Whiskey production is typically associated with Scotland and Ireland, while bourbon variations of whiskey are usually linked to the United States and Canada. However, these are not the only countries that produce whiskeys and bourbons, as many other countries are now making their mark on this sector of the alcoholic beverages market. One country that is making its name on the whiskey scene is Japan, which is a country more famous for its rice wines. However, Japanese whiskeys are surrounded by controversy. The first controversial issue is that those selling whiskey in Japan can call it Japanese whiskey regardless of whether it was distilled in that country or sourced from elsewhere then blended and bottled in Japan. Another area of controversy is whether all Japanese whiskeys are true whiskeys, as some are made from rice, so they are considered a barrel-aged shochu. However, the rice whiskeys produced in Japan do meet the definition of whiskey in the United States. Now, there are new regulations in Japan stating that manufacturers must state the origin of the whiskey and its contents. Rather than this making it more difficult for Japanese whiskey manufacturers to produce the drink, most are embracing the move. Some are proud to declare their whiskeys as having a world blend that uses whiskey from around the world, and others take pride in producing their whiskey from scratch in Japan. Regardless of the origins and contents of the drinks, Japanese whiskeys are becoming more well-known and desirable, and there are some outstanding varieties available, each of which has unique and distinctive tasting notes. Here are the five best Japanese whiskeys that money can buy.
5. Suntory Whisky Toki
Many fans of Japanese Whiskey find that Japanese whiskeys are relatively difficult to come across in the United States, and some varieties are exceptionally rare. On the other hand, some brands are more widely available in the United States, and one of these is Toki, which is produced by the Suntory distilleries. This company has produced whiskey since 1929, and it has distilleries in Chita, Hakushu, and Yamazaki. Suntory says that the main elements of the blend are Chita grain whiskey and Hakushu white oak cask malt. It also contains Spanish oak cask and Yamazaki white oak cask whiskeys. Although the availability of the whiskey is one reason why it has taken off so quickly, it has also become popular as it is a light option for those who do not enjoy heavy whiskeys. It tastes equally good drunk on its own or over ice as it does with water or another mixer.
4. Akkeshi Sarorunkamuy
While many of the best Japanese whiskeys are produced by established brands, some newcomers to the market stand out amongst the competition. Akkeshi only began operations in 2016, so it is one of the newest Japanese whiskey brands. The company’s distillery is on the island of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan, where the climate is wet and cool. Sarorunkamuy, which translates as ‘white crane,’ is the distillery’s first single malt release. It is classed as a young blend, which means it is aged for at least three years. The blend is created using liquids aged in Mizurna oak, red wine casks, sherry butts, and bourbon barrels. Sarorunkamuy has flavors of spice and vanilla and spreads warmth on the palate. Exports of this whiskey to the United States are limited. Therefore, not only is it hard to find, but it is also a pricey option. However, if you can locate a bottle and are willing to pay the price, it is one for Japanese whiskey fans to try.
3. Iwai Tradition Wine Cask Finish
One of the Mars Shinshu distillery’s claims to fame is that it has the distillery at the highest altitude in Japan, as it is in the Japanese Southern Alps. Whether the altitude impacts the distillation process and the taste of the finished product is open to debate. Mars Shinshu’s Iwai brand is made from a combination of malt and grain whiskey blends aged in barrels previously used for bourbon production. There are special release versions of this whiskey, and some of these use alternative casks, such as wine, sakura, Japanese cherry, and sherry. The Wine Cask Finish was a limited edition released in 2021 that was finished in red wine casks. It was distilled at Chateau Mars, the sister distillery, in the Yamanashi Province. The tasting notes of this whiskey include sweet vanilla, apricot, honey, raisin, and pear.
2. Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
Nikka is one of the big names in the Japanese whiskey market, so it is hardly surprising that one of their whiskeys is included in the list. The company has two distilleries; one in Miyagikyo and the other in Yoichi. They released their Taketsuru Pure Malt in 2020, and it is a blend of the whiskey from their two distilleries, with no grain whiskey in the blend, and it is a refined version of the original Taketsuru. At the Yoichi distillery, peated malt is used that gives the whiskey a smoky taste. The Miyagikyo distillery uses sherry casks, so the whiskeys produced have fruity notes. Interestingly, this whiskey is named after the founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, and the label design is also intended as a tribute to him.
1. Yamakazi 25
According to Esquire, the best Japanese whiskey that money can buy is Yamakaze 25. It is a single malt whiskey produced by Suntory that has been aged for 25 years. The original version of Yamakazi was aged in sherry-seasoned oak barrels. However, chief blender Shinji Fukuyo created this blend using American oak, Spanish oak, and Japanese Mizunara oak. The result is a blend that has tasting notes of ginger, yuzu, persimmon, and sandalwood. It is rare to find a bottle of this whiskey, and there is a hefty price tag attached.