It's been a year since we last checked in on the stocks of Japanese whisky available stateside, and high time that we caught up on the new releases that have hit the US market since then. While there haven't been revolutionary changes—Suntory and Nikka remain the sole Japanese distillers exporting their whisky for American consumption—both companies have expanded their range into their top-shelf offerings.
Take a peek at last year's guide to get up to speed, and then join us as we explore the new offerings, reviewed here in order of price.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
The surprise standout of the new Japanese whiskies on the market isn't a single malt; it's a grain whisky. (Check out Michael Dietsch's definitions if you need a whisky lingo refresher). Crafted from a mash bill dominated by corn and filled out with malted barley, it's produced in continuous distillation using a Coffey still. Released without an age statement, it's a light straw-colored whisky that defies easy categorization. It might remind you a bit of bourbon, with vanilla and oak up front, a luscious body tasting of sweet corn, hazelnut, and melon. There's a vegetal undertone and a quick, strong finish. It's unlike any other whisky I've tried, and absolutely mesmerizing in a whisky soda, where the flavors open up to offer grapefruit, mint, and caramel. I would love to see more grain whiskies on the market following this stellar example.
Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt 12
The Miyagikyo, from Nikka's second distillery, is an interesting creature. Falling somewhere between an Irish pure pot still whiskey and a lowland Scotch, it's an impressive balancing act between malt, fruit, and wood. Opening with hints of fresh apples and oranges balanced by warm oak spices, the flavor broadens out with sweet malted barley. A remarkably luscious body supports a little vanilla and honey, and there's a wisp of subtle smoke that adds character. It's a whisky that's light enough to be at ease on a summer's day, but has enough heft to warm up a winter's evening.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 and Pure Malt 21
The next step up from the Taketsuru 12, Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 is a blend of single malts from Nikka's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. It's a very interesting expression that combines the best of Yoichi's assertive, smoky flavors with Miyagikyo's fruity, floral profile. The result is something like magic. Richly malty with honey, plums, and berries floating above dark chocolate, leather, and smoke, it's a whisky that is almost impossibly unified, considering the range of flavors going on. This is one of the finest blended malts on the market today, showcasing in one bottle almost all of the flavors and complexities you can achieve from aging distilled barley in wood.
The 21 year expression advances the wood influence on the whiskey, bringing on fuller spices and a bit of oaky astringency. It's a slightly heavier, meatier expression that loses just a touch of the freshness of the 17 year. While this is a world-class whisky, its younger brother has a step up on this gent.
Pure Malt 17 retails for $125 to $165, spotted online at Wine Anthology, Hi-Time, K&L, and Astor. Pure Malt 21 retails for around $150 to $200, spotted online at Wine Anthology, Hi-Time, San Francisco Wine Trading, and Astor.
Suntory Hakushu Heavily Peated Single Malt
This is Suntory's take on a peaty, smoky whisky, but it still showcases the clarity and balance typical of Japanese whiskies. The name is a bit misleading if you are used to the big smoke bombs of Islay—while peat is front and center, there's a grassy, malty undertone, too, and a resiny quality that reminds me of a forest. Subtle fruitiness and peppery spice complement the woody smoke. Finishing dry, with just a hint of caramel to balance out the smoke, it's a delightfully nuanced whisky, and a fun departure from the more traditional Japanese style.
Suntory Yamazaki 25
This is a heady rush of a super-premium whisky, entirely aged in sherry casks. It pours dark, and port and sherry flavors form the structure, with raisin, dark chocolate, faint citrus, and almond flavors rounding out the taste. It's luxuriously textured, and the finish lingers forever, though veers just a tad into the bitterness of too much oak. It's an amazing experience to taste, but to be honest, I like the Yamazaki 18 (which sells for around $170) just as much.
Have you jumped on the Japanese whisky bandwagon yet? Which is 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 as an independent producer in Brooklyn.
Tasting samples provided for review consideration.