Less than a century old, Japanese whisky has no shortage of devotees. (There is a shortage of the stuff itself, though. It’s expected to last at least a decade). It’s been less than five years since expert Jim Murray named a Japanese single malt the best whisky in the world. Since then, the category’s cult following has grown in record time.
While the category is not legally bound to any one set of standards, most of what we see on the American market is top-notch — elegant, complex, and compulsively drinkable. Unfortunately, it’s also quite pricey, with triple-digit bottles headlining many buying guides. If your budgets are a bit more modest this season, consider these five whiskies, most less than $50 and all under $60. In other words, they’re good enough to gift, but not such an investment you feel guilty keeping them all for yourself.
This beautiful blended whisky is comprised primarily of corn with a bit of malted barley and aged entirely in used bourbon barrels. Founded in 1949, Mars is family owned and known for being Japan’s highest-altitude distillery. This whisky is named after Kiichiro Iwai, known as “The Silent Pioneer of Japan Whisky,” and the former mentor of Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Suntory and Nikka. Expect autumnal notes of apple butter, ginger, and rooibos. Average price: $40
Even if you’re not a Japanese whisky fangirl/fanboy, you’ve probably heard of Suntory. The brand is known for its whisky pioneering and the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, which was named the world’s best whisky in 2013. Its budget-friendly Toki — meaning “time” in Japanese — is a perfect way to get in on the action. Comprised of both single malts and single grains, you’ll find notes of green apple and grapefruit followed by thyme and mint. Light bodied and oh-so-easy to sip, this is a good one to have around. In other words: Buy two! Average price: $42
White Oak was the first distillery licensed to produce whisky in Japan in 1919, four years before Suntory. This, its entry-level option, is comprised of 70 percent corn grain and 30 percent malted barley. It’s slightly peated, aged for at least three years in used bourbon barrels, and finished in sherry casks. Leading with a bit of bourbon-like sweetness, it quickly moves into more savory sherry notes and finishes with that hint of peat. It’s an excellent gateway whisky for those new to or on the fence about peat. Average price: $50
Notice how this one is spelled “whiskey” and the others were spelled “whisky”? This difference in spelling comes from the origins of the spirit. Because Japanese distillers were inspired by Scottish iterations, most labels spell it without the “e.” Kikori, however, is its own thing. Distilled entirely from the local, famously aromatic rice, this whiskey is aged in a combination of American, French, and Spanish oak, then blended with the local purified volcanic spring water. Kinda sorta distilled sake — think notes of cherry blossom, matcha, and white chocolate. Delicate and delicious. Average price: $50
What if your favorite Japanese beer producer distilled beer into a whisky? Turns out Hitachino Nest (you know, that Japanese beer with an owl on it) distills its Hitachino Nest White Ale into a totally tasty whisky. After distillation, it’s infused with orange peel and cardamom, and further barrel aging imparts vanilla tones and wood spice. It’s an unholy marriage of techniques, perhaps, but it results in a beautiful love child. Average price: $56