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Japanese whisky has become incredibly popular over the past few years. Bottles have also become increasingly rare (and expensive), as distilleries have struggled to meet the demand due to the category’s rapid growth. Brands have stepped in by offering new blends and no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies, and many of these are great cocktail components. If you are looking for 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 so sought-after—there are some truly incredible drams to be drunk. Here are the best bottles of Japanese whiskies available, with help from a few experts.
Best Overall: Yamazaki 12 Year Old
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 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
"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
"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
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 No-Age-Statement Blend: Akashi White Oak
"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
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.
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Best Peated: Nikka Yoichi
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 a healthy 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 Sherry Cask: Ohishi 8 Year Old
"From the Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, this rice whisky has the wow factor,” says Brooks. While rice is not commonly used in American whiskey, there are several Japanese brands that use this grain in the mash bill. “On the nose, you get aromas of sherry oak, roasted nuts, dried fruits, mushrooms and spice. The taste is absolutely amazing, flavors of tobacco, cocoa, dark fruits, sweet sherry wood with a refreshing texture." He adds, "This is a great food whisky—try it with a cracked black pepper crusted steak with shiitake mushrooms and sauteed spinach in toasted sesame oil.”
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Best for Cocktails: Shinju Whisky
Shinju is a Japanese whisky that is geared towards the cocktail world. “It has a dark toffee color, with scents of honey and orange blossoms on the nose,” says Brooks. “The palate is smooth with a soft texture and hints of oak on the finish.” The whisky is matured for two to four years in white oak barrels and is made using water from the slopes of Mount Fuji.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries 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.