At the turn of the century virtually no one had heard of Japanese whisky outside of Japan. Even in its native country Scotch whisky was king. Worldwide awards and global recognition started to arrive a decade or so ago and have led to Japanese whiskies becoming some of the most prized products in the spirits world. Here we take a look at eight of the major players.
We kick off with a single-grain whisky that shows the diversity in the Japanese category. It is not just about traditional single malts or blends. The Chita distillery was built in 1972 and was Japan’s first single-grain production facility.
Mostly used within blends to give a solid foundation, this whisky made from corn has only recently been given its own chance to shine.
One To Try: Chita Distiller’s Reserve
This single grain features an interesting combo of bourbon, sherry and wine casks. These accentuate the delicate zesty notes to give a lovely creamy and gentle feel.
This mountain distillery is located in a vast forest at the foot of Mt. Kaikomagatake. The House of Suntory, Japan’s leading whisky producer, built it in 1973 some 50 years after their first distillery. But it took a further 20 years for a single malt to be released.
Hakushu’s mildly peated style is unusual for a Japanese whisky but combines the smokiness with a wonderful elegance.
One To Try: Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve
This core range product perfectly shows what this whisky is about. Light, fresh and full of delicate green fruits and honey with a lovely background hit of smoke.
Meaning ‘harmony’ in Japanese, Hibiki was created to embody Japanese culture and whisky-making skill in the late 1980s. From its 24-sided decanter style bottle, symbolising the 24 seasons in the Japanese calendar, to the meticulous quality of the liquid, it oozes class and sophistication. It is no surprise that it’s Japan’s most highly-awarded whisky brand.
One To Try: Hibiki Japanese Harmony
This stunning expression shows just how good blended whiskies can be. A sublime mix of honey, vanilla and stone fruits with a good pinch of cinnamon and oak. Absolutely delicious.
This is the one for those with deep pockets. The now fabled distillery ceased production at the turn of the century and was located on the slopes of an active volcano, Mt. Asama. Karuizawa whiskies have subsequently become the most highly prized and sought after of all Japanese whiskies, and carry a price tag to match.
An esteemed malt that deserves its belated success.
One To Try: Karuizawa
Karuizawa whiskies are so rare and pricey, and releases are sporadic. They will only get rarer and more expensive as the remaining stocks dwindled even further. If you ever get the opportunity to taste, take it.
This distillery near the city of Sendai was founded in the late 1960s and was the second to be opened by the Nikka company. Miyagikyo is large, but much of the spirit produced goes towards Nikka’s superb range of blends. The delicate and clean spirit helps to highlight characteristics from other whiskies. But now Miyagikyo is showing its own qualities off for the world to see.
One To Try: Miyagikyo Single Malt
This whisky is a great introduction to Japanese whisky. Light bodied but with plenty of flavour, depth and complexity. Delightful notes of ginger, apple, warming baking spices and coconut.
These are actually a pair of whiskies produced through Nikka’s unusual Coffey still – one made with malted barley and one made with corn. Named after its 19th century Irish inventor, Aeneas Coffey, this unorthodox equipment is a hybrid of column still and single pot still. T
hank goodness that Nikka decided to no longer keep them a secret and release both expressions a few years ago.
One To Try: Nikka Coffey Grain
This is one of the world’s great single-grain whiskies. Soft and creamy with a lovely sweetness and notes of vanilla, coconut and subtly spiced biscuits. An absolute cracker.
Japan’s oldest single malt distillery is quickly approaching its 100th birthday and there will be big celebrations when it does. Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Tori, the father of Japanese whisky who established the legendary House of Suntory, Yamazaki has been at the forefront ever since.
Now the biggest selling and best-known single malt brand, it consistently wins top awards around the world.
One To Try: Yamazaki 12 years old
This pioneering single malt helped Japanese whisky break into the international market. Creamy, sweet and packed with honey, vanilla and orchard fruits with a pinch of baking spice. Fabulous.
Japan’s second oldest single malt distillery was founded by Shinjiro Tori’s protégé Masataka Taketsuru in 1934. He worked at Yamazaki for 10 years before branching out on his own, choosing a location on the northern island of Hokkaido due to its similar climate to Scotland.
Taketsuru established Nikka, now Japan’s second largest producer of whisky, and learned his trade working at distilleries in Scotland.
One To Try: Yoichi Single Malt
A whisky that is a marriage of different ages and cask types that comes with a faint whiff of peat smoke. Green apple and lemon zest mingle with vanilla and savoury oak spice.