The 5 Best Japanese Whiskeys To Try Now

Most of the true-blue whiskey aficionados, whom I know personally, are for some reason, under the impression that when they have a glass of whiskey, it is a Scottish drink – right away. So, I have set out to correct this assumption.

For one thing, let me tell you that this may not ever be true. A glass of whiskey is not always Scotch. You and my buddies perhaps might be perplexed to hear such a statement if you don’t know the inside story. To those who know the real score, no explanation is necessary. For the inquiring minds here, here’s the lowdown.

First, allow me to justify this thinking. I imagine that the reason why some people think whiskey is synonymous to scotch is plain and simple. They have this idea that it comes from Scotland. They hold that the provenance of this fire spirit points to the country – crafted and aged there. Otherwise, you wouldn’t call your whiskey drink “scotch”, if it has a different origin.

However, you should really only use the term “Scotch whiskey” if you are referring to the liquor variant that, without any doubt, came from Scotland – crafted and aged there! In other words, if it did NOT originate from there, you call it whiskey.

Downtown alley in Japan.

Whiskey fans are thrilled to know that their favorite drink is not limited to offerings from Scotland. Many other countries are now producing their blend of fine whiskeys, including Japan. The Japanese whiskey has established for itself a stellar reputation in the spirits industry. Presently, we know this country produces some of the most excellent whiskey bottles.

Whiskey production is an integral part of Japan’s liquor industry. The “Land of the Rising Sun” truly savors their reputation as the origin of several of the most respected makers of fine quality whiskeys.

Japanese Whiskey labels.

Japan’s first distillery company began operating in 1924. Their journey started in a little suburb of Kyoto called Yamazaki. The company came together through the collaboration of Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Therefore, we can reliably say that these two guys both pioneered the production of whiskey in Japan.

Mr Taketsuru purposedly and intently set out to learn about the science of distillation. He studied organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He came from a family of sake brewers. But he fell in love with the art of whiskey crafting. He learned enough and gained good mastery of the techniques of some of the renowned Scottish distilleries he worked in. Then he went back to his home to practice the craft. You can find his notes on whiskey crafting preserved in a museum in Japan. He eventually ventured on his own to start an independent distilling firm and named it “Dainipponkaju”. Later on, Nikka became its name. It conceivably also became the name of the Japanese whiskey brand most familiar to us.

Japan and Its Journey to Making Fine Whiskeys

Some of us may not know much about Japanese whiskeys. But for most, the Japanese whiskey industry has its share of gray areas, almost enigmatic even. It is surprising to discover that they are exceptional. Here is what you need to know about Japanese whiskeys. They don’t have many strict rules to follow when it comes to distilling or making whiskey or any liquor for that matter. They don’t impose requirements as compared to how Scotland makes their Scotch whiskeys.

It is also amusing to know that the taste of Japanese whiskeys has a close semblance to Scottish blends. Do you know the reason why? There is a logical explanation for that. The majority of the top whiskey producers in Japan today travelled to Scotland at the start of their whiskey-making careers. Their goal was to learn the craft there and to acquire the skills necessary in this field. They desired to perfect it for themselves. And they successfully did.

These pioneering Japanese distillers made frequent visits to Scotland first before embarking on setting up a whiskey distilling business on their own. All these travel and learning were for the sole purpose of replicating, even improving upon the original Scottish whiskey production techniques. If you happen to have a discriminating taste for the fire spirit, you only need one sip to appreciate their unique and distinct character. The quality of Japanese whiskeys is beyond what words can describe.

Here are some excellent Japanese whiskey labels you may want to try out.

1. Nikka Single Malt Yoichi

Nikka Single Malt Yoichi is an exceptional fire spirit, an outstanding offering from the Nikka Distillery of Japan. Now, it is plausibly one of the most sought-after Japanese whiskeys. It has become even more popular after being awarded the “2018 Japanese Whiskey Of The Year”. This award came from by the popular whiskey blogger/influencer, Jim Murray.

What makes its flavor distinct from other offerings from Japan? Makers of this excellent whiskey use old-school Coffey stills! Initially, they used this type of stills for white spirits and grain whiskeys only. But they tried them out for whiskey and ta-da! produced the taste they coveted.

The result is a one-of-a-kind whiskey blend with fruity and spicy expression. With this, we can declare that Nikka Single Malt Yoichi defies tradition. It perfectly suits someone who has a discriminating taste for fire spirits.

Nikka Single Malt Yoichi

So far, as far as cost is concerned, we qualify this bottle as among the most affordable of Japanese whiskeys. Its moderate value made it as one of the most in-demand Japanese whiskey labels. It is a highly sought-after bottle not only in Japan but the whole world over.

Open up a bottle, and you can whiff up traces of lemons, apples, and oranges. It is a fleeting aroma from the bottle that dissipates forth soon after opening it. But you will also detect traces of fresh mint, peat, and light smoke. Sometimes, there’s a scent of a combination of several light spices and even salt.

Now, as for the palate, it comes more distinctive. There is an observable peat dominance. Makers of this whiskey label intend to give it some fruity, spicy flavors. Additionally, it helps them create balance within each of its ingredients. As the palate fades away, what remains behind, says many, is its smooth, chocolate after-taste. While for others, they find in them a hint of toffee with caramel.

2. The Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whiskey

The  Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whiskey is among the most scarce of them all. Being rare worked to its advantage because it landed as among the most expensive label of Japanese whiskeys. At an auction house in Hongkong in Bonhams Whiskey Sale early this year, it fetched a staggering amount of $343,000. The mysterious buyer from Asia joined the auction proceedings via phone patch only. And then at the very last minute of the bidding process, he placed a surprising bid which won for him the bottle.

Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whiskey

Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest distillery, established in 1923. They are the name behind the Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whiskey. It is a very rare 50-year old whiskey label. It broke its own record title of being the most expensive of Japanese whiskeys.

Previously, this genuine claim to fame went to The Karuizawa “The Dragon” 1960 52-year-old. It was sold off at another auction for $312, 130. Another whiskey bottle from Yamazaki got sold off for $299,000 at another auction house.

3. Suntory Hibiki 21-Year-Old

Hibiki 21-Year-Old is one of the most awarded whiskey labels of Japan. It started reaping accolades after earning the title of the “World’s Best Blended Whiskey”. The “World Whiskey Awards” conferred this honor to this whiskey label back in 2013. Consequently, the label was able to maintain its stellar status in the industry. And as if the earlier acclaim still needed to be substantiated, Jim Murray also recognized the unique and distinct qualities of this fire spirit in 2014 via his blog on spirits, “The Whiskey Bible”. He bestowed to this label 96 credit points!

Suntory Hibiki 21-Year-Old

The distilling team behind this exceptional label of whiskey is the Suntory powerhouse. What makes their blend of whiskey unique and unforgettable? Unlike other whiskey concoctions, they aged the Hibiki 21-year old in 5 different casks. These include the sherry, American white oak, and the Mizunara which is an exotic Japanese wood. By aging the whiskey in multiple types of barrels, they can achieve a fantastic palate for their whiskey.

The charred oak used in its aging course is crucial to its flavor. It is helpful to the whiskey in such a way that it helps it achieve its deep, distinctive character. Moreover, it renders the palate its unique blend of floral, orange and citrus fruits.

4. Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013

When you speak about changing the image of Japanese whiskeys on a global scale in the most radical sense, you must have Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 in mind. It all started, yet again, with the renowned online blogger for whiskeys and spirits, Jim Murray. He declared on his blog post that this whiskey label is “The World’s Best Whiskey”. The content was widely read and spread among whiskey enthusiasts. It can be seen in “The Whiskey Bible” in his 2015 posts.

The act of conferring that informal title from a personal blog that has a wide array of an audience worked to the advantage of the label. It is because it fired up the interest of the global community of whiskey lovers. They were curious and wanted to know more about it. The worldwide attention and cravings of whiskey lovers are now in this bottle! Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 earned an excellent reputation as one of the most coveted whiskey offerings of Japan.

Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013

The prediction of industry experts came to pass and became real. With just this single blog post from Jim Murray, the whiskey label gained significant mileage in the online world. Due to the vast following and popularity of the blog site, it became viral and created an uproar – to the point of becoming a byword in the liquor industry.

The content of the blog post catapulted the market price of this bottle, to the surprise of everyone. Which is to say that if one person is to get credit for all the positive things that happened to this brand of whiskey, it should be no other than Jim Murray himself. With the affirmations he granted to this whiskey label on his blog, it became recognised, far and wide. Makers of this whiskey made a heavenly concoction by combining dark chocolates, figs, plums, and an inordinate number of spices. It resulted in remarkable depth and balance of flavor.

Unlike other whiskey labels, the makers of Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 does not use ordinary water in their production. Instead, they procure it from the wells found on the foot of Mt. Tenno, a secluded mountain situated in Kyoto, Japan. The locals here highly prize the water from this region due to its natural softness. More than that, the waters here have a high concentration of minerals.

According to official sales records, 18,000 bottles of Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 came into the market. The Whiskey Bible’s online shop significantly helped in selling out the majority of them. Still, there is a high likelihood that you will find some of them in a few specialty shops in the UK. You can have one for $160. On eBay, you can expect to pay anywhere from $2.60 to $1,183 for every bottle.

5. Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Blended Whiskey

While Japanese whiskeys have quite a reputation as being expensive bottles, this does not mean to say that you cannot find Japanese blends that are easy on the wallet. Sure, you can come across cheaper alternatives for those priced beyond what you want to shell out cashwise – such as the ones mentioned above. Hey, you never know when opportunity knocks and your fat wallet says, “Go ahead, indulge!” It’s your lucky day, and it is time to celebrate. And a celebration is never the same without a bottle of whiskey. It is time to try out one of these Japanese whiskeys we have been discussing in this post!

However, not to rain on your parade, you need to do some careful due diligence when trying to obtain one. Why? It is highly likely to come across a counterfeit label instead.

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Blended Whisky

Going back to the alternatives though, you can try the pocket-friendly Japanese whiskey “Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Blended Whisky”. This label is produced by Chichibu Distillery, under the supervision of Ichiro Akuto. Chichibu belongs to Japan’s roster of reputable producers of high-quality labels of whiskeys. Typically, if there is a limited bottling for a name of whiskey, it is likely to fetch a higher market price. However, in the case of this malt and grain, we can safely qualify it as just being in its entry-level release.

This whiskey blend is the union of imported grain and Chichibu’s malt spirits. The company’s inability to create its grain spirit comes from the fact that it does not have its massive continuous stills. Thus, they can only rely on imported grain spirits. This label from Chichibu Distillery is an excellent introduction to their line-up of fire spirits. It is also a good reflection of Ichiro’s talents in crafting blends of fine whiskey.

Counterfeit Japanese Whiskey Labels

The Japanese brand of whiskeys may have earned a stellar reputation in the global community due to their superior quality and superb palate. Without any doubt, we can line them up as among the most popular and widely sought- after by whiskey enthusiasts despite their steep price in the market. However, you can hardly find any strictly implemented rules when it comes to their production. Comparatively, this is not how they do things in the US and Scotland.

The absence of set rules can’t come without a corresponding drawback because it has paved the way for the greed of a few small-time distillers. The scam they perpetuate begins by buying whiskey from other whiskey-producing countries such as Scotland. It is where they briefly, and I mean shortly (!) “mature” it in the land of origin, and before it reaches the full age, they make the trip to Japan. Finally, there the unscrupulous would bottle it up, and trade it as a Japanese labelled whiskey.

Take Caution When Shopping for Cheap Japanese Whiskey

Counterfeit whiskey is gaining good ground in the market. The people behind these labels are raking in vast amounts of profits. Therefore, people who buy whiskey need to take extra caution when purchasing a bottle, especially if the tag price is beyond affordable. I advise that you spare some time to do a quick research about the provenance of a particular whiskey label before you even head out to the bar counter and pay for it. Whether it is a counterfeit whiskey or not, you deserve to know your money’s worth.

One of Japan’s red-light district in Kyoto.

Tricking the customer to believe a lie and making them think that what they bought is an authentic Japan-made whiskey is a big-time robbery. The sad reality is that there are companies in the liquor industry that are into such practices. So, wise consumers that we are, it is of prime importance that we take conscientious effort and validate everything first, before making the plunge to purchase a bottle.

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