If you’re a Bill Murray fan, you may be familiar with his scene advertising for Suntory whisky in Lost in Translation. What you may not know is that that’s a real Japanese whisky brand, and whisky really is as fashionable and popular in Japan as it was portrayed.
Japanese whisky is some of the finest in the world, and Japanese distilleries take their art seriously. This elite group of craftsmen produce a wide range of blended and single-malt whiskies enjoyed around the globe. These exclusive spirits feature flavours and notes you can’t find in whisky from anywhere else. For whisky lovers, it’s a growing market with an ever-increasing list of fine brands and bottlings to enjoy.
If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. This guide covers everything you need to know about Japanese whiskey traditions as well as 10 great Japanese whiskeys and five exclusive top-shelf bottles. Kanpai!
A Quick Whisky Overview
Whiskey, as it’s spelled in Japan, or whiskey, as it’s spelled in certain countries like the US, is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from grain. In general, alcoholic beverages are made by fermenting sugars with yeast. This could be from fruits, as in the case of wine and cider, or it can be from other plant sources. Beer, for example, is made from barley, and Japanese sake is made from rice.
Spirits like whiskey are then made by distilling these alcoholic products. Distillation involves heating the alcoholic beverage above the boiling point of alcohol, which is 173℉. Since this is lower than the boiling point of water, the alcohol evaporates, but the rest stays behind. The distiller then condenses the evaporated alcohol resulting in a concentrated spirit.
In the case of whisky, the original ingredients are always some kind of grain. There are many different varieties made from different grains, many of which are associated with specific countries or regions. For example, Scottish whisky, known as Scotch, is typically made from barley. Bourbon, on the other hand, which comes from Kentucky, must be made from more than half corn mash. Wheat and rye are also common. After fermentation and distillation, whisky is usually aged. Whisky makers store the spirit in charred wooden casks for long periods of time, sometimes even centuries.
You can buy whiskey that comes from one batch of fermented and distilled grain mash, what you’ll see called “single-malt.” Oftentimes, though, experts mix together several different batches to even out taste and make the beverage more smooth to drink. This is called “blended” whiskey.
Although the history of whiskey is as old as civilization itself, the distillation process was crude, and whiskey was mostly just used for medicinal purposes. It only became popular as a drink in Scotland and Ireland in the 14th Century and quickly spread to England. As a result, most of its tradition comes from countries previously part of the British Empire like Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States.
The History of Whisky in Japan
Whisky is a recent phenomenon in Japan. The Japanese imported it from the West in the early 20th Century.
Specifically, a businessman named Shinjiro Torii founded the company that would eventually become the famous Japanese Suntory company. At first, he became successful in selling Portuguese wine, but he wanted to expand. He decided to start Japan’s first whiskey distillery outside of Kyoto and sent his executive Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to study how they made their whiskey.
Eventually, Taketsuru left to start his own company, and the Japanese whiskey industry began to grow. The drink quickly became popular around the country.
The Japanese Whisky Industry Today
There are currently nine active whisky distilleries in Japan. These distilleries all produce a number of different single-malt and blended whiskies, often differentiated by age and mash. Various whiskies have become increasingly popular in the global market and have even won international awards.
In general, Japanese whisky follows Scottish traditions. It’s made similarly, and consumers drink it much like Scotch. The Japanese drink finer whiskies neat or on the rocks, and they make a lot of highball cocktails with blended whiskies and soda. Occasionally, people consume whisky in a more Japanese fashion, as they would Japanese distilled beverages called shōchū.
As of 2020, the Japanese whiskey industry is profitable and growing. Altogether, it represents about $3 billion worth of revenue or about $24 per person. This is around double the worldwide average of $12 per person. The country consumes about 0.8 liters of whiskey per person per year.
10 Great Japanese Whiskies
This selection of 10 whiskies covers a broad spectrum of the Japanese whisky market. We’ve chosen whiskies that are high quality but generally affordable, especially for those who are not a particular connoisseur. They’re widely available and not designed for collectors.
Suntory descends from Japan’s first distillery, and their whiskey is inspired by that long tradition. Toki means “time” in Japanese, and with this whiskey, Suntory has elegantly blended Japan’s rich history of harmony and purity into one smooth spirit.
Toki is a blend of expertly chosen whiskies from the famous Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries. The blend is primarily composed of Hakushu white oak cask malt and Chita grain whisky, but it also includes tempering amounts of Yamazaki white oak cask whisky and Spanish oak cask whisky.
At 43% alcohol by volume, Toki is blended to be light and makes a great spirit for highball cocktails, the most popular way to drink blended whiskey in Japan. It’s also not bad neat either.
Also part of the Suntory group, the Yamazaki distillery is nestled among bamboo groves at the foot of Mt. Tennozan. This is the Yamazaki valley, just outside of Kyoto, Japan’s traditional capital.
Yamazaki 12 is a single-malt whiskey aged 12 years in a variety of casks. That passes on many different flavors that both add to and balance one another to create a palate of honey and cinnamon with a woody pineapple finish.
Yamazaki 12 is considered one of the fundamental single malts that define Japanese whiskey. Get it while you can, though. It’s getting harder and harder to find, especially abroad.
Masataka Taketsuru is called one of the fathers of Japanese whiskey. In the early 20th Century, he traveled to Scotland to study the traditions of Scotch whiskey and bring expertise to his homeland. After helping set up the company that is now the Suntory group, Taketsuru decided to start his own distillery, Nikka Whiskey.
Taketsuru wanted to build his distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, because he felt the conditions there were most similar to those in Scotland. The Yoichi single malt continues this philosophy to the present day. You’ll find its coal-fired smokiness and peaty notes very reminiscent of the best single-malt Scotches.
The Japanese are master whisky blenders. This blend will surprise you with its richness.
As one of Suntory’s best blends, Hibiki has always been a famous whiskey in Japan. However, it really exploded in popularity after it was featured in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray’s character does a commercial advertisement for the drink.
The film features Hibiki 17, which is the expression of Hibiki aged 17 years. This is perhaps the ideal Hibiki whiskey because it’s aged and delicious all while being affordable. As a result, however, it’s also one of the most difficult to find.
For those a little more flexible, the Hibiki range has five different expressions. In addition to the 17, there is the easy-to-find, no-age Japanese Harmony, as well as Hibiki 12, 21, and 30.
Hakushu is another of Suntory’s distilleries. It’s located a little way outside of Tokyo in the mountains. Japanese whiskey companies do not exchange batches for blending, so each must have a wide variety of distilleries to produce the range of single-malts for complimentary blending.
With Hakushu, you get to try Suntory’s mountain single-malt whiskey and its notes of dried cherry and smoke. The 18-year-old whiskey is our favorite expression, but there are 12- and 25-year-old bottlings as well, depending on your tastes and price range.
Ohishi Sherry Single Cask
While Japanese whiskey usually borrows from the Scotch traditions, some distilleries have decided to go in a different direction and make a unique Japanese whiskey from rice. The country has a long history of rice fermentation for traditional Japanese beverages like sake and shōchū, so there’s a lot of cultural knowledge to draw from.
Ohishi is one of these distilleries. They’ve converted the European style of single-grain fermentation and applied it to rice. They then age the whiskey in old-world casks, specifically Sherry in the case of this bottling.
For the Sherry Single Cask expression, Ohishi uses two different types of rice, gohyakumanishi, and mocha that have been carefully selected to produce a fruity flavor.
Togouchi whiskey is named for the town outside of Hiroshima where it’s aged. In fact, the Chugoku Jozo distillery matures this whiskey in an unused train station tunnel that they’ve converted into an aging warehouse. Specifically, Toguchi 9 rests in that tunnel for eight years before hitting the market.
One unique aspect of Togouchi whiskey is its blend. On top of a single-malt Scotch-style whiskey, about 40% of the blend is grain spirit from Canada.
The flavor is smoky with strong notes of caramel. It also has lighter hints of fruit, especially citrus, and cinnamon.
Fukano Vault Reserve #1
Here’s another rice whiskey for you. Fukano is actually an ancient distillery well known for its sake and shōchū, but they use the same expertise to produce this vault reserve whiskey.
At 40.5% alcohol by volume, this is a light spirit very reminiscent of its sherry casks. You can also note honey and tea in the palate.
The vault reserve is a blend of numerous rice whiskies, some having aged up to 16 years. Just keep in mind that whisky made from rice cannot legally be called “whisky” in Japan, so you may have to ask for it specifically.
This is a single-malt Japanese whisky designed for whisky enthusiasts. The White Oak distillery is one of the smallest in the country, and since they also produce sake and shōchū, its whisky is both limited in release and high in demand.
Akashi is White Oak’s most popular range. It’s aged in a combination of barrels, often American oak.
The Akashi Single Malt is one of the whiskies leading the way in the Japanese whisky expansion. If you love whisky, check out local Tokyo bars to see if you can find it. It’s worth the search.
With the Mizunara Wood reserve, the Chichibu distillery has made a range of whiskeys all aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks. That gives it a distinct oak flavor you won’t find anywhere else.
In addition to its unique aging, this whiskey has a special history. The Chichibu distillery was founded by Ichiro Akuto who was the grandson of the founder of Hanyu distillery, a very popular whiskey-maker that unfortunately closed in 2000. With the Ichiro’s Malt series, Chichibu blends both new Chichibu whiskey and vattings from old Hanyu stock that Ichiro was able to save from the old distillery.
Many other Chichibu whiskeys have won international awards including World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt and World’s Best Limited Blend. With the Mizunara Wood Reserve, you can get this up-and-coming distillery’s expertise in an affordable blend. You may like it so much you go for some of their high-end bottles.
5 Exclusive Top Shelf Japanese Whiskies
Unlike our last ten selections, these five whiskeys are expensive top-shelf whiskeys that are limited editions or rare bottlings. They’re often hard to find and may increase in value depending on the collector’s market.
This limited edition bottling is a reflection of Nikka’s legendary place in the world of Japanese whisky. Named after Nikka’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru, this expression is a tribute to the father of Japanese whisky, who studied in Scotland to adopt the technique.
Distilled in 1987, this whisky was aged for 25 years in sherry casks to be bottled in 2012. With its sleek black box, the Taketsuru Pure Malt enhances any whisky collection, especially one missing an example of fine Japanese craftsmanship.
The strength is 43% alcohol by volume. The price for a 700 mL bottle is $4,099.
All of Suntory’s expertise is condensed into this bottle of fine single-malt Japanese whisky. In fact, Yamazaki has won several international awards:
- World’s Best Single Malt Whisky, World Whiskies Awards 2012
- Best Japanese Single Malt 21 Years and Over, World Whiskies Awards 2015
- Double Gold Medal, San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2015
Aged for 25 years in Oloroso sherry casks, the notes of chocolate and liquorice make it clear why this whisky’s a winner. Just know that Suntory only releases 12,000 bottles each year, though, so get it while you can.
The strength is 43% alcohol by volume. The price for a 700 mL bottle is $9,999.
“Ichiro’s Malt” refers to Ichiro Akuto, part of the Akuto brewing family that founded the Hanyu Distillery in Chichibu. The family traditionally made sake, but they began making Scotch-style whisky in the 20th Century. The distillery closed in 2000, but luckily Ichiro was able to save some of the casks of whisky. Ichiro Akuto’s new distillery, Chichibu, now bottles some of that malt.
Although the old Hanyu whisky is used for different Chichibu blends, the distillery releases aged bottlings designed specifically for collecting. To reflect the collectable nature, the expressions in this series are all named after playing cards. For example, the Six of Hearts was distilled in 1991 and then bottled by Chichibu in 2012.
Beware, though. There are only six bottles of each card, making it a challenge to collect all 52. Even an incomplete collection is quite a feat, and at an auction in Hong Kong, a buyer paid nearly $1 million for a collection that wasn’t even finished.
The bottles still out there are getting harder and harder to find, but it’s very possible their value will only continue to increase. That makes this whisky an investment.
The strength is 57% alcohol by volume. The price for a 700 mL bottle is $12,999.
The Mars Shinshu distillery is a rising star on the Japanese whisky scene. Perhaps more than any other bottling, this 28-year-old blended whisky proves that Mars deserves a place. In fact, this bottling even beat out Nikka’s Taketsuru for Best Japanese Blended Malt Whisky at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards.
This whisky is a blend of whiskies distilled by the Kagoshima distillery and the Yamanashi distillery, both now closed. Since the Kagoshima whisky was already three years old when Mars decided to begin aging the blend, this expression is designated “25 + 3,” or 28.
The strength is 46% alcohol by volume. The price for a 700 mL bottle is $3,999.
If you’re a fan of Yoichi single malts, you know they come from Nikka’s Yoichi distillery on the island of Hokkaido. Masataka Taketsuru, known as the father of Japanese whisky, built his first distillery there because of its similarity to the environment in Scotland. As a result, Yoichi single malts are renowned for their quality and smoky, peaty flavor.
The 1990s single malts were bottled for the turn of the millenium and are of an especially high calibre. On top of the great taste and smoothness, the commemorative and decorative box and bottle make this a beautiful collector’s item that’s becoming increasingly hard to find.
The strength is 55% alcohol by volume. The price for a 500 mL bottle is $1,299.
Keep an eye on the market!
Right now, the Japanese whisky market is still small, but it’s also just getting started. Aside from the major well-established distilleries like those of Suntory and Nikka, many of the distilleries have not had time to distill and age top-shelf products.
In the coming years, as many of the newer distilleries’ whiskies mature, expect some great products to hit the market. Japan is going to be a great place for whisky lovers at that time, so be sure to pay attention to whisky news so you don’t miss out on any special bottlings.