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The 12 Best Japanese Whiskies to Drink in 2021

These essential bottles are worth seeking out.

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Our Picks

Best Overall: Yamazaki 12 Year Old at Drizly

This is a floral and fruity single malt reminiscent of scotch but in a style that is very much its own.

Best Under $100: Nikka Coffey Grain at Drizly

Made mostly from corn as opposed to barley, it has a creamy texture with a sweetness that should appeal to bourbon fans.

Best Under $50: Mars Shinshu Iwai 45 at Drizly

Notes of vanilla, baking spices, pears and quince make this an excellent summer sipper.

Best for Highball: Suntory Toki at Drizly

Toki, meaning "time" in Japanese, boasts notes of pink grapefruit, almonds and a light vanilla finish.

Best Single Malt: Hakushu 12 Year Old at Drizly

Made at one distillery from malted barley, this peated whisky has a woodsy and herbaceous nose.

Best No-Age-Statement Blend: Akashi White Oak at. Drizly

This whisky is aged in a variety of cask types, including shochu, bourbon and sherry.

Best Age Statement Blend: Hibiki 17 Year Old at Drizly

A blend of grain and malt whiskies that are aged for nearly two decades, it has a silky smooth mouthfeel and a buttery, fruit-laden palate.

Best Peated: Nikka Yoichi at Drizly

It has an ample dose of smoke, but it’s balanced out by tropical fruit and caramel flavors on the palate.

Best World Blend: Mars Maltage Cosmo at The Whiskey Exchange

Mars Maltage Cosmo tastes like a sherry casked scotch with hints of vanilla and plum.

Best for Bourbon Fans: Nikka From the Barrel at Drizly

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 at Drizly

This rice whisky is aged in American oak, French Limousin oak, and sherry casks for a minimum of three years.

Best 18 Year Old: Yamazaki 18 at Drizly

It’s aged for 18 years in a combination of American, Spanish and MIzunara oak, giving the whisky a wide range of flavor notes.

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 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. Here are ten of the best bottles out there, with help from a few experts.

Best Overall: Yamazaki 12 Year Old

Yamazaki 12 Year Old

Drizly

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

Nikka Coffey Grain

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.

Read Next: The Best Whiskey Glasses, According to Experts

Best Under $50: Mars Shinshu Iwai 45

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 Highball: Suntory Toki

Suntory 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."

Read Next: The Best Whiskeys

Best Single Malt: Hakushu 12 Year Old

Hakushu 12 Year Old

Drizly 

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

Akashi White Oak

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

Hibiki 17

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 cocktail, but it's best to sip it neat.

Read Next: The Best Bourbons

Best Peated: Nikka Yoichi

Yoichi

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

Mars Maltage Cosmo

Courtesy of Whiskey Exchange

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.

Related: The Best Whiskey Decanters

Best for Bourbon Fans: Nikka From the Barrel

Nikka From the Barrel

Courtesy of Master of Malt

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 of American Social in Florida. “It has delicate notes of vanilla, butterscotch and a hint of orange peel. 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

Kikori

Courtesy of Total Wine

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 Top Vinyl in Nashville. This is also a good one to try in a Highball.

Best 18 Year Old: Yamazaki 18

Yamazaki 18 Year Old

Courtesy of Caskers

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.

Final Verdict

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.

FAQs

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. 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.

Why Trust Liquor.com?

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.

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