Japanese icons - Suntory or Nikka?
For most collectors of Japanese whisky, their allegiance lies on one side or the other. Though there is unreserved respect for both whiskey houses, no matter who you ask, there will always be a preference for either Suntory or Nikka.
So what’s the big deal? Is there really much of a difference?
When it comes to Japanese whisky, there is so much nuance and detail in every bottle that sometimes even the slightest touch can make a world of difference, which is why it’s important to understand the nature of whisky craftsmanship from both distillers - the two foremost producers in Japan.
Both distilleries have their defining characteristics, and both are icons in their own right. Below we take a short look at Suntory and Nikka to understand why the argument can be so polarizing for collectors and connoisseurs of the finest Japanese drams.
The house of Suntory
Celebrated worldwide for its immaculate combination of Scottish whisky tradition and precise Japanese craftsmanship, Suntory is the definitive benchmark when it comes to Japanese scotch whisky.
Conceived in 1923 by Torii Shinjiro, Suntory opened Japan's first malt whisky distillery (the Yamazaki distillery) and, today, is revered for its rich history of innovation and meticulous approach to engineering the finest Western-inspired whiskies in Japan.
Hiring a young, aspiring chemist and sending him on an excursion to Scotland to learn all there is about Scotch and its myriad intricacies, Suntory’s star distiller Masataka Taketsuru would return to Japan as a fountain of knowledge and would lead them to greatness as they began to produce what were undoubtedly the finest whiskies in the entire country.
Whether you prefer the refined, fresh taste of the Hakushu, the complex harmony of the Hibiki, or the delicate maturity of the Yamazaki Single Malts, Suntory is an essential addition to any Japanese Scotch collection, just as Masataka Taketsuru is an essential part of Japanese whisky history.
There are numerous distilleries that make up the house of Suntory, each of which is known for its own specific and distinguishable character and charisma. The Hakushu distillery near Tokyo and Yokohama is beset in the mountains and is defined by its earthy, natural tones and the beautifully balanced profile of its whiskies, while the Chita distillery sits to the north and the iconic (and first) Yamazaki distillery is situated further to the South-West near Osaka.
For purists, Suntory is the original and the most iconic Japanese whisky brand, and the foremost innovator when it comes to producing exceptional, Scotch-inspired Japanese whiskies. Full-bodied and peaty, Suntory is admired for its precision and excellence when it comes to balancing and blending the inspired flavors of the nation.
Where the argument comes in for Nikka advocates, is what transpired in 1934, when Taketsuru left Suntory due to disagreements with Torii, going on to found the Dai Nippon Kaju company and building the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. Dai Nippon Kaju would later become Nikka, and for this reason, many Japanese whisky buffs put their faith in Nikka and the iconic innovations of Masataka Taketsuru.
The house of Nikka
The spirit of Scotland, captured in amber and enhanced by meticulous Japanese craftsmanship, Nikka whisky is a true coming-together of cultures. Having learned the art of whisky-making and distilling from Scottish masters firsthand during his time working for Suntory, Nikka was founded in 1934 by founder Masataka Taketsuru following his split from Torii and Suntory, and whose products bring the precision of chemistry to the tradition and passion of typical whisky varieties.
The culmination of Nikka’s inspiration is a range of blended and single malt whiskies that transcend the boundaries of conventional spirits, boasting unbelievable character, body, and complexity. No collection is complete without the addition of at least one of Nikka's whiskies, some of the finest exports that Japan has to offer.
While it was not the first to begin distilling Scotch inspired whisky in Japan, many whiskyphiles who have a penchant for Japanese varieties are quick to note the quality and complexity of the Yoichi and Taketsuru lines and the fact that the man who effectively changed Japanese whisky culture at the very beginning is the person at the helm and responsible for the many award-winning and critically acclaimed varieties for which Nikka are renowned (encapsulating the class and quality of Japanese whisky).
Today, Nikka continues to push the boundaries between innovation and tradition, bringing new, fresh expressions with a classic-inspired twist to the fore, such as the Coffey Grain whiskey and their exceptional Pure Malt releases. There is no doubt that this powerhouse of whisky-making holds its own when compared to Suntory, and the battle for supremacy is something that has defined the spectrum of spirit-making in Japan.
How do they compare?
Simply put, Suntory and Nikka are in a league of their own when it comes to the dominant forces in Japanese whisky-making. While their production is largely similar and informed by the typical nature of Japanese whisky and its traditions in Scottish whisky-making, there are a couple of minor differences.
Both Nikka and Suntory are produced using malted barley, with both houses offering a range of blended and single malt iterations. The focal nuances and complexities between the two are derived from the finishes that they employ, with additional aging and the use of particular oaks to finish the distillate both contributing to the specific character and charisma of the ‘brand’.
In terms of flavor, this varies between expressions, with many of the various lines and ranges that emerge out of both distilleries being comparable in their profile. For some of the heavier hitters, such as the Hibiki 21, which is rich in sherry and boasts a depth and remarkable complexity in its subtle smoke, as opposed to the Yoichi 20, which is rich and spiced with crisp fruits, anise, and cream, and possesses a long and gentle finish, with a faint herbal note, there is clearly daylight between the two styles.
However this sentiment remains the same between the various lines within each brand, so this perhaps is not the best way to compare.
Deciding which to choose?
In any case, both Suntory and Nikka have their pros and cons, and it could be argued that really they are on par in terms of their quality and consistency when it comes to crafting outstanding Japanese whisky. This is certainly true, and could also be the reason why some collectors and connoisseurs are so starkly loyal to one or the other because they have tried one and don’t believe the other to be as good - when in reality they are effectively on the same plane.
Whichever you think is best, you should not be too proud to give the other a chance, you might just find that in fact, they are a lot closer than you once thought.
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