The Japanese Whisky production, though only recently becoming prominent globally, isn’t new. The first Whisky distilling started in the early 1920s and largely stayed under the radar, with awareness of it restricted to within Japan’s borders.
But it gained traction and worldwide attention when Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 made it into the top five in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015. The world has been paying more attention — and paying higher prices because of its limited availability — since then.
The foundation of Japanese Whisky lies in Scotland. The first master distiller at Suntory, Masataka Taketsuru, studied his craft there and brought the twice-distilled pot stills method back to Japan. But after that the seed was planted, Japan’s Whisky sector grew to a whole different level.
It is done correctly or not done at all
Today, there are hundreds of Japanese Whiskies — from all types, sizes, and shapes of stills — with the larger producers Nikka and Suntory leading the way. Japanese distillers make a staggering number of grain, malt, and peated-malt varieties, creating dozens of unique blends from standalone distilleries.
What is the secret to Japan’s Whisky success?
The distilling process, like many things in Japan, is regarded as an art. It is approached with precision and care, with the utmost attention to detail taken at every step of production. It is done correctly or not done at all, with the best ingredients used in the best environments to carry out the entire process, from grain to water to nooks in forested mountains.
Japanese Whisky also developed its own very distinct taste and profile, thanks to the need to align it with the prevalent Japanese preferences. While with American Bourbon you’ll mostly find a deep and full-bodied sweetness, while with Rye you’ll find a dry spice, you won’t find a heavy hitting smokiness or a bold bite with Japanese Whiskies. Rather, the approach is softer, with a more subtle and nuanced profile, one that is complex and light so as not to be overbearing, letting the drinker capture all of the flavors present.
So, where to start in sampling the wonderful world of Japanese Whiskies? The United States has been importing more and more of them each year and with demand as high as it is, they can be a bit tricky to find. Here is a brief list to get you going.
Nikka Yoichi 10 Year
The Nikka 10 Year is a peaty single malt from the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. It opens with plenty of fruit and unravels with light vanilla and just a few hints of smoke and nutmeg.
Unless you find it at some small, hidden gem of a liquor store, your best bet is buying online. The current retail price is around $300.
Hakushu 18 Year
This is a single malt, peated, and pot-distilled Whisky from Suntory’s Mt. Kaikomagatake distillery and is most reminiscent of Scottish Whisky practices. It’s very fresh, green, and a little fruity, with notes of orange and pear and just a hint of smoke through its delightful smoothness.
This will also be a little more difficult to find, so the online route will be your best bet. Prices start around $400.
Yamazaki Sherry Cask
As mentioned above, Yamazaki bears the title “Best Whisky in the World.”
While the 2013 might be hard to find, the 2016 is on the market (though only 5,000 bottles were released). It is deep and rich, even more subtly complex than other Whiskies reviewed here. With notes of cocoa, raisin, and clove, the finish on the Yamazaki Sherry Cask is said to be in a league all its own and must be experienced to be believed. Look for it here.
The most accessible Whisky under review, both with regards to price and availability, is Suntory Toki. It’s a very good introduction to Japanese Whiskies; you really can’t tell it’s one of the most affordable options. It’s incredibly smooth, perfectly light, and tastes of honey and green apple. Just a bit of vanilla and white pepper also come forward. You can find Toki at well-stocked liquor stores.