How Is Japanese Whisky Made
Rather than leaning on tradition or focusing on a consistency like their Scottish counterparts, Japanese whisky-makers look for refinement and elegance in their whisky.
Distillers source water locally and play with peated and unpeated barley, different yeast strains, cut points and fermentation to craft individual whiskies with unique flavours.
Some distillers use an eclectic collection of still shapes and sizes to produce a creative array of whiskies. By using a range of woods in the barrels, like mizunara oak, a tree found only in Japan, or finishing in plum wine casks, distinct flavours are introduced to Japanese whiskies that cant be recreated anywhere else in the world.
Kamiki Cedar Cask Japanese Whisky
This is a fascinating dram. The blend is comprised of single malts from around Japan and hand-selected international single malts. The juice is then finished in Yoshino-sugi barrels thats a Japanese cedar that imparts a big flavor profile into the whisky.
This sip opens with a note of peat next to spicy baked apples cut with orange zest. More floral orange notes and stone fruit wind towards a mossy cedar forest on a rainy day. The oak kicks in late with a bit more of that initial spice as the wood becomes resinous and dry on the long finish.
Im a big fan of cedar in my whisky, so this is an easy pick. That being said, this is a solid example of the unique finishings coming out of Japan.
Awards And A Historic Comeback
Starting with a Yoichi 10-year single malt in 2001, Japanese whisky began winning a large number of international whisky awards. Since 2007, theyve been dominant.
A promising new brand would also make an international splash. Ichiro Akuto founded Venture Whisky in 2004. His family had owned Hanyu, and Akuto bought up much of their stocks, along with whiskies from Karuizawa and Kawasaki. These were blended and bottled as the Card Series under the brand name Ichiros Malt. The demand was staggering. Akuto used the capital to found the Chichibu Distillery in 2007. The first release from Chichibu sold out in under 24 hours!
Other producers would emerge to meet the surging demand. Mars Shinshu resumed operations in 2011. Eigashimas White Oak Distillery increased its quality and production after decades of catering to domestic drinkers. And most recently, the Akkeshi Distillery was launched to produce terroir-driven whiskies in remote Hokkaido.
Want to know more about Japanese whisky history?
We have a whole page about it just for whisky nerds! Take a deep dive into the history of Japanese whisky.
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Is It Cheaper To Buy Japanese Whisky In Japan
Japanese whisky prices have gone through the roof. This is in part because of the so-called Yamazaki Crisis, which refers to the shortage that has hit the market due to lower production levels that began in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when the Japanese economy began to cool.
Its not uncommon to find bottles of Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt listed for over $2,000 in your local liquor storeif you can even find the spirit there. And in 2018, a 50-year-old bottle of Yamazaki sold for an astounding $343,000!
Even online, prices are through the roof. So, the legitimate question to ask is: Should we just hold off buying our favorite spirit until we visit Japan?
Going straight to the source is always a good ideaand in the case of Japanese whisky, its no different. Theres no doubt that you can indeed find some bottles of whisky for substantially less if you actually go to Japan and purchase them. But there are other bottles that will cost about the same, so it really depends.
One good rule of thumb is not to buy your whisky from duty-free shops.
Many people who travel to Japan will argue that it is better to go to the distilleryor a local specialty shop, if you can find onefor buying whisky, rather than purchasing your bottle at a duty-free shop. There are two reasons: first, the duty-free offerings tend to be pretty limited in terms of selection second, the prices are often more than what you might pay at home.
How Should I Store Japanese Whisky
Storing Japanese whisky is pretty simplekeep it in a relatively cool place, out of direct sunlight. Once open, a little bit of oxygen is okay, but when you get to around 40% of the way through, says Patrick, you have about a year until it turns. Not that it will go bad, but he adds that it loses about 80 to 90% of the characteristics the person who made it wanted it to have. To keep it beyond that, both Patrick and Momosé suggest spraying a bit of argon gas into the bottle to stop the continued oxidation. But whiskys meant to be drunk, says Momosé. So I do hope people are opening special bottles and enjoying them.
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Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Japanese Whisky
Kaiyo Whisky is a fascinating spirit, as it starts as an un-peated malt whisky. The bulk of the malt comes from one distillery and some more sourced from another.
Mizunara oak, known for imparting an incredible array of flavors into the whiskey, is used for aging this liquor. Furthermore, it spends some time at sea where it’s exposed to further evolving flavors.
The nose on this whisky is one that only a few can appreciate. It smells like a combination of rotting wood, wet moss, engine grease, and burnt caramel minus the sweetness.
The unique flavors of the coffee, green apple, and black tea blend together to create a sweet but not overpowering flavor. The alpine herbs also add just enough spice.
The 10 Best Japanese Whiskies For Gifting
Japanese whisky for beginners
Being in the holiday season means many will undoubtedly be spending money on family and friends and, in some cases, yourself. Whisky makes for an elegant gift to be given anytime, and what better time than now?
Although devout collectors, scarcity and high demand have driven prices up and out of reach 100 million Yen for a bottle of 55-year-old Yamazaki Id like to propose a list I curated for the everyday person, with many categories to select from.
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History Of Japanese Whisky
Japan began crafting its own whisky as early as 1870, but commercial production didnt kick off until the early 1920s. That was when a liquor importer named Shinjiro Torii opened the countrys first distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto known for its excellent water supply. Serving as Toriis top executive was a former student named Masataka Taketsuru, whod spent three years in Scotland learning how to distil whisky.
In 1934, Taketsuru went off to open his own enterprise, Yoichi Distillery, in Hokkaido. While the distillerys name would remain intact, Taketsurus company would eventually become Nikka. Toriis company, meanwhile, would later become Suntory. As any Japanese whisky lover can attest, both companies continue to loom large.
As the decades progressed, Japanese whisky underwent numerous ebbs and flows. In the 1970s and early 1980s, an explosion in worldwide demand vicariously spawned a modest number of new distilleries and labels. That was followed by a drop in global popularity and then a recent resurgence. Today, there are approximately nine active distilleries in Japan.
The Best Bottles Of Japanese Whisky
Given that lengthy aging periods are so fundamental to whiskey production, the Japanese whisky industry presently exists in an uncharacteristic state of flux.
In early 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced a new set of labeling standards dictating what can and cant be called Japanese Whisky. For the time being, the guidance remains an agreement among producers rather than law, and brands have a transitional period of up until 2024 to make sure their labels comply.
Provenance and ingredients form the heart of the new standards, which will prevent producers from importing whiskey, bottling it in Japan, then selling it labeled as Japanese whisky. Nor will they be able to sell aged, 100-percent rice distillates as whisky even though they qualify as such in countries like the United States.
Of course, theres nothing inherently wrong with the quality of such distillates, but its worth pointing out that these developments are happening in Japan, and that producers appear more focused than ever on transparency.
Now that were up to speed on the latest happenings in the category, here are 12 of the best bottles of Japanese whisky, in ascending price order.
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Malting Milling And Mashing
Making whisky begins with the ingredients. The mash bill, or grain bill, is the blend of grains used in the recipe. Malted barley is typically among them because it contains enzymes that will break down the starch in other grains to more fermentable glucose.
To make malt, you have to sprout the grain. This triggers the formation of the enzymes. Before the grain is fully sprouted, it is then heated to stop its growth. Kilning also roasts the malt, which changes its flavor and color.
Once you have malt, its time to mash. The malt and other grains are milled into grist. The grist is then steeped in hot water in a mash cooker. The hot water softens the grains, liquifies starch, and activates the enzymes in the malt. This sugary liquid is known as mash or wort.
Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky
ABV: 46% | Age: NAS| Volume: 750 ml
The Hatozaki label, named for the oldest stone lighthouse in Japan, has only been on shelves in the U.S. for a little more than a year. The Small Batch expression is a blend comprised of is 100 percent malt whiskies between five and six years that have been aged in former bourbon, sherry, and mizunara casks. It boasts honey sweetness, rich malted grain, and sherried fruits uplifted by a light, smoky undertone and honey finish.
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Ohishi Single Sherry Cask
Although the idea of whisky made of rice might turn some people off, there are several Japanese distilleries that know how to make rice whisky and more importantly, how to make it right.
Claims have been made by naysayers that this results simply over-proof shochu, but Japanese rice whisky is an enticing and complex spirit, especially if given proper attention and allowed to mature properly.
The Ohishi distillery is based on the Kuma River and uses two varieties of rice, namely gohyakumanishi and mocha, to produce its whiskies. The spirit is then allowed to age in sherry casks for an undisclosed length of time. This allows the whisky to acquire a rich fruity essence that is very much like the other products mentioned in this article.
Best Budget Japanese Whisky: Suntory Toki Blended
Japans oldest whisky house offers this wallet-friendly blend from three of Suntorys 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.
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Modernization: The Rise Of Whisky In Japan
Officials in Japan realized that their isolation had left them vulnerable to other countries. They dispatched scientists and ambassadors around the world to learn about modern science, governance, and education.
One of these men was a chemist named Masataka Taketsuru. He traveled to Scotland to formally learn whisky production, taking several apprenticeships at whisky distilleries in Speyside and Campbeltown. Taketsuru would also meet his future wife Rita Cowan on this trip.
Taketsuru returned to Japan with Rita and a new understanding of the whisky-making process.
At this time, another Nippon whisky pioneer was building a beverage empire. Shinjiro Torii had a vision of creating Western-style liquors to suit the Japanese palate. His original hit was Akadama Port Wine. This sweet fortified wine, which featured a provocative ad campaign, produced the revenue for Toriis real dream: producing authentic Japanese whisky.
Torii had heard of Taketsurus expertise and hired him to lead the establishment of Yamazaki. The iconic distillery was opened in 1923 and was the first operating facility in Japan.
The two titans of Japanese whisky did not get along. Making matters worse, Yamazaki was beset by production issues and its early whiskies werent that good. In 1929, the company released Suntory Shirofuda . It was the first authentic Japanese whisky. And it bombed.
The accumulation of these events was too much for Torii to handle. He demoted Taketsuru, who went on to quit.
The Best Japanese Whiskies Under $80
April 24, 2019 | Aaron Goldfarb
The notion that Japanese whisky has become impossible to find in America reflects the fact that well-aged bottles of certain brands have become impossible to find at affordable prices. But go to a quality liquor store in most major cities and youll see plenty of bottles with Japanese characters on them. While these may not fetch the high price tags of the out-of-reach age-statement bottles, there are still plenty of Japanese whiskies worthy of your attention.
In fact, theres a lot of whisky coming out of Japan, although the country has yet to place definitive parameters on style, age, or production methods. Importing whisky from abroad is a widely accepted practice among Japanese producers, but few of them publicly discuss it. The ambiguous criteria have resulted in a wide range in quality, particularly as demand for Japanese whisky has steadily grown. So, what to buy?
Your best bet is to look for interesting Japanese blends, products from smaller, craft purveyors, and even rice whiskies, a niche of the Japanese category that is just starting to make a name for itself. Each of these bottles showcases excellence in Japanese whisky-making, and none costs more than $80.
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Karuizawa 1981 Sakura Cask #158
According to Bloomberg, this bottle is another collectors item, and it holds its value primarily due to the flavors that are sealed within the bottle, but also as a result of the sheer intrigue that surrounds it. There were only 45 of these bottles ever released. Complex refers to this bottle as The Holy Grail of all the Japanese Whiskies. It just goes without saying that this is a bottle you will want to have and to hold, despite the urge to open it up and serve it on a special occasion.
Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
“Toki” is a Japanese word that means time. Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky is the brainchild of three distilleries: the Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita.
Like its sister blend, Suntory Hibiki, Toki is a Japanese malt and grain whisky. However, it has different components: the main ones are Hakushu single malt and Chita grain whisky.
This whisky is the epitome of what Suntory strives for in its whisky. It has a clear gold color with basil, green apple, honey, and grapefruit notes that meld into a mouthwatering flavor.
With sweet undertones, you get hints of peppermint and thyme, which give off an enticing aroma before finishing slightly spicy with vanilla oak, white pepper, and ginger.
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The Rise Of Nikka Whisky
Toriis apprentice Masataka Taketsuru, who would found the other giant of Japanese distilling Nikka, sought to embody in his whiskies the austerity and traditions of Scotland, a land which gave him both his education and his wife.
On their return to Japan, the newly married Mr and Mrs Taketsuru established a still on Hokkaido island, in Japans far-north, seeking to replicate the conditions and traditions of the finest Scotch.
Nikkas Yoichi 15-year-old single malt is an embodiment of this vision. An austere and rigorous drop, with a flinty peat characteristic that arrives seemingly from nowhere and evolves into a long, salty, spicy finish. Such is the pursuit of purity in its production, the Yoichi stills are still coal-fired a technique barely practised in even the oldest of the Scottish stills.
Taketsuru also found the pure air and high humidity of the Scottish highlands on the eastern coast on the main island of Honshu, where he established his Miyagikyo still. The Miyagikyo 12-Year-Old Single Malt uses steam to heat the stills instead of coal and is finished in Bourbon barrels, giving it a lighter, more floral nose, with dried fruits and a nutty Sherry finish. Hard to find but worth seeking out.
Best Single Malt: Hakushu 12 Year Old
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Apple, light smoke, honey
In Japan, single malt essentially means the same thing as in Scotlandwhisky made at one distillery from malted barley. Hakushu is produced in the Japanese Alps, and the whisky produced there is just as gorgeous. It has a woodsy and herbaceous nose that expands to include delightful fruit notes that are backboned with a light peat quality, says Crystal Chasse, beverage director of McCarren Hotel and Talk Story Rooftop. The water source for this whisky comes from the mountains deep in the forest near the distillery. This secret ingredient makes this whisky very approachable for a peated whisky. It is unique and delicious.”
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The Chita Suntory Whisky
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.