The place of Japanese whisky even 10 or 20 years ago was to be something of a curio amongst a very small set of aficionados. Outside of that, the actual existence of Japanese whisky might be as much a surprise to the mainstream drinker as the fact that the best of it is as complex and refined as anything being put out by the Scots. Now, though, Japanese whisky-makers find themselves held in the highest regard around the world, laden with awards and struggling to keep up with demand.
Japanese whisky is deeply influenced by Scotch in many ways, but has grown and developed into something that is very much its own beast. As with scotch, there are differences between the output of distilleries that reflect the equipment, methods and local climate. Distillers play with process in a way that many Scottish operations may not, experimenting with yeasts and fermentation times to great effect
However, to generalise, Japanese whisky tends toward precision and complexity without getting too heavy. Finishes, even if intense, don’t linger on the palate in the same way as an Islay might. Quite a few of the whiskies listed here shift through a few different sets of flavours as you sip them, with savoury notes you don’t see elsewhere. Closer to scotch than bourbon or rye, they run the gamut from the super-light to intense brooders. Flavour profiles will include hints of bitterness, too, that are striking when first tasted, but sit neatly within the blenders’ intent.
Best Japanese whisky to buy
Nikka Days whisky (40% ABV)
Nikka dominates the Japanese whisky market. This easy-drinking blended whisky from their extensive range is light in aroma and flavour, making it a good option for newcomers to the whisky world, or for lovers of cocktails who, with this, can serve a highball with a punch. Read our full Nikka Days review.
The Chita, Suntory whisky (43% ABV)
Along with Nikka, Suntory is one of the most-loved and well-known Japanese whisky brands. Operating from numerous distilleries, this whisky flies the flag for its Chita operation. This grain whisky is lighter and more delicate than other Japanese whiskies in our list. It’s a fruity spirit with unripe banana flavours present in its thin, intense sweetness. Read our full review of The Chita by Suntory.
Kamiki whisky (48% ABV)
This is a bit of an odd one out. The Kamiki is a bottling that simply states use of ‘rare Japanese malt whiskies and the finest malt whiskies from the rest of the world’ which they fuse in a ‘unique blend with the highest quality, pure spring water from Japan’. This fits with the Japanese definition of ‘Japanese whisky’ (which is more lax than UK and European legislation) but might not be one for purists. However, the Japanese cedarwood ageing makes this a distinct and characterful dram. Read our full Kamiki review.
Taketsuru pure malt, Nikka whisky (43% ABV)
Unlike the Nikka Days whisky, this doesn’t map across quite so simply to the more familiar Scottish whiskies that Japanese whiskies are often associated with. It tastes intense at first sip, with tobaco and smokiness present, and finishes to reveal a savoury, almost bitter note. This one is great in an old fashioned cocktail. Read our full review of Taketsuru whisky by Nikka.
Hakushu 12-year-old single malt, Suntory whisky (45% ABV)
Made at Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, this maturation is refined with cool herbal notes. On the palate, that coolness gives way to a smooth alcohol warmth, mint notes and some lemon that mingles with the sweetness of the malt. It’s full-bodied with a little creaminess, too, making this an ideal whisky to serve neat in a dram. Read our full review of Hakushu 12 whisky by Suntory.
Mars Maltage ‘Cosmo’ whisky
Mars Shinsu is a heritage distillery that’s had a complicated journey, closing several times along the way, although it’s enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Known for very interesting special editions, this ‘Cosmo’ distillation has butterscotch on the nose and stewed fruit flavours. Expect a profile very similar to a traditional scotch. Read our full Mars Maltage review.
From The Barrel, Nikka whisky
A flagship blended whisky from Nikka that you may have seen in bars and supermarkets. From The Barrel does what you imagine Nikka would like for a standard-bearer of their whiskies, showing many of the flavour elements in an approachable way, without sacrificing complexity. Read our full review of From The Barrel whisky by Nikka.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony, Suntory whisky
A blended whisky from Suntory, this pulls in malt whisky from their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, and grain whisky from Chita. It has a complex but light nose, with red fruit and apple flavours and a marshmallow sweet note. Enjoy with an ice cube as a sundowner. Read our full review of Hibiki Japanese Harmony whisky by Suntory.
Yoichi single malt, Nikka whisky
You can almost taste the Scottish influence in this dram, but Nikka’s Yoichi has a distinctly Japanese flavour profile. On the nose there’s gentle peat smoke and caramelised citrus fruits, and the palate carries the peat and fruit through, with melon and fresh apple being the most notable flavours. Overall, this is one of Japan’s top whiskies. It’s a perfect introduction to the region’s offering as it exemplifies its best qualities. Read our full review of Yoichi whisky by Nikka.
Miyagikyo single malt, Nikka whisky
The no-age Miyagikyo is a great showcase for the Nikka distillery. The nose is intense without being heavy, with oodles of cereal, hints of candyfloss, banana and crisp apple. The palate shows a continuation, with delicate grass and floral notes before a full barley-malt sweetness. A dram of this would pair well with fruitcake. Read our full review of Miyagikyo whisky by Nikka.
Japanese whisky: a quick history
The origins of this spirit can be traced back 100 years. The Japanese have links with Scotland going back to the mid-19th century, with students sent across in order to learn scientific and engineering innovations as the nation sought to modernise itself. This practice was still going strong when, in 1918, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru was put on a boat to Glasgow to learn how to make whisky.
Returning two years later, he would become possibly the single most significant figure in Japanese whisky. The company that had sponsored his trip, Settsu Shuzo, had drawn back from making a proper whisky distillery, so Taketsuru instead spent his time making an ersatz substitute for them. Moving on in 1924, he joined Kotobukiya (now Suntory) making Japan’s earliest recognisable single malt at the country’s oldest whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in Osaka.
Then, in 1934, he founded his own company, now known as Nikka, and set up the Yoichi distillery on the northern island of Hokkaido. The equivalent might be if Glenfiddich’s original master blender had gone on to found Glenlivet after a false start with Budweiser. Between the two behemoths of Suntory and Nikka, you have a majority of the whisky made in Japan and available to buy in the UK.
With far greater attention being paid to Japanese whisky, fans are caught in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, a swift rise in demand for a drink that can take upward of a decade to mature properly has put pressure on stock levels, with commensurate price rises and whiskies of a particular vintage removed in favour of ‘No Age Statement’ (NAS) releases.
Whisky collectors and traders are admittedly a niche, and one probably best not sucked into, but if you happened to pick up a Japanese single malt a decade ago, you might be rather surprised at the difference in price. On the other hand, the range of Japanese whisky that you can find in the UK is broader and more easily accessible.
Flagship brands like the Nikka’s From The Barrel can be seen in supermarkets, alongside scotch, bourbon and the never-ending panoply of gins. Whilst there are not currently equivalent budget options, there are very decent whiskies that don’t cost the earth.
One thing to be aware of is that Japan does not have the same legislation surrounding methods and requirements for calling a drink a whisky and calling a whisky Japanese. As such, there are a lot of blended whiskies using Scottish base spirit that may or may not have been aged in Japan, and it is apparently possible to see aged shōchū being sold as whisky in the USA. Thankfully, the latter doesn’t seem to have made its way over here.
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This review was last updated in April 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.