The Top 20 Best Japanese Whisky Brands
Relatively new to the western world, Japanese whisky is a fine drink the inhabitants of the land of the rising sun have enjoyed for over 100 years. Its distinctive taste often involves notes of fruit, cereal, vanilla and malted barley, making it one of the most popular choices when it comes to spirits today.
But don’t expect that to come cheap, because it won’t. Japanese whisky is available for big bucks. Its quality ingredients, proper maturation and the cost of importing it outside Japan are all good reasons for that high price. Also, since Japanese whisky makers were only used to their country’s demand, a high global demand has now led to shortage, pushing prices even higher.
Before we dive into the best Japanese whisky brands, let’s take a look at how it all started.
History of Japanese Whisky
The early days of whisky crafting in Japan go back as far as 1870, but it’s only in the 1920s when the commercial production began. That’s when Shinjiro Torii, a liquor importer, decided to open a distillery in Yamazaki, the first ever in the country. A helping hand came from Masataka Taketsuru, who had accumulated three years experience learning the craft in Scotland, and was now Torii’s top executive.
Later on, in 1934, Taketsuru went on and opened his own distillery in Hokkaido. Called Yoichi Distillery, it’s going strong to this day. While the distillery kept its original name over the years, the company behind became Nikka. Torii’s original company became Suntory, and it’s also one of the big names in today’s Japanese whisky industry.
As time went on, Japanese whisky production went through ups and downs. The 1970s and the 1980s saw a huge rise in global demand, which led to new names and labels spawn in Japan. Popularity of Japanese whisky dropped for a while before making a comeback in recent times.
Today, there are quite a few established whisky distilleries in Japan, and these are the best Japanese whisky brands, in our opinion:
Made by the Kaikyo Distillery on the coast of the Seto inland sea, the Hatozaki whisky is smooth, easy, elegant and comes either as Blend or Pure Malt. The former has delicate floral notes while the latter seems more rounded, with malted cereals, dried fruit and a very pleasant honey fragrance.
Hatozaki whisky draws its name from the oldest lighthouse in Japan and is the result of the endless curiosity of Master distiller and blender Kimio Yonezawa.
Sakurao Distillery has established itself on the Japanese whisky scene back in 1918 in the town of Sakurao in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, accumulating over 100 years of experience and knowledge in whisky making since then.
They offer a range of drinks with three distinct styles. There’s the Sakurao 1st Release Cask Strength which boasts notes of sweet vanilla with smoky undertones. Then there’s the Single Malt Togouchi, with notes of fresh apples, apricot and sweet marmalade. The third one is the Togouchi Blend, which comes in beer and sake cask finish, among others.
Enso takes advantage of the water, flora and the climate to create a unique whisky. The pure waters of Japan contribute a lot, while the porous Japanese oak barrels add their character and flavor that set this whisky apart.
Maturation is greatly helped by the temperature fluctuations across Japan’s four seasons. The end result features a medium body with fiery tangerine and spice with a long concentrated finish.
Based right next to Japan’s longest white sand beach, Fukiagehama, the Kanosuke Distillery is a young one, its story staring only in 2018. Despite the short history, it has already won several awards, making it worth mentioning.
Their whisky collection comes in six variations, among which the New Born Kanosuke Distillery Limited Bottle has won the third place in the Japanese Newmake Category at the Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition last year.
Operating between 1955 and 2011, Karuizawa Distillery has brought to life some wonderful whiskys along the years.
Recently, a collection of rare bottles of Karuizawa has surfaced and managed to raise record breaking prices at an auction, putting the name into the minds of many whisky drinkers all over the world.
Founded back in 1985 by Masataka Taketsuru, Shinshu is known to be the highest distillery in Japan, located in the Japanese Alps, where it benefits of moderate humidity and an endless supply of pure water.
Their Iwai Tradition is a perfect example of the brand’s single malts and single grain whiskies, boasting notes of brine, peppercorn, almond, malt and peat smoke.
Currently led by the sixth generation Master Distiller Kazunori Oishi, the Ohishi Distillery brings to life soft and elegant rice whiskies.
Some of the best expressions of their collection include the Sherry Cask with dried fruits notes, nutmeg and Christmas cake, the lighter and softer Brandy Cask and an Islay Cask with a nice sublime smokiness with notes of marshmallow and vanilla.
Kirin is a well known beverage company, especially for their Japanese beer, but that’s not everything they have to offer. They also run the Kirin Distillery, also known as Fuji Gotemba Distillery, near Mount Fuji and produces small batch blends and 17 year single malts.
Their Kirin Fuji Sanroku 50 Proof used to be their most popular blend. Why used? Because due to the whisky shortage, it was discontinued.
Produced by The White Oak Distillery, a small, family run company, one of the oldest in Japan and the first one to ever receive a whisky production license back in 1919, Tokinoka brings an original blend to whisky lovers around the world.
Besides the original blend with sweet notes of chocolate, maple syrup and floral malt, they also offer the Black, which is a half-half blend of malt and grain whiskies aged in bourbon, sherry and virgin oak casks. The Black is rich and boasts notes of mango, pineapple, ginger and black pepper, with a honey and vanilla finish.
Located at the foothills of Mt. Daisen in the Tottori Prefecture, the Kurayoshi Distillery makes use of the pure spring water of the area to create the fine whiskies they’re well known for.
The small distillery offers a range of five styles, with The Kurayoshi as their number one. It’s a balanced whisky, with combines bitterness with sweet notes of raisins, nuts and vanilla.
10. The Chita
Wearing the name of the Chita Peninsula, where it’s also located, The Chita distillery brings forward clean, medium and heavy whiskies by combining corn grain and continuous multiple-column distillation.
Their flagship is The Chita Single Grain Whisky, a smooth and refined drink boasting a bright gold color and hints of mint and deep honey, with a clean, clear finish.
Founded by Shinjiro Torii, Suntory is a name synonymous to the Art of Japanese whisky. Inspired from the Scottish whisky, Suntory manages to add the essence of his country into their blends.
Suntory is an umbrella company that holds other names such as Yamakazi and Hakushu – we’ll tell you a bit about them below, but it also has its own Suntory Whisky Toki whisky which brings together honey, basil and green apple on the nose, with a fruity and spicy aftertaste and a sweet finish with notes of vanilla oak, ginger and white pepper.
Owned by Nikka Whisky, the Miyagikyo distillery produces a single-malt whisky that showcases the influence of a valley in the Northern mountains of the Miyagi prefecture where it’s located.
Their whiskies are characterized by soft, floral notes and some of the recommended choices are their 15 year old Single Malt and the Apple Brandy Finished.
Yoichi is part of the same company that owns Miyagikyo, Nikka Whisky. It’s based in Hokkaido, which has the privilege of possessing similar environmental characteristics as Scotland.
They offer premium able-bodied malts with a bold character, refined peaty notes and a subtle salty hint from the Ishikari Bay’s sea breeze. Their best offerings are the 15 year old Peated Single Malt and the 20 year old Single Malt.
As we mentioned earlier, Hakushu is one of the distilleries owned by the Suntory company, and they’re well known for their 12, 18 and 25 year old single malts.
Distilled from 100 percent malted barley dried over peat fire, their whiskies have a delicious smoky flavor. If you’re a fan of that, your best bet would be the Hakushu Heavily Peated. Mind the price, though.
With a history going just a few decades back to 1984, the White Oak Distillery offers their single malts and blends whiskies under the name Akashi. Despite the late launch, Akashi is now well known for their whiskies, especially their best expressions like the Akashi White Oak 5 Sherry Cask Single Malt.
Multi-layered, this whisky brings a deep but balanced flavor, blending sweet notes of brown sugar and cherry with brine and spice.
Among Japan’s recent launched distilleries, Chichibu was founded by Ichiro Akuto in 2008 in a valley nearby the city of Saitama, where the maturation process is influenced by the harsh winters and hot summers.
Offering small batch single malts means their whiskies are limited edition only, so you might need to pay an extra to find a bottle. When it comes choices, the best recommendations would be Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘The Peated’ 2015 Cask Strength and Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘On the Way’ Single Malt.
Nikka Whisky was founded back in 1940 by Masataka Taketsuru and owns several other brands. Their own, Nikka Whisky from the Barrel and Nikka Coffey, are very well known, benefiting from their founder’s apprenticeships at several Scottish distilleries during the early 1900s.
Nikka Whisky from the Barrel, the most prized of the two, produces single malt and grain whisky, a full bodied and rich whisky with lovely notes of sherry, cinnamon, umami, orange zest and a smoke flavor.
The Nikka Coffey comes in Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt versions, both made in traditional Coffey stills, the first continuous still patented in the world. The process gives the whisky a very rich and creamy texture.
Part of the same Suntory company we mentioned several times already, Hibiki is one of the most awarded distilleries from the land of the rising sun offering only the finest of Japanese blends.
Their expressions, four in total, are considered some of the best whiskies on the planet. The Japanese Harmony brings a sweet honey like flavor with white chocolate and candied orange peel. Combining marmalade and dark chocolate for a slightly bitter taste, there’s the Master’s Select.
Their aged options, particularly the Hibiki 21 Year and the 30 Year are some of the most well regarded in the world, boasting rich flavors of sandalwood, honeycomb and dried apricot.
Yamazaki is the name that started it all, as the oldest distillery in Japan, near Kyoto, at the convergence of the rivers Katsura, Uji and Kizu. Yamazaki continues to experiment with newer stills and barrels in a quest to offer the finest Japanese whiskies.
The brand’s top vintages are already legendary around the world for their rich and unique character, full texture and delicious complexity.
Despite the high price, the limited edition Yamazaki 25 Year Old Single Malt aged in sherry casks is a stunning choice, with its deep mix of marmalade, coffee and cocoa notes.
Another very good choice as well, but one that will quickly empty your pockets, is the Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt. For something more accessible but still offering an amazing taste, try their 12 Year Old, which offers notes of coconut, cranberry, butter, with a long finish.
Here you are. The best of the best when it comes to Japanese whisky. Brands old and new that manage to offer exquisite flavors and a unique character to make you forget about Western drinks, at least for a while.
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