The art of Japanese whisky is complex but simple in its delivery. Consistently challenge the long reigning Scottish kings of single malt with whiskies of immense nuance and meticulous precision.
At a time where Japanese aged whisky is all but dried up thanks to international demand, we’ve decided to take a look at the other end of the spectrum of relatively available Japanese whisky (for now) as opposed to the stuff you’ll never be able to find.
But before we get into the current list of Japanese whiskies you need to try right now, a quick history lesson is in order.
Suntory & Nikka: A Tale Of Two Whisky Houses
For a nation of such committed whisky makers and drinkers – Japan is the world’s third largest producer behind Scotland and the US – only around ten distilleries currently operate in the country. The industry itself is less than a century old, and owes its existence to two men: Masataka Taketsuru and his original employer, Shinjiro Torii.
Torii, who started Suntory and founded Japan’s first distillery in 1923 in Yamazaki, is best described as the man who sought to give Japanese whisky its own identity.
Suntory’s staple and most well known whisky, the Hibiki 12 Year Old, is an exquisitely smooth blend of a number of Suntory’s malts and a grain whisky to meld everything together. A perfectly balanced whisky built for the Japanese palate (and a favourite cocktail base of bartenders).
The Rise Of Nikka Whisky
Torii’s apprentice Masataka Taketsuru, who would found the other giant of Japanese distilling Nikka, sought to embody in his whiskies the austerity and traditions of Scotland, a land which gave him both his education (he was the first Japanese person to study whisky scientifically) and his wife.
On their return to Japan the newly married Mr and Mrs Taketsuru established a still on Hokkaido island, in Japan’s far-north, seeking to replicate the conditions and traditions of the finest Scotch.
Nikka’s Yoichi 15 year old single malt is an embodiment of this vision. An austere and rigorous drop, with a flinty peat characteristic which arrives seemingly from nowhere and evolves into a long, salty, spicy finish. Such is the pursuit of purity in its production, the Yoichi stills are still coal fired; a technique barely practiced in even the oldest of the Scottish stills.
Taketsuru also found the pure air and high humidity of the Scottish highlands on the eastern coast on the main island of Honshu, where he established his Miyagikyo still. The Miyagikyo 12 Year Old Single Malt uses steam to heat the stills instead of coal and is finished in Bourbon barrels, giving it a lighter, more floral nose, with dried fruits and a nutty Sherry finish. Hard to find but worth seeking out.
Why Japanese Whisky Is Expensive
We asked Jason Ang of Sydney’s Tokyo Bird to explain the basic economics of Japanese whisky.
“The better the whisky the more expensive it is because it’s simply harder to find,” he says.
“It’s purely supply and demand. So the way I would justify it [price] is to look at the whole package. If you’re going out for whisky, ask if you’re getting the service that the Japanese whisky deserves. Is the environment and atmosphere there to enjoy the whisky as it’s supposed to be?”
He also says to pay attention to bottle designs. “There’s some other expressions of whiskies that have elaborate bottles – some are good, but there are elaborate bottles that are also bad.”
What Japanese Whisky Experts Say
These days countless Japanese whiskies have reached collector’s status, fetching well over $300,000 for a single bottle in some extreme cases. We’re all for coveted expressions but we’re also glad to know that not every whisky lover out there has a quarter of a million to drop on liquid gold. That’s why we went straight to the experts in Japanese whisky to find out what the best ones are to buy and try right now.
The general perception amongst whisky pundits is that there aren’t as many reasonably priced Japanese whisky these days due to their current state of hype and low supplies. Those looking for coveted age statement Japanese whiskies will either be disappointed with it’s astronomical price tag or general availability.
According to Jason Ang who runs three of Sydney’s most popular Japanese bars – Tokyo Bird, Bancho and Osaka Trading Co., look close enough and you shall find the (relatively) affordable and readily available.
Japanese Whisky FAQ
Molded after the Scotch tradition, Japanese whisky undergoes double distilling before aged in wood barrels. The flavors tend to be drier and smokier compared to the sweeter American bourbons and ryes. Other than the usual neat and on the rocks, Japanese whisky is best enjoyed with water or mizuwari. Oyuwari or Japan’s version of hot toddy, is also a popular way of drinking Japanese whisky. The Japanese whisky highball is the fizzier version of mizuwari. Instead of water, you mix the liquor with sparkling water or chilled soda (around three or four parts to one part whisky), then finish off with a twist of grapefruit or lemon.
What makes Japanese whisky different?
How to best enjoy Japanese whisky?
What is a Japanese whisky highball?
Molded after the Scotch tradition, Japanese whisky undergoes double distilling before aged in wood barrels. The flavors tend to be drier and smokier compared to the sweeter American bourbons and ryes.
Other than the usual neat and on the rocks, Japanese whisky is best enjoyed with water or mizuwari. Oyuwari or Japan’s version of hot toddy, is also a popular way of drinking Japanese whisky.
The Japanese whisky highball is the fizzier version of mizuwari. Instead of water, you mix the liquor with sparkling water or chilled soda (around three or four parts to one part whisky), then finish off with a twist of grapefruit or lemon.
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Those on the hunt for a bottle can expect smooth honey oak notes with a gentle smoke to accompany a spicy aroma.