Japanese whisky as a genre has been on a roll over the past few years, picking up awards, gaining in popularity and generally consisting of high-quality blends and single malts that discerning drinkers turn to for a dram or even as a component in some creative cocktails. Japanese whisky is modeled after scotch, and the category doesn’t shy away from the art of blending. In fact, most distilleries have a chief blender who’s responsible for marrying various grain and malt whiskys together into something greater than the sum of its parts. These are a few of the most exciting new Japanese whiskys to be released over the past year.
Toki, which means “time” in Japanese, is the newest expression from the esteemed Suntory company; a blended whisky that combines Hakushu American white-oak-cask malt whisky with Chita heavy-type grain whisky. Instead of glossing over the use of grain whisky as many brands tend to do, Suntory instead celebrates the flavors that the grain imparts here and focuses on the blending of different whiskys as truly befits this expression. Toki ($40) is light, easy drinking but flavorful with soft touches of spice and a lingering malty finish. Try it in a highball if you’d like to drink it like it’s commonly enjoyed in Japan.
First came the Coffey Grain whisky from Nikka, and now we have Coffey Malt ($75). This whisky is named for Aeneas Coffey, who invented the type of tall continuous column still from which it’s produced. It’s a 100 percent malted-barley whisky and is said to have notes of cinnamon, clove, lemon and oak on the palate and finish.
This is another whisky that was released this past winter, and its creation is said to be inspired by the 24 seasons of the Japanese lunar calendar. Harmony is a blend of 10 different whiskys, malt and grain, aged in five different types of casks. There’s no age statement, but the blend ($65) includes whiskys used in other expressions from Hibiki like the 17- and 21-year-olds.
This new rice whisky ($50) begs the question: Why is it considered whisky instead of shochu? Well, at 82 proof, it’s about double the alcohol content of most shochu. Also, it’s barrel-aged for three years in American oak, Limousin French oak and sherry butts. Kikori, founded by Ann Soh Woods (an American of South Korean descent), is distilled from 100 percent rice at an undisclosed distillery in Kumamoto, Japan. Woods wanted to create something different from the usual scotch-style Japanese whisky, and she has succeeded. It’s light in color and flavor, with only a hint of the wood in which it has rested. Kikori is a nice sip on its own or an excellent substitute for either brown or clear spirits in a variety of cocktails.
Apparently, this whisky ($300), released this past winter, is already a bit of a unicorn. You probably won’t find it, but if you do, grab it and take a ride. According to chief blender Shinji Fukuyo, this blended whisky (made from a selection of more than 100 whiskys) is for the Suntory whisky lover, so novices beware. The base liquid is the same as was used for the 2013 edition (it’s just two years older) but has added older whiskys to the mix, some of which have been resting in barrels for more than a quarter century. The color is deep, dark brown, and you can expect bursts of dried fruit and chocolate on the palate. Of course, that’s if you can find one of only 5,000 bottles produced.
This recently released single-malt cask-strength whisky is touted as being the oldest Japanese whisky ever released, a 55-year-old expression from the Saburomaru distillery that apparently only operates a few months a year. Only 155 bottles were released, and they retail at 550,000 yen apiece (that’s about $5,300), but the company is releasing this batch as a lottery. You must apply online this month to try your chances.
Karuizawa “Five Decades”
This is another extremely limited-edition and even pricier Japanese whisky ($10K–$15K) from the defunct Karuizawa distillery. It’s said to be a blend of liquid produced throughout the distillery’s lifespan that was then put into barrels for a few years and bottled in 2015. There are only 200 bottles—100 in Japan and another 100 abroad.