobbied the Finance Ministry, and succeeded in having honkaku, or authentic Shochu, recognized as an alternative name.

The sub classification is based on origin of agricultural products to provide fermentable mash from, and they are:

a) Awamori (Okinawa) - Shochu made in Okinawa is called Awamori, and is made from rice.
b) Grain Shochu (Southern Kyushu) - Originated in early 16th Century and is made from a variety of grains such as millet and buckwheat.

c) Imo Shochu (Kagoshima Prefecture) - Originated in the later part of the 17th Century and is made from sweet potatoes.
d) Mugi Shochu (Nagasaki Prefecture) - Originated in early 19th Century and is made from barley. Barley Shochu (???, mugijochu) is generally less distinctive than rice Shochu and easy to drink. However if cask-aged the taste can be quite sharp and strongly reminiscent of single-malt whisky.
e) Imo Shochu (Izu Islands) - Originated in mid-19th Century and is made from sweet potatoes.
f) Kokutou Shochu (Amami Ooshima) - Originated a few decades ago, this is made from raw sugar.

The majority of Shochu sold in Japan, 53 percent, is made from barley, according to an article in the weekly magazine Yukan Fuji.

The evolution had provided the Japanese alcohol producers with fermentation technology; distillation technique and experience to produce alcohol from grain such as barley, by the means of pot stills (see class d, above). The knowledge had been in practical use long before 1854 when the country was visited by the American fleet carrying whisky in its cargo as gift to Emperor.

The scenario was really dressed for the production of alcohol in the form globally known as whisky of its day. Was it done? The technique and knowledge was certainly at place, let's discuss this in following chapters.

Keep in mind that cask management in the sense of maturing on oak casks, and a key element in Scotch whisky production today, is a much later improvement. Oakwood as material for maturing casks was not deemed as compulsory until 1988 by an update of the Scotch Whisky Act. Before that date there were no restriction regarding wood types in place. Not until 1915 was a minimum maturation period suggested, and becoming law the same year. It was the UK Central Liquor Control Board who proposed the 'Immature Spirits Act' which required two years' compulsory bonding, which in 1916 was extended to the common three years. Before that regulation the immediate run of the pot stills in the Commonwealth could legally be marketed as 'whisky'.
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Table of Contents

1. Foreword.
2. Introduction
3. The history and development of Japanese whisky.
3.1 The early years.
3.2 The formative years
3.3 The two 'shoguns'.
4. Origin of taste and flavours.
4.1 On fermentation practice.
4.2 On distillation practice.
4.3 On filtration practice.
4.4 On wood policy.
4.5 On maturation
4.6 Taste guide lines.
5. The Whiskies, facts figures and taste.
5.1 Chichibu
5.2 Fuji Gotemba
5.3 Hakushu
5.4 Hanyu
5.5 Karuizawa
5.6 Mars (Shinshu)
5.7 Miyagikyo (Sendai)
5.8 Shirakawa
5.9 White Oak (Eigashima)
5.10 Yamazaki
5.11 Yoichi
5.12 Other producers
6. Whisky bars, bar life and whisky shops.
6.1 Tokyo.
6.2 Elsewhere.
6.2 Whisky shops
7. Travel tips
7.1 An itinerary suggestion
7.2 Rail connection advisor.
8. Japanese whisky on the web.
8.1 Auctions
8.2 Whisky blogs.
8.3 Whisky societies and web pages.
8.4 Translation tools.
8.5 Translation Guide
9. Japanese whisky in print and at trade shows.
9.1 Books.
9.2 Periodicals.
9.3 Tokyo Whisky Trade Shows.
10 Bibliography
11 Index
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