With Japanese whisky more popular than it has ever been, the hardest part of selecting a bottle for your home bar isn’t knowing what’s good but what’s available. As producers scramble to meet consumer demand, prices for the world’s hottest whisky have skyrocketed. Still, there are some value options out there, if you know who to ask.
Khaled Dajani runs San Francisco’s Nihon Whisky Lounge, one of the country’s earliest adopters of Japanese whisky since opening in 2005. On the opposite coast, Luck Sarabhayavanija is the owner of Ani Ramen, with two New Jersey locations. His bars stock more than 40 varieties of Japanese whisky, and employees guide guests through their orders with an educational whisky bible.
We enlisted the pair’s expertise to help navigate the fast-growing and exciting world of Japanese whisky. These are the five essential bottles you need for your home bar.
For Dajani’s money, this is the preeminent grain whisky available from any region in the world. “Nikka Coffey Grain is perhaps the best grain whisky we’ve yet seen available in the U.S. and is a winner on all levels,” he says. “This is a classic grain whisky with a spicy note that has some pop on the finish. I enjoy this one on the rocks.” The much-loved expression is sweet, fruity and caramelized with an easygoing, oaky finish.
Suntory and Nikka aren’t the only whisky brands in Japan. This younger company is making waves. “I’m beginning to enjoy this whisky a lot,” says Dajani. “Even though it’s young and aged no more than three to four years, its young flavors are attractive.” Named for elite warriors from Japan’s feudal era, the whisky is said to reflect the elegance of their fighting style. “This is a nice sipping whisky, but expect a younger profile rather than old,” he adds.
The Ohishi distillery draws its water from the Kuma River, known as a pure water source in part due to the river’s fast flow. “This is a rice-based whisky that’s also a single-cask product,” says Dajani. Which means that, barrel to barrel, there may be some variation, though the sherry hit will offer a familiar tone to an otherwise unfamiliar whisky. “Distillation here is done in stainless-steel stills, typical to how shochu is distilled,” he explains. “New-make spirit is then put in a first-fill ex-sherry cask, and that’s where the beauty shows. If you enjoy sherry as I do, then this is a must-try. It explodes in your mouth on the first sip.”
Great minds think alike, so it’s no surprise that Dajani and Sarabhayavanija both selected Hibiki Harmony. “It’s the most underrated Japanese whisky blend in my opinion,” says Sarabhayavanija. “It’s the baby brother to Hibiki 17 and Hibiki 21.” While those remain favorites, they’re more expensive and far more difficult to find.
“This is a blend of malt and grain whiskies from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries,” says Dajani. “It’s one of the smoothest and easiest whiskies that are characteristically Japanese that one can try. And the bottle is as impressive as the whisky itself. I enjoy this one neat.”Continue to 5 of 5 below.
What’s the best way to satiate a seemingly insatiable audience for Japanese whisky as supply shrinks? Release a younger, more affordable blend designed to be put to use in highballs. With its debut, Suntory Toki finally put a big-name Japanese whisky within everyday, affordable reach for U.S. drinkers, including those who prefer to drink their whisky in cocktails. “It’s silky, with a subtle, sweet and spicy finish,” says Sarabhayavanija. Of course, he suggests serving it in a highball.