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How to Pick the Best Japanese Whiskey
Wait, what? Japan Makes Whisky?
Yes! Japanese whiskeys are one of the newest on the market since the process just began in 1918. But don’t let their relative youth fool you. Japan has created some of the most impressive bottles in recent years.
In fact, back in 2014 critic Jim Murray named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whiskey in the world. (They consistently take top prizes. For a full list of 2019’s Japanese winners, see below.) While Murray’s announcement shocked whiskey drinkers at the time, the popularity of Japanese Whisky has risen. In 2018 a bottle of Yamazaki 50 Year Single Malt sold for over $300,000. Not bad for the new kid on the block!
A Brief History of Japanese Whisky
In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry opened trade with Japan and gifted them a 110-gallon barrel of Scotch. Importing was slow and expensive, so nearly a century later a Japanese chemist and sake maker decided to open a distillery of his own.
This chemist, Shinjiro Torii, sent his student Masatsaka Taketsuru to Scotland. Taketsuru returned 3 years later with a Scottish wife and detailed notes about the Scottish production of whisky.
(This is why the Japanese variety is spelled whisky,” without the “e.” Just like the Scottish!)
Torri and Taketsuru opened the Yamazaki distillery in 1923, the first distillery under the Suntory Whisky company.
Those who have seen the Bill Murray film Lost in Translation will be familiar with Suntory Whisky. (And if you haven’t seen it, go do that right now.) After a few false starts, Suntory created Shirofuda, which is still Japan’s best-selling whisky today!
In the 1930s Taketsuru broke off on his own to begin the Yoichi distillery, the first distillery under the now-famous Nikka Whisky company. To this day, these two distilleries are the most popular of all Japanese whisky!
What Makes Japanese Whisky Different?
Typically, Japanese whisky has a silky-smooth texture that sets it apart from everything else But that’s an oversimplification.
Japanese distillers are incredibly dedicated to their craft. Since their techniques were learned in Scotland, Japanese distillers focus on blending. They import most of their grains, and distilleries usually don’t exchange their stocks with each other. So, most bottles you buy are the product of only one or maybe two distilleries.
But the real beauty comes in how they blend. Many distilleries choose very specific casks to mature their whisky. Some use barrels that held Japanese liqueurs. Umeshu is a popular one, infusing the flavor of the ume fruit into the whisky.
Others use a cask made from Japanese oak, mizunara. These whiskies tend to be very pricey as mizunara grows only in certain areas of the country and takes 200 years to mature. On top of that, the wood leaks and is difficult to work with. A single well-made cask can cost thousands of dollars. But the unique and spicy notes added to the whisky do make the price worth it.
However, these techniques are not the limit. Japanese distillers have created a broad range of whisky and there is no one style that defines all. You can find peats that rival those from Islay and light and fruity varieties that are almost reminiscent of desserts. Safe to say, if you like whisky (any whisky at all) Japan will have something for you.
The Most Popular Japanese Whiskies
Below are a few of the most iconic and well-known Japanese Whisky varieties. Their price points vary, but you’re guaranteed to find something you like on this list.
We’ll discuss appearance, nose, palate and finish to help you decide what you prefer. Peat can be a divisive flavor in whisky. I’ve noted which ones are peated or have even a remotely smoky flavor. Avoid, if you must, but I’d recommend trying at least one!
Yamazaki, 12-year Single Malt, 43%, $280
We would be remiss if we looked at Japanese Whisky and didn’t mention Yamazaki. (Not every bottle sells for hundreds of thousands, don’t worry.) It is the original and iconic Japanese Single Malt. However, like many other aged Japanese whiskies, supplies are rare now since it has been discontinued.
- Appearance: Dark Gold
- Nose: Maple Syrup, Honey, Clove
- Palate: Honey, Smoke, Cinnamon
- Finish: Pleasant with lingering pineapple
- Peated: No
Whiskey /43% ABV / Japan
The Yamazaki 12 Year is considered the nation's premier single malt whisky, but it's safe to say that whisky fans around the globe appreciate this award-winning spirit.
The Hakushu 12 year Single Malt, Hakushu Distillery 43%, $189.99
Owned by Suntory, the Hakushu distillery is one of the iconic Japanese Whiskies. Unfortunately this year has been discontinued, so if you find one, grab it!
- Appearance: Pale gold
- Nose: Grass, Minerals
- Palate: Apple, Mint, Smoke
- Finish: Rich Herbs, Minerals. Relatively short.
- Peated: Yes
Hibiki 17 Year Old, 43%, $139.99
This is one of the world’s best blends and has won several awards in the whisky world. Unfortunately, due to popularity, it is largely out of stock and has been discontinued!
- Appearance: Amber
- Nose: Peach, Pear and Apricot, Wax, Smokey Oak
- Palate: Vanilla, Custards, Citrus Peels
- *the Minzunara cask it is aged in adds a deep flavor of sandalwood
- Finish: Return to Smokey Oak, Long finish of Citrus
- Peated: No
Nikka Whisky From The Barrel, 51.4%, $105.99
A lovely sample from the second oldest company in Japan, Nikka from the Barrel is a blended whisky from two of their distilleries. Whiskey Advocate voted it Whisky of the Year in 2018!
- Appearance: Rich Amber
- Nose: Berries, Smoked Oak Wood
- Palate: Bursts with flavor, Toffee, Caramel, Vanilla, Berries
- *high alcohol, add a little water or ice to bring out flavors
- Finish: Fruit and Vanilla
- Peated: Very Faint Peat, No Smoke
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Reserve, Chichibu Distillery, 46%, $399.99
The Chichibu Distillery is one of the youngest in Japan It just opened in 2008. Ichiro Akuto, the founder, started his career at his family’s sake distillery, but started his own to critical acclaim. With a limited release of 262 bottles, this excellent whisky is quickly selling out!
- Appearance: Pale Gold
- Nose: Floral and Incense (Mizunara), Honey, Grapefruit
- Palate: Honey, Pepper, Bitter Grapefruit follows, Spiced Wood
- Finish: Short, Sweet and Pepper over a Bitter Wood
- Peated: No
This is not a completely comprehensive list. Examples like Nikka’s Yoichi 20 years, Yamazaki 18 years, and Hibiki 30 years are also truly excellent and have won a number of “World’s Best” awards! However, the longer aged, the more expensive Japanese Whisky tends to get. And the harder it is to find. But if you do feel like dropping 6 grand, these need to be at the top of your shopping list!
The Japanese Whisky Crisis
The United States and Europe have been gobbling up Japanese Whisky. How could you not after watching Lost in Translation! (You went and watched it, like I told you, right?)
Due to a new hit TV show in Japan and the rise of the highball, Japanese drinkers have also been increasing their domestic purchases. With this world-wide explosion of popularity, Japanese distilleries are hard pressed to create exquisite bottles continuously.
After all, if you run out of 12-year Scotch, it takes another 12 years to age one just like it! Simply put, supply isn’t meeting demand. Suntory announced in 2015 that its flagship whiskies: Hibiki 17 and Hakuhsu 12 would be discontinued due to lack of stock.
Many aged Japanese whiskies are sold out and the rest are slowly disappearing or rising in price. Obviously, this won’t last forever. In 2016 the president of Suntory announced it would take 10 years to rebuild their supply. Just hang on seven more years! That said, there are still several bottles of Japanese Whisky that are available and affordable.
Many distilleries are now releasing bottles with no age statement. These are usually younger whiskies, and some of them are truly fantastic. Other distilleries are importing whisky from other nations and using them as blends in their own bottles. (Yes, that is allowed. Japan is one of the few countries that has no rules about what can be called “Japanese Whisky.”)
The Most Affordable Japanese Whiskies
Japanese Whisky doesn’t come cheap. However, there are a few newer releases that are fantastic. If you’re looking to stay within budget, below are the Japanese Whisky options.
Keep in mind, due to the whisky shortage, some of these bottles may not be 100% Japanese whisky, but that only adds to their unique flavor!
Akashi Blended Whisky, White Oak, 40%, $43.00
The domestic version of this contains malt and molasses spirit. But the exported version contains a blend of malt and grain!
- Appearance: Light Amber
- Nose: Toffee with Cinnamon Spice
- Palate: Oak, Strong Caramel, Chocolate near the finish
- *let this one set in the glass for a bit before sipping so you can really take advantage of those softer chocolate notes.
- Finish: Ends with Smoke and Vanilla
- Peated: Mild Peat
Hibiki Japanese Harmony, 43%, $67.99
This is a blend of single malts, all from differently aged casks. The combination creates a smooth and warm “harmony.”
- Appearance: Deep Amber
- Nose: Honey, Vanilla, and Citrus
- Palate: Honey and Spices like Cinnamon and Rosemary
- Finish: Light and sweet, vague smoke
- Peated: Faint Hint
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, 45%, $64.99
The use of corn in a column still creates depth of flavor in a spicy and playful whisky. (And no, there is no coffee in it. The name originates from the column stills used.)
- Appearance: Pale Amber
- Nose: Tropical fruits, Mangos, Coconuts, Papayas, Orange hints
- Palate: Orange comes forward, Toffee, Tropical fruit, Vanilla
- Finish: Not long but smooth and filled with marmalade notes
- Peated: No
The Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky ($95.89) is also an excellent choice. With the addition of malt, you get strong coconut and vanilla on the palate and more of a caramel and spice finish.
Mars Maltage Cosmo, Mars Shinshu Distillery, 43%, $75
An example of Japanese and Scottish whiskies blending excellently, it has become a permanent fixture of this new distillery.
- Appearance: Deep Gold
- Nose: Vanilla, Cherry, Raspberry, Plumb
- Palate: Toasted oak and grain, Orange hints, Chocolate
- Finish: Deep plumb finish with lingering Chocolate hints
- Peated: Very Mild
The Mars Shinshu Iwai is even cheaper at $40.99. It doesn’t have as many layers as the Cosmo, but there is an interesting twist from a dark red fruity nose to a light and tropical palate!
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain, Chichibu Distillery, 43%, $85.00
Since Chichibu is so new, they only have the capacity to make malt whisky. The grain portion of this blend is from other distilleries in Japan. But this is another example of excellent “blending,” a testament to the craftmanship of Japanese distillers. A modern “world-wide blended whisky.”
- Appearance: Gold
- Nose: Brown Sugar, Toffee, Vanilla, Banana, Tropical Fruit
- Palate: Vanilla and Toffee remain, Spicy Ginger and Black Pepper, Tropical Fruit
- Finish: Sweet, Medium-Length, Fruit returns with Banana, Orange
- Peated: Faintly, but only in mid-palate
Honorable Mention: Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve, 43%, $120-200
Yamazaki’s bottles tend to be on the pricier end, but if you are dying to try it, this is their cheapest option! (I had to include it on the list. It’s just too good.)
Don’t let the price fool you, it’s an excellent bottle. It combines three wood casks: Mizunara, Sherry, and Bordeaux.
- Appearance: Deep Amber Gold
- Nose: Sandalwood and Mizunara, Dried Berries
- Palate: Sherry, Vanilla, Strawberries, Raspberries, Peach, Honey, Oak
- Finish: Long lingering Vanilla and Cinnamon, Spices
- Peated: Mild, First taste but it fades
Award-Winning Japanese Whiskies
Below is a list of Japan’s winners in the 2019 World Whisky Competition.
These bottles will be expensive and some may be hard to find. But if you get the chance to try any, saying no isn’t an option.
2019 World’s Best Blended Limited Release – Ichiro’s Malt & Grain – Limited Edition 2019
An example of an excellent no-age whisky. Combining his own whisky with foreign malt and grain, Akuto created a fruity and spicy blend that is surprisingly well balanced!
2019 World’s Best Blended Malt – Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 25 Years
Nikka Taketsuru is an excellent spirit. (It has the founder’s stamp of approval. How could you go wrong here?) The malts blended in this have all been aged for at least 25 years. A beautifully peated and smoky whisky.
2019 World’s Best Blended Whisky – Suntory Whisky Hibiki 21 Years
Suntory strikes again with a beautifully balanced blend. Rumor has it it’s dangerously smooth. Make sure to pace yourself with this one so you don’t finish it all in one sip!
2019 World’s Best Grain Whisky – The Fuji-Gotemba Distillery, Single Grain 25 Years, Small Batch
An interesting “bourbon style” blend. All grains were distilled continuously and then distilled a second time in a kettle. The palate explodes with fruit flavors accompanying the typical grain whisky flavor. Seductive and rich.
2019 Best Japanese Single Malt – The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky 25 Years
Very expensive. But very worth it. The spirit is expertly aged, and the sherry and smoke notes have been increased. Suntory demonstrates their expert craftmanship by tying this into the 10-year version with mint hints and retaining the signature Hakushu fruit purity.
2019 Best Japanese Single Cask Malt – Mars Single Cast Komagatake 1990 27 Years, No 1040
Flavors of peat and smoked meat combine with seaweed, mushrooms, and oranges. A very well-balanced bottle.
My Top Two Japanese Whiskies
Aged – Hakushu 12-year Single Malt
Suntory discontinued this one a few years back. However, you can still find bottles in stores or bars!
Green and mineral flavors always make me feel so refreshed. The added peat creates a deeper level of complexity. Smoke and apples and mint remind me of summer evenings lounging by a campfire – so delicious!
Un-Aged – Nikka Coffey Grain
I’m usually a big fan of spicy, peated whiskies. But the combination of fruit and rich spice in this bottle just makes me so happy! It tastes like a special treat and is definitely something I reserve for the roughest day of my week.
Japanese Whisky is one of the most interesting items on the market right now. With an intense dedication to the art of whisky-making, the Japanese have rapidly become some of the finest crafters in the business. They make a broad range of styles, so you really can’t go wrong. Peat or no peat. Fruity or spicy. There’s something for everyone.
Which is why everyone has been buying it! So some supplies are becoming rare. If you’re lucking enough to find an aged whisky, give it a taste. Heck, buy the whole bottle if you can! If you’re looking for newer bottles, don’t shy away from blends or unmarked age.