Japanese whisky has become incredibly popular over the past few years. Bottles have become increasingly rare, and expensive, as distilleries have claimed to struggle to meet the demand due to the category’s rapid growth. Brands have stepped in to fill the void by offering new blends and NAS (no age statement) whiskies, and many of these are great cocktail components. If you are hunting down bottles, be sure to do your research as some brands source a blend of whiskies made in other countries, bottle it in Japan, and call it Japanese whisky. But there’s a reason why it’s become so popular—there are some truly incredible drams to be drunk. If you’re looking to explore the category, the Yamazaki 12 Year Old is a good place to start, which is why it’s our top choice.
Here are the best bottles we've found out there, with some help from a few experts.
Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Fruit, Clove, Orange
Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old could be considered the core expression of the brand’s single malt lineup (including the Hakushu range). It is probably the best known Suntory whisky and was once pretty easy to find (you still can, but expect to pay close to $200 for a bottle).
This is a floral and fruity single malt reminiscent of scotch but in a style that is very much its own. All in all, it's an excellent starting point for those wishing to explore the category of Japanese whisky.
Best Under $100
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Coffee, Caramel
Nikka is another major whisky producer in Japan. Coffey Grain is named after Aeneas Coffey, the inventor of the continuous still, and is made mostly from corn as opposed to the barley used for single malts. This gives the delicious whisky a creamy texture with a sweetness that should appeal to bourbon fans.
Best Under $50
Mars Shinshu Iwai 45% Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Baking spice, Pear, Vanilla
"This whisky is from the Nagano prefecture in Japan," says Michael Brooks, co-owner of Bed-Vyne Wine & Spirits. This blend is made from a mash bill that is mostly corn, with some malted barley and rye as well. “It has aromas of vanilla with hints of baking spices, and the palate is lean with pear and quince notes. This is a great summer sipper and excellent for making cocktails because of its 45 percent alcohol level," he says.
Best for Highballs
Suntory Whisky Toki
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Smoke, Apple
"I really enjoy Suntory Toki Whisky," says Darnell Holguin, co-founder of The Silver Sun Group and beverage partner at New York's Las' Lap.
"Toki, which means ‘time’ in Japanese, has a blend of some of the best [whiskies] that Suntory makes. It has notes of pink grapefruit, almonds and a light vanilla finish. Just mix some with sparkling water and a squeeze of lemon, and you'll have yourself a yummy Highball."
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Best Single Malt
Hakushu 12 Year Old Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Apple, Light smoke, Honey
In Japan, single malt essentially means the same thing as in Scotland—whisky made at one distillery from malted barley. Hakushu is produced in the Japanese Alps, and the whisky produced there is just as gorgeous.
“It has a woodsy and herbaceous nose that expands to include delightful fruit notes that are backboned with a light peat quality,” says Crystal Chasse, beverage director of McCarren Hotel and Talk Story Rooftop. “The water source for this whisky comes from the mountains deep in the forest near the distillery. This secret ingredient makes this whisky very approachable for a peated whisky. It is unique and delicious."
Best NAS Blended
Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Spice, Marshmallow
"This blended whisky is a crowd-pleaser," says Brooks. Made by a sake expert, this whisky is aged in a variety of cask types, including shochu, bourbon and sherry. “It is complex and gives you a little bit of everything that scotch drinkers love. It has the richness of American oak, smokey peat undertones and leather on the finish," he says.
Best Age Statement Blend
Hibiki 17 Year Old Japanese Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Toffee, Cherry, Peach
In Japanese whisky, the art of blending is very important. A testament to this is Suntory’s superb Hibiki range. There are two NAS blends available, but the 17-year-old is as good as any single malt out there. This is a blend of grain and malt whiskies that are aged for nearly two decades, with a silky smooth mouthfeel and a buttery, fruit-laden palate. You could use this for a very top-shelf cocktail, but it's really best sipped and savored neat.
Read Next: The Best Bourbons
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt
Region: Japan | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Almond, Smoke, Vanilla
While few Japanese whiskies come close to the levels of Islay scotch in terms of peat, there are some decidedly smoky expressions available. Nikka’s Yoichi Single Malt is one of the best. This NAS whisky has an ample dose of smoke, but it’s balanced out by tropical fruit and caramel flavors on the palate. Sip this neat, or mix with soda and ice for an intensely flavored Highball.
Best World Blend
Mars Maltage Cosmo Single Malt Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Orange, Chocolate, Dried fruit
The bottle from the Mars Shinshu distillery is a blend of whisky distilled in Japan and sourced from Scotland. Catherine Simmerman of Pepe Le Moko in Portland, Oregon is a fan, saying “Mars Maltage Cosmo tastes like a sherry casked scotch with hints of vanilla and plum.”
That’s likely due to the inclusion of whisky that was aged in sherry butts in the blend, along with liquid aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Try this one over a few ice cubes or in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned.
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Best for Bourbon Fans
Nikka From the Barrel Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 51.4% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Oak
“As a fan of American bourbon, I have found a favorite in Nikka From The Barrel Whisky,” says Joshua Lopez, bar manager at Osaka Nikkei Miami. “It has delicate notes of vanilla, butterscotch and a hint of orange peel. Nikka From The Barrel holds its ground complementing an Old Fashioned, and has enough character to be enjoyed neat or on the rocks.”
Best Rice Whisky
Kikori Rice Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 41% | Tasting Notes: Floral, Vanilla, Citrus
Although some might consider Kikori to really be an aged shochu, it qualifies as a whiskey under the US definition of the spirit.
This rice whisky is aged in American oak, French Limousin oak, and sherry casks for a minimum of three years, imparting the spirit with a wide range of flavors. “[I recommend] Kikori if you prefer a nice light whisky,” says Eric Soracco of Vinyl Tap in Nashville. This is also a good one to try in a Highball.
Best 18 Year Old
The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Candied fruit, Vanilla
This is an expensive and rare bottle these days, but according to Mike Vacheresse of Travel Bar Brooklyn, it might be worth the price. “On the Japanese list, the 18-year-old Yamazaki certainly tops the 12-year-old.”
Be prepared to shell out close to a grand to get one though—or stop by Travel Bar where Vacheresse pours it by the ounce. It’s aged for 18 years in a combination of American, Spanish and Mizunara oak, giving the whisky a wide range of flavor notes.
Yamazaki 12 (view at Drizly) isn’t exactly a cheap bottle of Japanese whisky, but it’s arguably the best. It’s aged in a combination of cask types, resulting in a fruity, spicy, and oaky single malt whisky that is best sipped on its own. If you can snag a bottle, you won’t be disappointed.
How is Japanese whisky made?
Japanese whisky is most similar to scotch whisky in terms of its production methods. Single malts and blends are the main styles made, using pot and column stills and aged in a variety of barrel types including ex-bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and Japanese Mizunara oak. Blending is very important in Japanese whisky, as many distilleries make different types of whisky which are married together by the master blender before bottling.
How is it different from other types of whisky?
Recently, regulations have been put into place which should become law over the next few years to properly define Japanese whisky. As it stands now, some bottles include whisky imported from other countries into the blend, but these are starting to be labeled as world whiskies. Overall, the style of Japanese whisky runs the gamut, from peated to sherry cask-influenced, to light and floral.
Can you mix it into a cocktail?
You can definitely use Japanese whisky in cocktails. In fact, the Highball is a simple drink that is very popular in Japan, a combination of whisky, soda water, and a slice of lemon or citrus peel. Depending on the bottle, you can also use Japanese whisky in classic whisky cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Of course, try these whiskies on their own too to truly get familiar with their character.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac, and all things distilled.