Japan is famous for its sake rice wine, but grape wine has been made there for several hundred years, if not longer. Beer and whisky have also earned themselves a place in the modern Japanese consciousness, and have even risen to become significant contributors to the national economy.
Viticulture has a long history in Japan, and there are various stories surrounding its origins. The most widely accepted is that, in 718 AD, a Buddhist monk named Gyoki planted the first vineyards at the Daizenji temple, near Katsunuma (southwest of Tokyo).
Traditionally, the vast majority of grapes in Japan were grown only for eating, and little or no wine was made there. European wine was imported to Japan's elite during much of the 16th Century, but was outlawed for much of the 17th and 18th Centuries under the sakoku policy of imperial isolationism. But things have changed rapidly in the past few decades. In the 1970s there was a sharp increase in Japanese interest in (and tourism to) the West. Naturally, many Western fashions and traditions made their way to Japan in this way, most noticeably in the fields food and drink. Wine consumption boomed, and although there was a heavy focus on imported wines, Japan's domestic wine production naturally grew as a result.
Today, Japanese winemaking has yet to make its mark on the world, as the majority of the nation's grapes are cultivated for the table rather than the bottle. There are only a small handful of grape varieties used to make Japanese wine, the most notable of which are the "native" Koshu, Europe's Muscat of Alexandria, and Muscat Bailey A, a Japanese hybrid. All three of these can be used either as table grapes (fresh or dried) or wine grapes. A natural consequence of this is that most of Japan's wine tends towards sweeter and lighter styles.
The majority of Japanese wine is produced on Honshu, the main island, particularly in the prefectures of Nagano, Yamagata and Yamanashi. Together these three of Japan's 47 prefectures are home to almost half of the nation's grapes. Hokkaido – the northernmost and coldest of Japan's four main islands – is not an obvious location for wine production, but viniculture has been practiced there since the 1960s.
Japanese viticulture faces various climatic challenges, not least of which is humidity. Vines here are often trained overhead wires, creating a pergola (or tendone) system, known in Japanese as tanazukuri. This allows bunches to access the circulating air beneath the foliage, reducing the risk of fungal diseases.
Sake and other Rice-based Beverages
Sake, an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice, is one of the best-known symbols of Japanese culture. Although it is commonly called rice wine, its production process is more similar to beer than wine, as starch (not fructose) feeds the fermentation process.
Undiluted sake reaches alcohol levels higher than beer or wine, as high as 20 percent alcohol by volume. This has helped perpetuate the idea that sake is a wine or spirit rather than a brewed beverage. For more information on the various styles and categories of sake, use the links to the left.
Shochu is distilled, rather than brewed. The raw materials may be rice, sweet potato, barley or brown sugar. The name derives from the Chinese for "burned alcohol". Awamori is another rice spirit, only made in Okinawa Prefecture. It is also differentiated from rice-based shochu by various factors concerning raw materials and production methodology.
Japanese Beer and Happoshu
Beer brewing began in Japan as long ago as the 17th Century, when the Dutch (one of the few nations permitted to trade with Japan at the time) opened a beer hall for their merchant sailors. Japan's beer brands are now some of the most successful in the world and include such names as Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo.
Happoshu are beer-like beverages which have been made since the 1990s. The category was developed to attract lower levels of taxation than those imposed on conventional beers. They achieve this by having a lower malt content.
Despite its relative youth, the Japanese whisky industry has since firmly established itself on the global stage. The Yamazaki distillery near Osaka began making whisky in 1923, and is now one of around ten distilleries, though the figure was higher before the economic slumps of recent decades.
Exports only began in earnest after 2000, boosted by major gold medal wins and glowing reviews from prominent whisky writers. A high point came in 2015 then the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask Single Malt was named by Jim Murray as World Whisky of the Year in the 2015 edition of his Whisky Bible. This now shows a global average of $4300 ex sales tax on our database, having launched at a fraction of that price.
A range of blended, single malt and single grain whiskies are produced. Production methods are based on Scotch whisky though the flavor profiles of the finished product can vary considerably.
Two men and one woman play a massive role in the history of Japanese Whisky; Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Yamazaki, went on to create Suntory, while his first distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, struck out on his own to create Nikka. Taketsuru's Scottish wife, Jessie Cowan (aka Rita) is revered in equal measure.