You have probably heard of Japanese whisky before, but did you also know it has been one of the fastest climbing whisky markets that has exploded since 2013? Well, I think they produce phenomenal whiskies.
Here is a list of 10 of the bottles that are currently under $100 which are absolutely great to try.
- Suntory Whisky Toki
- Hibiki Japanese Harmony
- Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
- White Oak Akashi Blended Whisky
- The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky – Distiller?s Reserve
- Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
- Yoichi Single Malt
- Nikka Coffey Grain
- Miyagikyo Single Malt
- Make sure to read about this one
Introduction to Japanese whisky
Let’s not dive in the history too much, but here is one thing that you should know. The man that started it all was called Masataka Taketsuru, and after he went to Scotland in 1918 to study organic chemistery, he was hooked by the production of Scotch. He took the expertise back to Japan and started the Yamazaki and Yoichi distilleries, which are the first and second whisky distilleries in Japan.
After renowned whisky critic Jim Murray named Yamazaki’s 2013 Single Malt Sherry Cask as “the best whisky in the world” the Japanese whisky industry really took off.
Just like Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky is spelled without an additional “e”, like we know in American or Irish whiskey. Well, this is not the only thing that Japanese and Scotch whisky have in common. Japanese whisky relies heavily on malted barley, which often is imported from Scotland.
While there definitely are single malt Japanese whiskies available, blending is considered an art and one of the most important steps of creating Japanese whiskies. Distilleries may have dozens of different shaped and sized stills that creates an unaged liquor which they age in numerous different types of wooden barrels, to finally blend together as their final product.
Just like any whiskey, Japanese whisky is wood-aged, for this the Japanese distilleries use a variety of casks including American oak casks, Sherry casks, ex-Bourbon casks or Japanese Mizunara oak casks.
Now let’s jump straight into the 10 bottles of Japanese you need to taste in 2020. Currently they are all cheaper than $100, but prices do fluctuate as the Japanese whisky market struggles to keep up with demand.
As a gift, I highly recommend getting number 3 on the list: Nikka Whisky From The Barrel. It’s a highly available and affordable whisky that can be the perfect introduction to Japanese whisky.
1. Suntory Whisky Toki
Unlike in Scotland, the different Japanese distilleries/companies do not share their liquor to create blends. However, Suntory is the owner of three distilleries throughout Japan: “Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita”. Toki is a blend that is composed of whisky that came from these three distilleries and is the most affordable Japanese whisky on this list. The whisky can be drunk neat but also works very well in a highball.
Nose: On the nose you can find fruity, orchard notes together with honey and a slight peppermint.
Palate: The taste of the whisky is very fresh, there are aromas of green apples, bright citrus and even grapefruit. You may also find herbs, almonds and probably quite a lot of vanilla oak wood. The finish is slightly spicy with pepper and ginger aromas.
If you are looking for a more affordable first taste of Japanese whisky or looking for a gift, I would recommend a bottle of Toki. You can find the current price right here.
2. Hibiki Japanese Harmony
You can not deny that there is not other bottle that looks more like Japanese whisky than the bottle of this bottle called “Japanese Harmony”. The word harmony is a great way to describe the well balanced blend that is created by combining whiskies from all three Suntory distilleries. Master blender Shingo Torii has done a great job at creating a really well balanced and enjoyable whisky that is well worth the price. Here is what you can expect when drinking this dram.
Nose: The nose is an interesting one. You can find all sorts of notes, but the most prominent are the red berries, fresh green apples as well as honey.
Palate: Moving to the taste of the whisky, this whisky will be popular among Bourbon enthusiasts as there are aromas of honey, melted butter and caramel. The influence of the wooden casks is present in the form of an oaky, woody spice. The finish is sweet with tones of brown sugar, as well as some black peppery spices and citrus peels.
This whisky offers a quality dram for novice as well as more experienced whisky drinkers. There is a lot to find and the whisky keeps of giving. It this whisky has sparked your interest, you can check out the current price of a bottle right here.
3. Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
An extremely popular Japanese whisky blend is the Nikka Whiskey From the Barrel. At a whopping 51.4% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) you are getting an intense whisky loved by many. This really is one of the most typical examples of a Japanese whisky, let me explain why.
The blend is a combination of grain and single malt whiskies from the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries, both owned by Nikka. Typical to Japanese blends, the distillates have been aged in a wide variety of different casks including Bourbon barrels, Sherry casks and other refill hogsheads.
Nose: As you know I will never claim to be the whisky expert, and I do not expect anyone to smell your dram and ramble on about what notes you find. When I first nosed this whisky I found it to be a sweet, fresh, floral nose. When you are nosing this whisky you will probably see why I would describe it this way.
Palate: First impressions when you taste this drink will likely come from the influence of the wood of the cask it has aged in. The whisky is fairly dark, which could be because of the influence that the wood had when it was aging. Next to the woody aromas, there are spices, vanilla and a sweet caramel. Overall a very good whisky and a great introduction to Japanese whisky!
4. White Oak Akashi Blended Whisky
Fourth on the list, the Akashi blended whisky (40% ABV). This is a whisky that does not come from one of the major Japanese distilleries, but is created by a small distillery that creates whisky on the side.
The whisky that is sold locally is a blend of malt whisky and molasses spirit, which would not classify as “whisky” on the international market. Therefore, they created another blend that was aimed for export, which is the whisky I’m recommending here. It is a blend of malt and grain whiskies.
The taste of this particular whisky is something special compared to other “safer” choices that people usually recommend. Let’s jump straight into the nose.
Nose: This whisky has a light nose that does not sting like other whiskies can. Notes that you should look for are fresh citrus, malt, toffee/caramel and some spices.
Palate: When tasting this dram, the woody/pine aromas are not that difficult to find. Next to this you may find vanilla, spices and nuts. The finish is long and malty.
5. Hakushu Single Malt Whisky – Distiller?s Reserve
Another whisky that is distilled in a Suntory distillery. At the foot of Mount Kaikomagatake lies the Hakushu distillery and they have created this no-age statement, 43% ABV whisky. The prices fluctuate a lot and have been increasing over the past couple of years.
Nose: On the nose this whisky reminds me of a classic speyside whisky. If you have ever had a Scottish speyside, you know you can expect caramel, fruity and slighly spicy notes. To add to this profile, this whisky brings a little more oak to the table. You could also find notes that remind you of peppermint, pine, fresh grass or other herbs.
Palate: The palate is a good representation of what you can smell on the nose. There are fresh, honeyed herbal aromas that come forward. This whisky is a no-age-statement whisky which does shine trough as there are some sharp edges in the dram.
On the finish there is some smoke, which is nice as this blend is a combination of both lightly and heavily peated whiskies. It should shine trough, and it does!
6. Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
Number 6! The Nikka Taketsuru (named after the founder and man we talked about in the introduction earlier) is a no-age-statement, pure malt whisky bottled at 43% alcohol.
Just FYI, a whisky is called a pure malt (or blended malt) when two or more single malt whiskies from different distilleries are blend together. In this case, the whisky is a blend from a single malt from the Yoichi distillery and one from the Miyagikyo distillery.
The sherry cask influence shines through in this one, giving it beautiful sweet and fruity aromas. I always notice this on the nose, where you can find fresh fruits and raisins. Talking about the nose, let’s dive in further.
Nose: There are sweet sherried fruits that create a lovely fresh smell. There’s honey, pepper and wood influence. Don’t worry if you can’t find all of this when you try the whisky for the first time, as the ability to discern different aromas comes over time. I am also still learning.
Palate: When taking a sip of this whisky, there are several darker aromas that you can notice. Things like coffee beans, milk chocolate and potentially even some tobacco smoke are not uncommon in this whisky.
Of course there is the fruit that I mentioned in the nose, and you may find some peppery spices. I should mention the light smoke once again, which also continues in the finish of the drink.
7. Yoichi Single Malt
The 7th whisky on this list is the Yoichi single malt whisky, a whisky from the Nikka portfolio. The whisky is bottled at 45% and distilled at the first distillery that Taketsuru opened all the way back in 1934. Yoichi is a no-age-statement whisky that, like many other Japanese whiskies, is getting more expensive every year due to the high demand.
If the demand was lower, the distillery would probably be able to produce whiskies with an age-statement, but they currently are not doing this. But don’t get me wrong, this whisky is not exclusive as it is a staple whisky from this distillery. Let’s get tasting!
Nose: There is so much to say about all the notes this whisky keeps on giving. At first, the smell of this whisky is smokey and could remind you of a campfire, charcoal, grassy evening. Later on more fruity citrus notes develop. Other notes you could pick up are things like ginger, nutmeg and even other floral notes.
Palate: If you’ve had whiskies that have had the chance to age longer (12+ year old scotch, bourbon) you know that this can take some of the sharp edges from the whisky. When tasting this dram, there still are some of them left, which can be expected from a no-age-statement whisky. Don’t let this throw you off, as there are plenty of beautiful peat, smoke, spice and candied fruity notes.
Overall, this whisky gets really good reviews and definitely is one you should try. Chances are I have to remove this one from the list soon as it looks like the prices are going to rise above $100.
8. Nikka Coffey Grain
Alright yes I was under the impression that this whisky contained coffee! It doesn’t which is a shame. The word “Coffey” in the name actually refers to the type of still that is used to create this whisky. The other word in the title gives away that this whisky is no single malt, but a grain whisky. Don’t scroll further just yet, as grain whiskies can be extremely underappreciated.
There are not many distilleries who use a coffey still. Instead, most distillates come from a batch still that produces batches of whisky-to-be. A coffey still is a continuous still, how cool is that. I have found a picture online that shows such a still, look how impressive it looks.
But what does this whisky taste like? Here we go:
Nose: Distinctive for grain whiskies is a nice sweetness on the nose. Sometimes grain whiskies can be sharp on the nose, others are well rounded and that is the case with this Nikka Coffey Grain whisky. The sweetness is accompanied with bourbon-like vanilla notes.
Palate: The palate is a balanced combination of sweet fruits with crunchy biscuits together with peppery spices. There is sweet thick syrup / honeydew. The whisky is not intense or overwhelming which is a please to sip.
9. Miyagikyo Single Malt
Number 9 on the list is Miyagikyo Single Malt, which is a great whisky bottled at 45% ABV. It is distilled at the Miyagikyo distillery and bottled by Nikka. Like a said, the whisky is great. But it’s way too expensive. I’m not going to link this whisky on my site as I do not want you to go to the site and buy it.
Right now, it costs close to $90 and it will only continue to rise in price. It is a no-age-statement whisky so chances are that a big part of the whisky that is used in this blend has only been aged for 3 years.
I’m sorry if this is your favorite whisky, but its getting overpriced. Which brings us to number 10, which did not make the cut. Instead, I want to tell you something you must know when looking to buy a Japanese bottle of whisky.
10. Almost mandatory discussion
You made it all the way to the end! Yes, I promised 10 whiskies, but I want to take this place in the list for a mandatory discussion when buying Japanese whiskies. As a 10th whisky on the list I wanted to add Togouchi Premium Blended Japanese Whisky. I did not, as I feel there is something wrong with Japanese whiskies.
There is an enormous demand for Japanese whiskies, which I can understand as they produce great products. However, prices are skyrocketing and many Japanese whiskies are raising their prices just because they are Japanese.
All of the whiskies on this list have been blends, as this is an artform the Japanese are extremely good at. However, they are also all no-age-statement whiskies. This means that you do not know how long the whiskies have had the chance to age in a the barrel. I assume that many of the whiskies used in the blends have only been aged for 3 years, and therefore did not get the chance to become less sharp and more smooth. You can taste it when a whiskey is young.
I’m going to put a statement into the world, but remember I am an inexperienced whisky drinker. I drink what I like and like what I drink, but by no means know it all.
When buying Japanese whisky, I feel like many of the bottles are way to expensive for no-age-statement whiskies. You are paying too much money for whisky that has not yet had the chance to age.
Therefore, choose wisely. If you have the money, that all of the bottles on this list are great for you. If you do not want to spend $70 on a bottle of whisky, don’t. There are many great bottles of Bourbon or Scotch around the $40 price point that are great quality whiskies.