Japanese Whisky 101
On a mission to discover the best Japanese whisky around?
Today, we will dive down the rabbit hole and recommend a few of our favorite bottles.
If you are new, our best advice is to try these, of course, but keep on looking and tasting and experiencing. Whiskey is a lifestyle, not a treasure hunt. The journey doesn’t end just because you find some gold. For many Americans, Japan might not be the first country to come to mind when you think of whisky. However, once you go down the rabbit hole you’ll quickly realize you have been missing out!
Japanese whisky is modeled after scotch both in craft and spelling. Unlike the American and Irish versions of whiskey spelled with the “e,” Scotch and Japanese Whisky is spelled without the “e.”
The similarities between Japanese whisky and Scotch don’t end at the spelling. Like Scotch, Whisky in Japan is crafted by double distilling malted and/or peated barley before being aged in wood barrels. Like Scotch, Japanese whisky tends to be drier, smokier, and peatier than American bourbon or rye.
Despite this overall similar taste with Scotch, Japanese whisky doesn’t have a single flavor profile. Due to its historical links to Scotch, some bottles are peaty and earthy. On the other hand, others are more restrained and subdued. One aspect or overall guiding philosophy that characterizes Japanese whisky is a focus on perfection. The Japanese strive to constantly experiment, improve, and perfect their whisky.
Oftentimes when people talk about Japanese whisky they talk about the bold and peaty single malts likened to a typical Scotch. However, blended whiskies also attract many drinkers to Japanese Whisky.
TASTE: Blended Whisky Production
Japanese whisky and scotch have many similarities but how blended whisky is made is not one of them. In Scotland, distilleries often will exchange whisky with other distilleries to create blends. In Japan, Suntory, Nikka, and the other distilleries do not have this same practice. For Japanese whisky distilleries, this means that each company must be self-reliant masters at every single whisky used for their expressions. For this reason, Japanese whisky companies will own multiple distilleries in different climates. In addition to that they will have multiple styles of stills as well as many different barrels so they can create richly layered blends entirely self-sufficiently.
Despite there only being a handful of companies producing Japanese whisky, self-sufficiency and the mastery of blending makes the whisky produced incredibly unique and diverse.
When compared to Scotch, in general, Japanese whisky is often described as mellower. One reason for this is because the Japanese drink their whisky with food. For this reason, they are crafted to be easier to drink and friendlier to the palate. Overall, the spirit and expressions are more about refined taste than having a specific flavor profile or style.
As briefly discussed above, Japanese whisky and Scotch are often linked and that’s mainly due to the historical connection between them. Japanese whiskies historical connection to Scotch can be traced back to one man, Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru moved from Japan to Scotland to study organic chemistry. While at the University of Glasgow, Taketsuru worked for several of the best Scotch distilleries and learned a lot about the process of creating whisky.
After university he returned to Japan and in 1923 began working for Shinjiro Torii, at a Japanese whisky distillery for the company that would become Suntory. Taketsuru worked with Torii for a decade, but ultimately, Torii wanted to branch further away from scotch flavor profiles. Taketsuru’s primary focus and background was with a more peaty Scotch style of whisky, for this reason his contract wasn’t renewed.
After his contract ended, Taketsuru decided to start his own distillery. In 1934, Taketsuru started Yoichi Distillery with the goal to create the perfect ecosystem to create scotch, in Japan. He chose to start his distillery on the island of Hokkaido because it resembled Scotland’s climate. With the founding of this distillery, Nikka Whisky was born.
Today these two producers, Torii’s Suntory and Taketsuru’s Nikka, bottle over 75% of the Japanese whisky consumed each year.
HOW IT’S MADE:
As covered above, Japanese whisky got its start with heavy influence from Scotch distillery processes. Today, that same influence still exists. As with malt whisky in Scotland, malt whisky in Japan is made using double distillation in copper pot stills. For Japanese grain whisky (any whisky which uses a grain in addition to barley), distillation is achieved using a continuous column still.
A single malt whisky, is any whisky made of malted barley that is made from a single distillery. Single malt is typically associated with Scotch however some Japanese whisky also fits the definition. Japanese whisky relies heavily on malted barley that’s mashed and distilled twice in pot stills. This yields more residual congeners which the distiller will incorporate or cut to create the best final product. Like with Scotch and most whiskey, Japanese whisky is aged in wood barrels. For Japanese whisky sometimes it is aged in ex-American oak bourbon barrels, ex-Sherry casks, or Japanese Mizunara oak barrels.
This is where the similarities and differences between Scotch and Japanese whisky really begin to show. In Scotland, each distillery specializes in mostly one type of whisky meaning their distillate is produced the same way. They will often age it in different types of barrels and for different periods of time but in the beginning the distillery makes the distillate using a single method/process. If demand for the product increases and they need to increase production they buy the same size and shape still to ensure everything stays the same, consistency. With a blended Scotch the final product may include whisky from a handful of different distilleries to incorporate the specific and distinctive qualities that each is known for.
HOW IT’S MADE: JAPANESE WHISKY
In Japan, there isn’t the amount of cooperation that there is in Scotch production. Nikka and Suntory do all of the above completely in-house. At Yamazaki which is a branch of Suntory, they have a handful of unique stills of different shapes and sizes capable of producing distillate of different styles.
As example, a single malt from Yamazaki can incorporate whisky made from the differently sized/shaped stills and create a single malt with different characteristics not found in a Scotch single malt. Just looking at Suntory and factoring in their different stills at their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries they can produce over 100 different malt whiskies. This is a wealth of options not found in Scotland.
Overall you can say that the foundation of Scotch and Japanese whisky is the same. However the processes and fundamentals to produce single malts in Japan are made in a completely different way from those in Scotland. Mostly, the divergence of Japanese whisky from Scotch is philosophically. Scotch is made with a focus on consistency, they want it to taste like it has always tasted for centuries, typically that means a smokier whisky. On the other hand, Japanese distillers lean towards delicate tasting whisky and constantly look to refine and perfect their spirit.
WHY JAPANESE WHISKY IS SPECIAL:
Several key factors make Japanese whisky special. Below are 7 of the most important:
Different countries tend to use different grains in their spirits based on what is readily available in their specific climate/region. Japanese distilleries go a different route and import malted or peated barley from Scotland to make their whisky.
To make scotch, distillers will typically use one strain of yeast, dry. Japanese distillers, on the other hand, use a great variety of yeasts each with unique characteristics. They will often use multiple strains of yeast to help accentuate the flavors that are produced during fermentation to master the whisky. The Japanese philosophy is to control all aspects of production possible and having total control of their yeast supply is just another example of this philosophy.
Japanese distilleries are built in remote locations known for their water purity. The purity of the water is of utmost importance to the Japanese.
The elevation of Japanese distilleries includes some of the highest among distilleries in the world. At higher elevations, the boiling point decreases, the lower boiling point helps retain flavor and aromas and produces a smoother whisky.
Japan’s climate leads whisky to mature faster which results in a whisky that tastes older than it is.
The Japanese are masters at their craft. They take great pride in spending their entire careers perfecting the art of whisky. Japanese distillers look to constantly refine and perfect their whisky which leads to more delicate-tasting whiskies.
The type of barrel the liquor is aged in will affect the taste. In America, where oak is plentiful, oak barrels are used which gives off a strong, vanilla-tinged flavor. Japanese whisky is wood-aged, however without the abundance of oak, ex-American bourbon barrels are sometimes used for Japanese whisky. They will also use Sherry casks and sometimes Japanese Mizunara oak barrels, they keep an assortment of barrels to ensure they can use whichever barrel type is needed to perfect the spirit.
WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE:
As recently as 10 years ago, in America, only whisky aficionados were familiar with Japanese whiskies like Yamazaki and Hibiki. However, over the past 10 years, Japanese whisky has burst onto the scene and exploded in popularity.
Now more and more Japanese whiskies are winning awards and quickly growing in popularity among American whisky enthusiasts. Distilleries weren’t prepared for the explosion and don’t have aged whisky ready to bottle, this has caused a noticeable shortage. Popularity is increasing but supply isn’t able to increase at the same rate so shortages and thus high prices are expected to continue.
To give context to the sudden rise, in 2006 Suntory sold 400 cases of Japanese whisky into America, now it’s up to over 40,000 cases.
Japan has approximately 9 active distilleries in operation, of those, the majority are owned by two companies, Nikka and Suntory. These two producers make around 80% of the Japanese whisky sold each year. Given that there are only 9 active distilleries, the amount of quality whisky coming from Japan and mostly 2 companies is astounding.
JAPANESE WHISKY BOTTLE SELECTIONS:
Below are some of the picks we suggest you be on the lookout for. Demand across the country is high and supply is particularly low for many of these so it can be difficult to find any particular selection in this grouping. This is a relatively small list considering how much great Japanese whisky is made. Consider it your diving board into a big swimming pool.
YAMAZAKI 12-YEAR | $125-150
Yamazaki 12 is probably the most well-known Japanese whisky. You see it pictured above, and you’ll see it pretty much anywhere that lends the powerful hand of Japanese pours. If you’re a newbie, welcome to the cult. If you’re a faithful follower, then cheers, brothers and sisters!
Of the most readily available Japanese whisky’s, this one can be double and even triple in price. But the flavor is worth every penny. This is one you want to sip neat. We recommend it for the seasoned whisky veteran looking for something to explore and keep exploring. Each time you return to this bottle, you’ll pick up something new. Just to give you an idea, you’ll shake hands with citrus, deeply malty fruit, and an enduring, unforgettable sweetness.
This one is fruit, spice, and everything nice. It’s subtle and smooth and worth every penny. Ask around! This beauty is the standard by which many others are measured.
NIKKA FROM THE BARREL | $50 – 100
This one is a fairly new deal in the States. Once again, it’s in high demand. Honestly, Japanese whisky is in demand, on the whole. Just accept it. If you see a bottle, don’t delay. You might not see another very soon!
Anyhow, this 103-proof is a helluva good time. It’s a flavorful blend you won’t forget anytime soon. It gives you that fiery burn, but then, you’re all warm and toasty again with notes of sweet toffee.
SUNTORY TOKI | $35 – 60
This one gets an A for awesome and an A for affordable. If you’re reading these Japanese whisky reviews and wondering about a good entry-level bottle, we hope you’ll consider Toki. At $50 per bottle or less, you can feel good about mixing it in cocktails. Appreciate notes of vanilla, coconut, and honey? You can almost see from the color above that’s what you’re getting with this selection.
We dig it because it’s a little bit of everything: citrus, herbs, ooey-gooey warmth. Toki delivers.
HIBIKI JAPANESE HARMONY | $60 – 100
With the Japanese, it’s all about balance. So much goes into the process of producing this unique world of whisky that keeps us coming back for more. There’s no age statement with Harmony, but it is complex and strikes a perfect chord. If you’re in the mood for sherry, candied orange, citrus punch, and smoky oak, then you’re in luck.
We give it one of our highest recommendations. It’s big-time, tasty bang for a reasonable buck. Succulent oranges and apricots with spices.
“Just tried Suntory Whisky’s Hibiki. It was awesome! Super stoked I found this one for retail. This one was super sweet and smooth, and that bottle is unreal! This was the perfect after-dinner whisky.” – @caskandstill
Hibiki Japanese Harmony | Master’s Select
Wood, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and citrus.
“My Hibiki Master’s Select ‘Japanese Harmony’ is going to need a refill soon…” – @whiskyaficionado
And here’s another vote for Harmony as the top Japanese whisky!
HIBIKI 21-YEAR | $500+
This is a winner! It makes a statement wherever it goes, including the World Whiskies Awards where it is the most awarded Japanese whisky. According to those folks (and us), it’s certainly one of the finest, most balanced blended whisky options on the planet.
We’re encouraging you to go find a bottle. But at the same time, we’re saying, “Good luck finding a bottle.” Go for Hibiki Harmony if you see it instead. It’s honey, fruit, and flora. It’s also a bit more common than the age statement varieties.
For the next three bottles we bring in our resident Japanese Whisky connoisseur, @SingleMaltVault – make sure to follow him on Instagram.
HAKUSHU SHERRY CASK 1989 | $1000+
Dry sweetness with licorice, blackcurrants, prunes, and pepper.
“The Hakushu Sherry Cask 1989–simply phenomenal. I’m so glad I’ve already tried it as prices continue to rise…. It is a lot, but you will find a sherry dram of the highest quality.” – @singlemaltvault
HAKUSHU 25 YEAR | $1000+
Big sherry and big smoke with fruit, nuts, and mint.
“One of my personal favorites… the Hakushu 25 Year Old, which is truly stunning. Suntory brought their ‘A’ game…” – @SingleMaltVault
YAMAZAKI 18 YEAR | $750+
Creamy but balanced with citrus, spices, and rich fruit syrup.
“Still one of the best around… the Yamazaki 18 is a staple for every home bar!” – @SingleMaltVault
DRINKING JAPANESE WHISKY:
As you search and dive into all that is Japanese whisky, you will notice that the majority of Japanese whisky comes with a premium price. The price point might lead you to enjoy it straight, but don’t completely exclude it from cocktails.
In Japan, whisky is often enjoyed with food and particularly in a highball. It has become such a part of culture and restaurants/bars in Japan that the drink is at least partially responsible for the whisky revival in Japan.
Outside of a highball, you can enjoy Japanese whisky in any whiskey cocktail.
Below are a few cocktail recipes that we recommend.
JAPANESE STYLE OLD FASHIONED:You have got to have one of these up your sleeve, right? Some folks want a sort of old fashioned, no matter what they are drinking. And we understand. It’s a brilliant cocktail. Let us look at it, Japanese style!
This recipe comes in from Food & Wine. You’ll need Nikka Coffey Malt, honey syrup, and bitters. It’s simple, but you already knew that. And some of the best things in life are as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Garnish with anything you like: orange, lemon, or lime. And don’t forget your brandied cherries.
JAPANESE WHISKY GINGER HIGHBALL:This is going to be a summer go-to for you this year. After you give it a shot it’s sure to be on your poolside and grill-out menu. Your friends and family will be asking for this one. Who knows? It might become your signature cocktail, that fast!
You’ll need Toki Suntory Whisky, ginger beer, soda water, and bitters. Garnish with a blood orange for beautiful Japanese whisky cocktails that taste as good as they look. Serve over ice and cool down with this highball piece of heaven.
JAPANESE WHISKY SMASH:We’ve got one word for this smashing cocktail: Wowza. Citrus notes make us think of summer. But this ain’t yer granny’s lemonade. Well, maybe it is. Maybe your granny would love this. If so, you have one awesome granny.
The Tipsy Bartender delivers with this Japanese whisky delight. It incorporates your choice of Japanese whisky, simple syrup, mint leaves, lemon, and sugar. Put that shaking glass to work. This is a simple cocktail to make full of sweet and sour flavor.
WHERE TO BUY:
Over the last decade or so, an increase in global demand has extended the availability of Japanese whisky to places it wasn’t previously available. However, demand is still high, so it is often hard to track down bottles in local liquor stores.
In general, the easiest Japanese whisky to find at a liquor store will be Yamazaki, Hibiki, Hakushu, and Toki bottles. Nikka bottles seem to be a bit harder to find however at good whiskey shops they are occasionally available.
If you are searching for Japanese whisky outside of Suntory and Nikka, well, good luck! Whisky from those distilleries and also some of the older, aged bottles are incredibly challenging to find in the United States. Some high-end whiskey stores may have them and in addition to that you can try online whiskey stores such as Dekanta, The Whisky Exchange and Drizly.
JAPANESE WHISKY, O HOW WE LOVE THEE:
We really do. Japan: send more. We promise to drink responsibly and passionately and…daily?
We certainly promise to appreciate the best Japanese whisky we can find.
Thanks for sticking with us as we have some fun in whiskey town. Before you split, give us some of your Japanese whisky favorites in the comments section below. We are all growing together here. We would love to see your input and why you dig what you dig.