An increasing number of foreign tourists are visiting Japanese distilleries, as the country's whisky exports grow.

Japanese whisky is growing in popularity overseas, with exports drastically increasing in recent years. Thanks to the international recognition being earned by domestic whisky brands such as The Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.'s Yoichi and Suntory group's Hibiki, more and more foreign tourists are visiting distilleries here.

Whisky production in Japan dates back to the Taisho era (1912-1926), when Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru, who learned how to brew whisky in Scotland. Taketsuru, who went on to establish Nikka, was even featured in the NHK morning drama Massan with his Scottish wife, Rita. In the drama, she was known as Ellie. Massan aired for six months, starting in September 2014, and drew high TV ratings.

Tourists at the bar at Nikka's Yoichi Distillery. Photo / Flickr, Miki Yoshihito
Tourists at the bar at Nikka's Yoichi Distillery. Photo / Flickr, Miki Yoshihito

It is said that Japanese whisky started receiving overseas accolades in 2001, when Nikka Single Cask Malt Whisky Yoichi 10 Years Old won the Best of the Best - the highest score for world whiskies - at a tasting event organized by Whisky Magazine of Britain.

Suntory's Hibiki 30 Years Old was awarded a trophy at the International Spirits Challenge in 2004.

Advertisement

Since those wins, whiskies from both companies have gone on to win several other international prizes.

The total export value of Japanese whisky has increased nearly tenfold over the past 10 or so years, from 1.07 billion yen (about $10 million) in 2006 to 10.378 billion yen (more that $100 million) in 2015. Major importers include Europe, the United States, China and Taiwan. In turn, there has been an increasing number of foreign tourists visiting domestic distilleries.

I visited Nikka's Yoichi Distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, on a weekday in June. Groups of 20 to 30 foreigners were also visiting one after another.

Many people were speaking English, Chinese and Korean around a distillation column and storage house.

A foreign visitor, right, looks around at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, while listening to an audio guide. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri
A foreign visitor, right, looks around at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, while listening to an audio guide. Photo / Japan News-Yomiuri

Daniel James, from San Francisco, studied in Edinburgh and is knowledgable about Scotch whisky. The 28-year-old, who works in Lebanon as an English teacher, was visiting Japan with two other people, including his mother. He said he tried Japanese whisky in the United States on the recommendation of his mother, who previously lived in Japan.

At Nikka's distillery, James paid a fee to sample a Yoichi 20 Years Old whisky. He said he was impressed by the "smoky flavour" that lingers in the mouth, and that he liked the story about how whisky production was built on the love story between Taketsuru and his wife.

Eric Wang, from Taiwan, bought several bottles of Nikka as souvenirs. The 44-year-old said the subtle flavor of the blended whisky is excellent.

The popularity of Japanese whiskies is likely to last for some time. Photo / Flickr, Norio Nakayama
The popularity of Japanese whiskies is likely to last for some time. Photo / Flickr, Norio Nakayama

Torii and Taketsuru were attracted to Scotch whisky, which is said to date back 500 years. Japanese whisky may have a history of less than 100 years, but I felt the tastes and flavors based on the subtle Japanese senses are also well regarded by foreigners as well.

Nikka's Yoichi Distillery is located in Yoichi, Hokkaido, about an hour by train from Sapporo Station. It is difficult to say accessibility is good, but there are many foreigners who visit on chartered buses from nearby Otaru Port after arriving on large passenger vessels.

The number of visitors to the distillery in Yoichi, which served as the main setting for the NHK drama Massan, sharply increased last year to about 900,000 - more than triple the number in 2012. The number of foreigners visiting for reasons other than the drama has also been on the rise.

Nikka's Yoichi Distillery is located in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Photo / Flickr, Norio Nakayama
Nikka's Yoichi Distillery is located in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Photo / Flickr, Norio Nakayama

Based on information including reservation names, it is estimated the number of foreign visitors to Yoichi Distillery was 7400 in 2012, when it started compiling statistics; 14,000 in 2013; and 46,000 in 2015. This year, 21,000 foreigners had visited the distillery as of the end of June - 2000 more than the same time last year.

Meanwhile, based on foreign-language guide rentals, an estimated 760 foreigners visited Suntory Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, in 2009. The number dramatically increased in 2015 to 9,410, despite the distillery closing in November and December for renovations.

The popularity of Japanese whiskies is likely to last for some time. A public relations official at Asahi Group Holdings, Ltd., which has Nikka under its umbrella, said: "Japanese whiskies have been re-evaluated after receiving many overseas awards. It is likely that distilleries are being recognised as tourist destinations."