The best way to learn Japanese is to begin with the most important words in Japanese, and obviously the best Japanese phrases can all be found on a Japanese whisky label. So to learn the most commonly used Japanese words we picked out a few labels we had questions about and asked our Japanese translator to talk us through them.
First, we need to cover a couple of basics to navigate the terminology. There are three ways of writing in Japanese, kanji are pictoral characters which are shared with the Chinese language, hiragana are phonetic characters used in Japanese words, while katakana are phonetic characters that tend to be used in more recent imported words. Examples of each of these Japanese characters can be found on Japanese whisky labels.
We asked our friends at Japan House London to help us break the code using 13 examples of the most commonly found characters on Japanese whisky labels:
Distillery – 蒸溜所
The first step to becoming a Japanese whisky cryptologist is with these three kanji.
Here the first kanji 蒸 means ‘steam’, the second kanji 溜 can be translated as ‘store’ or ‘collect’ and the last kanji 所 means ‘place’.
Together these three kanji say ‘steam collecting place’ and when combined they become the word ‘distillery’.
Note the word ‘distilled’ is almost the same but is ‘steam store’ without the final ‘place’ kanji.
Whisky – ウイスキー
The word ‘whisky’ is a comparatively recent introduction to the Japanese language and is spelt phonetically using katakana as ウイスキー .
You can see this word on the front label of many Japanese whisky bottles, including the Yamazaki 12 Year Old.
Malt – モルト
Malt is spelt phonetically as モルト ‘moruto’.
An example of the word can be found on this bottle of Karuizawa 1968.
Single Malt Whisky シングルモルトウイスキー
You would expect many of these words to be found in phrases. Here you have シングル ’shinguru’ singleモルト‘moruto’ malt ウイスキー whisky.
In Japanese there is no need to leave spaces between words, you could opt to use dots to separate words however it seems that the convention on whisky labels is that dots aren’t used.
There’s a good example of this on the back label of the Hakushu 18 Year Old.
Blended – ブレンド
As with Scottish whisky most Japanese whisky is blended so the katakana for ‘blended’,ブレンド is found on many Japanese whisky labels, including this Hibiki 21 Year Old.
Years Old – 年
To find the age statement look for the 年 kanji that follows a number. 年 means ‘year’ as in 18年.
Note that in Japanese there is no need to pluralise words.
One example of this word in use on a bottle of Japanese Whisky is the Hakushu 25 Year Old.
Single Grain – シングル グレーン
The first four katakana シングル spell out ‘single’ the last four katakana グレーン spell ‘grain’.
This word features on the back label of the Kawasaki 1976.
Peated – ピーテッド
The katakana characters ピーテッド produce the word ‘piteddo’, which is the phonetic spelling of peated.
An example of this can be found on the Chichibu The Peated 2010.
Sherry Cask – シェリー樽
Sherry is spelt out in the four katakana シェリー and the 樽 kanji at the end means cask. An example can be found on the back label of the Mars Komagatake 22 Year Old.
Bourbon Barrel – バーボンバレル
On some labels, instead of the kanji for cask 樽, the word barrel is spelt out phonetically in katakana like on the phrase バーボン ’babon’ bourbon ‘bareru’ バレル barrel and can be seen on the back label of the Yamazaki Bourbon Barrel bottle.
Mizunara – 水楢
Mizunara is the Quercus mongolica oak that is native to Japan which is used for aging some Japanese whisky. The word in katakana can be broken down into two parts: ‘mizu’ means water while ‘nara’ translates as oak.
Puncheon – パンチョン
Puncheon is written phonetically as ‘panchon’ in katakana as パンチョン.
Ingredients – 原材料
Finally, perhaps the phrase that is most often found on a Japanese whisky label is the three kanji 原材料 which together say ‘gen zairyo’ which means ‘origin’ or ‘ingredients’.
This word features on many Japanese whisky bottles, including Chichibu 2008 The First.