Japanese whisky usually isn’t designed for mixing in anything beyond a Highball. Most bottlings are so light and delicate that they get lost in strong stirred drinks, and the unique flavors of Japanese fruit or dry grain sometimes don’t play well with other ingredients. But if you find the right drink for the right whisky, you can discover a cocktail like no other.
Although it was only released in 2016, Suntory Toki has quickly become the de facto whisky for Japanese Highballs, thanks to its bright palate of green apples, cereal and silky custard. If you want to experience true nirvana, seek out one of the few bars in the United States (like Jim Meehan’s new Prairie School in Chicago) that utilizes a Suntory Toki Highball machine. It’s designed explicitly to make that one drink, and you’ve never tasted bubbles (or whisky) so ethereal.
Rich and heavy on the malt, this corn-forward whisky is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, which gives it strong American whiskey flavors like vanilla, caramel and oak with a creamy corn finish. Softened by sugar and brightened by a touch of bitters, the Japanese spirit truly shines in that standby stateside cocktail, the Old Fashioned.
Islay’s influence on Japanese whisky is evident in this peated bottling from the Southern Japanese Alps. The green bottle hints at the verdant flavors of the single malt inside, which layers peat smoke on top of grass, pine needles, pear, mint and green tea. A quarter ounce of the subtle smoke (which is all you’ll want to spare of this $100 bottle) makes the perfect float on a Penicillin, dissolving into the drink’s spice and citrus notes and tingeing the entire cocktail with its smoldering greenery.
“How can you waste an increasingly rare Yamazaki bottling on a flavorful cocktail like the Whiskey Sour?” Hear us out. The smooth, caramel-coated whisky already gives off elegant bittersweet citrus notes, which can be enhanced by the sour cocktail. If you’ve got it, try using yuzu in place of the usual lemon—to lend the drink notes of orange and grapefruit in addition to tart lemon flavor—but go easy on the juice and syrup no matter what.
Blended scotch cocktails like the Godfather require a whisky that has carefully balanced malt and grain elements—and doesn’t go heavy on the peat—so the spirit can integrate seamlessly with other flavors such as nutty amaretto. This Speyside-like bottling from Akashi is aged in ex-bourbon barrels to give it a light, honeyed taste atop notes of dried fruit, toffee and oak. The whisky’s malt flavor arises subtly while sipping neat, but in a Godfather it plays beautifully with almond, adding some herbal depth to what can often be a one-note cocktail.
Nikka produces some truly dazzling whisky thanks to its signature Coffey stills, which make juice that’s clear and vibrant enough to stand out when mixed with bitter coffee. The whisky resounds with malt, spices like cinnamon and clove, and candied fruit—all flavors that play well with coffee. Topped with whipped cream, the drink evokes a breakfast of sweet cinnamon roll with a cup of joe chaser.
Because Ohishi is made from rice (and not technically considered whisky proper in Japan), the spirit is pretty open for cocktail experimentation. The whisky easily takes on character from brandy casks while retaining much of its young spunk, creating a floral, tea-tinged taste not unlike unaged pisco. Amped up with lime juice and evened out with simple syrup and egg white, the resulting cocktail may not be as bright in color as the classic Pisco Sour, but it will radiate on your palate and shine a light on this underappreciated spirit.