Up until recently, your average whiskey expert probably didn’t even know that Japan made its own juice, much less that it was the world’s third-largest producer behind the likes of Scotland and the United States. After all, the whisky industry on the Island Nation is considerably younger, with less than a century to its name and just 10 distilleries in operation at any given time. Even still, to sleep on the Japanese spirit is to deny yourself one of life’s finest pleasures. For though the Scots and us Americans have long considered ourselves the best in the biz, Japan isn’t just up-and-coming — it’s already here.
That’s because after Jim Murray crowned a Japanese whisky “Best of the Year” back in 2014, the spirit was finally viewed as a force to be reckoned with, a veritable contender that seemed to come out of left field. However, the reality is that Japan has no shortage of whiskies that are worth your while. From highball heroes like Suntory’s Toki to stiff sherry bombs like Ohishi’s Brandy Cask Barrel Select, there’s a world of options just waiting to be tried. And while certain esteemed expressions have become all but impossible to find, the good news is that you don’t have to go it alone. Instead, kick back, grab a glass, and get ready to dive in for a look at the best Japanese whiskies you can buy.
The State Of Japanese Whisky
In Short Supply
Although Japanese whisky used to be a niche oddity that was pretty much exclusively for whiskey nerds in the know (outside of the domestic market, at least), these days, it’s become one of the hottest commodities in the spirits business. As such, you’ll find that once-affordable expressions like Suntory’s $50 Yamazaki 12 are now two or even three times the price. And yet, drinkers continue to throw their money at the stuff like it’s gold. No doubt that Japan’s offerings make for some quality single malts, but why is it that the market is seeing this kind of incredible fluctuation? In a word: scarcity.
For the fact is, ever since the world peeped Bill Murray promoting Suntory in the film “Lost in Translation,” Japanese whisky has only increased in its popularity, with more and more American drinkers taking to the spirit over the course of the last two decades. Unfortunately, Japan wasn’t exactly prepared for such an influx in new fans, meaning that the increased demand is putting quite the squeeze on the country’s existing stock. As such, many distilleries have had to limit or discontinue the sale of their older-aged expressions — they simply didn’t create the necessary supply 10, 15, or even 20 years ago. All that is to say: while expressions like Hibiki 17 and Suntory 21 are undeniably great whiskies, their rarity means that they’re now fetching a solid four figures. If you’re a dead-set on drinking them, by all means — do your thing. But for most of us, we’ll just have to hope and ream.
Suntory Whisky Toki
Anyone who considers themself a Japanese whisky enthusiast should keep a bottle of Toki in their liquor cabinet. For starters, it’s both cheaper and more consistently priced than anything else you’ll find this side of Japan. Even better is the fact that it’s also pretty widely available, with bottles regularly appearing on the shelves of common, garden variety supermarkets like Trader Joe’s. But the best part is that despite its accessibility, it makes for an expression that’s light, fresh, and flavorful on its own or in a highball.
Akashi White Oak Whisky
Upon its initial export, this blended whisky proved to be quite the controversial quaff. For you see, the stuff sold in the domestic market is actually made using malt whisky and molasses spirit — a far more amicable mix for the average Japanese drinker’s palate, but not one that could be technically classified as a ‘whisky.’ As such, White Oak switched its production method for its global sales, instead incorporating a blend of 4, 5, and 7-year malts to result in a spirit that offers the complexity of scotch with the richness of American oak.
Mars Shinshu Iwai 45 Japanese Blended Whisky
If you’re wanting a distinctly bourbon-esque flavor in your Japanese whisky, you can’t go wrong with Mars Shinshu’s Iwai 45. That’s because it’s distilled from a mashbill comprised of 75% corn and 25% barely, a combination that gives it lots of vanilla and butterscotch on the nose. What’s more, it’s also aged in ex-bourbon casks in order to bring out the ripe pear, quince, and chocolate in the palate. And when you consider the lingering sweetness of the finish, the result is a whisky that hails from the Island Nation but is as American-tasting as they come.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
To this day, Nikka continues to use the traditional Coffey stills first invented by Aeneas Coffey back in 1830. The process is neither intuitive to man nor efficient in its whisky production, but there’s no denying the benefits to be had when it comes to the final flavor. In the case of this Coffey Grain expression, you’ll find that it results in a unique single malt that would be almost scotch-like in nature were it not for the high corn content and charred American oak finish that give it a rich, creamy mouthfeel with loads of mellow sweetness.
Ohishi Brandy Cask Whisky Single Barrel Select
In contrast to traditional Japanese whiskies that are mostly distilled from malted barley, corn, and various other varietals, Ohishi’s Brandy Cask Single Barrel Select is actually made using rice. Much more than a boozy barrel-aged shochu, it combines gohyakumanishi and mochi grains to deliver a complex spirit that’s rich in roasted nuts on the nose, packed with dried fruits through the palate, and chock-full of sweet sherry flavors in the finish. As a result, this is one whisky that makes for a great accompaniment to food.
Suntory Hibiki may be best known for its 12 and 17-year expressions, but that doesn’t mean you should pass up on this NAS Harmony whisky. Crafted using elements from the 17-year and 21-year Hibiki blends, it also features no fewer than 10 other distinct malts and grains. Add to that some time spent aging in a sherry cask, and you have a wonderful fruit-forward whisky that’s far more reasonable to find (and afford) than its older barrel-aged siblings.
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain
Okay, so while Ichiro’s Malt & Grain isn’t an out-and-out Japanese single malt (it’s technically a “world whisky” because it incorporates varieties sourced from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada), we’d still very much recommend that you give it a try. After all, each of its components arrives at the distillery having been aged between 3 and 20 years, whereupon it’s then matured for a further two to make sure it’s ready for blending. Pouring a beautiful pale gold, it’s almost wine-like on the nose before transitioning into a vanilla-heavy palate and wrapping up with a honeyed finish.
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt
When nothing but the smokiness of a peated scotch will suffice, do yourself a favor and snag this single malt from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery. Sure, it may not hold up against one of the brand’s age statement expressions, but those were discontinued a few years ago, making them difficult to find in the first place and incredibly expensive assuming you can. In any case, this is one NAS that really benefits from its time spent in American casks, for it’s as equally enjoyable neat as it is mixed into a Highball.
Fukano 16 Year Sherry Cask Japanese Whisky
In addition to being the oldest offering on this list, Fukano’s 16 Year Sherry Cask is also another Japanese whisky made from rice. However, where the above Brandy Cask Single Barrel Select from Ohishi Distillery is lighter and more floral in flavor, this particular spirit takes its sherried influence to the next level. On the nose, you’re greeted with pungent notes of sherry and a commensurate mahogany color. Take one sip and you’ll be immersed in fruit tobacco, oolong tea, and caramelized sugar. All in all, a great one for whisky enthusiasts and wine drinkers alike.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
If you’re wanting one of the best Japanese whiskies you can actually find (and feel good about buying), Yamazaki’s 12 Year is a great place to start. Because let’s face it. While the distillery’s 18 and 25 Year expressions are certifiable spirit unicorns, they’re not exactly something you’ll be wanting to crack open for just any occasion (as they cost around $1k and $7k respectively). Thankfully, Yamazaki 12 is much more than the “next best thing,” for it starts off light and spicy and continues to stay balanced throughout its fruity palate and oaky finish.
The 20 Best Whiskey Decanters
If you’re looking to elevate your Japanese whisky’s presentation, you can’t go wrong with a nice piece of glassware. Be sure to check out our guide to the best whiskey decanters for a selection of 20 favorite high-quality crystal containers.
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