There are many Japanese whiskies that boast of high quality as evidenced by the numerous awards they have been winning around the world these days. Here are five whiskies in the country that are particularly recommended.
Named in honor of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky who is said to be the father of Japanese whisky, Taketsuru is a pure malt whisky. Pure malt whisky is made by blending various malts, the main ingredient of whisky, from different distilleries. The blender does his magic to give Taketsuru a deep body taste and make it easy to drink. With four whiskies under its brand, the Taketsuru Pure Malt, Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old, Taketsuru Pure Malt 21 Years Old and Taketsuru Pure Malt 25 Years Old, Taketsuru has been winning a string of awards at international competitions. Just recently, the Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old bagged the World’s Best Blended Malt (Pure Malt) award at the World Whiskies Award (WWA) in 2015. Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old has an extremely delicate taste that blends more than 50 kinds of malt whiskies in a single drop. It has a fine balance between smokiness that is unique to whisky and mellow sweetness from the barrel. Taketsuru is the perfect whisky for novices in the world of Japanese whisky.
2. Yoichi Single Malt
Yoichi in Hokkaido was chosen by Masataka Taketsuru as the site of his distillery, similar to Taketsuru Pure Malt, because its environment resembled that of Scotland, the home of whisky. With an abundant water source thanks to being close to the sea and surrounded by mountains with a river running through it, and clean air and cold weather all throughout the year, this town is the perfect place for making whisky. And the whisky that blended only the whiskies made in Yoichi is the Yoichi Single Malt. The Yoichi Distillery uses direct coal-fired distillation that is rarely seen in the world, so its whisky comes with a unique smell that is born from just the right “burn”. Yoichi Single Malt has a sweetness that matches whiskies aged in oak barrels, on top of a fruity flavor. The aroma of the peat that is used for drying the malt is also strong, giving it an intense whisky flavor. Yoichi Single Malt is a very Japanese whisky that is born of Yoichi’s climate and direct coal-fired distillation.
Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky is made in Yamazaki, where Suntory, one of Japan’s leading beverage manufacturers, built its first whisky distillery in the country. Located in the outskirts of Kyoto, Yamazaki is a town famous for its water, with the quality of water there said to have not changed from the time Suntory’s distillery was constructed, up to today. There are four whiskies in the lineup of Yamazaki that were made with Yamazaki’s famous water – the no-age Yamazaki, Yamazaki 12 Years, Yamazaki 18 Years and Yamazaki 25 Years. This old whisky is the perfect representative of Japanese whiskies that keeps on bagging awards at international competitions. Out of all the variants of this brand, the Yamazaki 12 Years is especially famous that it is constantly in short supply. While its taste is of course the reason behind its popularity, Yamazaki is also known for the complexity born from blending raw whiskies from barrels made from different materials that can be subtly felt. It is a blend of raw whiskies from white oak, sherry and mizunara Japanese oak barrels. Finished with a hint of persimmon, peach and vanilla, its fruity smell lingers long. You can’t talk about Japanese whisky unless you have drunk Yamazaki.
Hibiki is also a blended whisky made by Suntory like Yamazaki. Inspired by Suntory’s corporate philosophy of "in harmony with people and nature,” Hibiki is currently made up of the no-age Japanese Harmony, and the 17 Years Old, 21 Years Old and 30 Years Old variants. And of all these whiskies under the Hibiki name, it is the Hibiki 21 Years Old that is a renowned Japanese whisky worldwide with the most number of awards. It won the prestigious top Trophy Award in the whisky category at the International Spirits Challenge for three years from 2013 through 2015. Hibiki blends the malt whiskies from three distilleries – Yamazaki in Kyoto, Hakushu in Yamanashi and Chita in Aichi. And Hibiki 21 Years Old is made with malts that were aged for an extra long period of more than 21 years, as its name suggests, and when you drink it, you will taste the colorful harmony of such malts! With its amber color that is a trademark of whisky, coupled with the depth of a 21-year-old whisky and its aftertaste that lasts quite long while its flowery sweet scent wafts in the air, the Hibiki 21 Years Old is truly a testament of high class. So if you see it at a bar, you just have to try it.
5. Ichiro’s Malt
Ichiro’s Malt is made by the up-and-coming independent manufacturer Venture Whisky, which is not as big as Nikka and Suntory. It is a wildly famous whisky constantly short in supply that often wins awards at the World Whiskies Award and whisky-dedicated magazines since it built its distillery in 2007. With an almost fanatical hype, its popularity is hinged on its strong preference for select whiskies and its taste that adequately reflects that inclination. Akuto Ichiro, its founder, visited and thoroughly checked bars all over Japan, and then directly imported pot stills from Scotland. He is committed to “developing his distillery’s own malt” that is rare even in this world, by meticulously examining the aging barrels and malt whiskies. Compared to the major players in the field, Ichiro’s Malt has a small production size, so while it has a wide array of variants in the market, the common element in them is their oriental smell that is born from the use of the traditional Japanese mizunara Japanese oak in the fermentation tanks. This unique aroma is gaining enormous popular acclaim for Ichiro’s Malt. It’s a rare whisky that you have to try if you encounter it!
Many Japanese whiskies that are highly regarded around the globe are hard to find. So, while you’re in Japan, drink and compare the whiskies we have here and find your favorite!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.