Traditionally, the realm of fine whiskey was divided into four nations with well-defined roles. Scotland was the king. It was the home of the best whiskies, and that fact was almost never disputed. And Ireland was the queen, largely seen as an excellent alternative to Scottish whiskies, but no real threat to upset the natural order of things. Of course, there was also America, the knavish knight who sought to usurp the king (and had many supporters), but just never seemed to be mature enough to do the job. And, finally, there was Canada, the court jester, who just seemed to be following its own strange path with fewer true followers than dabblers.
And then the unthinkable happened, and the whiskey world was turned upside-down. The Whiskey Bible gave out its top awards for 2014 and the winner was from Japan (actually, Scotland was shut out of the Top 3, with America getting second and third. Lots of self-proclaimed whiskey experts are only vaguely unaware that Japan even makes whiskey, let alone some that are among the very best in the world. So here’s our quick guide to the best Japanese whiskeys you’ll want on your shelf and in your glass.
Yoichi 10 Year Old
Just as it might come as a surprise to many that Japanese whiskies are among the best in the world, it might also shock some to know that older is not always better and that blends can compare quite favorably to single malts in many cases. This 10-year-old can stand up to any other whiskey in the world. It has a head nose of fresh fruit and peat, but what makes it great is a creaminess that belies its age. The finish is clean and smoky, certainly befitting the experience that came before it. Made on the northern island of Hokkaido in the old Scottish tradition of direct-fire stills and aged in premium wood barrels, this simple and elegant young whiskey is a peaty masterpiece.
Nikka Coffey Malt
Distilled in the super old-school Coffey still, the Nikka Coffey Malt puts most of the old Kentucky bourbons that inspired it to shame. Rich and flavorful, it tastes very much like it would be at home in Kentucky or Tennessee, but a quick splash of barley adds a mature fullness the old Colonel never considered. The result is an impeccable whiskey, one with hints of the old South, but with a flavor all its own. Consider this the perfect lubricant for after-dinner relaxation and conversation in place of bourbon.
Hibiki 12 Year Old
If you’re looking for a more complex whiskey, here’s the one for you. Aged in plum liqueur barrels, this multiple award-winning Hibiki can overwhelm some drinkers with the several distinct fruit combinations in its nose. But stay with it. From there, it’s a rich combination of fruits, cloves and a bit of sherry. And it comes to a close with an equally distinct finish that will make you want another sip. Be careful, though, you won’t get this one cheaply anywhere, but it’s worth the price, especially if you’re not exactly excited about the thought of your next glass of Macallan.
Hakushu 12 Year Old
I remember that Car and Driver once called a certain Infiniti sedan “the Jaguar that Jaguar should have made.” You’ll get the same sense with Hakushu — it’s the Scotch the Scots should have made. It’s made in a forested nature preserve in idyllic northern Japan, which guarantees an unending source of pristine water, then distilled and aged using the most traditional method. It’s a no-nonsense whisky with no fruit or sherry overtones and a minimum of smoke, so it’s not meant to be sampled and discussed at length. But as a pure sipping whiskey, it’s hard to beat by anyone.
White Oak Akashi Blended Whisky
Don’t buy this in or from Japan where they add molasses spirit to sweeten it to suit the local palate; instead, get the export version, which is all whiskey. It’s a blend, and proudly so. Distilled in bourbon and then sherry casks for only two months a year, quantities are low since the company relies heavily on its primary products — sake and brandy — for its revenue. It makes whiskey for the love of it, and it shows. This blend combines the smoothness and drinkability of a fine bourbon, like Buffalo Trace, with the complexity and subtlety of a top-shelf Scotch, like Talisker. Not for everyone — especially dedicated whiskey nerds — but a great summer sipper. Try it before you try White Oak’s sublime single malt; they’re both great, and the blend is a bargain.
Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old
While you might sip the White Oak blend with close friends, there are times you have to impress those who believe they know better. That’s pretty easy with this 17 year old. From nose to finish, there are so many distinct flavors — even the least refined palate will find many, identifying oak and honey right from the start — that it will almost certainly create a long discussion in which tasters try to outdo one another. And, while they’re talking, you can enjoy the whiskey. But do not enter into a relationship with Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old lightly. It is a colossal whiskey, one meant for sipping and savoring — and one that just might ruin you for others.
Nikka Pure Malt Black
This is another blend you’d be wrong to pass over. Bursting with a variety of flavors — varying from dark chocolate to coffee then to peat — it ignores the biases people have against blended whiskeys and transcends the price it can be had for. It’s definitely not a whiskey for noobs, though. The flavors that come through at the highest volume are all the heavy ones, peat, dark chocolate and smoke. It’s a perfect way to end a hearty meat-focused meal, but it’s not great for casual drinking.
Togouchi Premium Blended
For the record, this whiskey isn’t really distilled in Japan — it’s a blend of malt spirits from Scotland and grain spirits from Canada — but it is masterfully blended and aged there, making it officially a Japanese whiskey. Aged in plum brandy casks in an old railway tunnel into a mountain (beats a warehouse, no?), it tastes like no other whiskey from anywhere. Without trying to sound too pretentious, it’s a youthful whiskey with plenty of alcohol nose and tang, but little finish, making it perfect for casual drinks or even before dinner. Try it with a bit of soda on a hot day.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old
One of the reasons to love Japanese whiskeys is while they adhere to time-honored traditions, they also like to add a twist or two. And so it is with the popular (even beloved) Yamazaki 12 Year Old. It’s malted in the traditional Scottish way, but then aged first in American bourbon barrels, then Spanish sherry barrels and finally Japanese oak barrels. The result is a delightfully robust whiskey, brimming with powerful fruit flavors. And, more than any other whiskey on this list, it looks and feels good. Thick and almost viscous, it has a beautiful orange-brown hue that almost screams “I am a great whiskey.”