Given that lengthy aging periods are so fundamental to whiskey production, the Japanese whisky industry presently exists in an uncharacteristic state of flux.
In early 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) announced a new set of labeling standards dictating what can and can’t be called “Japanese Whisky.” For the time being, the guidance remains an agreement among producers rather than law, and brands have a transitional period of up until 2024 to make sure their labels comply.
Provenance and ingredients form the heart of the new standards, which will prevent producers from importing whiskey, bottling it in Japan, then selling it labeled as Japanese whisky. Nor will they be able to sell aged, 100-percent rice distillates as whisky — even though they qualify as such in countries like the United States.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality of such distillates, but it’s worth pointing out that these developments are happening in Japan, and that producers appear more focused than ever on transparency.
So what should you expect from Japanese whisky here and now, in 2021? Well, both of the aforementioned styles, for a start. But even more commonly: single malts, blended whiskies, and grain whiskies, all arriving with a wide range of age statements (and without), and made using a range of cask finishes. That might sound a lot like Scotch, and the similarities are numerous, but Japanese whisky holds its own distinct profile and identity — two things that bodies like the JSLMA are working hard to protect.
Now that we’re up to speed on the latest happenings in the category, here are 12 of the best bottles of Japanese whisky, in ascending price order.
Mars Shinshu Iwai 45 Japanese Whisky
Though created for crafting cocktails, this blended release holds its own when sipped neat, and begs to be enjoyed during summertime on a porch. Dried and fresh red berry aromas kick off the show, while the palate shows bright orchard fruits and a racy finish. Average price: $36.
Made entirely from rice, this bright and floral whisky undergoes two fermentations prior to distillation, then spends three to eight years resting in American and French oak barrels, and former sherry casks. Its fruity character and slight sour funk lead to refreshing sips and make it another ideal summer dram. Average price: $44.
Kaiyo The Signature 43% Japanese Whisky
Kaiyo isn’t afraid to experiment with maturation and all of the brand’s releases spend at least three months at sea aging in Mizunara oak barrels. This bottling spends three years and six years aging on land either side of that voyage, once again in Mizunara casks. The oak lends a perfumed character to the nose, while well-rounded fruit and malt notes set the tone on the palate. Average price: $65.
Akashi Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Produced at the Eigashima (White Oak) distillery, this single malt ages for five to eight years in former bourbon, sherry, and brandy casks. Located in Akashi, near the Osaka Bay, the maturing single malt takes on a salty, maritime profile, which weaves in seamlessly with its rich core of malt and orchard fruit notes. Average price: $86.
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky
The definition of “pure malt” lies somewhere between blended whiskey and single malt. Produced only from malted barley, it contains distillates from more than one distillery — in this case, Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo facilities. Character-wise, we’re firmly in single malt territory, and headed toward the richer, bolder end of the spectrum. Hints of earth, smoke, and spice provide nuance and personality. Average price: $87.
Hibiki Suntory Whisky Japanese Harmony
There’s a temptation to lament this whisky’s loss of age statement, but on the other hand, it stands as a testament to the popularity and reputation of Japanese whisky. Made using a blend of malt and grain distillates, this bottle lives up to its name and billing, with tropical fruits and flowers defining the nose, and honeyed, malty sweetness coating the palate. Average price: $94.
The Matsui Single Malt Sakura Cask Whisky
This non-age-statement single malt undergoes a double maturation process, with the first period spent in ex-bourbon casks and the second in bourbon barrels whose heads have been replaced with sakura wood. Its light, fruity, and floral aromas point to this still being a very young single malt, but it’s not lacking concentration of flavor, nor will it leave you yearning for more time in barrel. Average price: $94.
Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
At 51.4 percent ABV, this is about as high as it gets on the alcohol front in the Japanese whisky category. Made using a blend of more than 100 different batches of malt and grain whiskies, it has a boisterous and bold profile that leans heavily into banana chips, caramel, and vanilla. Bourbon drinkers, take note. Average price: $103.
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Whisky
A well-traveled release, this expression combines whiskeys from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States, while 10-year-old Japanese whisky forms the majority of the blend. On the face of it, those are some very different flavor profiles, but they come together harmoniously via precise blending. Tropical fruit and banana aromas give way to rich caramel on the palate, with peppery spice and dried cherries emerging on the velvety finish. Average price: $108.
The Yamazaki Single Malt Aged 12 Years
The youngest release from the Yamazaki line, this single malt is also the easiest to come by these days. Produced at Suntory’s first and oldest distillery, its aromas showcase the incense character of Mizunara oak, while also offering orchard, tropical, and citrus fruits. The texture is creamy, the flavors balanced, and the finish lengthy and intense, with an enjoyable spice. Average price: $179.
The Hakushu Single Malt Aged 12 Years
Like Yamazaki 12, this is the youngest and most obtainable expression from Suntory’s Hakusu line. Distilled at the Hakushu facility, nestled in wooded mountains some 100 miles west of Tokyo, this whisky is notable for its delicate smokiness. It has clean, pure orchard and stone fruit aromas, and a savory green tea note on the palate that plays wonderfully with the hint of peat. Average price: $204.
Mars Tsunuki Peated Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Produced at Mars’ Tsunuki distillery in southwest Japan, this is the second single malt release from this facility, which was constructed in 2016. Aged in bourbon and sherry casks, its peated character doesn’t overpower the relatively youthful distillate. Expect notes of rose petals, green apples, and honey, mixed with lightly scorched earth. Average price: $250.
How do I find affordable Japanese whisky?
For recommendations for great, affordable bottles of Japanese whisky, check out these tips from the experts.
How did Japanese whisky become so popular?
The availability of beloved brands Suntory and Nikka, as well as the Japanese Highball trend, may be to thank for Japanese whisky’s rise to popularity.