The 14 Best Japanese Whisky Bottles to Drink Right Now
The 14 Best Japanese Whisky Bottles to Drink Right Now
Abottle of good Japanese whisky (they spell it without the “e”) is incredibly difficult to get your hands on these days, and stupid expensive if you do. Yamazaki 12 used to cost around 50 bucks, but now you can expect to pay at least triple the price at any liquor store that actually has it in stock. So why does Japanese whisky cost so much, and is it really worth it? The answer to the latter question is, usually, yes; it is more often than not delicious whisky that is quite different from single malt scotch, its closest spiritual relative. The former question, however, requires some explanation.
A few years back, Japanese whisky exploded in popularity outside of Japan, catching the distilleries off guard. Stocks of aged whisky dwindled, and now companies like Suntory have to release non-age-statement (NAS) blends of younger liquid to keep up with demand. Of course, there’s more than likely an opportunistic angle here as well; talking about how rare your whisky is can be an annoyingly good marketing tool (see Pappy Van Winkle). Whatever the reason, the effects are real, and Japanese whisky is now officially rare and expensive.
You do need to be careful what you are buying, though. Some brands are bottling whisky that is distilled from rice and not grain, a source of contention for those who believe this essentially makes it aged shochu. Despite the naysayers, there are some good rice whiskies out there, just don’t expect it to taste like a malt whisky. The other thing is that regulations are pretty loose about what can be labeled as Japanese whisky. A producer can actually buy whisky from other countries, blend and bottle it in Japan, and call it Japanese whisky even though none of the liquid was actually distilled there. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it’s nice to know what is really in the bottle. Some brands are upfront about this practice, while others are not as transparent.
Don’t give up on the Japanese whisky hunt, because with enough cash and persistence, you can still find age statement bottles, along with plenty of newer, more readily available blends. Here are 14 bottles of Japanese whisky that you should try at least once, with a focus on releases that you might actually be able to hunt down.
Suntory World Whisky Ao
Ao isn’t technically Japanese whisky, although it does include some Suntory-distilled liquid in the blend. This is a good example of how a brand can source whisky from around the world and be transparent about it. Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo helmed the project, utilizing whisky and whiskey from Ardmore and Glen Garioch in Scotland, Cooley in Ireland, Alberta in Canada, Jim Beam in the U.S., and Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. Tasting notes promise a smooth mouthfeel, and a bit of smokiness and cinnamon spice on the palate. Ao was previously available only in Japan, but is now being released in global travel retail (although the market for that might be a bit slow, given the pandemic).
This is another sourced blend with various components coming from outside of Japan. Hatozaki was launched in 2018 by the Kaikyo Distillery, located in the same town as the distillery that produces Akashi Whisky. Master blender Kimio Yonezawa sought out the barrels to blend together for Hatozaki Finest in what the brand calls a two-stage blending process. The whisky in the blend is a few years old, it has a minimum malt content of 40 percent (the rest being grain whisky), no color is added, and it’s non-chill filtered. This whisky is meant to be used in highballs, a very popular drink in Japan, or other cocktails. Hatozaki Small Batch, on the other hand, is a 100-percent malt whisky (also sourced) that blends together five- to six-year-old whisky aged in bourbon, sherry, and Japanese Mizunara oak casks. It is meant to be enjoyed more as a sipping whisky.
Toki, one of the easiest Japanese whiskies to get ahold of these days, is a blend of malt and grain whisky from Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. The main “pillars” of the whisky, according to Suntory, are Hakushu white oak cask malt and Chita grain whisky, with Yamazaki white oak cask and Spanish oak cask whisky thrown in for good measure. The result is an extremely light spirit that you should really be drinking in a highball, but it doesn’t sip so badly on its own either. No, this won’t replace that bottle of Hakushu 12 that now costs $200, but times have changed, and we have to come to grips with our new reality.
Nikka Coffey Grain
Mention this bottle to a casual drinker and they might think you are talking about some kind of coffee-flavored whisky for brunch drinking. So let’s set the record straight. Coffey Grain (produced by Nikka, another large Japanese whisky company) is named after Aeneas Coffey, the Irishman who patented a super-efficient column still in 1830. Coffey Grain is made from a mash bill that is mostly corn and distilled in a column still (as opposed to a pot still), giving it an almost bourbon-like characteristic. It is aged in ex-bourbon casks, and has notes of caramel and vanilla, along with a nice, oily mouthfeel. There’s also a 100-percent malted barley version of this whisky, worth comparing side-by-side if you can track down both.
Hakushu 12 Year Old
Suntory’s Hakushu distillery is a stunning place to visit, located in the forested mountains—a.k.a. the Southern Japanese Alps—a few hours outside of Tokyo. The 18 Year Old single malt is probably the best whisky in the Hakushu range, with fresh notes of fruit and malt, along with just a hint of smoke and dried cherry. But you’ll have to pay around $500, provided you can even locate a bottle, so the 12 is a much more reasonable expression to sample. The flavors are similar to the 18, with light pear, apple, and citrus notes underscored by ribbons of subtle smoke.
Ohishi Single Sherry Cask
There are people who balk at the thought of whisky made from rice, but several Japanese distilleries are doing just that. The skeptics claim that this results in what is basically just over-proof shochu that spent some time in a barrel, but Japanese rice whisky can be a very complex spirit, especially when care is given to the maturation process. The Ohishi distillery, located on the Kuma River, uses two different types of rice (gohyakumanishi and mocha) to distill its whisky. The spirit is then aged for an undisclosed length of time in sherry casks, making this a rich and fruity dram that stands up with the best of Japanese whisky. There is also a brandy cask version available.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old
Yamazaki 12 might be the most recognizable whisky from Suntory that you can find in America, although nowadays expect to pay around $150 for a bottle. The whisky is light with dry spice notes and loads of fruity flavors, and easy on the oak with a finish that lingers for a while. Yamazaki 12 is aged in a variety of casks, giving it a nice balance of flavors that, like a well-rehearsed orchestra, complement each other, resulting in something greater than the sum of its parts. This is a quintessential Japanese whisky that anyone interested in the category should try at least once.
Yoichi/Miyagikyo Single Malt Finished in Apple Brandy Barrels
Yoichi and Miyagikyo are two of Nikka’s distilleries that used to have age statement expressions, but those were discontinued a few years ago. Nowadays you can find NAS versions of the whiskies, and this fall, these expensive apple brandy-finished bottlings were released to commemorate the 100th wedding anniversary of Nikka’s founder. The Yoichi version is made up of whisky aged in American oak and sherry casks, while the Miyagikyo (the more heavily peated of the two) was aged in new American oak, ex-bourbon, and sherry casks, with the sherry providing the dominant flavor, according to the brand.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Blending is a key component of the craft of making Japanese whisky. Great care and attention is paid to flavors and proportions, with some distilleries producing dozens of different whiskies that are combined into the final product. Hibiki, a blend from Suntory, launched in 1989, and there are now three different expressions in the range. The 17-year-old version is probably the best, an incredibly well-rounded sipper with lovely notes of caramel and toffee. But it’s just too expensive nowadays, with bottles selling for $500 or more (plus, it’s discontinued here in the U.S., along with the 12-year-old expression). Instead, try Harmony, a NAS blend of malt and grain whisky from Suntory’s three distilleries aged in several different cask types. It’s no 17, but let’s enjoy the whisky we can actually afford.
This is the newest NAS blend from Nikka, released in the U.S. last summer. It is meant to be an easy-drinking whisky—as the name implies—that you can enjoy on its own, in a highball, or hell, even with some Coke, if that’s your thing. According to the brand, the blend is made up of “mellow and smooth Coffey Grain Whisky and aromatic non-peated Miyagikyo malts, along with a touch of Coffey Malt Whisky and Yoichi malts to enhance the bright sweetness and rich body.” On their own, these are all good whiskies, so it comes as no surprise that they work together in harmony as well. Try this one back-to-back with 2018’s excellent Nikka From the Barrel blend to see which one you like better.
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt and Grain
Chichibu, founded in 2008, was built upon the remains of the old Hanyu distillery about an hour outside of Tokyo. The distillery is small compared to others in Japan, but the whisky makes a big statement. Malt and Grain is another blend of whiskey and whisky from other countries—or as the distillery calls it, an “all-world blend.” Chichibu-distilled whisky is combined with scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian rye, and American whiskey. The sourced whisky is all aged between three and 20 years, and then matured at the distillery for another two before blending. There’s also a limited edition version of this whisky available, which includes older whisky: Chichibu aged for at least ten years, and sourced whisky between 10 and 30 years old that is aged in Japan for another three-to-five years before blending.
Mars Yakushima Aging 2020
Mars Shinshu’s claim to fame is that it is Japan’s highest-altitude distillery, located at just over 2,600 feet. The history of distilling whisky here dates back to the 1940s, although many Americans might not be familiar with the name. Iwai Tradition is a blend that is not too hard to find and will usually cost you around $60. But for something a bit more exclusive, check out this new NAS single malt consisting of whisky aged for about three-to-four years. It was distilled at Shinshu and aged mostly in bourbon barrels in a warehouse on Yakushima Island, a World Heritage Site off the coast of southern Japan. According to a rep for the distillery, the rainy oceanside climate encourages quick maturation with a large angel’s share (evaporation of the whisky as it ages), and brings some salinity into the palate to offset the soft peat notes.
Akashi Single Malt
This single malt is a blend of many different cask types, including bourbon, sherry, brandy, wine, and even shochu. It is produced at the White Oak distillery, which is located near the ocean, something the distillery likes to say imparts a bit of salinity and brine into the whisky. Even if you don’t pick up those notes, this is an interesting dram to sip. There are competing flavors of toffee and stone fruit that come into play from all the different barrels the whisky is aged in, which complement the whisky’s solid malty backbone. There’s also a young blend available called White Oak, but this single malt is the better bottle to check out if you come across it.
Kanosuke New Born
Kanosuke is a fairly new distillery, having just got up and running in 2018. For now, it is releasing young whiskies in 200ml bottles that will increase in age as the liquid matures, something some American craft distillers and smaller producers in Scotland have done in recent years. Its plans are to release a full-size bottle when the whisky reaches three years of age. The 2019 version of New Born was made using unpeated malt, aged for 16 months in ex-bourbon barrels, and bottled at cask strength of 57 percent ABV. The 2020 version is a bit older at 24 months, bottled at 58 percent ABV, and is made using peated malt imported from the U.K. Make no mistake, these are young whiskies and will taste accordingly. But the point here is to follow the progress of this distillery as its whisky ages, an interesting journey for any whisky drinker.