In the five years since critic Jim Murray shocked the whisky-drinking population by proclaiming single malt from Yamazaki distillery as the best in the world, demand for Japanese whisky has spiked. But even without that honor, drinkers have been seeking out the smooth-sipping style for its diversity and level of innovation.
If you’re not familiar with Japanese whisky, here’s what you need to know: Compared to the strict requirements imposed to make Scotch whisky and America’s bourbon Japanese whisky has one basic rule: it’s whiskey that’s made in Japan. It’s also some of the best whisky around. The flavors often resemble Scotch, which makes sense considering that most Japan’s top whisky-makers began their careers by traveling to Scotland to learn production techniques. Yet, one sip and it’s easy to see that the distinctly silky texture is what sets Japanese whisky apart.
Just a few short years ago, most Japanese whiskies available in the U.S. carried an age statement, such as Hibiki 12-year-old. Yet, the roaring demand from the West and rapidly depleting supply in Japan—it takes 12 years to replenish a 12-year-old bottling, after all—forced Japan producers to hustle out non-age-statement blends, such as Suntory’s Toki or Hibiki’s Japanese Harmony bottlings.
“There’s a bit of a perfect storm in Japanese whisky right now,” explains Flavien Desoblin, proprietor of New York whiskey bar Copper & Oak, which has a robust list of Japanese whiskies, including many now hard-to-get bottles. Those coveted bottles, including from smaller cult producers like Chichibu, are “part of the buzz.” But it’s not just about wanting what you can’t have, he adds, it’s also about quality: “People know that the Japanese are serious drinks makers, and that matters.”
Part of the allure is that whatever your preferred style is, you’re likely to find something you enjoy coming from Japan. Pour a couple of whiskies side by side, and it’s easy to see how widely they can range, from brooding, intensely peated numbers that rival Islay’s smokiest Scotches to light-as-a-feather styles that showcase fruity, floral, or even confectionary vanilla-and-spice notes.
Even producers from elsewhere are trying to emulate Japan’s style. For example, in 2015, Scotland’s Bowmore released an limited-edition Scotch that had been aged for three years in casks made from Japan’s Mizunara oak, which is used to age some Japanese whiskies. In Washington state, Bainbridge Distillers is aging its craft whiskey in Mizunara barrels, while California’s St. George Distillery released a limited-edition American whiskey finished in used umeshu (Japanese plum wine) casks—named Baller Whiskey, to recommend its use for mixing into a Japanese-style whiskey highball.
Whether you’re planning to sip it neat or mix a few highballs for friends, here are five bottles to guide you on your journey to enjoy Japanese whisky.
The small, family-run producer behind this whisky, Eigashima Shuzo, was founded in 1888, making it the oldest whisky distillery in Japan. While it’s not the most nuanced whisky you’ll find, it still has that texture like drinking silk and nicely balances oak, fruit and spice, at an affordable price point. The distillery also makes sake and shochu.
Suntory rolled out this blended, non-age-statement whisky right about the time that the Hibiki 12 Year Old became difficult to find; it’s not a coincidence that if you taste the two side by side, the flavor is very similar, with light maple and custardy vanilla winding into mild smoke, dark chocolate and spice.
Introduced in 2016 from Nikka, this whisky is made near Sendai City in the northern part of main island, Honshu, a remote, verdant area with mountains and rivers nearby. This bottling is noted for its sherry cask influence; look for a core of fruit—apple, honey, hints of stone fruit—wrapped in a gentle swirl of peat smoke. Another recommended Nikka bottling: the nutty, super-smooth Nikka Coffey Grain.
Everyone loves Ichiro Akuto, the personable owner of Chichibu Distillery. He comes from a whisky-making family—his father owned Hanyu Distillery, which closed around 2000; Ichiro opened Chichibu in 2008. He’s developed a reputation for experimentation: this is what he calls a “world whisky,” meaning in addition to Japanese whisky, it also blends in whiskies from the U.S., Canada, Scotland and Ireland. Is it still considered “Japanese whisky?” Probably not; let’s call it “Japanese adjacent.” But it’s a smooth, elegant sipper, with sweet vanilla and coconut cream drifting into a gentle finish marked by baking spice and a puff of smoke.
While the Yamazaki 18-year-old is spectacular, a supply shortage has made it nearly impossible to get. But the 12-year version is also excellent, and available if you know where to look (pro tip: try bars rather than liquor stores, Desoblin advises; they often get allocations first). For those who love peaty Scotches, give this a pour. Smoke leads the nose and palate on this bottling, plus luscious dark honey and tropical fruit peeking through.