There is something special about Japanese Whisky that makes it unlike anything else out there. Though its origins lie in Scotland, over the past century since the whisky industry in Japan was born, the local palate nurtured an entirely new branch on the whisky 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 Whisky — 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 Whisky’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 Whiskies just now coming onto the market in the US for the first time, you don’t need to be fixated on age statements nor pay the high prices associated with them to experience the sublime balance of Japanese Whisky for yourself.
The lineage of Japanese Whisky 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 whisky. 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.
“Whisky making is an act of cooperation between the blessings of nature and the wisdom of man,” said Taketsuru, the undisputed father of Japanese Whisky. But it’s the Japanese interpretation that has made this spirit what it is.
“When the country was starting its whisky tradition, it adhered to the Scotch style more closely,” said Brian Ashcraft, author of Japanese Whisky: 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 Whisky 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 Whisky. “From the time that they’re kids, you’re taught that you don’t 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 Whiskies 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 whiskies of different ages are used to achieve it. “Age statement in Japan isn’t a selling point,” he said, adding that it was adopted by the big houses because it’s 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 Whisky, his response was simple: “Japanese Whisky is whisky made by Japanese people.” Japanese Whisky is not legally defined in the way that Bourbon or Scotch is, which leads to creativity but also some grey 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 whiskies, some of which are Japanese Whisky 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 whisky 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 whisky in a cool apothecary bottle that works well in cocktails. Akashi has the oldest whisky 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 whisky has notes of salinity from the saltwater air.
This whisky 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 whisky 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 Whisky, made at Japan’s oldest distillery. In his book, Brian Ashcraft quoted the tasting notes from Japan’s leading whisky 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 whisky” 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 whisky 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 whiskies from 5 different cask types offers the best entry point into truly exceptional whisky 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 whisky 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 on land, Kaiyō's 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 whisky. This cask strength expression bottled at 53% alcohol delivers a particularly bold and rich Mizunara flavor that will stand up in a cocktail.
New to the U.S. 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 Whisky––all in pursuit of balance.
Toki is perfect for a Highball. It’s a delicate whisky with a light gold color that really comes to life in the effervescence of ice-cold soda water which is something you won’t be afraid to pair it with based on the approachable price thanks to the lack of age statement. If you want to try whisky 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 Anstendig, 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 whisky in the freezer. This is their recipe for their Suntory Toki Highball, but any Japanese Whisky 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 Whisky 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 whisky 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.
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