10 Best Japanese Whiskies to Try Right Now
Despite having its own history of over 100 years, Japanese whiskey was considered to be nothing more than a ripoff of western whiskey until just 10 years ago.
Even though it is only sold domestically in Japan, the Suntory "Yamazaki 12 Year" won gold in the 2013 International Spirits Challenge (ISC) thanks to the blenders who continued to experiment over the years. Japanese whiskey is now considered to be one of the "5 major whiskies worldwide" alongside Ireland, Scotland, America, and Canada's whiskies.
This article will be introducing 10 iconic Japanese whiskies available on the market to whiskey fans across the world.
1. Nikka Whiskey From the Barrel, 51%
This whiskey is highly rated not only in Japan, but overseas as well.
As a blended whiskey it exceeds 50% alcohol content, and its unique bottle shape has a core set of fans.
The blended whiskey is returned to age further in a barrel for a set period, giving it a mellow, unified flavor.
The strength of the alcohol's flavor is somewhat low for the high concentration, and when you take a sip you'll notice the fragrant and sweet notes of vanilla wafers and caramelization, along with an end note of broiled sweet chestnuts.
It's a strong drink, but I'd love to try it straight.
It won the trophy, the highest award, in the ISC (International Spirits Challenge) whiskey division in July of 2015.
For one that you can buy for around 2,000 yen, this is certainly a world-class bottle of whiskey.
2. Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 year, 43%
Nikka Whiskey is a brand named after its founder that made waves in the once-stagnant whiskey market in Japan with its 2000 debut.
It is made by blending malt whiskies from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.
As it uses only high-quality malt whiskies that are aged for over 12 years, the alcohol burn is comparatively rather mellow.
When you take a sip, first the lovely aroma of Miyagikyo whiskey wafts through your nose, followed by the deep, smoky flavor and sweet vanilla aroma of the Yoichi whiskey.
This whiskey is available for around 4,000 yen for 700ml. It's priced similarly to the individual 10-year single malts from Yoichi and Miyagikyo, which is a shock considering how long this whiskey is aged for.
It earned the World's Best Blended Malt award at the 2014 World Whiskey Awards. It quickly became a whiskey representative of Japan in both name and substance.
3. Suntory Chita, 43%
This is a single-grain whiskey made at the Chita distillery in Aichi Prefecture.
The grain whiskey is made using continual distillation, which is thought to produce "silent spirits" with little character, but the Chita distillery ages their 3 different types of whiskies in a variety of barrels like Spanish oak barrels and wine barrels, giving the resulting whiskies different aromas and flavors.
The whiskies have faint aromas of vanilla, honey, or mint, with a clear flavor without any strong lingering flavors.
Their whiskey soda, mixed with carbonated water, is so light that you could just chug it down, so many people enjoy drinking it with their meals since its flavor will not affect the taste of their food.
4. Suntory Hakushu, 43%
This is a single-malt whiskey from the Hakushu distillery, founded in 1973 as the second branch of the Yamazaki distillery to celebrate Suntory Whiskey's 50th anniversary.
Suntory's products tend to have a unique smoky aroma, appealing in a whiskey.
This is a whiskey that you can enjoy any way: straight, diluted, on the rocks, whiskey soda, etc.
Also take note of their fabled whiskey soda, which has aromatic notes reminiscent of forest trees thanks to the bourbon-like barrels used.
The aroma of fresh greenery and the refreshing notes of fruits combine with the carbonation to make for a great feel going down, and it's gaining popularity even among younger customers who aren't particularly familiar with whiskey.
5. Suntory Hibiki 21 Year, 43%
This is a blended whiskey that reigns supreme among Japanese whiskeys.
It was created with the 4th movement of Brahms' "Symphony No. 1" in mind, and it blends over 30 types of long-aged malt and grain whiskeys.
It is characterized by its layered and complex aroma and flavor, a solid body, and a smooth lingering finish.
This whiskey won the title of "Supreme Champion Spirit" out of a lineup of 1480 drinks in the "22nd International Spirits Challenge (ISC)" held in 2017.
As it is so popular, this whiskey has become rather rare, so 700ml bottles can exceed 40,000 yen in price.
6. Suntory Yamazaki, 43%
This No Age Statement single-malt whiskey went back up for sale in 2012 with the retirement of the Yamazaki 10 Year.
It's made by vatting a mix of various whiskeys, like malts aged in wine barrels and Mongolian oak barrels.
It has a smooth mouthfeel that is followed by the slight tingle of spices and a faint vanilla sweetness.
While it has a slightly different flavor than the 10 and 12 year varieties, it still retains Yamazaki's characteristic fruitiness and smooth flavors.
A 700ml bottle of 43% costs 5,000 yen.
180ml mini bottles are available for around 1,000 yen.
7. Nikka Miyagikyo, 45%
This single-malt whiskey is made by Nikka Whiskey and sold by Asahi Beer.
Originally the Miyagikyo whiskeys had a lineup of No Age Statement, 10 year, and 15 year, but in 2015 they restructured to avoid the whiskey shortage, bringing everything together into the current Miyagikyo No Age Statement whiskey.
It has a harmonious blend of beautiful fruity fragrances with a faint vanilla aroma from the barrel. While it seems to have less of the gentle sweetness of dried fruits and smooth mouthfeel than previous iterations, the overall aroma and flavor is mostly unchanged, and even long-standing Miyagikyo fans have given it favorable reviews.
8. Ichiro's Malt & Grain, 46%
While only a small amount of this whiskey is produced, it receives consistently high quality ratings, and as each new variety of whiskey is released it inevitably becomes very popular and sells out.
Ichiro's Malt & Grain White Blend is made with key malt whiskey from the Chichibu distillery that opened in 2008 and a blend of 9 malt whiskies as well as 2 grain whiskies.
It has a sweet, honey-like aroma and a hint of pear.
This blend starts with a dry, spicy flavor, then the characteristic incense-like aroma of Ichiro's Malt comes forth.
You can experience the individual flavor and satisfaction of a single malt whiskey while drinking this blended whiskey.
"Ichiro's Malt & Grain White Label" has a relatively calm distribution pattern and lower price compared to usual "Ichiro's Malt" items, so your chances of encountering it are higher.
9. Akkeshi Distillery New Born 2018, 60%
Akkeshi Distillery, which opened in 2016 in Hokkaido, has garnered the most attention out of the many distilleries that have opened in Japan in recent years.
The source of that attention was their commemorative first released whiskey, "Foundation 1," a non-peated whiskey that is aged 5 to 14 months in a bourbon barrel.
As a short-aged high-production whiskey, it can be somewhat rough to drink straight, but the quality of the alcohol is refined and it has a great finish.
It seems that you can expect high-quality Highland malts to rival those of major distilleries from this company in the future.
The New Born series is planned to include a total of 4 releases, including this non-peated whiskey, a peated malt whiskey, a sherry-barrel whiskey, and a 3 year single malt whiskey.
We look forward to the development of this newcomer distillery with the vision of making "traditional Scottish but uniquely Akkeshi whiskey."
10. Kirin Fuji Gotemba Distillery Pure Malt Whiskey, 40%
This Japanese blended malt whiskey is made at Kirin's Fuji Gotemba Distillery in Shizuoka Prefecture.
It is not break-through strong, but it has very little unpleasantness to it and has a well-balanced finish.
There is a thick initial taste, and it leads with flavors of dry malt, dried straw, and a nutty nuance. It then quickly follows up with deep fruity flavors and sweetness like apple compote, pear, and vanilla. It comes across as aged.
It has a decidedly standard aromatic strength, but it is definitely quality.
We recommend this to those who do not typically drink whiskey.
A Highly Recommended Japanese Whiskey Bar in Tokyo
This bar that specializes in Japanese whiskey opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo's busiest shopping area, in 2006.
Ever since drinking a Mars Whiskey single malt "Komagatake 10 Year" in the 90s, the bar's owner Atsushi Horigami has been involved in the world of Japanese whiskey. The bar is packed with his collection of over 300 varieties of Japanese whiskies from across the country.
Watching old Buster Keaton films on the bar's big screen while you sip on a rare and valuable whiskey is truly a slice of paradise.
Budget: 5,000-9,999 yen
Address: 3F 7-10-14 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Closed: Sundays, holidays