The widespread popularity of Japanese whisky in the United States may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon — at least, that is, in the context of bourbon and scotch, for example — but its history goes back nearly a century…or more, if you consider whisky that was produced by the brands that were, instead, built around other beverages.
Still, it was only a little less than 100 years ago that the Yamazaki distillery began operations outside of Kyoto, thanks to Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory. And Masataka Taketsuru, the “Father of Japanese Whisky” and the founder of the company that would come to be known as Nikka, is a person without whom the Japanese whisky industry would look very different. He studied whisky and distilling with an obsessive focus on the details of production in Scotland, and brought that knowledge and experience back to Japan before establishing the Yoichi distillery, which is still located on Hokkaido.
Of course, the range of Japanese whisky has expanded significantly since then, and in recent years, consumers and critics have placed the best of them on the pedestal that they deeply deserve. Just last year, Whisky Magazine named the Hakushu Single Malt 25-year-old the World’s Best Single Malt. But the accolades have been consistent and plentiful for Japanese whisky for years now.
It hasn’t been without controversy, however, and questions about the exact blend that went into some bottlings, as well as their country of origin, have bubbled up. Thankfully, many Japanese whisky producers are offering up more information on the origins and contents of their whisky in very public ways. Nikka, for example, notes right on their website that their Coffey Grain bottling “meets all the criteria of ‘Japanese whisky’ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association,” whereas the Coffey Malt, “does not meet all the criteria of ‘Japanese whisky’ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association. Coffey Malt is all distilled in Nikka’s Coffey stills, but a part of the old batches in the formula was made from distillates imported from Ben Nevis and then distilled in our Coffey stills as a part of our experiments in the past.” That level of transparency is deeply helpful, and hopefully something that all producers of Japanese whisky will follow. More and more are.
Helpfully, it’s been codified. According to Nikka’s website, “On February 16, 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association made an announcement of Standards for Labeling Japanese whisky…The Labeling Standards have been instituted by the association members themselves, including Nikka Whisky, as an internal rule to define ‘Japanese whisky,’ effective from April 1, 2021.”
For whisky lovers, however, nothing should stop them from enjoying as wide a range of Japanese whisky as possible: The best of them are among the top expressions of whisky in the world. And even among bottles priced for everyday enjoyment, the pleasures to be found are substantial. Here are eight, listed alphabetically, that are not too difficult to find, and that are absolutely delicious.
Akashi Japanese Whisky
Plush in texture and notably grain-driven in character, with gently nutty and cooked-honey notes alongside sweet vanilla, cloves, and a nod in the direction of French toast.
Hatozaki Small Batch Finest Japanese Whisky
Aromas of white chocolate and grain find framing with distinct maltiness, and turn to a silky palate with flavors of grilled stone fruit and a lingering note of smoke. This was aged in ex-Sherry and ex-Bourbon casks, as well as Japanese Mizunara oak. The result is a savory dram that will win over fans of peated single malt Scotch whisky, though it’s certainly not that smoky at all.
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Whisky
The label notes, “This is worldwide whisky,” which lets us know that, in addition to Japanese spirits, there are also some components here that have been distilled elsewhere. Regardless, this is absolutely delicious: Aromas reminiscent of Frosted Flakes and pecans precede a palate of sweetness and generosity, with loads of fruit—sultanas, nectarines, even the suggestion of cantaloupes—and a sweet cereal framing. It’s light on the palate yet lingers with wonderfully generous flavor. Even at 46.5% alc., this is dangerously easy to sip…a lot of.
Mars Iwai Whisky 45
Notes reminiscent of clove-studded oranges, cracked peppercorns, orange and lemon marmalade, and sweet cedar: Wonderful. These are joined by fresh Seckel pears and something resembling coffee fudge. This is a generous and sweet-souled dram.
Mars Komagatake Single Malt Japanese Whisky Limited Edition 2020
From the highest-altitude distillery in Japan, at 2,625 feet above sea level, this gem is concentrated and powerful, yet not at the expense of elegance. It’s pulsed through with flavors of toasted walnuts, lemon meringue, dark-chocolate pôt de crème, pecan-cinnamon sticky buns, and a finish that nods in the direction of subtle salinity and dried figs.
Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky
The toffee notes here are just delicious. They are joined by pralines, caramel, and almond pizzelles, all of which resolve in a subtle touch of sweet spice, graham crackers, a touch of fudge, and golden raisins. Layered, generous, and complex.
Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
Light and almost heathery on the nose, this delicate whisky is kissed with notes of lemon pith and honeydew, yellow apples, a balsamic lift, and a subtle and fleeting note of nuttiness that anchors it all.
Suntory Yamazaki 12-year-old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
I love the density to the nose here, where apple fritters and orange marmalade are gently spiced and distinctly nutty, before a palate of plush texture and concentrated flavors of baba au rhum, roasted chestnuts, leather, tobacco, sweet baking spices, and a subtle hit of toasted grains, all finishing with the barest suggestion of brambly berries. Excellent.