10 Excellent Bottles of Japanese Whisky Everyone Should Try

There is something special about Japanese Whisky that makes it unlike anything else out there. These are the bottles you should get to know.

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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.

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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