While much of the world has been making whiskey (or whisky if it’s Scotch) since about 500 – 1000 AD, Japan only began to produce it in the early 1900s. However, they have fast become one of the best makers of whiskey in the world. If you’re curious about it, we have found some of the best Japanese whiskey to buy.
History of Japanese Whiskey
When it comes to spirits, many people think of sake when they think of Japan. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice, which is why many people refer to it as rice wine. One of the fathers of Japanese whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru came from a sake producing family. However, while studying at the University of Glasgow, he became a fan of Scotch.
After graduating, he went back to Japan with the knowledge of how to distill whiskey, having been the first Japanese student to learn from working in Scottish distilleries. The second father of the Japanese whiskey movement was Shinjiro Torii, who wanted to build a Japanese whiskey distillery. After Taketsuru returned to Japan, he and Torii eventually began working together to form Suntory.
Taketsuru had a 10-year contract, which ended in the 1930s. Once it expired, he began to build his own distillery. The Nikka Whiskey Company opened the Yoichi distillery in 1934. They quickly become a rival of the Suntory company.
Suntory’s first whiskey didn’t do well, so its first notable batch was Suntory Kakubin in 1937. Nikka released their first whiskey, Nikka Whisky in 1940. Many Japanese distilleries follow the Scottish custom of spelling whiskey without the ‘e,’ so it is whisky. Many other distilleries opened throughout the early part of the twentieth century, but then closed in the latter part of the 1900s as people lost interest in the spirit.
Fortunately, the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century saw a revival in the interest of Japanese whiskey and many distilleries were able to open their doors again. Many Japanese brands have caught the eye of the world stage because they have such great taste.
Some experts say Japan is to whiskey making as California is to the wine industry. Its whiskey is just as good, if not better than many others from around the world. Another up and coming Asian country gaining a reputation for good whiskey making is India. So, if you’re into whiskey, they are another country to keep an eye on for good whiskey production.
Awards for Japanese Whiskeys
Whiskey drinkers around the world began to take note of Japanese whiskeys as they have won international acclaim in competitions. In 2001, Whisky Magazine proclaimed Nikka’s 10-Year Yoichi whisky as the “Best of the Best.” More awards followed with Suntory’s Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 being called the world’s best whisky by The Whisky Bible in 2015.
Most recently, Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt 17-Year was named the “World’s Best Blended Malt,” and the “World’s Best Single Malt” went to Suntory’s Hakushu 25-Year-Old whisky at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards. Most of the whiskeys in Japan are single malt or blended malt whiskeys.
If you’re a whiskey connoisseur and are curious about trying the best Japanese whisky, this review can help you select some to buy. While many brands of whisky exist in Japan, we’ve chosen to review those that can be readily found in the United States.
How We Chose Our Ratings
After researching Japanese whisky and learning about their brands, we also read the reviews and testimonials from whiskey experts and those that drink it. After gathering this information, we gave each whisky a rating from one to five stars, with five being the highest, to help readers quickly find the best ones.
Top Nine Best Japanese Whiskey
Here are some of the best examples of Japanese whiskeys that are available in the US. To help you locate them, Suntory offers a way to lookup retailers in your area that sell their whiskeys. If you cannot find any retailers for Japanese whiskeys close to you, they are available through online retailers.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
There isn’t any coffee in this Coffey grain whisky by Nikka. Instead, it gets its name because of the Coffey still, which is the work of Aeneas Coffey, its inventor. The still is for making grain whiskey, which is mostly for blending with other grain whiskeys.
According to people who drink it, this Nikka whisky gives off a subtle sweetness with hints of caramel. The primary grain is corn, and it has an amber appearance. After pouring the whisky, some drinkers suggest letting it air up to 10 minutes before drinking it to experience its full flavor.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
This whisky is not a single malt whiskey, but it is a blend of malt whiskeys from Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery. It has a nice dark amber color with fruity aromas of plums that were sherry-soaked, raisins, and slices of green apple. It also has hints of cereal with honey, char from the barrels, and black pepper.
During the aging process, it is in sherry casks, which influences its flavor. It gives the drinker hints of milk chocolate, tobacco leaves, espresso beans, and, of course, sherry fruit. The finish hints of coffee, barley, and smoke. Many drinkers like its smooth balance and think it is a great Japanese whisky,
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Whisky
The Yamazaki Whisky is another Suntory product and is their flagship single malt offering. Their Yamazaki distillery, which produces this whiskey, is the oldest one in Japan. It contains malted barley, and it is one of the country’s best single malt whiskeys.
It is gold in appearance, and its aroma is very fruity with hints of peach, pineapple, and grapefruit. It also includes scents of candied orange, clove, vanilla, and Mizunara oak. The taste of it is interesting with hints of coconut from the wood, cranberry, and butter. It finishes with subtle spiciness from cinnamon and sweet ginger.
This whisky can be challenging to find, so you may need to order it from an online retailer. Japanese whisky is becoming so popular that aging them can be difficult. They are so in demand that some companies are in short supply and have whiskey releases with no age guarantees.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
The Hibiki whisky is a Suntory product and is a whiskey blend of malt and grain whiskeys. It has an amber color, which many whiskey drinkers will be familiar with, and gives off aromas of rose, lychee, rosemary, and sandalwood.
Most people will be able to taste its honey-esque sweetness with white chocolate and orange peel flavors. It also has a hint of Mizunara oak, from which the casks they age in are made. Mizunara oak is from Japan and provides the whisky with a stronger wood flavor than white oak, which is American oak. Usually, only high-end whiskeys in Japan use Mizunara oak for their casks.
Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
If you’re looking for an excellent Japanese whisky to add to your collection, then the Suntory Toki could be a good introduction to the region’s whiskeys. It is a pale gold color, so it is lighter than most American whiskeys.
It gives off the aromas of basil, green apple, and honey. Its taste has some sweetness, yet spiciness to it with hints of vanilla, white pepper, and ginger. Like most distilleries around the world, Japan ages their whisky in oak casks. The oak influences the whiskey with its natural sugars, which is why some whiskeys taste sweeter than others.
This Suntory whisky should be readily available in a store near you. Otherwise, it can be found on many online liquor retail websites.
Kikori Japanese Whiskey
Since rice is from Japan, it only makes sense for someone to make whiskey from rice, which is precisely what Kikori Japanese Whiskey does. It is 100 percent rice whiskey that ages for at least three years in American white oak, French oak, and sherry casks.
The rice gives it a lighter color and a more delicate taste than other grain whiskeys. It is 41 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), bourbon is 45 percent ABV. In appearance, it looks like a chardonnay in a bottle. It has an aroma of sweet pea, sandalwood, and grass that is cut fresh.
Its delicate flavors include rice candy, orange blossom, and grain. Pouring it over ice may help to accentuate its taste. Reviewers who drink it like the taste and often use it for mixing cocktails.
Kaiyo Japanese Mizunara Oak Whisky
The name of this whiskey, Kaiyo, means ‘ocean’ in Japanese. It is a malted barley whiskey with a dark gold color. Its aroma has hints of tropical fruits, orange peel, and other dried fruits. It also has suggestions of the Mizunara oak casks in which it ages.
The flavor also gives off a hint of wild cherry with vanilla, oak, and spices. It also has a bit of saltiness to the taste as well. The finish, which is the taste that lingers on the tongue, is long and tastes of toffee.
Akashi White Oak Single Malt Whisky
The distillery for this whisky is the closest one to the Japanese coastline in Hyogo, which is near Kobe Bay. Its producer is a small company with a five-person team with the name of Eigashima Shuzo, which means ‘White Oak.’ This whiskey is a single malt without an age statement.
The sea air influences its aroma and taste, as does angelica fruit, yellow apple, and powder sugar. These flavors are not from ingredients, but from the American oak, sherry, brandy, bourbon, wine and former shochu barrels in which the whisky ages. Shochu is a popular distilled beverage in Japan that can contain sake dregs, sweet potato, and barley.
Togouchi Japanese Blend Whisky
If you detect hints of peat when smelling this whiskey, you would be right. Togouchi sources Scotch and Canadian whiskeys to blend to sell in Japan and around the world. It has a nice light gold color with an aroma of peat, nuts, corn flakes, and honey.
It has a delicate taste that is slightly sweet with hints of grains and honey. The aftertaste is peat so that this blended whiskey may remind some drinkers of scotch. This whiskey doesn’t have an age statement. The company ages the whiskey in tunnels rather than a warehouse.
As with anything else that you buy, the first consideration should be price and availability. Japanese whiskeys are very popular and can be difficult to find, especially those older than a decade. Since they are so popular, the aging process is often forgotten because producers need to meet demand. That is why so many Japanese whiskeys do not have an age on the label.
Due to demand, the price has risen significantly for some of the better whiskeys. Suntory or Nikka brands, which are the top producers in Japan, can charge a premium for their 12, 17 or 21-Year-Old bottles. For instance, a 21 Year Hibiki, which is a Suntory whisky, can cost over $900.
If you buy a less expensive bottle, you’re most likely buying a blended whiskey that companies source from other distilleries around the world. Some may source whiskey from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the US to blend and sell it under their label. If the aroma or taste of the whiskey gives off hints of peat, then some of it comes from Scotland.
Finally, consider what type of whiskey that you usually drink and buy accordingly. If you like bourbon or corn whiskey, then you may prefer Nikka Coffey Grain whiskeys. A good blended whiskey would be the Suntory Hibiki whiskey, which is very popular.
Japan does have some very different types of whiskey, such as rice whiskey. However, since their distilling tradition originally comes from those who spent time the trade in Scotland, most whiskey fans will be familiar with the appearance and taste of the blends and single malt varieties of the best Japanese whiskey.