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The 10 Best Japanese Whiskies to Drink Right Now

Photo: Suntory Hibiki Harmony

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.

Best Japanese Whisky

The State Of Japanese Whisky

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 dead set on drinking them, by all means — do your thing. But for most of us, we’ll just have to hope and dream.

Suntory Whisky Toki

Best Cheap Whisky: 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.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, green apples, peppermint, thyme, vanilla, ginger

Akashi White Oak Whisky

Best Blended: 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.

ABV: 40%
Tasting Notes: Marshmallow, barrel spices, raw corn, vanilla

Mars Shinshu Iwai 45 Japanese Blended Whisky

Mars Whisky Iwai 45

Best for Bourbon Fans: 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 on 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.

ABV: 45%
Tasting Notes: Pear, quince, chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

Best Single Grain: 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.

ABV: 45%
Tasting Notes: Creamy, oaky, sweet

Ohishi Brandy Cask Whisky Single Barrel Select

Best Single Barrel: 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.

ABV: 43.1%
Tasting Notes: Dried fruits, sherry, roasted nuts

AO Suntory Whisky

AO Suntory Whisky

Most Unorthodox: Okay, so this one’s a bit of a cheat, but we thought it was so interesting we couldn’t leave it off. Last year, House of Suntory released Ao, an unusual blend to say the least, billed as the very first to blend whiskies from the five major regions in the world: Japan (Yamazaki and Hakushu), Scotland (Ardmore and Glen Garioch), Ireland (Cooley), Canada (Alberta), and the U.S. (Jim Beam). The result is something just as unique, finding harmony between all five with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, pineapple, and smoke. While there are a lot of Japanese whiskies considered “fake” by purists, this expression, which was blended in Japan, might be the one that’s most worth trying.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, vanilla, pineapple, oak, smoke

Hibiki Harmony

Best Overall: 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.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Fruit, honey, orange peel

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

Best Peated: 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.

ABV: 45%
Tasting Notes: Smoke, citrus, melon, almonds

Teitessa Yellow Edition 20 Year

Teitessa 20 Year

Best Mellow Whisky: Recently debuting in the U.S., Teitessa has a range that spans from 15 to 30 years, but this 20 Year “Yellow Edition” is the smoothest of the bunch. Using rice as its primary grain, the single grain expression gets its uniquely mellow profile by swapping the traditional pot still used in most Japanese whiskies for a Sato still to create a more subtle profile that’s reminiscent of sake than it is Scotch or bourbon. This 20 Year was aged in three different casks: Spanish, French, and American oak.

ABV: 40%
Tasting Notes: Floral, vanilla, dark chocolate

Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky

Best Top-Shelf: 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.

ABV: 43%
Tasting Notes: Fruity, oak, spice

The Best Whiskey Decanters

Photo: Whiskey Peaks Decanter

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 our favorite high-quality crystal containers.