Top 13 Japanese Whiskies to Savor in 2023
In response, various brands have stepped up by introducing new blends and NAS (no age statement) whiskies, many of which excel as cocktail components. When embarking on your quest for Japanese whisky, it's essential to conduct thorough research, as some brands blend whiskies from other countries, bottle them in Japan, and label them as Japanese whisky. Yet, there's a compelling reason behind this surge in popularity – the world of Japanese whisky holds a treasure trove of truly remarkable drams.
When seeking out Japanese whisky, pay close attention to factors like its color, aging process, and the grains used, as they all provide valuable hints about the flavor profile and pricing.
1. Best Overall: Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
Suntory's Yamazaki 12-Year-Old stands as a cornerstone of the brand's single malt collection, including the Hakushu range. This whisky, once relatively easy to find, now commands a price close to $200 per bottle. With its floral and fruity notes, it offers a distinct character reminiscent of Scotch whisky while carving out a unique identity. It serves as an excellent starting point for those venturing into Japanese whisky.
2. **Best Under $100: Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky**
Nikka, another prominent Japanese whisky producer, presents Coffey Grain Whisky. Named after Aeneas Coffey, the inventor of the continuous still, this delightful creation is predominantly crafted from corn, lending it a creamy texture and a sweetness that appeals to bourbon enthusiasts.
3. Best Under $50: Mars Shinshu Iwai 45% Whisky
Hailing from the Nagano prefecture in Japan, this blend is primarily composed of corn, along with malted barley and rye. Its aromatic profile features vanilla with subtle hints of baking spices, while the palate offers a lean experience with notes of pear and quince. With its 45 percent alcohol content, it's ideal for summer sipping and a valuable addition to cocktails.
4. Best for Highballs: Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
"Toki," meaning "time" in Japanese, is a blend of some of Suntory's finest whiskies. Exhibiting notes of pink grapefruit, almonds, and a light vanilla finish, it serves as a perfect base for a refreshing Highball when mixed with sparkling water and a squeeze of lemon.
5. Best Single Malt: Hakushu 12 Year Old Whisky
In Japan, "single malt" carries the same meaning as in Scotland – whisky made at a single distillery from malted barley. Hakushu, produced in the Japanese Alps, boasts a captivating woodsy and herbaceous nose, evolving into delightful fruit notes with a subtle peaty touch. Sourced from deep mountain forests near the distillery, its water imparts a unique and approachable character for a peated whisky.
6. Best NAS Blended: Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
Crafted by a sake expert, this blended whisky pleases crowds with its complexity. Aged in various cask types, including shochu, bourbon, and sherry, it offers the richness of American oak, smoky peat undertones, and a leathery finish, catering to the preferences of Scotch whisky enthusiasts.
7. Best Age Statement Blend: Hibiki 17 Year Old Japanese Whisky
In the world of Japanese whisky, blending is an art form, and Suntory's Hibiki range is a testament to this. The 17-year-old blend, a harmonious marriage of grain and malt whiskies aged for nearly two decades, delivers a silky-smooth mouthfeel and a palate rich in buttery, fruit-laden notes. It's a top-shelf choice, best savored neat.
8. Best Peated: Nikka Yoichi Single Malt
While Japanese whiskies generally don't match the peat levels of Islay Scotch, Nikka's Yoichi Single Malt is an exception. This NAS whisky offers a substantial smokiness balanced by tropical fruit and caramel flavors on the palate, making it a superb choice for neat sipping or crafting an intense highball.
9. Best World Blend: Mars Maltage Cosmo Single Malt Whisky
Hailing from the Mars Shinshu distillery, this blend combines whisky distilled in Japan with sourced spirits from Scotland. Mars Maltage Cosmo exhibits sherry-casked Scotch-like qualities, with hints of vanilla and plum, thanks to its aging in sherry butts and ex-bourbon barrels. Enjoy it on the rocks or in cocktails like an old-fashioned.
10. Best for Bourbon Fans: Nikka From the Barrel Whisky
With delicate notes of vanilla, butterscotch, and a subtle hint of orange peel, Nikka From The Barrel stands its ground, enhancing classic cocktails like the old-fashioned and providing a character-rich experience when enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
11. Best Rice Whisky: Kikori Rice Whisky
While some may categorize Kikori as an aged shochu, it qualifies as whiskey under U.S. definitions. Aged in American oak, French Limousin oak, and sherry casks for a minimum of three years, it offers a wide range of flavors. This versatile spirit is perfect for highballs and exploration.
12. Best 18 Year Old: The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
The 18-year-old Yamazaki, a rare and expensive gem, surpasses its 12-year-old counterpart in Japanese whisky connoisseurs' eyes. Aged in American, Spanish, and Mizunara oak for 18 years, it delivers a diverse spectrum of flavor notes, though acquiring a bottle may require a substantial investment.
13. Best Small Batch: Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky
Light in color and fruit-forward, this small-batch whisky undergoes aging for five to six years in oak, including bourbon, sherry, and Mizunara casks. It offers mild richness with notes of malted barley, damp earth, lemon, sweet caramel, and a hint of smokiness and apricot. Perfect for highballs, it pairs wonderfully with apples or citrus fruits and transitions from sake-like at first to a whisky-like finish.