Japanese whiskey has become so popular that many distilleries in Japan have started to produce non-aged whiskey instead of aged whiskey to meet demands. Whiskey from Japan uses pure, soft water and Mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels to give the spirit a unique taste. Whiskeys from Japan have won many international awards.
Japanese whiskey was first sold in the United States in the late 1980s, but most people weren't aware that whiskey was made in Japan until the Suntory brand was mentioned in the 2003 movie "Lost in Translation."
Whiskey made in Japan has the taste and aroma of Scotch, and it’s normally expensive, like fine Scotch, but there are affordable brands available. The word whiskey is often spelled without the “e” when referencing the Japanese version of the spirit.
Whiskeys from Japan have won many international awards. Yoichi whiskey was named “Best of the Best” by Whiskey magazine in 2002, and Hibiki from Suntory won first place at International Spirits Challenge from 2003 to 2014.
If you’re new to drinking whiskeys made in Japan, here are five things you should know before buying your first bottle.
The Distilling Process Focuses On Water, Wood, and Weather
Japanese whiskey is aged in mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels. This wood is more porous than European or American oak. Mizunara trees need to be 200 years before the wood can be used to make a barrel.
Most Mizunara trees are somewhat crooked, so it’s hard to cut planks straight enough for a barrel. The trees are found in one forest in Hokkaido, the second largest island in Japan.
Suntory opened its first distillery in 1924, on the spot where the famous Taian teahouse was built in the late 1500s. The water in the vicinity of this distillery is soft and lacks minerals. The dearth of minerals allows the whiskey to achieve a full, unencumbered flavor.
Japanese distilleries build their facilities close to springs and other water sources, including mountain reserves so that they can use the purest water possible for more refined whiskey.
The water and ice used to make highballs with whiskey are contemplated quite carefully in Japan. The highball is made with one part whiskey to every three parts soda or water. The best ice is made with low-oxygen, artisanal ice hand-chipped.
Scottish whiskey is made in two seasons – wet and warm (spring/summer) and cold and wet (fall/winter) and the results are excellent. Japan, however, has four separate seasons which makes a more nuanced whiskey. When the humid summer weather expands the oak barrels, the liquid is soaked into the wood and develops its flavor.
Barrels start contracting in the fall and “sleep” during the winter to lock in the character and flavor. In the spring, cherry blossoms and other flowers bloom and add a bit of character to the whiskey, and fall leaves affect the whiskey’s aroma and character as well.
Sip your NAS whiskey with soda water and aged whiskey with mineral water. Drink your whiskey “twice up’ with mineral water or over ice with two parts water to one part whiskey (a “mizuwari”). A highball is the sparkling adaptation of the Mizuwari.
The Japanese distill their whiskeys in preparation for ice and added water. When you add H2O to whiskey, the interaction between the liquids sets off a pleasing aroma (which differs depending on the whiskey you drink).
You may have heard of Suntory, the company that produces the reasonably-priced Toki whiskey. Toki is blended with vanilla, a bit of honey, and vanilla. You can use it in highballs and cocktails, and its subtle sweetness makes it a pleasing introduction to Japanese whiskeys. The spirit comes from distilleries in Chita, Yamazaki, and Hakushu.
The company also makes Chita Grain Whiskey, which has a subtle mango and honey taste. It’s difficult to find in the U.S. but makes an excellent base for cocktails. If you’re new to whiskey on the rocks or prefer a more delicate taste, it has a lighter flavor than many other brands. Suntory also makes Hibiki whiskey. Hibiki Harmony Whiskey combines orange, sherry and citrus tastes with smokiness and a bit of oak flavor.
Suntory is well-known for its 1970s Japanese TV commercials featuring American celebrities.
Other Whiskeys on the Japanese Market
Japan has several smaller distilleries producing whiskey in limited quantities.They are much more expensive than most Suntory brands and highly desired by experienced whiskey drinkers. Here are a few of our favorite brands.
Masataka Taketsuru founded Nikkia Whiskey in 1934 after a trip to Scotland, where he studied the art of making whiskey. He is sometimes called the Father of Japanese Whiskey. The company has distilleries in Yoichi and Miyagikyo.
Nikka whiskey is produced using pots heated with powdered coal, which is a traditional method rarely used today.
Nikka makes two whiskeys that are perfect for Scotch drinkers. Taketsuru Pure Malt Whiskey is a smoky concoction with a hint of coffee and chocolate. It is pricier than Suntory whiskey but still affordable.
Yoichi 12 Year Single Malt tastes like a fine oak cask-flavored whiskey out of Northern Scotland. It is quite expensive (around $250 a bottle), so you’ll want to save it for special events.
The Mars Shinshu distillery is the highest in Japan, located between the Southern and Central Alps. The company produces two whiskeys – Iwai and Iwai Tradition. Named after Kiichiro Iwai, a pioneer in Japanese whiskey-making, Iwai whiskey is similar to many great American whiskeys, with ex-bourbon barrels of light malt balanced with corn.
The whiskey contains notes of pear, vanilla, and red fruit.
Iwai Tradition, a layered and balanced blend of bourbon, sherry and a hint of peat, is a contemporary whiskey aged in the Japanese tradition.
The Chichibu distillery was founded in 2004 by Ichiro Akuto and produces limited release whiskeys that have a worldwide cult following. The company builds their own casks, and their whiskey-makers go to England (usually Norfolk) to malt barley.
The company specializes in making whiskeys with a unique character that's not easy to drink, according to the founder.
Chichibu On the Way, bottled in 2015, is one of the company’s unique whiskeys. It is a single-malt whiskey with a spicy palate of stewed apples and peaches. It has an aroma of Japanese oak and sweet pear. With just over 10,000 bottles released, the whiskey costs a few hundred dollars if you can find it.
Kirin is a supermarket whiskey, although the brand has more expensive, vintage options available. One of its most popular whiskeys, Fuji Sanroku, has the same aromas that appear in bourbon, and it makes an excellent highball. It is 50 percent alcohol, so drinking it with water, club soda or lots of ice is recommended!
This whiskey is made with melted snow from Mount Fuji and that snow filters through volcanic sediments for 50 years to get to It has a gold color and emits an aroma combining pear, vanilla, corn, and subtle strawberry. Fuji Sanroku has a smooth taste in your mouth and a fine texture.
Japanese Whiskey is in High Demand and Short Supply.
Suppliers for several Japanese whiskeys are so overwhelmed with orders, they can’t produce the spirit fast enough. Older varieties of whiskey are especially coveted, and one Japanese CEO said that it might take as many as ten years to satisfy the demand for the spirit.
Although Japanese whiskeys account for only five percent of worldwide sales, the demand is so great that representatives for Suntory have announced that the company is temporarily discontinuing production on some whiskeys until further notice as of May 2018.
If you have bottles of Suntory or any other Japanese brand, keep it in a safe place (or sell it if you want to make a tidy profit).
Other whiskey distilleries in Japan have experienced increased interest, and their production facilities can’t keep up with orders, either. You’ll notice fewer bottles available and prices going up, with some sought-after vintages selling for as much as a few thousand dollars on liquor websites.
Nikka discontinued its age statement bottling in 2015 due to low supplies and replaced it with no age statement (NAS) bottlings. Whiskey distilleries in Japan are now becoming more experimental due to the increase in NAS production, and many of them have introduced peating to their whiskeys.
BevMo and other U.S. stores still sell affordable whiskey from Japan. Hibiki Harmony, Iwai and Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 86 are just a few of the whiskeys from Japan available for under $100 at popular retail and online stores.
Some Vintage Japanese Whiskeys Sell for High Prices at Auction.
Rare Japanese whiskey vintages are so popular that connoisseurs have paid as much as six figures for a single bottle at auction. A bottle of 50-year old Yamazaki whiskey was sold for $343,000 in August 2018.
The 2005 and 2011 editions of Yamazaki 50-Year-Old Whiskey also attracted high winning bids. In 2016, the 2005 edition sold for $129,000, and in January 2018, the 2011 edition sold for around $300,000.
In May 2018, a bottle of Karuizawa (“The Dragon”) from 1960 fetched $312,710 at auction. Hanyu’s 54 Bottle Series sold for $485,472. The monochrome and color Joker bottles had been prized by collectors in Asia and Europe for years.