Japanese whisky has become an item of obsession for many many whisky lovers. Thanks to the acclaim it has earned all over the world, it’s become both expensive and scarce. So to combat the surging demand for Japanese brown spirits, Japanese distillers released Japanese gins. While they’ve all gained widespread acclaim amongst press, they haven’t yet seen the explosion in popularity that whisky has. But Japan has continued to diversify its spirit portfolio, and distillers have begun to release vodkas as well (as of this writing, three have reached U.S. soil). While each spirit shares the producers’ dedication for craft and quality that Japan is known for with its whiskies—and gins—we were skeptical that these vodkas could rival the exceptional tastes of other Japanese bottlings. To find out, we tried each of the Japanese vodkas available now. Here’s what we found after tasting each vodka straight, chilled in the freezer, and mixed into cocktails.
AO Vodka $49
Produced by Suntory, the company responsible for making some of the most coveted Japanese whiskies on the planet—including The Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Toki bottlings—AO is the brand’s first vodka. Distilled on pot stills from 100-percent Japanese rice, Suntory AO is clarified through a bamboo filtration process and brought to proof with water sourced from the island of Kyushu—which is known for its active volcanoes and hot springs. Clear as crystal, this vodka has a silky creaminess that sits heavy on your palate. There are flavors of sushi rice, fresh cut grass, coconut cream and wet stone. On the finish the vodka burns bright at first, with a sharp ethanol heat, then softens and leaves a soft milkiness on your tongue. Best served chilled, AO vodka is one of the few vodkas that we would suggest drinking straight. Because it's almost like a boozier sake, the spirit is an excellent accompaniment to fresh seafood like oysters or sushi, and with finer cuts of steak. Mixed into a Saketini, the vodka is especially delectable. We found that in the cocktail it is best paired with an unfiltered sake like Joto’s Junmai Nigori and fresh cucumber.
Made by Nikka, the brand that produces the best Japanese whisky in the world (so says Jim Murray the famous whiskey enthusiast and author of the much lauded Whiskey Bible), this vodka was released in tandem with the company’s first gin. It’s produced on the company’s signature Coffey Still—a continuous column still that Nikka imported from Scotland in 1963. Distilled from a mixture of corn and barley, Nikka’s vodka is further refined through white birch charcoal filtration before bottling. On the palate the vodka is extremely clean and minimal with a soft, ethereal quality. There are notes of peaches, apricots and jasmine, with a malty cereal note on the finish that leaves a lingering sweetness. While slightly less flavorful and unique than Suntory’s vodka, this bottling will please the most fickle vodka drinkers. Nikka’s vodka can be sipped straight (make sure to chill it in your freezer beforehand) but is best in a Vodka Soda (or Vodka Tonic). It also has enough tannic dryness to make a delightfully crisp classic Martini.
Kissui Vodka $35
Distilled and bottled by shochu producer TaKaRa Shuzo in Kyoto, Japan, Kissui—which translates to “absolutely pure” in Japanese—was the first Japanese vodka to be imported to the United States in 2007. Distilled from 100-percent Japanese rice (like Suntory’s AO), Kissui vodka is brought to proof with fushi-mizu spring water, a prized natural spring water from Fushimi in Kyoto that’s traditionally used for sake production in the area. Unlike Suntory’s AO vodka however, there is little rice flavor left on the palate of this spirit (it is rumored that they pass it through the still up to 12 times) nor any of the creaminess. But that’s not a bad thing. Like Nikka’s vodka, Kissui is extremely light and minimal. The only trace of the rice mash used to create the vodka can be found in its softness, and its silky texture that’s akin to a junmai ginjo sake (think Dewazakura’s Izumi Judan Ginjo "Tenth Degree" sake). While you could drink this vodka straight like the others, we found that it tasted best when mixed into cocktails. The Kissui fared well in stirred cocktails like a Vesper or a Martini, and with a high-end tonic like Fever Tree’s Indian Tonic in a Vodka Tonic.