Up until about 10 years ago, American whiskey geeks pretty much limited their drinking to products from four countries: Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the US. But today, that Big Four is a Big Five: Whisky from Japan has rapidly entered the mainstream. The spirit has become so popular around the world that sought-after bottlings regularly sell out within days of being released and go for thousands of dollars on the secondary market. (If that reminds you of cult-favorite bourbon Pappy Van Winkle, you’re not wrong: Travel & Leisure dubbed Japanese whisky “the new Pappy” in 2015.)
Its worldwide popularity might be newfound, but the Japanese whisky industry is nearly 100 years old. And it owes its existence nearly entirely to one man. In 1918, the scion of a sake-brewing family named Masataka Taketsuru left Japan to study whisky in Scotland. He’d grown to love Scotch whisky, which had only showed up in Japan after Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunboat diplomacy opened the country to trade with the West in the 1850s and had become quite popular by the turn of the 20th century. Taketsuru spent two years studying distilling at the University of Glasgow and apprenticing under several different distillers and blenders. (He also fell head over heels for a Scotswoman named Rita, who married him and lived the rest of her life in Japan, becoming the mother of Japanese whisky.)
Back in Japan, Taketsuru connected with Shinjiro Torii, a wine importer who dreamed of opening a domestic distillery. Together, they started Yamazaki, technically the country’s second whiskey distillery, in 1923. (Another distillery had gotten the first Japanese license to distill whiskey in 1919 but didn’t make very much.) Torii and Taketsuru’s first whisky, Shirofuda, was released in 1929, but it wasn’t very successful. In fact, Taketsuru left the Yamazaki distillery in 1934 and set out on his own, opening a distillery in Yoichi, a town on the northern island of Hokkaido with a similar climate to Scotland’s.
In the process, Taketsuru had helped give birth to both of Japan’s largest whisky companies: Yamazaki is today part of number-one Suntory (incidentally the third-largest liquor company in the world and owner of Jim Beam Bourbon, Sauza Tequila and a bunch of other brands), and Yoichi is part of number-two Nikka.
So what exactly is Japanese whisky? As you might guess from Masataka Taketsuru’s story, its closest relative is Scotch. Most Japanese whiskies are either single malts, made from 100 percent malted barley, or blends of single malt and whisky made from other grains. Like Scotch, Japanese whisky mostly ages in used barrels, including ex-bourbon casks from the US and ex-sherry casks from Spain. Japanese distilleries even import peat from Scotland to create smoky spirits like those from the Scottish island distilleries.
The big difference is that individual Japanese distilleries usually make many different styles of whisky at the same time. “A Japanese whisky distillery isn’t that much different than a Scotch distillery,” says Khaled Dajani, “but there’s bigger room for maneuverability for Japanese distillers than their counterparts in Scotland.” In 2005, Dajani became one of the pioneers of Japanese whisky in the US by opening Nihon Whisky Lounge in San Francisco, one of the nation’s first bars with a focus on Japanese whisky. (In 2008, Dajani says, Nihon was responsible for 60 of the 400 or so cases of Japanese whisky sold in the entire country.) “Typically, all pot stills around the world are the same basic shape, but Japanese distilleries have different-shaped stills and can use them to create different flavors.”
That’s reflected in the variety of spirits each Japanese distillery makes. Nikka, for example, has a line of smoky single malts from its Yoichi distillery; a line of fruitier single malts from its Miyagikyo distillery; a mix of only single malts from both distilleries called Taketsuru Pure Malt; a set of blended whiskies under the Nikka label; and grain and single malt whiskies made in a different style of still called Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt.
Suntory brags that it has three distilleries, each using multiple still shapes and five different types of casks made from three different tree species to create more than 100 individual whiskies. The brand offers single malts from both its Yamazaki (smooth and oaky) and Hakushu (green and herbal) distilleries, along with Hibiki, a line of blended whiskies that combines spirits from all three distilleries. (The third is called Chita and makes only grain whiskies.)
Beyond the two giants of Suntory and Nikka, there are several smaller Japanese distilleries whose products are harder to find but no less beloved. One of those is Ichiro’s Malt, a brand started in 2008 by Ichiro Akuto, whose family had previously made whisky at a distillery that closed in the 1990s. Though younger than most of their counterparts, the Ichiro’s Malt whiskies are highly sought-after, made in relatively small quantities and nearly impossible to lay your hands on today. The Mars Shinshu distillery is Japan’s third-oldest and highest in altitude, producing light, smooth and sweet whiskies under the Iwai brand. Akashi is the smallest Japanese whisky brand, although it traces its lineage back to the oldest distillery in the country, and it offers roasty-toasty toffee and oak flavors. The subtly peaty Togouchi whiskies are aged in an underground tunnel near the city of Hiroshima.
When people in Japan drink whisky, it’s almost always with water. That can mean mixed with cold water (mizuwari in Japanese) or, in the winter, mixed with hot water (oyuwari), but the country’s best-known way to drink whisky is in a highball. Specifically, Dajani says, that means a mix of one part whisky and three parts club soda, served over ice. “The highball is very popular in Japan because they use the drink as a companion to food,” he says. “It’s really an amazing way to drink Japanese whisky.” In fact, Suntory launched a new lower-priced bottling called Toki last summer designed specifically for highballs and sold only in the US and Canada.
In some ways, Japanese whisky is starting to become a victim of its own success, with bottles formerly considered some of the best values in spirits seeing skyrocketing prices and supply shortages. “We have to tell staff not to push Japanese whisky at Nihon,” Dajani says. “It has to do with whiskey in general being more popular. People are always coveting the unknown, and Japanese whisky is a good product. It stands on its own.”
Now that we’ve piqued your interest, here are a few bottlings to try.
HIBIKI JAPANESE HARMONY
Dajani calls this a “good beginner Japanese whisky.” It’s a blend of at least 10 different spirits distilled from both malt and other grains at all three of Suntory’s distilleries, is fairly easy to find and won’t break the bank.
NIKKA COFFEY GRAIN
Distilled in an old-fashioned style of column still named for creator Aneas Coffey, this whisky is mostly made from corn and is really closer in taste to a bourbon than a Scotch. It’s sweet, nutty and delicious.
One of a very few Japanese whiskies not made by Suntory or Nikka that you have much hope of finding in the US, Tradition is a blend of malt and grain whiskies aged in sherry, bourbon and wine casks. It’s a nicely balanced mix of fruit, oak and toasty malt flavors, with a hint of peat on the background.
YOICHI SINGLE MALT
Peated-Scotch lovers will love this malt. Nikka previously had a full range of Yoichi bottles at different ages, but increasing demand forced the distillery to consolidate them into a single non-age-stated single malt. That’s sad, but it means there’s a decent supply around the world. It blends citrus and spice with the smoky and briny notes of a Lagavulin or Laphroaig.
Dajani calls this spirit “a few steps up” from Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a good bottle for someone who’s tried Japanese whisky and wants to get in deeper. It has a strong fruitiness backed by bready maltiness and a little bit more smoke than whiskies from its sister distillery Yamazaki. (If you can’t find the 18-year-old, Dajani also says Hakushu 12 is great for highballs.)
HIBIKI 21 YEARS OLD
Good luck finding this whisky, but if you can, you’re in for a serious treat. It’s Dajani’s absolute favorite Japanese whisky, which he calls “top of the line.” You’ll taste a wide range of fruit, from cooked berries to banana to pear, with a long and luxurious finish of caramel, spice and smoke. The spirit has been named the best blended whisky in the world twice, among countless other awards.