Japanese whiskey has grown to become a cultural phenomenon and is widely regarded as some of the finest in the world. Yet mention whiskey to most, and they will often think of Scotland or Kentucky, as both of these have a longstanding history in the minds of whiskey aficionados and casual drinkers alike.
Japanese whiskey’s popularity is growing exponentially, as collectors seek to diversify their collections and sample the flavors of the East.
Now, numerous Japanese distilleries are famous worldwide for their premium spirits and an incredible range of flavors, with some bottles winning acclaim as the best in the world in their categories.
When did whiskey first come to Japan? Why has it taken so long for the rest of the world to catch on and give the respect and praise these wonderful spirits have earned?
Whiskey in some form is believed to have been produced in Japan since the mid-19th century, though it developed at a rapid rate in the early 20th century.
Masataka Taketsuru is the godfather of Japanese whiskey, a man whose own story is tied to the origins and fascinating history of whiskey in Japan.
Since the mid-19th century, Japanese scientists and students were regularly visiting Scotland to aid their country’s modernization and development.
Masataka Taketsuru was one such chemist, he traveled to Scotland in 1918 intending to learn everything there was to know about the whiskey-making process.
In 1924, he started working at Suntory (formerly known as Kotobukiya) where he worked to create Japan’s earliest single malt at the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka.
After establishing himself there, he sought a new challenge and founded his own company, which is now known as Nikka. There, he built the Yoichi distillery on the island of Hokkaido.
His significant contribution to perhaps the two biggest distilleries in Japan earned him his iconic status in the history of Japanese whiskey.
Now you can see some Japanese whiskey in grocery stores and liquor retailers, though rarer bottles can be found via online stores or specialist retailers.
With numerous distilleries and many bottles to choose from, finding the right whiskey for one’s palette can be quite a challenge. Smokey or floral? Light or heavy? The 12 or 18-year whiskey?
For those looking to sample some of this diverse range of flavors or perhaps start collecting themselves, read on to learn about some of the best Japanese whiskeys available today.
OUR TOP PICK
Suntory was Japan’s first malt distillery and remains the oldest still producing in the country.
Suntory’s Yamazaki 12-Year-old is famous worldwide for its distinct flavor and rich history. It has been on the market since 1984 when it was the first Japanese single malt to be promoted to a global audience.
There is a delicate cocktail of flavors that delight and tickle the nose and palette, when drinking this smooth, and soft whiskey. It blends sweet and spicy with zesty and fruity citrus notes. It is full-bodied with a nutty smell that compliments the floral character.
This bottle is in high demand amongst established collectors wishing to own a piece of history, although it’s also a great buy for anyone looking to start their foray into the world of Japanese whiskey.
A single malt made at Nikka’s Yoichi distillery on the island of Hokkaido. There, the climate is similar to that of Scotland, with a cool, crisp climate and perfect humidity levels for whiskey production.
It is known as one of the finest whiskies in Japan, blending Scottish traditions and influence with a distinctively Japanese flavor profile.
The prominent peat smoke shows the strong Scottish influence and makes it one of the finest smokey Japanese whiskies.
On the nose, a delicate combination of smokiness, caramelized citrus, and tropical fruit scintillate the nostrils.
These flavors are prominent in the taste, alongside fresh melon and apple. There are nutty notes, with sweet spiciness with marzipan and ginger. This is truly silk-like in texture, and it goes down accordingly.
Hakushu is Suntory’s second distillery, built-in 1973, it is located on the slopes of Mount Kaikoma in the Japanese Alps.
The water used in the process is sourced from deep in the mountains, ensuring both freshness and a unique flavor.
Due to the cooler climate, the maturation stage is far longer than at Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery. This can be noted with the distinctly cool and herbal flavors.
A pale gold, this smooth and silky spirit has notes of cool cucumber, basil, and mint. There is a spiciness that combines with sweet marzipan to produce a full-bodied and delicately smokey spirit.
To taste, the heat of the alcohol warms through the cool notes and balances with the malt’s sweetness. It is full-bodied and creamy, goes down smooth, and creates a fiesta of flavor on the palette.
The after-taste has hints of sweetness, coffee, and a surprisingly deep smokey note.
The notorious flagship blended whiskey from Nikka, its popularity means that you can find it in bars and even some grocery stores.
It is a blend of Nikka’s Miyagikyo and Yoichi single malts with their grain whiskey that is given ample time to balance out the delicate and contrasting flavors.
Fans of bourbon may be drawn to this whiskey due to its flavor profile and popular use in the Old Fashioned cocktail.
A pale gold, the nose is tangy and spicy with pear and apple, a smokey undertone is lit up by the zesty orange and sweet vanilla.
The flavor is spicy and nutty, with deliciously sweet toffee and fruity notes. After drinking, the fruity and sweet notes will fade as the coffee notes grow in prominence on the palate.
Kamiki is a unique blended malt whiskey that combines Japanese malt whiskies with specially selected malt whiskies from around the world.
After distillation, it is aged for three months in casks made from Yoshino-sugi, also known as “Japanese cedar”, which gives it a distinctive and unique flavor.
The cedar aroma is potent, with hints of lavender, jasmine, green tea, and incense. An earthy, smokey note dances with aromas of fruit cakes and raisins with a hint of sweet maple syrup.
It is full-bodied, with a heavy cedar taste that blends with the spicy pepper and cayenne notes.
The delicate notes beautifully combine with the earthy and powerful woodiness of the spirit to create a refined balance. The soft, wood notes of the cedar will linger on the palate and create a stimulating and sensory experience for the drinker.
Due to its notorious reputation and increasing rarity, this bottle may well only be suitable for serious collectors and whiskey aficionados.
It is aged for eighteen years in an interesting combination of Mizunara, Spanish, and American oak, which provides a deep and varied range of flavors.
On the nose, bourbon and vanilla blend with a fruity scent, and when poured there's a distinct note of adhesive. This dissipates to allow the sweet and fruity notes to take center stage.
A medley of oranges, apricots, grapefruit, and citrus complement the red apple and cherry notes. To drink, it is full-bodied and smooth, almost sherry-like, with sweet wood and fruits that tantalize the taste buds.
The finish is spicy, sweet, and warm, with the sherry and fruity notes not overpowering. Chocolate joins spicy cinnamon and wood notes, whilst there is a slight dryness on the palate.
The 18-Years-Old has a carefully balanced flavor and aromatic profile that is sure to delight anyone who samples it.
This whiskey is a deep gold, as rich in color as it is in flavor. Produced at the Miyagikyo distillery, where they are known for creating fresh, fruity whiskies.
This is Nikka’s second distillery, which is located in Sendai. It is rich and full on the nose, with floral notes, hints of tropical fruit, licorice, beeswax, and an undertone of smokey wood.
It tastes malty on the palate, with spiciness from cinnamon and ginger combined with earthier chocolate and tobacco. The earthiness fades, leaving a spiced and fruity, tangy taste, with notes of white flowers and lycée.
The huge demand for Nikka’s 10, 12, and 15-year-olds steered them towards producing this no-age offering. Don’t let the no-age aspect discourage you from enjoying this delicious and well-balanced whisky.
Toki means ‘time’ in Japanese, and it’s clear that a lot of time and patience has gone into creating this blended whisky.
It’s a blended whisky made from Suntory’s three distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita. The main components are Hakashu single malt and Chita grain whisky, so it varies in composition to Suntory’s famed Hibiki blend.
On the nose, there is a blend of peppermint, soft orchard fruits, and thyme honey. Green apple and pink grapefruit citrus on the palate are complemented by toasted almonds, bitter herbs, and lingering vanilla oak.
There is a spicy note on the finish, with ginger and white pepper providing a tangy and warm sensory kick.
This is a smooth and easy-to-drink whiskey that is light and refreshing on the palate, with a spicy kick to the after-taste that brings a little heat.
Coffey Grain is named after the inventor of the continuous still, Aeneas Coffey. Coffey stills are usually used to make grain whiskey, though at Nikka they also use them to make malt whiskey too.
Coffey Grain is produced at their Miyagikyo distillery, and it has been on the market since 2014.
It is made mostly from corn as opposed to barley, which gives it a creamy texture and sweetness, making this particularly appealing to bourbon drinkers.
There is a hint of bourbon on the nose, melons, and bananas, along with honey, provide the sweetness.
A subtle woodiness and the nutmeg add an earthiness and spice to the profile. The taste is sweet with vanilla and corn, a caramel texture that’s subtly cut through by peaches and bananas.
The nutmeg joins chocolate and a slight coffee undertone to balance out the sweetness in the taste.
The company in a previous incarnation were the ones that initially sent Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn how to distill whiskey.
At the time, they didn’t wish to pursue whiskey production, meaning Masataka forged his own path for Japanese whiskey.
Despite some stop-start efforts, the company is now producing some of the most well-respected whiskey in Japan.
The Mars Maltage Cosmo is a blend of their own Japanese whiskey with others sourced directly from Scotland.
A beautifully deep and rich gold, the nose is powerful and enticing with sweet toffee notes. A tingle of spice with ginger and cinnamon, combined with stewed pears and prunes to create sensations of eating one's favorite pudding.
The taste is a delightful blend of sweet and spicy, a full-bodied flavor with grassy notes, sweet butterscotch, and a gentle smokiness. The aftertaste retains a little smokiness, whilst the stewed fruits, vanilla, and toffee rise to prominence.
Another Suntory blended that has a stellar reputation amongst whiskey connoisseurs worldwide.
It is a combination of malt whisky from Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries along with grain whiskey from their Chita distillery. This whiskey is drawn from five different types of cask including Mizunara oak, sherry casks, and American white oak.
The Hibiki aged range was one of Suntory’s premium whiskey ranges for several years. This no-age incarnation opens up the opportunity of trying this blend to increasing numbers of whiskey lovers worldwide.
A pale gold when poured, it is light and sweet and the nose with spicy and fruity tones. Vanilla and honey provide sweetness whilst there is spicy ginger and an assortment of fruits in cherries, plums, and green apples.
There is an earthiness of sweet chestnut and wood, with the chestnut coming through in the taste.
The fruity taste is cut through by zesty lemon before the woody notes rise to prominence. Sweet and floral notes remain on the palate as the spicy and earthy tones disappear.
This no-age blended malt whiskey is named after the great Masataka Taketsuru. It is a combination of 10 to 12-Year-Old whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries.
A vivid golden color when poured, it has a diverse and complex flavor profile.
On the nose, there are rich pudding notes that are lit up by apples, honey, and vanilla. There is a subtle coffee that combines with the woodiness for a deep aromatic profile.
The initial flavor has hints of dried fruit, vanilla, and pepper, whilst the smoky and coffee flavors develop gradually. It goes down slickly with an oil-like texture, whilst the finish has bitter notes.
The smokiness gives it a subtle and delicate scotch-like profile that is not overpowering.
Best Japanese Whiskies - Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Whisky Or Whiskey?
Both spellings of the word are correct, though there is a little more to it than that. If a drink is produced in Scotland, Japan, or Canada, then the proper use is whisky. If a drink has been produced in the U.S. or Ireland, then the correct spelling is whiskey.
How Does Japanese Whiskey Taste?
Japanese distillers tend to favor a lighter and more delicate-tasting whiskey, producing dry, smoky, and peaty spirits.
The Japanese experiment greatly with the production process, experimenting with yeasts, fermentation, and using unique woods for the aging process.
It should be noted that each country that produces whiskey does distill ranges of spirit that travel all across the flavor spectrum, yet each has a distinct character.
To compare, Scotch has a distinct, sharp flavor with a signature smokiness, whereas bourbon and rye tend to be sweeter.
How Is Japanese Whiskey Made?
Japanese distillers follow the Scottish method for producing their whiskeys, with double-distilling followed by aging in wooden barrels.
The Japanese use a selection of different barrel types, including sherry casks, ex-bourbon barrels, plum wine casks, and uniquely, Japanese Mizunara oak.
This oak tree grows only in Japan and adds numerous flavors and notes including citrus, incense, and spice.
Although their production is based on the Scottish methods of distillation, Japanese distillers seek to push the boundaries of the method in their quest to create truly unique whiskey.
Can Japanese Whiskey Be Called Scotch?
Even though there are many similarities between them, because it is not produced in Scotland, it cannot be called Scotch.
Much like sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region in France cannot be called Champagne. Japanese whiskey production is based on the Scottish tradition of double distilling barley before being aged in wooden barrels.
Similarly, both tend to produce single malts and blends using these techniques.
Where Can I Buy Japanese Whiskey In The U.S.?
Like most things, Japanese whiskey can be found on Amazon and delivered to your door.
There are also several other well-established online stores for buying Japanese whiskey in the U.S. They stock an incredibly diverse selection of whiskeys to suit all tastes and maintain a good supply.
It should be noted that some bottles are becoming increasingly rare and collector’s items, so some more investigation might be needed to find the treasure you seek.