It wasn’t long ago that you could find a bottle of 12-year-old Japanese whisky at your local liquor store for around $50. Unfortunately, those days are in the rearview mirror. The category has exploded in popularity over the past decade, resulting in disappearing age statements and skyrocketing prices for many beloved bottles.
The distilleries making the whisky say they were caught off guard by demand outpacing supply and are working hard to catch up. But, talking about the rarity and covet-ability of Japanese whisky is conveniently a great marketing tool. The good news: New brands have entered the marketplace. They’re working their way up to provide thirsty consumers with alternatives to elusive expressions from classic brands like Suntory and Nikka. If you’re hoping to pour yourself a glass of Japanese whisky, here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Japanese Whisky?
Japanese whisky (they spell it without the “e”) is a distilled spirit made from a mash of grains, water and yeast. While it’s most closely modeled after Scotch, there are some key differences. Blending is front and center in Japanese whisky, with the job of master blender often given the same weight as that of master distiller here in the U.S. Distilleries, like Yamazaki, employ different types of stills to make their whisky and mature it in a wide variety of casks. This means they can produce many different styles, which can then be blended to achieve a particular flavor profile.
The source of the barley is also key to Japanese whisky production. According to Shibui Whisky co-founder
, Nicholas Pollacchi, while bourbon and Scotch are usually made from grains grown in their countries of origin, Japanese whisky producers import most of their malted barley.
“Assumptions are made that the grain is from Japan, or at least Asia, but this is rarely the case,” Pollacchi says. “Because of this, Japanese whisky is inherently tied to Scotland, not only for the source of its cereal, but due to the art of world blends, a 100-year history which was really the backbone of every Japanese whisky company you know today.”
For many years, distilleries would source whisky from Scotland, blend and bottle it in Japan and call it Japanese whisky. Newly established standards set by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association are an attempt to provide more transparency, but this is a voluntary agreement so it’s up to producers to participate.
The basic guidelines are similar to Scotch—the whisky must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years, all production must take place in Japan, the whisky must be made from malted grains and caramel coloring is allowed to be used for consistency. Fortunately, legacy companies like Suntory and Nikka, as well as newer distilleries, have signed on.
“The voluntary regulations were created to stamp out an issue that was more prevalent in Japan and China, where sake or shochu [were] fortified with grain alcohol and darkened using spirit caramel,” says Pollachi. “This was being marketed in Asia as ‘Japanese whisky’ and this influx of poorly made liquor that had never seen oak maturation or met any other criteria around the world that would allow you to put it in the whisky category was tarnishing what true Japanese whisky is known for.”
What Are Japanese Whisky Styles?
The most popular style of whisky is blended, which is a combination of malt and grain whiskies. Single malt is made at one distillery from a mash bill of 100% malted barley, while single grain usually means whisky distilled from rice—something that some whisky drinkers consider to be essentially high-proof aged shochu.
Pollacchi has a different take, however. “Malt whiskies made in Japan rely on another continent to produce the core ingredients, rice whiskies don’t,” he says. “With rice whiskies, the spectrum of flavor is as large and varied as any category I’ve ever seen.”
Blends that contain whisky imported from other countries, like Suntory Ao, are referred to as a world whisky. “World blends were created because, unlike Scotland, Japanese distilleries don’t work together to create blends,” says Pollachi. “Therefore, the first malt distilleries in Japan relied on other world whiskies for blending—specifically Scotland because the grain, the stills and the entire process used in Japan was a carbon copy of Scottish malt distilling anyway.” Other examples of world blends that are clearly labeled as such include Shimai World Blended Whisky and Ichiro’s Malt: Malt & Grain “All-World Blend.”
Japanese Whisky Bottles to Try
Mars Iwai Tradition Single Malt
“Iwai Tradition embraces the classical take on Japanese whisky and is a great starter for anyone diving into this category,” said Jason Valdez, general manager at Wolf & Crane in Los Angeles. “[Matured in] bourbon, Sherry and wine casks, it is very balanced with lots of depth. Rooted in history, Mars distillery adheres to the Japanese palate and produces ‘soft and mellow’ whisky.”
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
“This whisky utilizes the term ‘Pure Malt,’ signifying a blend of two single malts made in Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries,” said Valdez. “Named after the founder, Taketsuru puts forward the detailed blending of Japanese whisky to meet a flavor distinct from any other. With a little peat and Sherry notes dancing around one another, this is one of our favorites.”
Suntory Hibiki Harmony
“Hibiki Harmony takes all of Japanese whisky’s best practices and puts them into one bottle,” said Valdez. “[It] utilizes all their distilleries, cask types, ages, water, and grains, and then blends them into a harmonious whisky for sipping or enjoying in a delicious highball.”
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries
“This release dives deeper into pure malts,” said Valdez. “The blend comes from Ichiro’s Chichibu Distillery and his grandfather’s now closed Hanyu Distillery. We are able to enjoy a piece of history with this multigenerational blend.”
Suntory Yamazaki Sherry Cask
“A must have for the more serious collectors,” said Valdez. “This is the bottle that put Japanese whisky on the map, winning multiple awards and continuing to have influence on several of Suntory’s offerings. Yamazaki Sherry Cask would definitely be on your top shelf.”
Nikka by the Barrel
“A unique blend of both single malt and single grain whiskies, Nikka by the Barrel is a complex marriage of the Nikka distilleries’ offerings,” says Josh Kougl, general manager at Zuma Las Vegas. “The blend comes bottled at an uncommon 51.2% rather than the usual 43% you see in most Japanese whisky. Nikka by the Barrel packs a punch in value and flavor, with rich flavors and a smooth finish.”
Nikka Coffey Grain
“Using the old traditional method of Coffey stills, Nikka is able to impart more mellow flavors and depth than some modern technology,” says Kougl. “The two Coffey columns imported from Scotland in the ‘60s are still in use today to showcase the effect they have on the flavor of the whisky. Made predominantly from corn, Coffey Grain is likely to make the bourbon purist second guess themselves.”
Hakushu 12 Year Old
“With the distillery nestled at the foot of Mt. Kaikomagatake, Hakushu’s ‘forest distillery’ has created a unique tasting whisky with the influence of its natural surroundings and fresh spring water,” says Kougl. “The whisky is vibrant and bright, bursting with citrus notes and ending with a nice subtle smoke.”
Yamazaki 18 Year Old
“There is a never-ending list of reasons why this is the top Japanese whisky, if you can even find it,” says Kougl. “Yamazaki’s sherry maturation is one of a kind, creating a balance of dark fruit, citrus and spice that cannot be found anywhere else. There is no burn, leaving you constantly sipping and enjoying until you realize you might not get the chance to have this anytime soon.”
Where Can You Buy Japanese Whiskey?
You can find Japanese whisky at your local liquor store, although the selection may be limited. That is changing, however, as more affordable blends and No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies from established distilleries enter the market, like Suntory Toki and Nikka Days, along with newer expressions from brands like Fuji and Shibui. If you are looking for classic older age statement expressions like Yamazaki 18 or Hakushu 12, your best bet is to check out specialty websites—but be prepared to pay a very high premium.
How to Drink Japanese Whiskey
Japanese whisky is incredibly versatile, ranging from light and fruity to heavy and peated. The main thing to remember is that you should drink it any way you please—no drink shaming here. It’s advisable to at least try it neat first in a Glencairn or similarly shaped whisky glass, particularly when you’re drinking a single malt, but you should sip it the way you enjoy it the most—neat, on the rocks or in a cocktail.
Japanese Whiskey Cocktails to Try
The classic Japanese whisky cocktail is the Highball, a simple combination of whisky and soda water over ice, sometimes garnished with citrus. This drink is incredibly popular in Japan, and you can find it there in cans or even on tap in many bars. It’s starting to gain traction here in the U.S. as well, with riffs and variations available using different types of Japanese whisky and sometimes flavored with other spirits.
Many people like to drink blended Japanese whisky over a large ice cube. And you can substitute blended or single malt Japanese whisky for any other style in classic drinks like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Try it for yourself to see how it differs from what you are used to.