It’s a rough time for lovers of Japanese whisky.
Demand has soared in recent years, which is making many bottlings of this nuanced, complex spirit ridiculously hard to find. It’s turned even generous-minded bartenders into hoarders.
“We have quite a backlist of the Japanese whiskies, including some of the rare and old ones,” said the owner of a relatively new whiskey bar on New York City’s Lower East Side, who wished to remain anonymous. “But we don’t put them up on the shelf where everyone can see. You have to ask for them.”
He lowered his voice. “Don’t tell everyone. If we run out, we might not get more bottles.”
Yet, it’s also a wonderful time to discover Japanese whisky. Sure, single malts with specific age statements have become hard to get, but they haven’t vanished altogether. Meanwhile, the “Big Two,” Suntory and Nikka, are rolling out new products, and a growing number of small, up-and-coming distillers are finding acclaim.
“Japanese whisky has taken a Scottish blueprint and quite deliberately tweaked it to suit a Japanese palate. It just happens that those tweaks have resulted in a range of whiskies that appeal equally to Western palates.” —Dominic Roskrow
Put it all together, and U.S. consumers have access to more of these uncommon spirits than they’ve ever had before.
“Japanese whisky is remarkable and unique and deserves all of its buzz,” says Timothy Koenig, general manager (and self-declared “head Japanese-booze nerd”) at Yusho Chicago, which boasts 50-plus bottlings in its inventory.
This new batch of distillers, he says, “have an attention to detail. They search for balance and quality, and those attributes shine through.”
Japanese whiskies represent remarkable range. They span from whisper-light (see the new Kikori bottling) to rich, caramel-forward spirits that resemble Bourbon, and even peated variations that will please fans of smoky Scotches.
“That’s why you see so much praise,” says Koenig. “The complexity is very high.”
If you’re a fan of Scotch whiskies, odds are you’ll enjoy those from Japan, too.
The story of Japanese whisky begins with Scotch. According to author Dominic Roskrow’s book, Whisky Japan (Kodansha USA, 2016), Japanese whisky’s genesis can be traced to 1918. That’s when Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland to learn how to distill “proper” single-malt whisky. In 1923, Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii built the country’s first distillery, Yamazaki, and hired Taketsuru.
The two later split. Torii built what would become Suntory (which now includes distilleries Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita, as well as blended whisky Hibiki). Taketsuru founded Nikka, which includes the Miyagikyo distillery in the north, as well as Yoichi, on the remote northern island of Hokkaido.
With Scotland’s signature whisky serving as inspiration, it’s no coincidence that Japan spells “whisky” as the Scottish do. Nor is it happenstance that many Japanese whiskies are made with barley and smoked with peat, both of which are generally imported from Scotland. A small distillery, Chichibu, is experimenting with local sources.
Yet, Japan’s whisky producers have evolved the spirit to suit the country’s tastes. Local yeast and water help give the whiskies their unique nuances.
Another key differentiator: Many whiskies are matured in barrels made from Japan’s mizunara oak, a particularly fine-grained wood that creates a silky texture and imparts delicate fruit and spice notes.
“Japanese whisky has taken a Scottish blueprint and quite deliberately tweaked it to suit a Japanese palate,” says Roskrow. “It just happens that those tweaks have resulted in a range of whiskies that appeal equally to Western palates.”
Four Top-Scoring Japanese Whiskies
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt; $70, 93 points. A luxe butterscotch aroma belies the lighter, gentler palate, which intersperses fruit and smoke and finishes with a spark of cinnamon heat.
The Yamazaki Aged 18 Years; $250, 93 points. This is getting harder to find, but it’s worth the effort. This single malt is silky and complex, balancing gentle smoke with mouthwatering oak and leather, finishing with a smoky exhale accented by orange peel and espresso.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony; $65, 91 points. The bold aroma mixes vanilla, fresh pear and a hint of smoke. Smokiness comes forward at first sip, wrapping around a core of oak and vanilla custard. Sip or mix.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky; $70, 90 points. Recommended for highballs and other mixed drinks. This light, silky sipper offers mild vanilla-pear sweetness, which gives way to rounded dark chocolate and a baking-spice finish.
Until recently, U.S. drinkers have had access to only a limited number of Japanese whiskies, those brands imported by Suntory and Nikka. Compared to Scotch and Bourbon, Japanese whisky didn’t receive much attention.
One reason for the scarcity is that Japan’s extended recession in the 1990s caused many of its distilleries to close. Even Suntory and Nikka scaled back production levels.
“Luxury was one of the first things to go out the window,” says Koenig. “We saw treasured Japanese whisky producers shutter. It was tragic.”
Today, spirits lovers are rediscovering Japanese whisky. Consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere have embraced a wide range of world whiskies, and importers have obliged by bringing more of Japan’s bottlings to the Western world.
These whiskies began to garner acclaim and rack up awards. And then, in 2014, critic Jim Murray proclaimed a Sherry cask-finished single malt from Yamazaki as the world’s best. After that, Japan’s whiskies were off to the races. Everybody wanted a bottle.
There wasn’t enough to go around.
Demand grew so quickly that stocks of many older Japanese whiskies were depleted. Age-statement whiskies like Nikka’s Yoichi 15 or Suntory’s Yamazaki 25 became particularly hard to find.
While the single malts take the necessary time to age in the warehouse, the Big Two have responded by rolling out new bottlings without age declarations. Nikka released Taketsuru Pure Malt (to supplement Taketsuru 12 Year Old), Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt.
“Taking away the age statement may be very shocking to some consumers, but the quality is still there. We get hung up on aging stateside.” —Timothy Koenig
Meanwhile, Suntory has launched Hibiki Japanese Harmony (in place of Hibiki 12 Year Old), and Toki, a blended whisky intended for mixing. The aged bottles are still around, albeit in limited quantities.
These new releases retain the same lush balance of fruit, spice and smoke consumers have come to expect.
“Taking away the age statement may be very shocking to some consumers, but the quality is still there,” says Koenig. “We get hung up on aging stateside.”
Meanwhile, small producers like Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and White Oak have entered the American market, each hoping to find a cult audience. Kikori, a light-as-air unpeated whisky made from rice, is also available.
Chichibu is the best known of the upstart distilleries, if only because it’s helmed by the personable Ichiro Akuto. He rescued (and renamed) the Hanyu distillery, which had belonged to his grandfather and had fallen into crumbling disrepair during the 1990s. Akuto managed to rescue 400 casks of old stock (“my children,” he calls them), before reopening as Chichibu in 2008.
In addition to bottling some of those older whiskies (which often run around $200), Akuto distills and ages new spirits. Look for Chichibu’s Ichiro’s Malt On the Way bottling, a blend of whiskies aged three to five years.
Mars Shinsu makes fruity, complex whiskies like The Iwai and Iwai Tradition, named for Kichiro Iwai, “the silent pioneer of Japan whisky.”
White Oak, one of the smallest distilleries in Japan, makes its mark with unusual finishes. It lets its whisky rest in barrels used for Bourbon, Sherry, wine and even shochu, Japan’s popular distilled spirit. These impart bold flavors that push the boundaries of the genre.
The sidebar of recommended whiskies focuses on bottlings that should be relatively easy to obtain. For those who care about age-statement Japanese whiskies, take note: If you see one at a reasonable price, snap it up. It might be a while before you see it again.
How to Pour Japanese Whisky
While there’s nothing wrong with simply pouring out a dram, Japan’s bartenders have elevated whisky and cocktail presentation to an art. Here’s how to do it at home, as explained by Kazuo Uyeda, owner of Tokyo’s famed Tender Bar.
“Every action is natural and the result of focused concentration,” he says. “The bartender never shows off and, yet, nothing is accidental.”
Chill a rocks glass just enough to fog it up. Place it in the freezer for about 10–15 minutes. Uyeda also advises holding the glass by the bottom to prevent warming it with your hand.
Present the bottle. Remove the bottle from the shelf and, if needed, wipe it off with a clean towel. Hold the bottom third of the bottle with your hand so that the label is visible. “By holding the bottle at the proper position, you are afforded a greater freedom of movement in your wrist, and your movements will look graceful,” says Uyeda.
Remove the cap. Do it in one swift motion. And don’t put it down, which “halts the flow of motion and looks sloppy.”
Tilt your wrist to pour. Allow the whisky to pour into the glass in a thin, graceful stream. Then lift the bottle and replace the cap, which should still be in your hand.