The Serious Eats Guide to Japanese Whisky
First things first, let's set the mood. Perhaps re-watch the brilliant scene from Lost in Translation where Bill Murray's character shoots a commercial for Japanese whisky. All set? Great.
Japan has the largest number of whisky distilleries after Scotland and the United States, but up until very recently, Suntory was the only brand of Japanese whisky available for sale in the US, starting in 1990 with a single expression, and expanding the line with one additional expression in 2005, and then finally two more in the past three years. Late last year, Suntory's major rival, Nikka, joined the party, bringing two whiskies stateside to test the market with Anchor Distilling as their import/distribution partner. But while the US selection may still be limited, it's a good range of offerings that allow us to sample some of the diversity of Japanese whisky, and to prime our palates for new expressions when they arrive, which one hopes is only a matter of time.
Japanese Whisky Style
(Almost) all Japanese whiskies are Scotch-style whisky (here's an interesting history to how whisky was brought to Japan for extra credit). If you need a refresher course in Scotch, read Michael Dietsch's excellent guides here and here. But although Japanese methods of whisky distilling are taken from the Scottish blueprint, they have evolved into a uniquely Japanese expression over time. Flavien Desoblin, owner of the Brandy Library, gave the best descriptions of the style I've encountered:
Japanese whiskeys are very much the fine-wine-drinker's take on whiskey. There is more attention paid to the body and the texture in Japan than in many other countries. They are looking for that delicate, suave, mouth-coating feel, but never really aggressive. They seem to be powerful, but it's all silky."
Don't get me wrong, there are Japanese whiskies with boldness and complexity, but the underlying strength is always harmony and balance. This is very likely related to the Japanese predilection for consuming their whisky in highballs or in a mizuwari, creating a preference for a well-balanced spirit that retains its appeal even when diluted.
One final note: both Suntory and Nikka have multiple distilleries across Japan. This allows them to distill and age their whiskies in different climates to produce different styles of whiskies. It also allows them to create their own blended whiskies. Unlike in Scotland, where distilleries trade off their excess stocks to blenders, Japanese distillers keep their own stocks internally and use those for blending. Producing a wide range of spirits distilled and aged under different conditions is crucial to creating those blends. To keep everything simple, I'm including the brand, the distillery, the style (single malt or blend), and the age expression for each whisky, but you can usually find them by distillery name alone. But enough with the crash course—let's get drinking! Here are all the Japanese whiskies you can find Stateside—as of now.
Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt
The Yamazaki distillery was Japan's first distillery—the birthplace of Japanese whisky. Centrally located near the confluence of three rivers outside of Kyoto, it's Suntory's flagship in many ways, so it's only fitting that their 12 year expression was the first Japanese whisky available in the US.
A lovely single malt in the style of a Speyside Scotch, the Yamazaki 12 starts out light and fruity up front with the scent of apples and honey, transitioning into deeper malt flavor and a hint of barrel spices appear on tasting. With a light mouthfeel and finish fading from sweetness to spice, it's devastatingly drinkable at 86 proof—a perfect entry point into the world of Japanese whisky, and the cheapest entry point at around $40 a bottle.
The Yamazaki 18 is also available at a more pricey $135 or so, as well as a limited-release expression of the Yamazaki 1984 (largely sold out even at a MSRP of $600). They are both exceptional whiskies, so if you're looking to take the next step in your journey, these are the bottles for you.
Suntory Hakushu Single Malt 12
Further north, Suntory's Hakushu distillery is located outside Hokuto in the Yamanashi prefecture. Nestled in Japan's Southern Alps, it's one of the highest single malt distilleries in the world, though its nickname is "the forest distillery." A lightly peated whisky, the Hakushu 12 smells similar to the Yamazaki—sweet and fruity—but the delicate smoke adds a very lively contrast. On tasting, citrus and ginger start to emerge with a bit of pepper and heat. Once again, the mouthfeel is luscious but light, and the finish lingers briefly with a touch of dry smoke. It's incredibly fresh and crisp for a peated whisky. Hakushu 12 is 86 proof and listing at around $55 a bottle.
Suntory Hibiki 12
A blended whisky made from malt and grain whiskies from Suntory's distilleries aged in a range of barrels (including plum wine barrels) the 12 year expression is the sweetest of the Suntory whiskies. Honeyed and floral, with desert flavors of vanilla, clove, and almond, it's rounded out by a substantial grain presence and enough wood to keep the sweetness in balance. The Hibiki 12 is 86 proof and lists around $60 a bottle. (Bonus: Bill Murray is selling the Hibiki 17 in Lost in Translation, but the bottle has the same appearance, so you can play the part at home!)
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12
Nikka's blended whisky offering to the US is not a blend of grain and malt whiskies, like the Hibiki, bur rather a blend of only malt whiskies (hence 'pure malt'). Drawing on stocks from the Yoichi and Miyagijyo distilleries, it's fruity and round. Apples, barley, and sweet grain transition to honey and wood spices, with just a trace of smokiness to pull it all together. With a heftier body than the Hibiki, it's a more muscular blend without sacrificing balance. A wonderful pure malt that stands on its own at 80 proof, it's priced at $70 a bottle.
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15
The Yoichi distillery is on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japans four major islands. Situated on a coastal perch that's partially surrounded by mountains, it's Nikka's oldest distillery. The Yoichi 15 is Nikka's marquee offering stateside, and it's the boldest whisky of the day. Sweet, nutty, and sherried on the nose, the malt transforms on tasting. Evolving very dramatically from a mild oakiness to intense spices and ginger to mild sweetness, it finishes with all of the flavors commingling and drifting off on a wisp of smoke. Full bodied and rich, it's a journey in a glass. The Yoichi 15 is bottled at 90 proof and lists for $130 a bottle.
Have you tried any of these (or other) Japanese whiskies? What's your favorite?
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Whisky samples were provided for review consideration.