Is it Suntory time? Japanese whisky has become popular in recent years and is rated highly all over the world. But, like whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, America, and so on, Japanese whisky also has multiple brands and varieties, including single malt, blended, and grain, and it can be hard to know which one to go for – especially for beginners.
To help you out, we have prepared a ranking of our recommended Japanese whiskies to buy online on Amazon, Japan Centre and eBay featuring brands like Suntory and Nikka and varieties such as Hibiki and Yamazaki. We've also included a tasting set for those who just can't decide! But first, take a look at our guide where we explain the points to keep in mind when choosing the perfect Japanese whisky for you.
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Although relatively new, nowadays Japanese whisky is one of the most popular whiskies in the world, standing beside that of Scotland, Ireland, the US and Canada.
Scottish whisky-making methods were brought from Scotland to Japan in the early 20th century by chemistry student Masataka Taketsuru. After his return to Japan, Taketsuru helped create the Yamazaki distillery with Shinjiro Torii before creating his own brand, Nikka, in the north of Japan. Torii's company 'Torii Shoten' later became Suntory, and the two great makers of Japanese whisky were born.
While at first very similar to Scotch whisky (hence the "whisky" spelling), Japanese whisky has since developed greatly on its own and has become its own unique drink with multiple delicious varieties available.
Now that you know a bit about the history of Japanese whisky, let's move on to how to choose the perfect beverage for you. There are many points to bear in mind, such as the brand, the location of the distillery and the type of flavour. So sit down with a glass and some ice and let's get started!
There are three main types of whisky, single malt, grain, and blended, which are distinguished by differences in the ingredients and manufacturing method. Check which type is best for you by considering the characteristics of each.
"Single malt" means that the whisky is made in a single distillery, and uses only malted barley and water, although it can contain whisky from various barrels from the same distillery.
This kind of whisky is best for showing the individuality of the distillery, as the aroma and taste of the whisky can be influenced by the climate and nature of the particular area, so each kind of single malt whisky has a very distinctive taste. Japanese single-malt whiskies can be enjoyed on the rocks or in highballs – both will allow you to appreciate the unique taste.
Single malt whiskies also have the most unique, heavy flavour because of this. However, whisky-beginners may not be fond of the strong flavour, as well as the high price. Look for products with a long ageing period for a mellow-flavoured drink.
Grain whisky is made from any grain except malted barley, which is usually either corn, wheat, or rye, although it may still contain a small amount of malt barley.
For people who aren't fond of the strong flavour of whisky, we recommend this variety which is smooth and mild. In addition, it's sold at a cheaper price than single malt, so it's perfect for those who want to begin with a more affordable Japanese whisky.
However, grain whisky is often used within blended whisky, meaning that there are a limited number of Japanese grain whiskies to purchase on the market. That said, grain whiskies have been getting more attention in Japan since Suntory's "Chita" whisky became more popular, so this may be a good place to start.
We recommend blended whiskies both to those who want something smooth and easy to drink, as well as to any Japanese-whisky-virgins out there. Blended whisky is the product of whisky from different distilleries being expertly blended together, and as a result, has a mild and harmonious taste.
It is easy to drink like grain whisky but with more products available, and again can be purchased at a more affordable price than single malt whisky, making it a great choice for beginners.
Within the broad category of blended whisky, there are numerous different types, since the end result can be a mix of malt and grain, or two different types of malt, and so on. Many of them have been specially blended in order to suppress the strong whisky taste – another reason we recommend them for beginners!
In order to find a Japanese whisky that will be to your liking, it is important to confirm the type of flavour of the whisky. While paying attention to the taste and features of the distillery, try to pick the whisky you want to try the most.
The most palatable drink for beginners is usually something without a strong peat taste. You should first determine whether the whisky has a peat taste or not, before choosing something with a taste you'll know you like, such as refreshing lemon or sweet mango or papaya.
In addition, the flavour will also change depending on the type of cask that the whisky has been aged in. Bourbon barrels create more of a vanilla taste, sherry casks create a taste similar to dry fruits or raisins, and wine cask-matured whiskies taste more similar to, well, wine!
Of course, to a certain extent, you won't know which flavour you like the best until you try different whiskies – so it might be worth picking up a variety and having a (sensible) whisky tasting night with your friends.
Compared to countries like Scotland and America, Japan has many fewer distilleries, meaning that you won't have as many choices. But because of this, you'll be able to remember the characteristics of each distillery, brand, and product, and choose your favourite from within the smaller selection.
For example, whisky from Nikka's "Yoichi" distillery is strong with a distinctive peat taste. Suntory's "Yamazaki" distillery makes whisky that tastes unique and rich. "Hibiki" whisky is also unique but easy to drink at the same time, while whisky from "Hakushu" is both refreshing and smoky.
While, again, it will be hard to judge without tasting each one yourself, we recommend referring to word of mouth and reviews and challenging yourself by something different than what you are used to.
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Hibiki - Japanese Harmony
The Crème de la Crème of Japanese Blended Whiskies
An Ideally-Blended Single Malt
A Pleasant Single Malt to Go Hand in Hand With Yoichi
Coffey Grain Whisky
A Delicious Grain Whisky Made in a Rare Coffee Distiller
A Pure Malt Named After the Founder of Nikka Whisky
A Fruity Flavour Made in a Forest Distillery
Pure Malt Red
A Blend of Malt Whiskies for Those Who Love Pure Malt
A Harmonious Sweet Blend of Three Grain Whiskies
The Origin of Nikka Whisky, Born in Yoichi, Hokkaido
Original Fine Quality Whisky
The Number One Whisky in Japan, Famous for Highballs
Hibiki is nowadays the most prominent blended whisky in Japan, and it's easy to see why. This fine blend of malt and grain whiskies perfectly demonstrates Suntory's history and skill in whisky-making.
The highest-quality 30-year-old Hibiki whisky is sold at shocking prices, so we have chosen to recommend this standard bottle which is, we have to admit, still pretty pricey, but well worth the cost as it's so delicious – give it a try!
Suntory's Yamazaki distillery was built in Mishima-gun, Osaka. The single malt whisky that is made there is called, surprise surprise, Yamazaki! Yamazaki single malt whisky has a base of whisky aged in wine and sherry casks, which is blended with that from Mongolian Oak casks.
It fantastically balances a sweet fragrance with the depth expected of a single malt whisky. With classic Yamazaki strawberries and dried fruits on the nose, lively dried berries and white oak on the palate and a vanillary, spicy and sweet cinnamon finish, it's no wonder this single malt is so popular.
Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery was made in Sendai in the North of Japan, roughly 30 years after Yoichi. The single malt whisky that it makes is floral, fruity, and easy for anyone to enjoy; a good contrast with Yoichi's deep, rich flavour.
The fruity flavour is made by a gentle distillation process using steam and making sure that no heavy ingredients remain in the pot still. Its gentle taste makes this a great introduction to Japanese whiskies.
Nikka, who rarely sell grain whisky on its own, starting selling this Coffey Grain dessert whisky as a limited product. It's mostly made from corn and has autumnal notes of fruit and spice. Extremely popular during its limited release, it started to be sold as a standard product of the brand.
It has a mellow woody vanilla, chocolate, and burnt sugar sweetness that those with a sweet tooth will enjoy. There is a product in the same range called "Coffey Malt"; a malt whisky made in the same sort of coffee distiller, which you may also enjoy.
Nikka's Taketsuru whisky, a pure malt, is named after the founder of the company himself, Masataka Taketsuru, and is, therefore, one of the flagship products of the brand.
It has a sweet, round, rich taste to it, and can be said to be emulating Scotch whisky, which Taketsuru envisioned to do with his whiskies. While there are different grades depending on how long the whisky has been aged, this particular product is the most popular grade.
Hakushu is another of Suntory's big distilleries besides Yamazaki and is located in Yamanashi prefecture. This whisky is light and fruity and, like other single malt whiskies, has a strong flavour to enjoy at the same time.
Of course, it can be drunk straight, but with its pleasant peppermint, pine and grassy notes, we recommend drinking it in a highball with a sprig of mint. This is quite a costly whisky, but you'll soon see why once you take a sip.
While blended whiskies are usually a blend of two different varieties, such as malt and grain, Nikka's Pure Malt is a blend of two different malt whiskies. The result is a lightly sweet vanilla nose and a soft and gentle taste.
While "Pure Malt Black" mainly uses malt whisky from the Yoichi distillery with a richer taste, this "Pure Malt Red" mainly uses fruity and soft whisky from the Miyagikyo distillery; so why don't you give both types a try!
Suntory started making grain whisky in their Chita distillery in Aichi prefecture, Japan. The Chita distillery makes three types of grain whisky from corn – "clean", "medium", and "heavy" – and blends these together to make Chita whisky.
It has a smoothness that won't be found in malt whiskies and is sweet and refreshing, opening up to honeydew melon and sugared cereals and developing into creamy vanilla with floral and citrus hints. Though delicious, those who want something a bit richer may find this too sweet.
The founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, chose Yoichi in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, as it's climate is similar to that of Scotland. The Yoichi whisky which was born there is obviously influenced by Scotch whisky and has a delightfully deep, smoky fragrance.
The secret to its delicious aroma is the unique coal-firing distillation process, which adds a slightly burnt flavour. However, if you are already used to Scotch whisky you may want to try something a bit different.
This rectangular bottle of whisky was put out into the world in 1937 by Suntory's founder himself, Shinjiiro Torii. It's a delicious blend of malt and grain whisky with a mellow yet distinct and complex flavour.
Having supported the "highball boom" of post-war Japan and the 2010s with its balanced sweet fragrance and dry aftertaste, it goes great with Japanese food. We recommend drinking it mixed with soda water in highballs, as it may not be the best on this list for drinking straight.
Many people in Japan also drink whisky in a highball, meaning that the whisky is added to ice and mixed with sparkling water. "Mizuwari", adding the whisky to ice and adding a small amount of mineral water, is also popular. Both of these methods are gentler on the palate but will still allow you to taste the flavour of the whisky, so are the best ways to enjoy Japanese whisky for beginners.
Like other Japanese drinks, Japanese whisky is usually enjoyed with food. Most foods will suit whisky well, but as a guideline, for straight or on the rocks you may want to try pairing it with dark chocolate, nuts, or dried fruits, which will help bring out the various flavours of the drink. Highballs go well with karaage fried chicken, meat, and gyoza (fried dumplings).
If you're like us here at mybest and are obsessed with all things Japanese, you won't be satisfied with just a bottle of whisky but will want to try some other unique Japanese beverages too. Luckily we've done all the hard work for you and have found the best sake, shochu and plum wine to buy in the UK. Kampai!
We hope our buying guide and recommendations were helpful for you to select the Japanese whisky of your dreams. But our main piece of advice would be to try out a range of different whiskies to taste the subtle difference between each of them. So pick up a few bottles, prepare a glass and some ice, and enjoy – in moderation of course.
Author: Brigid Bernard
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