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Japan is best known for its sake, but this island country produces many other alcoholic beverages. Japan's whiskey industry has grown over the past few decades, but it can still be challenging to find high-quality Japanese whiskies in America, at least without a guide.
We listed down 17 of the best Japanese whisky brands to help you in your search, so read on!
Our Top Picks
Most Famous - Suntory Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt Japanese Whisky
• Distinct and rich characteristics
Best Value - Nikka Coffey Malt Japanese Whisky
• Caramel, sweet tones
Best for Sipping Neat - Hibiki 17-Year-Old Japanese Whisky
• Blend of aged malt and grain whiskies
1. Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
Another best Japanese whisky is Akashi White Oak, the world's only whisky made by a Toji, Japan's master of sake making. It is made through a unique process that combines traditional Japanese sake-making methodologies with Scotland to produce an exquisite drink that genuinely celebrates diversity and culture.
Akashi White Oak is a blended whisky aged for more than five years in three different types of casks - three years in American oak barrels, then to ex-bourbon casks, and finally finishes in ex-sherry casks for two years.
Japanese whisky isn't just a Japanese take on scotch. White Oak Akashi is an excellent example of how the Japanese have their unique style and taste profile for this spirit.
The notes are malty and citrusy with scents of black cherry, toffee, and oak from being made using wheat barley rye with subtle peat. Pine nuts lead into a long finish that's smooth yet complex.
"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.
This Japanese blended whisky is distilled at Japan's highest distillery, Mars Shinshu Distillery. Iwai-san, a Japanese whisky distiller known for his soft spirit and harmonious flavor profile, would be proud of this blend of malt drink.
The incredibly balanced whisky made from sherry and bourbon casks has delicate hints of peat that make it so outstanding. The nose on this Japanese whisky is filled with sweet, ripe fruits such as bananas and some darker ones like prunes.
It also has a deep bourbon flavor without the burning sensation that bourbon usually has. The taste includes more of those dark sherry fruit flavors along with honey, toffee, and spicy ginger finish.
4. Chichibu Peated 2012 Japanese Single Malt Whisky
Ichiro Akuto's Chichibu distillery is relatively young, having started producing whisky in 2008. The single cask of peated spirit was distilled at the Chichibu distillery and aged for more than three years in second-fill bourbon barrels.
It has since received several awards from various international competitions, which have put it on the map for its fine spirits produced by this upstart Japanese company.
As you take a sip of this whisky, your mouth will be filled with the taste of cold ashes, peat, camphor, and lemon. The subtle hint of seaweed will make its way into your nose as well.
An aftertaste also reminds you more of sweet and salty than any whiskey brand - like celery seeds mixed with citrus fruits such as lime or grapefruit.
5. Hakushu 12 Year Single Malt Japanese Whisky
If your whiskey tastes lean toward the Japanese, you'll want to try Hakushu 12-year. This Suntory brand is a classic and must-try for anyone interested in discovering Japanese whisky.
The distillery was built during Japan's first golden age of whiskey production by its founders: Yamazaki - which no doubt inspired some creative experimentation at their sister property, Hakushu!
Its nose brings a lot to the table. First, it smells like toasted barley and other grains. It also has chocolate and dried grass notes that make your mouth water with anticipation for what's next.
The taste is rich in fruit but not too sweet as there are hints of smoke along the way before you're left with orange peel on your tongue at last call.
6. Ichiro's Malt & Grain Japanese Whisky
Ichiro Akuto's blend of whisky is a combination of his stocks and potentially others. The label on the bottle says - This is World Blended Whisky.
It includes Hanyu, Karuizawa, and Chichibu, which is the distillery that Ichiro owns himself. It might also contain some components distilled at other Japanese distilleries or even outside of Japan.
The nose of this blended whisky is sweet with notes of peach, apricot, vanilla cream, citrus zest, and synthetic bananas. The taste starts with toffee then transitions into malted barley spice flavors. There are also hints of honeyed pipe tobacco leaves with black pepper.
Finally, the finish has a medium-length ending on dried fruit flavor, making it smooth but adds an interesting contrast between sweetness and spices at the same time.
7. Tsutsumi 12 Year Taru Sherry Cask Shochu
The Tsutsumi Distillery in Japan has been around for over 141 years. It is one of only 28 producers in Japan whose shochu can be called Kuma Shochu. The distillery uses crystal clear water from the Kumo River and 100% rice as their main ingredients.
In addition to traditional practices, they also value innovation. Thus, creating a product with tradition, modernity, and high-quality standards.
For over fifty-four years, the Tsutsumi Distillery has been aging shochu in sherry casks. Barrel aging imparts notes similar to a good whiskey instead of maturing in traditional vats or jars like most spirits do to get their distinctive taste and coloration.
8. Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whiskey
Discover Hatozaki Small Batch, a unique blend of single malt whiskies. It is made from 100% malt and aged for several years in bourbon and sherry casks before being finished with Japanese Mizunara oak cask aging. This preserves the whisky's personality as it ages without any color or filtration so you can step into its rich heritage!
The nose is pleasantly bright with smells of soft fruit, honeydew, and pepper. Despite being such a light whiskey, your palate will be surprised by its boldness that packs melon flavors mixed with apricot. It has an endearing heat that you wouldn't expect at first!
Located in a stunning part of Japan, Ohishi Distillery was founded in 1872 and had since been producing high-quality whisky. Their production methods are traditional; they use stainless steel pot stills to make their famous beverage before resting it for up to six years inside ex-Sherry or brandy casks.
Ohishi's love for sherry casks has allowed them to create a long-term relationship with cooperages, which enables their distillate to mature in top-quality wood.
On the nose, you'll find hints of oakiness and ashiness alongside notes of dried dark fruit and leather. With its hint of citrus sweetness on grainy flavors, it is nutty through an overall oaky finish, making this whiskey worth trying.
Yamazaki single malt whisky from Japan has a 12-year aging process and was the first Japanese-produced whisky to be sold in global markets. It came into the market in 1984, making it Suntory's oldest product still sold today.
Ever since it earned a spotlight in the whiskey industry, a lot of fans have followed it. With its exquisite and smooth taste, it's no wonder why it attracts many people.
Suntory's Yamazaki is characterized by a refined taste of ripe fruit with sweet vanilla notes. It is crafted from malted barley whiskies matured in white oak casks. It has hidden flavors that help keep the taste exciting and not monotonous, thanks to being aged in sherry and Mizunara casks.
11. Yoichi Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Yoichi Single Malt is a product from Nikka's first distillery in 1934, which is the Yoichi distillery. While in Scotland, Masataka Taketsuru, the founder, learned the art of making whisky.
He was so inspired by it that he decided to bring what he had experienced overseas back home. This led him to choose Hokkaido as a location for this new venture because its environmental characteristics are very similar to those in Scotland.
The nose on this single malt is full-bodied and smooth but mellow at first. As it sits in the whiskey glass, its smoky notes become more powerful before revealing hints of citrus fruit like orange and lemon along with spices such as nutmeg or ginger that add a kick to your senses.
The aggressive taste of this whisky is balanced by a powerful attack that delivers equal parts peat, smoke, spices, and fresh fruit.
Kikori is an amazing whiskey-like alcoholic beverage that bridges the gap between traditional Japanese whiskies and other types of alcohol. It's especially great for warm weather because it isn't as potent, making it perfect for cocktails!
Kikori has all the qualities you'd expect from a good whiskey with rice instead of barley or wheat. This whisky is golden, with a floral and fragrant aroma. Notes of caramel, tree fruits, and vanilla can be detected on the nose as well.
It's bursting with hints of melon and toasted almonds that are balanced by an oak flavor. The finish is both clean and bright, leaving behind a faint layer of tart apple in your mouth.
As a means of experimenting with the unique equipment at their disposal, Nikka Coffey Malt represents an unusual use of Miyagikyo's continuous still that is typically reserved for grain whiskey.
It began when brewery employees decided to fire up and experiment on this machine. It has since become popular among enthusiasts due to its smooth but uniquely robust taste profile that no other distillery can replicate.
The nose of this Japanese whisky is buttery and sweet, with bakery aromas. It has a hint of corn, but the most noticeable feature is its honey and yellow fruit scent that smells like melons or bananas.
This whisky tastes like a mixture of caramel, butterscotch, and vanilla. Additionally, there is an underlying chocolate taste with coffee flavors which gives it more depth and complexity.
One of the best Japanese whiskies, Shibui 15 Year Sherry Cask Matured Japanese Whisky, is distilled in Okinawa, Japan, using Indicia rice and Okinawan black koji.
The whisky spends a minimum of fifteen years being matured exclusively to sherry casks that are first-fill manzanilla and fino sherry casks for this unique flavor profile.
This whisky tastes like the perfect combination of sweet and spice flavors. The first wave to hit your tongue is sweetness with notes of floral honey.
It also brings balance due to their sweetness, whereas marzipan creates a lovely nuttiness sensation on top of everything else, making this drink truly amazing!
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.
16. Shinju Japanese Whisky
This Japanese whisky is such a great addition to any bar. It's delicious on its own, over ice, or mixed with other ingredients in your favorite cocktail recipe! If you want to try something new and unique without spending too much money, this might be the perfect choice for you.
It takes 2-4 years to mature this whisky in white oak barrels, giving it its deep caramel color and unique flavor profile that sets it apart.
Since it's handcrafted with water from Mt. Fuji, Shinju Whisky is smooth and delicious. It comes with hints of honey, orange peel, vanilla beans, to name a few notes in its aromas.
17. Hibiki 17-Year-Old Japanese Whisky
Hibiki 17 Year Old Japanese Whisky is one of the most interesting and delicious whiskies you will ever taste. It's made with several aged malt and grain whiskies from Suntory's three distilleries, so it has lovely hints of spice to surprise your taste buds.
Most recently, Hibiki was given an Editor’s Choice award by the magazine 'Whisky,’ with the first place in its category at the World Whiskey Awards 2010!
Hibiki’s 17-Year-Old Whisky is an elegant combination of aromas, flavors, and textures. It has a light amber color with peach aromas on the nose, followed by apricot notes in addition to melon, rose, lily, and lemon leaf.
On the palate, it gives away toffee, black cherry, vanilla, and Mizunara. The finish brings about sweetness along with a lychee aftertaste, all topped off with fruity flavors.
The whiskey market is growing, more so with celebrity-inspired whiskey brands! You might think that Japanese whisky is a niche product, but it's worth trying. If you’ve never had it before, now is a great time to start!
Which best Japanese whisky are you going to try first? Let us know in the comments section below - we would love to hear from you!