Most people don’t associate Japan with whisky—but they should. In 2014, Japan’s 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask beat out all of Scotland’s single malts, earning the title of best whisky in the world from Jim Murray’s World Whisky Bible. Murray called it, “near incredible genius.” Japan’s triumph that year was no fluke. The country is producing some truly amazing bottlings and now is a great time to try them; there are more Japanese whiskies on American shores than ever, and appreciation for the spirit category continues to grow.
From Suntory’s beloved Yamazaki Distillery, to Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery, to smaller batch whiskies unavailable stateside until recently, here are our favorite bottles of Japanese whisky to buy now.
This beautiful selection from Suntory is a blend of whiskies aged in five different types of wood including sherry casks, American white oak and Mizunara, a rare Japanese wood. The entry-level spirit in the Hibiki line, it’s light and playful on the palate, with a broad depth of flavor that slowly unfolds across your tongue, first with maltiness and a touch of charred oak, then floral notes enter the mix with some bright citrus and orange oil. We could sip this neat until the bottle is dry. Fun fact: This is the whisky Bill Murray drinks in Lost in Translation.
Get your hands on this one while you can. Distilled in a rare, vintage Coffey still, it has more in common with easy going Irish whiskey than multi-faceted scotch. On the palate, there’s flavors of dried apricot, candied pineapple, malt and cornbread. It finishes honeyed and bright, with a smoothness that lingers.
Ohishi Brandy Cask Whisky ($72)
In a category all its own, this spirit is distilled from rice like a traditional shochu, instead of malted grain. Although this spirit is not considered a whisky in Japan, its time spent in brandy barrels qualifies the spirit as a whisky in America. On the palate the spirit retains some of the grape-based spirit’s essence, and is bright and floral, with flavors of jasmine tea, candied orange and a savory tinge of salt and fennel.
Ohishi Sherry Cask Whisky ($72)
The second offering from the Ohishi distillery is a completely different animal than its lighter, more honeyed brother. Dark and complex, it’s aged in sherry barrels before being bottled unfiltered. Rich with sherry’s buttery nuttiness, it has strong flavors of stone fruits, nutmeg, vanilla and buttered biscuits.
An introductory blend from one of the oldest distilleries in Japan, this whisky is light, minimal and precise. Similar to Speyside scotches, it’s fruity and honeyed. Drink it in a traditional Japanese Highball on a hot summer's day.
From Suntory’s famous Hakushu distillery in the Japanese Southern Alps, this 12-year single malt is complex and crisp. But its lightness is deceptive. Green apple tartness opens to flavors of sugar cookies, menthol, smoke, and a rounded, mouth-coating finish. Drink this while wearing a velvet smoking jacket at your mountain cabin.
A delicious, entry level blend from Suntory, the Toki whisky is just as good sipped on its own as it is served in a refreshing Highball. With flavors of cereal, stone-fruit and custard, this light whisky is wonderfully crisp and extremely easy to mix into cocktails.
Inspired by American whiskies, this bottling is aged in ex-bourbon barrels. With a mash bill of malted barley and corn, it has flavors akin to its Kentucky cousins. On the palate there’s charred oak, vanilla bean, cinnamon spice and a lasting, creamy corn finish. Use this in stirred and strong cocktails like the Old Fashioned.
Everything this distillery creates is liquid gold, including this phenomenal whisky. After being lauded with so many awards (including best whisky in the world), Yamazaki’s products have been in short supply, so snatch this bottle up if ever you see it. You likely won’t drink anything better this year.
A blend of malted whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, this spirit was named after the distillery’s founder and the father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru. Smooth as all get out, this whisky is as luxurious as a supple, leather Chesterfield sofa. Drink it slow and never mix it.