Unless the delicate elements of Japanese culture will be challenging to grasp for the Western mind, the same could be said about the country’s whiskey. While there are echoes of Scotland in the vast array of production processes, various whiskies have distinct identities.
The art of Japanese whiskey is sophisticated, but it is delivered directly. Challenge the long-reigning Scottish single malt rulers with whiskies of tremendous complexity and careful accuracy regularly. Brands have introduced new blends and no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies, and many of these are excellent cocktail ingredients.
A bottle of good Japanese whisky is tough to come by these days, and if you do, it’ll set you back a small fortune. Japanese whisky used to be cheap and readily available in every well-stocked liquor store. Today, variety with an age label from the famed makers is practically impossible to come by.
Story of Suntory and the Rise of Nikka
History of the Japanese Whiskies
Only about ten distilleries operate in Japan, even though the country is home to some of the world’s most dedicated whiskey manufacturers and consumers (Japan is the world’s third-largest producer behind Scotland and the United States).
Although Japan began making whiskey in 1870, commercial manufacturing did not start until the early 1920s. That’s when Shinjiro Torii, an importer, started Suntory was the one to establish the country’s first distillery in Yamazaki, a Kyoto suburb famed for its abundant water supply. Torii is most known for his efforts to give Japanese whiskey its unique personality.
The Hibiki 12 Year Old, Suntory’s most famous whiskey, is an incredibly smooth mix of various Suntory’s malt and grain whisky to merge everything. A well-balanced whiskey was created with the Japanese palate in mind.
Masataka Taketsuru, a former student who had spent three years in Scotland learning how to distill whisky, was Torii’s senior executive. Taketsuru left to start his own business, Yoichi Distillery, in Hokkaido in 1934. Taketsuru’s firm later became Nikka, although the distillery’s name remained the same.
Taketsuru aimed to capture the austerity and traditions of Scotland in his whiskies. This idea is embodied in Nikka’s Yoichi 15-year-old single malt. An austere and disciplined drop with a flinty peat note appears out of nowhere and unfolds into a lengthy, salty, peppery finish.
The Yoichi stills are still coal-fueled, a technology seldom used in even the oldest Scottish stills, such as the quest of purity in its manufacture. Both firms continue to loom big in the minds of Japanese whiskey connoisseurs.
Japanese whisky had various ebbs and flowed over the decades. An increase in global demand in the 1970s and early 1980s generated a small number of new distilleries and brands. After that, there was a decrease in global popularity, followed by a recent revival. In Japan today, there are about nine operating distilleries.
Why is Japanese Whisky so Good?
When it comes to any foreign trend, there is a propensity to over-hype quality based on factors such as rarity or exclusivity. The same may be said about Japanese whisky.
What we’re trying to convey is that the spirit is not inherently superior to any other type of whisky, regardless of what the nearby “expert” tells you. There is superb Japanese whiskey and not-so-great Japanese whisky, like with anything else.
Japanese whisky is typically produced with imported malted barley, some of which have been peated. Japanese whisky, like Scotch whisky, generally is distilled twice in pot stills and matured in either ex-bourbon or ex-sherry cask.
Japanese whisky and Scotch whisky undoubtedly have their distinct flavors. One variable is Japan’s environment, which has more significant temperature fluctuations and develops whiskey faster.
Japanese distilleries also use various innovations throughout manufacturing, such as utilizing different types of yeast during fermentation or experimenting with the designs of pot stills. As a result, there is a larger spectrum of unique flavors and characteristics.
Why is Japanese Whisky so expensive?
The more expensive whisky is, the more difficult it is to locate. It’s all about supply and demand.
So, to justify the price, we need to look at the entire package. If you go out for whiskey, make sure you get the service that Japanese whisky deserves. Like the setting and atmosphere should be conducive to enjoy the whiskey as it should be.
There are several different whisky expressions with ornate bottles – some are wonderful, but some are terrible. If you’re shopping for bottles, do your homework since some manufacturers may obtain a mix of whiskies from other nations, bottle it in Japan, and label it Japanese whiskey. But there’s a reason it’s so popular: there are some genuinely excellent drams to be had.
Why is there a shortage of Japanese Whisky?
Suntory dropped two of its most popular a few years ago: Hakushu 12 Year and Hibiki 17 Year. It was one of the earliest indicators that Japan was experiencing a whiskey scarcity. Given that most of the most outstanding Japanese whiskies take years to mature, it’s reasonable to predict the shortage will last indefinitely.
It appears that you may have too much of a good thing. It’s all a textbook instance in fundamental economics. Between the mid-1980s and about 2011, Japanese whiskey faded into obscurity globally, causing firms to cut their supplies and at least one distillery close.
A rapid increase followed this in worldwide demand. Because of these two converging circumstances, Japanese distillers today have a restricted supply of their greatest expressions. This is also why the most outstanding Japanese whiskey is so costly and will probably stay in the future.
Top 7 best Japanese Whiskey
Here are the greatest Japanese whiskies, ranging from single malts to blends and even expressions made completely of rice.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old
Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old may be considered the pinnacle of the brand’s single malt portfolio. It was formerly quite simple to get and is arguably the most well-known Suntory whiskey. However, Suntory’s most well-known whiskey in the United States expects to pay approximately $150 for a bottle currently. It is a flowery and delicious single malt evocative of scotch yet in its unique flavor.
Yamazaki 12 is matured in various barrels, resulting in a beautiful balance of aromas that, like a well-rehearsed orchestra, complement one other and culminate in something better than the sum of its parts. Overall, this is the best option to start knowing more about Japanese whiskey.
Nikka Coffey Grain
If you mention this bottle to a casual drinker, they might believe you’re talking about a coffee-flavored whiskey for breakfast. So let us clear the air. Nikka is another prominent Japanese whiskey manufacturer. Coffey Grain is named for Aeneas Coffey, the creator of the continuous still, and is manufactured mainly from maize rather than barley, as is the case with single malts.
It provides excellent whisky a creamy mouthfeel with a sweetness that bourbon enthusiasts will like. It is aged in ex-bourbon barrels and boasts caramel and vanilla aromas, as well as a beautiful, oily texture. This whiskey is also available in a 100-percent malted barley form, which is worth evaluating side by side if you can find both.
Hakushu 12 Year Old
Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, nestled in the wooded highlands known as the Southern Japanese Alps a few hours south of Tokyo, is a lovely site to explore. The 18-Year-Old single malt is arguably the best in the Hakushu lineup, with fresh flavors of fruit and malt, as well as a trace of smoke and dried cherry. However, if you can get a bottle, you’ll have to pay approximately $500, so the 12 is a lot more affordable expression to try. The tastes are comparable to those of the 18, with mild pear, apple, and citrus notes highlighted by ribbons of faint smoke.
In Japan, single malt whisky is much the same as it is in Scotland—whisky brewed at a single distillery from malted barley. The Japanese Alps produce Hakushu, and the whiskey made it is as delicious. “It has a woodsy and herbaceous aroma that develops to include lovely fruit flavors that are underpinned by a subtle peat quality,” Crystal Chasse, beverage director at McCarren Hotel and Talk Story Rooftop, adds. This whisky’s water originates from the mountains deep in the forest surrounding the distillery. This secret ingredient makes this peated whiskey incredibly accessible.
Toki, one of the most widely available Japanese whiskies of days, is a mix of malt and grain whisky from Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. According to Suntory, the fundamental “pillars” of the whiskey are Hakushu white oak barrel malt and Chita grain whisky, with Yamazaki white oak cask and Spanish oak cask whisky tossed in for good measure. The outcome is an incredibly light spirit that should be consumed in a highball, but it also doesn’t sip too terribly on its own.
No, this will not replace the $200 bottle of Hakushu 12, but times have changed, and we must accept our new reality. Darnell Holguin, co-founder of The Silver Sun Group and beverage partner at New York’s Las’ Lap, adds, “I particularly love Suntory Toki Whisky.”
Toki, which means time in Japanese, is a mix of some of Suntory’s greatest. It finishes with pink grapefruit, almonds, and a faint vanilla note. Combine some with sparkling water and a touch of lemon to make a delicious Highball.
Akashi Single Malt
This single malt is a mash-up of several cask types, including bourbon, sherry, brandy, wine, and even shochu. It’s made in the White Oak distillery near the coast, which the company claims puts a little salt and brine into the whiskey. Even if you don’t pick up on those nuances, this is a fun dram to drink.
Toffee and stone fruit notes compete in the various barrels the whiskey is matured in, complementing the whisky’s malty solid backbone. There is also a young mix called White Oak, but this single malt is the best bottle to look for if you stumble across it.
Ohishi Single Sherry Cask
Some people do not like the idea of whiskey produced from rice, yet numerous Japanese distilleries are doing precisely that. Skeptics argue that this results in over-proof shochu that has spent some time in a barrel. However, Japanese rice whisky may be a highly nuanced spirit, especially when the maturation process is well monitored.
The Ohishi distillery, located on the Kuma River, produces whiskey from two rice varieties (gohyakumanishi and mocha). The spirit is then matured in sherry barrels for an unspecified period, resulting in a rich and fruity dram that can compete with the best Japanese whisky. A brandy barrel variant is also available.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Blending is an essential part of the Japanese whiskies-making process. Flavors and balances are carefully considered, with some distilleries creating dozens of distinct whisky blended into the final product.
For example, Suntory’s Hibiki blend debuted in 1989, and there are now three particular expressions in the line. The 17-year-old is perhaps the finest, an extremely well-rounded sipper with beautiful caramel and toffee flavors. However, it is simply too costly anymore, with bottles retailing for $500 or more. Instead, try Harmony, a NAS mix of malt and grain whisky matured in various barrel types from Suntory’s three distilleries. It’s no 17, but let’s drink the whisky we can afford.
Also, check these best Japanese whiskies
Ichiro’s Malt and Grain Whisky
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Whisky
Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky
Mars Komagatake Limited Edition 2020
So, Are you ready for the Japanese Whisky experience?
While Japanese whiskey connoisseurs may no longer be able to buy treasured bottles for less than the cost of a plane ticket to Tokyo, there are several bottles from big labels and lesser-known companies that are not only tasty but also fairly priced. Don’t give up on the Japanese whiskey quest; with enough money and perseverance, you may still locate age statement bottles, as well as lots of younger, more widely accessible mixes.