Welcome to our handy guide to help you choose some of your first Japanese whiskies. Each whisky listed below has been named by various publications as being among the best Japanese whiskies in 2019-20. Not all of these brands may be available at your local market but watch out for the ones that are. Some of them can be direct ordered from the distillery itself.
We have broken up our Japanese whisky recommendations into 3 different price ranges listed below. Images are included for some of the whiskies which contain a link to The Whisky Exchange where more information is available.
- Between $100 and $500
- Between $50-$100
- Less than $50.
Japanese Whiskies to Try – Priced Between $100 and $499
1) Mars Komagatake Single Malt Yakushima Aging 2020 ($390)
Mars Shinshu is Japan’s highest-altitude distillery, located above 2,600 feet. It is also one of the oldest distilleries in Japan. Their normal offering is the Iwai Tradition blend (retailing for $60), but this new NAS blend is distilled in Shinshu and aged in bourbon barrels for 3-4 years on Yakushima Island – a World Heritage Site off the coast of Southern Japan. The rainy oceanside apparently drives quick maturation, along with salinity that offsets the peat notes in the brew.
2) Suntory Hakushu 12-Year-Old ($235)
This whisky compares favorably to the much higher priced 18-Year-Old version, with the smoky malt flavor being tempered with light pear, apple and citrus notes. The older version has more of a fruity note that comes in with further aging.
3) Yamakazi 12 Year ($166)
Yamazaki is renowned as one the first single malts from Japan to break into the Western markets. Its flavors, which were known to be fruity, delicate and rounded earlier, has now become more intense and elegant.
4) Akashi Single Malt ($133)
Akashi blends this from single malts aged in a mix of casks, including bourbon, sherry, brandy, wine and even shochu. Produced at the White Oak distillery near the ocean – a bit of salinity creeps into the whisky. There are competing flavors of coffee and stone fruit from the mix of barrels, offsetting the strong single malt flavor.
5) Hibiki Harmony NAS ($120)
Suntory’s Hibiki blend is a classic example of how to combine value and price. As you can see from the high-end whisky table above, Hibiki 12- and 17-year old expressions are way too expensive for the average consumer pockets – and in fact, they may or may not be available in the US. Instead, try the Hibiky Harmony, a blend of malt and grain whiskies from three Suntory distilleries, aged in different casks. It’s still a classic expression of Suntory style.
6) Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt and Grain ($102)
Chichibu is a relative newcomer on the Japanese scene, having been formed in 2008 on an old Hanyu distillery outside Tokyo. This whisky is an “all-world blend”, combining Scotch, Irish, Canadian and American whisky, all aged between 3 and 20 years and then matured at Chichibu distillery for an additional two years before blending. You can get a higher priced version, listed on the high-end whisky table above – it features Chichibu distilled whisky (aged 10+ years) and sourced whisky (aged 10-30 years), that s then aged in Japan for another 3-5 years.
7) Nikka Yoichi/Miyagikyo Single Malt Finished in Apple Brandy Bottles ($100)
The age expression statements on Yoichi and Miyagikyo whiskies were discontinued a few years back. These two versions were both apple brandy finished, but the Yoichi version was aged in American oak and sherry casks, while the Miyagikyo (more heavily peated) was aged in new American Oak, bourbon and sherry casks. These are commemorative releases to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Masataka Taketsuru’s wedding.
Japanese Whiskies to Try – Priced Between $50 and $99
1) Ohishi Single Sherry Cask ($85)
This is an oddball even among Japanese whiskies, since Ohishi uses two different types of rice (gohyakumanishi and mocha) to distill its whisky. While the use of rice is typically frowned upon, the reputation that Ohishi has created is that of a rich and fruity dram of whisky aged for an undisclosed amount of time in sherry casks. A brandy cask is also available.
2) Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky ($73)
Don’t be confused by the name, it is not referring to coffee, but rather to Aeneas Coffey, the inventor of the Continuous Still process of distillation. As advertised, this is a mixed grain whisky, made from corn mash principally, giving the drink a bourbon like flavor. To complete the effect, it is aged in bourbon casks, and has notes of caramel and vanilla. There is a companion Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky as well.
3) Suntory Whisky Toki ($52)
One of the readily available Japanese whiskies these days, the Suntory Whisky Toki is a blend of Hakushu white oak cask malt and Chita grain whisky, with splashes of Yamazaki white oak cask and Spanish oak cask whiskies added. An extremely light spirit results – one that can be sipped or had in a highball.
Japanese Whiskies to Try – Priced Below $50
1) Suntory Ao World Whisky ($48)
As the name suggests, this whisky is a “world sourced” blend, though some Suntory distilled product does feature in it. Main ingredients include Ardmore and Glen Garioch Scotch, Cooley Irish whisky, Alberta from Canada, Jim Beam from the US and Yamazaki and Hakushu in Japan. The end result is smooth to taste, with some smokiness and cinnamon taste on the palate.
2) Nikka Whisky from the Barrel ($48)
This is a flagship whisky from Nikka, a blend of their Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts along with Nikka’s grain whisky. There is a blend of smokiness, along with spicy apple, pear, orange zest and vanilla. There is even a finish of seawater.
3) Hatozaki Blended Japanese Whisky ($45)
A world sourced blending from a new line launched in 2018 by the Kaikyo Distillery, this whisky is produced using a two-stage blending process using whisky a few years old, at least 40% single malt content (the rest grain), with no chill-filtration or extra color addition. This is ideal for use in highballs. A higher priced option, 100% single malt, is the Hatozaki Small Batch that blends 5 to 6-year old whisky aged in bourbon, sherry and Mizunara oak casks.
4) Nikka Days ($45)
This whisky was released in the US recently, specifically targeting the audience that likes an easy-drinking whisky suitable for a highball or as a mixer (whisky and Coke, anyone?). The blend is made from Coffey Grain Whisky, aromatic non-peated Miyagikyo malts, Coffey Malt Whisky and Yoichi Malts, producing a bright sweetness and rich body.
5) Kanosuke New Born ($35)
This line is interesting given that the distillery is just over two years old. As such, it introduced whisky aged 16 months in 2019 and followed it up with 24 months in 2020 – both in short 200 ml bottles. The malts are non-peaty and imported from the UK. The interest will be to follow its first batch of three-year aged whisky in 2021 and then down the line as the stock matures.
All in all, Japanese whisky tends to be expensive and there is a lot of diversity among the single malts, grains and “sourced” world whiskies. But when all is said and done, the end result is usually superb given the care that master distillers in Japan must exercise to satisfy the palates of their domestic consumers. Start sampling some of the products mentioned above, based on your preferences and price tolerance, then gravitate towards more mature concoctions if you can find them.
Don’t be surprised if, over time, you begin to spot differences between the offerings from Japan and Scotland – regardless of their kinship and commonalities. Enjoy!