There is something special about Japanese Whiskey that makes it unlike anything else out there. Though its origins lie in Scotland, over the past century since the whiskey industry in Japan was born, the local palate nurtured an entirely new branch on the whiskey family tree. Blended for a delicate balance of sweet and savory that echoes Japanese cuisine, mixed with the uniquely soft water of Japan, and allowed creative freedom without the legal restrictions governing Scotch and Bourbon, Japanese Whiskey – like a good many things introduced in Japan – has become in many ways superior to the outside version that inspired it.
Over the past few years, a boom in Japanese Whiskey’s global popularity has made those with specific age statements both expensive and hard to come by. But thanks to the rich variety of no-age-statement Japanese Whiskeys just now coming onto the market in the US for the first time, you do not need to be fixed on age statements nor pay the high prices associated with them to experience the sublime balance of Japanese Whiskey for yourself.
The lineage of Japanese Whiskey is rooted in Scotland, and therefore, in Scotch. In 1918, a Japanese chemist named Masataka Taketsuru traveled to Scotland on a student visa to learn the art of making whiskey. He was 24 years old, and fluent in English –– a rare skill in Japan at the time. He apprenticed at various Scotch distilleries, wearing a white lab coat that stood out like a sore thumb amidst the Scots in their work garb. He took detailed notes and made complex illustrations of the distillation equipment, and Taketsuru’s notebook would form the basis of Japan’s first distillery. He married a Scottish woman who returned to Japan with him, and once back home, he helped establish the distillery that would become Suntory, and he later went on to found the Nikka distillery.
“Whiskey making is an act of cooperation between the blessings of nature and the wisdom of man,” said Taketsuru, the undisputed father of Japanese Whiskey. But it’s the Japanese interpretation that has made this spirit what it is.
“When the country was starting its whiskey tradition, it adhered to the Scotch style more closely,” said Brian Ashcraft, author of Japanese Whiskey: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit. “But over time, you’ll start getting flourishes.”
Ashcraft attributes these flourishes to the Japanese palate. “The baseline palate of the distillers and the blenders is different, so just by the fact of Japanese people making it, Japanese Whiskey becomes different,” he said. These differences can be summed up by one word: balance. The balance that exists in Japanese culture and in Japanese food translates into Japanese Whiskey. “From the time they’re kids, you’re taught that you do not just eat all of one thing on your plate,” said Ashcraft. “You eat a little of each and finish all the dishes at the same time.”
“Nothing is going to be too overpowering –– that’s how the blender becomes the master,” said Eli Raffeld, co-founder of High Road Spirits, the exclusive US importer for a number of incredible Japanese Whiskeys including those of Mars, Chichibu, Akashi, and others. “In Scotland, it’s who the distiller is, but in Japan, it’s about who the blender is.”
Because of this pursuit of balance, Raffeld said that blends of whiskeys of different ages are used to achieve it. “Age statement in Japan is not a selling point,” he said, adding that it was adopted by the big houses because it is the norm in Scotland, but that “blends are what most people drink in Japan.”
When author Brian Ashcraft asked Ichiro Akuto, the blender at Chichibu Distillery to define Japanese Whiskey, his response was simple: “Japanese Whiskey is whiskey made by Japanese people.” Japanese Whiskey is not legally defined in the way that Bourbon or Scotch is, which leads to creativity but also some gray areas, but the best producers like the ones on this list are transparent about what’s really in the bottle.
So what are some of the best bottles to seek out? Here are 10 unique whiskeys, some of which are Japanese Whiskey by definition; others not strictly so but still excellent. All that matters is that you know what you’re getting. It’s also worth noting that in Japan, they drink their whiskey on the rocks or in a highball cocktail – with ice and soda – as opposed to neat. But how you enjoy it is up to you.
An affordable, smooth, and easy-drinking whiskey in a cool apothecary bottle that works well in cocktails. Akashi has the oldest whiskey license in Japan (they got their license before their first still) and the Akashi White Oak distillery is located right next to the bay in Kobe, so the whiskey has notes of salinity from the saltwater air.
This whiskey is made in patented continuous “Coffey” stills that were imported from Scotland in the 1960’s. These stills are hard to keep up after all that time but give the whiskey a “distinctive creamy texture.” This expression is made primarily from corn, and it’s sweet but not Bourbon sweet. Just complex and smooth.
This is the benchmark of Japanese Whiskey, made at Japan’s oldest distillery. In his book, Brian Ashcraft quoted the tasting notes from Japan’s leading whiskey blogger, Yuji Kawasaki, who said of the Yamazaki 12: “There are charred and honeyed oak notes on the nose and the smell of a grassy field after rain and some gentle smoke . ”
According to High Road’s Eli Raffeld, IWAI Tradition is the “flagship everyday whiskey” in Japan and is perfect for a Highball. For the price, I think it’s a prime example of Japanese balance. It has a nose of pear and a smooth and rounded taste that I sparked to at the first sip.
Blender Ichiro Akuto started the new wave of Japanese whiskey making and coined the term “World Whiskey” to bring more transparency to the consumer. For his Malt and Grain, he blends Irish whiskey, American Bourbon, Canadian Rye, Scotch, and Japanese Single Malt. He imports the spirits after 3-5 years in the barrel, then ages them in his own casks in Japan for another 3-5 years.
The harmony achieved by this blend of 10 different malt and grain whiskeys from 5 different cask types offers the best entry point into truly exceptional whiskey from The House of Suntory. For half the price of Yamazaki 12 – year, Hibiki Japanese Harmony delivers uncompromising balance without compromising your 401k.
New to the US market, this whiskey is made from barley fermented with Koji –– the same mold used in Sake making –– in a process patented by Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a chemist who had a distillery in Illinois in the 1890’s and promised to make American whiskey less expensive to produce. But he was sabotaged by a distillery fire and Koji never caught on in the US. A shame considering it makes for a particularly smooth whiskey with a sweet and savory balance.
Japanese Mizunara oak must be 200 years old before it’s suitable to be hand made into casks that cost thousands of dollars apiece. After aging this on land, the Mizunara casks leave Osaka for a sea voyage of up to three months for finishing –– a method that accelerates the imparting of the wood’s character into the whiskey.
New to the US market as of 2021, this whiskey is distilled at the foot of Mount Fuji and made with water that comes down from the mountain itself. The Single Grain is a blend of whiskeys distilled in the style of American Whiskey, Canadian Whiskey, and Scotch Whiskey –– all in pursuit of balance.
Toki is perfect for a Highball. It’s a delicate whiskey with a light gold color that really comes to life in the effervescence of ice-cold soda water which is something you will not be afraid to pair it with based on the approachable price thanks to the lack of age statement. If you want to try whiskey from Japan’s oldest house, this is the perfect entry point.
How to Make a Proper Japanese Highball
This guide to proper highball technique comes from the bartender and managing partner of the New York bar Katana Kitten – Masahiro Urushido – in the book he co-wrote with Michael Anstend, The Japanese Art of The Cocktail. He recommends buying the smallest bottles or cans of soda water possible, as larger bottles lose carbonation fast after they’re opened. Keep the soda in the fridge and the whiskey in the freezer. This is their recipe for their Suntory Toki Highball, but any Japanese Whiskey can be used:
Take the highball glass and fill it with ice. If the glass has been stored in the freezer, you are all set. If not, simply stir the ice around to sufficiently chill the glass, then strain out any water.
Now the fun part. Gently pour a jigger’s worth of Suntory Toki Whiskey into the glass and stir lightly, adding more ice, if necessary. Slowly and deliberately pour chilled soda water into the glass, aiming for the glass’s side wall, not the ice itself, since the shock of the impact with the ice will dissipate the soda water’s carbonation.
Then, using a stirrer, gently lift the ice up and down a couple of times to mix the whiskey and soda water, and give it a slow, gentle stir. A citrus twist garnish is optional, with lemons, limes, yuzu, or other citrus fruits all popular.