Regions and Appellations Japan

Japanese Wine, Sake and Whisky

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).

Globally, Japan's whiskies are their most sought after alcoholic products. Nikka's Yoichi distillery, near Sapporo
?Nikka Whisky

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.

Japanese Whisky

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.

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Most Popular Japanese Wine, Sake and Whisky

Based on search frequency, updated monthly
Wine Name
Avg Price
The Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 105th 89 $178
The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 106th 90 $880
Hibiki 21 Year Old Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 234th $941
Hibiki 17 Year Old Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 236th $647
The Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 392nd 89 $204
Hibiki 12 Year Old Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 407th 89 $559
Hibiki 'Japanese Harmony' Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 551st 89 $94
Suntory Strong Zero Bitter Lemon Chu-Hi, Japan Premixed Drinks 594th $3
The Yamazaki 25 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 635th $7,819
The Hakushu 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 660th 90 $652
The Yamazaki Sherry Cask - The Cask of Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 670th 87 $5,872
Nikka Taketsuru 21 Year Old Pure Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 755th $669
Nikka From The Barrel Japanese Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 792nd 90 $70
Hibiki 'Japanese Harmony' Limited Edition Design Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 957th $712
Hibiki 30 Year Old Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 971st $5,431
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Year Old Blended Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 984th 90 $386
The Yamazaki Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 1,049th $699
The Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve Single Malt Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 1,426th $118
Suntory Strong Zero Double Lemon Chu-Hi, Japan Premixed Drinks 1,989th $3
Hibiki 21 Year Old Mount Fuji Limited Edition Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 2,054th $1,636
Nikka Yoichi 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Hokkaido, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 2,127th 90 $820
Asahi Shuzo Dassai '23' Junmai Daiginjo Sake, Japan Sake 2,191st 90 $75
Kumesen 'Meiyo' 17 Year Old Single Grain Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Grain 2,191st $317
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Blended Malt Japanese Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Malt 2,245th 90 $76
Hibiki 'Japanese Harmony' Master's Select Blended Whisky, Japan Whisky - Whiskey Blended 2,248th $173
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To see how Wine-Searcher uses average pricing and professional wine critic scores on this page, please see Average Wine Prices and Wine Scores. To find out about popularity, please see Wine Ranks.
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