Japanese whisky used to be an under-the-radar spirit reserved for those in the know. Now it's absolutely enormous. This definitive guide to Japanese whisky breaks down the lore, love and legality of the spirit, as well as the bottles you can actually buy.
Best Japanese Whiskies
- Best Overall: Mars Iwai 45
- Best Splurge: Akkeshi New Born Foundations #4
- Best Budget: Suntory Toki
- Nikka Coffey Grain ($68)
- Kujira Ryukyu Whisky ($74)
- Chichibu Ichiro's Malt & Grain Blended ($110)
- The Fukano 16 Year Sherry Cask Whisky ($150)
- Tsutsumi 12 Year Taru ($170)
"Lost in Translation," the 2003 film starring Bill Murray as a burned-out actor employed for a Suntory Whisky campaign didn’t put the Japanese spirit category on the American radar, but it helped. Over the past decade, the century-old industry has become increasingly refined, with both established and start-up distilleries expanding the category to include releases aged or finished in a diverse array of wood, including species native to Japan, and introducing atypical flavor profiles (think bourbon, Sherry, etc.). Here's everything you need to know about the best Japanese whisky you can buy.
The Short List
Best Overall Japanese Whisky: Mars Iwai 45
It’s hard to beat the price of this luscious, bourbon-adjacent whisky. Made in Nagano by one of Japan’s premier whisky distilleries — Mars Shinshu — it’s part of the brand’s Blue Label Whiskey series, which was designed to better fit the American palate. Case in point: this release is made with 75 percent corn and 25 percent is malted barley, which gives it the honeyed vanilla and butterscotch profile familiar to bourbon. Aged in ex-bourbon casks, it’s a smooth, mellow sipper that also works well in cocktails.
Best Splurge Japanese Whisky: Akkeshi New Born Foundations #4
This petite (200ml), esoteric offering from Hoddaiko’s Akkeshi Distillery; their head distiller learned his craft in part from Chichibu under "Rockstar of whisky," Ichiro Akuto, who helped with the design and construction of Akkeshi. The distillery’s climate and terrain are similar to that of Islay and it's the only place in Japan where peat grows naturally, so Akkeshi uses it in their barley smoking process. Number 4- part of a series aged in different types of wood including ume, Sherry, Port, sake, and white oak- is a blend of malts and grains including rare Hokkaido barley malt, or Ryofu. Aged in Sherry casks for 13 to 30 months, it’s an evocative sipping whisky with suggestions of caramelized banana, bittersweet chocolate, and spice.
Best Budget Japanese Whisky: Suntory Toki Blended
Japan’s oldest whisky house offers this wallet-friendly blend from three of Suntory’s regional distilleries. The use of Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts and and Chita grain whiskey result in a light-bodied spirit with hints of citrus and a subtle sweetness. It works for summer sipping sessions, but it shines in highballs, which is what Suntory designed the whisky to accomodate.
Japanese Whisky 101
Japanese whisky production starts with the cultural ethos of kodawari, the uncompromising and relentless pursuit of perfection; “reverence” is a term frequently employed by Western distillers and bar professionals. “It’s about a reverence for everything from the raw ingredients and the process to the finished product,” says Christopher Gomez, beverage director at Shibumi, a Michelin-starred Kappo Ryori Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles.
Japan’s whisky production began in earnest in 1923, with the establishment of Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery, founded by Shinjiro Torii, who hired a Scottish-trained distiller named Masataka Taketsuru to run the whisky-making operation. Taketsura's background influenced the flavor profile of Japanese whisky for generations, as well as the spirit’s spelling (Japan is the only country that use only the ‘y,’ outside of Scotland and Ireland; everywhere else it’s whiskey). The most distinctive hallmark of Japanese whisky for the better part of a century is the use of malted (germinated) barley, which may also be smoked over peat.
Taketsura went on to open Nikka Whiskey in 1934 which, today, is the second-larget Japanese whisky maker after the company he got off the ground, Suntory.
The newest generation of Japanese whiskies encompass a broader spectrum of flavor profiles, and barrel aging is done in everything from virgin white oak to rum, pinot noir, Sherry, sake, umeshu (plum wine) bourbon, Port and brandy casks. Some distilleries are also using barrels made of native Japanese woods like hinoki, cedar, ume, and mizunara (Japanese oak) for aging or finishing, which bring more classic Eastern flavors and aromas to their whiskies. Blending is also a critical part of the process. "The Japanese consider the distiller just half of the equation, while the Master Blender is the other half," says Billy Weston general manager of Austin’s Otoko restaurant and adjacent Watertrade bar, which carries the largest Japanese whisky selection in Texas. "For them, the real art is in the blending."
Best Japanese Whiskies
Nikka Coffey Grain
With its beguiling caramel aromatics and notes of brown sugar, vanilla and leather, this reads like a Scotch-bourbon hybrid, but it’s made on a traditional Scotch still (known as a coffey). The addition of malt adds a touch of sweetness, making this an excellent starter whisky for those new to the category.
Kujira Ryukyu Whisky
A Sherry-like nose gives way to a woodsy profile lush with raisin, toasted nuts, citrus and a whiff of gasoline- you’ll want to use this limited release rice whisky for sipping. NAS stands for "No Age Statement," because it’s blended with Yaesen Shuzo Distillery’s 8- and 3-year whiskies made in Okinawa.
Chichibu Ichiro's Malt & Grain Blended
A single malt in the "world whisky" category — meaning not all of it is made in Japan — this lovely, hard-to-find offering from globally renown distiller Ichiro Akuto yields notes of toffee, butterscotch, tropical fruit, and tobacco, with a spicy finish.
The Fukano 16 Year Sherry Cask Whisky
A light-bodied rice whisky with complex caramelized brown sugar, prune and spice notes, and a hint of earth, this Sherry-like spirit will captivate both brown spirit and fortified wine drinkers. The Fukano Distillery in Kyushu is known for aging in distinctive casks and this long-aged (for Japanese whisky) offering is a stellar example.
Tsutsumi 12 yr. Taru
At 141 years old, Tsutsumi, located in Kumamoto, is one of Japan’s oldest and most revered shochu distilleries, as well as the country’s only cooperage. This release, at 82-proof, is another boundary-pushing spirit that’s alternately referred as shochu. Made with pristine Kuma River water and rice, the aging in Sherry casks ("taru" means cask) imparts elements of dried fruit and spice. Delicate and nuanced, with a smooth finish.
How to Drink Japanese Whisky
In Japan, whisky is consumed neat, with a splash or water or soda, or as a highball; it’s not typically used in other cocktails because the addition of other ingredients distorts the integrity of the spirit. "Japan has a cultural tradition of mizuwari, cutting the whisky with water to open it up," says Weston. "It also lowers the ABV, which lets more of the aromatic and flavor complexities come through."
Highballs are made by adding plain or flavored soda or juice added to whisky and ice. "It’s a whisky and soda, but so much more," says Weston. "It’s a performance, because the bartending culture is also about presentation, quality and design, right down to the bar tools, glassware and water source [as an island nation, water is culturally revered in Japan, and its innumerable natural springs, rivers and snow-capped peaks yield distinctive flavor profiles also taken into consideration in the distillation process]."
Of course, it’s your prerogative to enjoy your whisky however you’d like, but we recommend Suntory Toki Blended as a more affordable choice for highballs and other cocktails.