When most of us enter a whiskey bar, our minds go to very specific regions. Kentucky and Tennessee if you like it strong and woody. Scotland and Ireland if you’re refined. Canada if you’re… not really knowledgeable of good whiskey (we kid, we kid). But nowadays, Japanese whisky is making a play for dominance. And that’s a very good thing for whisky lovers.
After over a century of meticulous tweaking and perfecting, Japanese distillers have become some of the most accomplished in the world. Many Japanese whiskies are as good as any Scotch single malt and many come with lower price tags. Here’s why you should care and, more importantly, what you should be drinking.
But first… what is Japanese whisky?
That’s… complicated; unlike bourbon or Scotch, which have regulations for classification, Japanese whisky has none, and includes a variety of different styles. But, in short, Japanese whisky is heavily influenced by Scotch, as the original distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, studied the craft in Scotland, and the malt for Japanese whiskies are often brought in from Scotland. It maintains similar traits, particularly the preference to blend varieties for singular tastes, though it’s often lighter, with subtler tones.
Most of the varieties you see in the US are made by distilleries run by Suntory and Nikka, though there are new challengers to the throne. Regardless of origin, it’s often sipped in highball form, with a bit of ice and sparkling water (unlike Scotch’s preferred pairing of a few drops of water, or Tennessee whiskey’s pairing with some fuckin’ Hank Jr.). This mellows it even more and allows a longer time to explore the nuances of the spirit. It’s so popular, in fact, that canned highballs are popular in Japan… and Japanese-style highballs are showing up on in-the-know cocktail menus across the US.
Got it? Good. Time to drink. For a look at the best Japanese whiskies on the market, we consulted a panel of experts, including Tasting Whiskey author Lew Bryson; Tommy Klus of Portland, OR’s storied Multnomah Whiskey Library; Bex Karnofski of Portland, OR’s La Moule; Johnnie “The Scot” Mundell of Beam-Suntory; and Brandyn Tepper of LA’s Cocktail Academy. These folks know a thing or two about whisky, so you’re in good hands. Kanpai!
Suntory calls itself the pioneer of Japanese whisky, and it’s a fair title given the background: It was founded in 1923 with the Yamazaki distillery, built in a place famed for its excellent water. The Toki is a blend of all three Suntory distilleries — Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita — and it’s smooth, light, and accessible. At only $45 on average, it’s a great introduction to Japanese whiskies, and works as well neat as it does in a highball, or even in a cocktail. If you’re looking for a great starting point, Toki’s your bottle.
The Yamazaki 12 is the flagship of the Suntory label, and an exemplary taste of Japanese whisky. It was the first to hit the market in the US 30 years ago, but nowadays it’s hard to find, and the prices have risen accordingly. Still, it’s a lovely whisky: full of pear, apple, honeysuckle, and light oak.
One could forgive folks for mistaking Japanese whisky for scotch if they’ve only had Hakushu. Nestled in the forests of Mt. Kaikomagatake, it’s one of the highest-elevated distilleries in the world — at 800 meters above sea level, it’s more than double Scotland’s highest, Dalwhinnie. The two whiskies coming out of this the distillery are single malt, peated, and pot distilled, much like the famous single malts from Scotland. They’re often described as being fresh and green, with a touch of smoke and fruit. The 18 is smoother and more layered than the 12, but both are excellent.
Single-malt purists may balk, but in Japan, the art of blending is supreme. Nowhere is that more exemplified than in the Hibiki Harmony, with at least 10 different malt and grain whiskies from all three Suntory distilleries, aged in five different casks working in harmony, among them sherry, bourbon, and ume (plum wine). The whisky is aptly named, as it strikes a delicate harmony between its many ingredients: It’s well rounded and lightly sweet, with a touch of smoke from the Hakushu. It’s complex enough to be sipped, but strong enough to work in a highball. Even the bottle is beautiful, with 24 facets, one for each of Japan’s seasons.
When Shinjiro Torii first started Suntory Whisky, he hired Masataka Taketsuru to be his master distiller. Taketsuru left early on to form his own company, which eventually became Nikka. The brand carries a few varieties, but the ones you should start with are the Coffey ones.
No, it has nothing to do with coffee — Coffey refers to the type of still used, named for its creator, an Irishman with the action-hero name of Aeneas Coffey. Coffey stills are a particular type of column still, as opposed to a pot still, the type used to make single malt scotch; importantly, they allow for continuous distillation, rather than in batches. The Coffey Grain is almost like an Irish whiskey, blending multiple barrel types.
While Coffey stills are generally used for grain whiskies, the Nikka also uses it to produce an all malt. It’s 100% malt and all distilled at a single space, much like a single malt scotch. However, not being distilled with a pot still disqualifies it from being classified as a single malt. This is probably for the best, as you shouldn’t expect it to taste like a Scottish single malt. Like the Coffey Grain, the Malt is beautifully sweet, but not at all cloying. It’s generally the same price as the Grain.
Hey big spender! The Yamazaki sherry cask is beautiful thing to behold, and even made Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2013 as the “Best Whisky in the World”. Good luck finding any from that year. The 2016 was released as the beginning of the year with a price tag of $300, but you’d be lucky to find any bottles of it for less than a grand. If you really, really need to show off, this is what you’re going to be getting. Despite the hype, it really is that good. Complex, rich, layered, with a finish that never stops, the Sherry Cask is a transcendental experience. Though, we’re sure at least a part of that is just justification for purchasing an $80 shot of whisky.
Not all Japanese whiskies are from Suntory and Nikka. With the rising demand, other products are slowly trickling in. Tokiwa is one such brand, and also has multiple distilleries. You could splurge on a $600 bottle from the Ichiro’s Line (not the baseball player) from the Chichibu Distillery, or you could try one of the two Iwai labels. These come from Tokiwa’s Mars Shishu distillery, the highest in Japan at nearly 800 meters (sorry, Hakushu). The Iwai Tradition is made from malt and aged in a variety of barrels, from sherry to bourbon and even wine, not unlike Suntory’s whiskies. Both bottles will set you back $60, if you can find them. Which you absolutely should.