In the last few years, Japanese whisky has made huge strides on the global stage. While it was once a forgotten country for spirits, Japan is home to some of the best distilleries in the world, including Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery, distiller of Jim Murray’s 2015 World Whisky of the Year. But that’s all stuff at the highest levels of whisky awards. What about us commoners who kick back with a readily-available bourbon? What should we be looking for and, maybe more importantly, what can we reasonably expect to find on our shelves? We took some time to find out.
This whisky has won over 17 awards including gold medals at the International Spirits Challenge in 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014. It’s a smooth whisky with a spicy finish that’s packed with notes of toffee, raisins and coffee, and it’s aged like some of your favorite scotches. Sipping this, you’d think there was some kind of ancient migration of Scotsmen to Japan. Or, on the flip side, maybe it was really the Japanese who invented the stuff.Link
This whisky is referred to as “pure malt” because it’s a blend of malt whiskies from Nikka’s Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. Pure malt basically means the same thing as blended malt, just for Scotch and Japanese whiskies Like many of Nikka’s offerings, Pure Malt is a smoky, sweet adventure into the land of the rising sun.Link
This whisky is an homage to the harmony between the Japanese and their natural environment, something that includes Japan’s 24 small seasons, which is not, as we first assumed, the number of cooking spices chefs normally use. They accomplish their homage by blending ten different malt and grain whiskies aged in five different casks. We’d also like to say, having 24 seasons makes way more sense than just four and also drastically increases the amount of weather climate change endangers.Link
This offering from Nikka was aged for fifteen years, resulting in a rich, malty single malt. Whisky writer Jim Murray gave the expression a 92, and he’s a man who knows a thing or two about great whisky. Or a whole bunch of things and that’s why everyone keeps letting him rate their products.Link
This malty, fruity single malt comes from Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery in Yamanashi Prefecture. Its flavors of pear, mango, and mint, along with its sweet, smoky flavor make it one of the sweeter, fruitier whiskies available and something of a departure from normal whisky flavors. It’s also not a departure we’re averse to. Smoky whiskies are fun, but those peaty flavors have a tendency to build up and overwhelm everything else.Link
This single malt from Hakushu has won numerous awards including a gold medal at the 2012 International Spirits Challenge. It’s a perfect sipping whisky, but also works well in a high-ball with a splash of soda water or mineral water. Not much more than that though, since you don’t want to be mixing a 12 Year whisky with much of anything, no matter what country it’s originally fromLink
This single malt was given a 95 rating by Murray, and much of the reason he loved it so much is because of where it was distilled. Yoichi is located on the northern island of Hokkaido. It was built at a high elevation in a cool climate so that its whiskies would closely resemble those of Scotland. It’s a place where the Japanese can experiment with whisky on their own islands while still following closely in the Scottish style.Link
This offering from Hibiki is a can’t miss if you don’t mind shelling out a pretty hefty chunk of change. Hibiki 21 was named the World’s Best Blended Whisky at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards and lives up to its title. The taste description on the Hibiki website reads like a Brooklyn transplant’s grocery list, which is a little offputting, even if the whisky itself is good enough to justify putting sandalwood and honeycomb in the same group.Link
Murray named this as the best whisky in the world in his 2015 Whisky Bible. If you’re lucky enough to find this somewhere, pay whatever outrageous price they’re asking. Even though it has no age statement, this single malt gets its intense flavor from aging in sherry barrels. Although not technically available in the U.S., we’re sure there are some Japanese businessmen you could befriend, or maybe a truck a few bottles fell off the back of.