With Tokyo 2021 Olympics fever high (go Team GB!), now’s the best time to add Japanese whisky to your drinks collection and toast the return of a summer of sport.
Whisky has been brewed in Japan as early as the 1850s when a few shocku and sake breweries produced it on the side. But the story of Japanese whisky really began when Suntory established the first distillery in 1923 after sending an employee to Scotland to learn the practices of their whisky distilling. This employee, Masataka Taketsuru, went on to create his own Japanese whisky brand, Nikka.
For a long time the Japanese whisky market stayed in the East, but that’s changed in the last couple of decades. Many suggested it was due to the influence of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation in which Bill Murray’s character advertised Suntory’s whisky with the memorable line: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time!”.
Global recognition and international awards followed, as well as becoming increasingly popular within Japan. The Highball, a mix of Japanese whisky and soda, is now a staple at bars across the country, and Nikka is now trying to encourage UK cocktail drinkers to explore the classic Japanese tipple. As part of this push there will be a collaboration with the likes of Milroy’s in Soho and Spitalfields, which offer Nikka Days Highballs on tap and will run a programme of events over the summer.
Now is the time to discover Japanese whisky, but beware, as global demand grows it’s led to shortages of aged stock and consequently, skyrocketing prices. But don’t despair there’s plenty to try at great prices.
Here’s our picks of the best
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Hibiki Whisky was launched in 1989 to commemorate Suntory’s 90th anniversary and is the country’s most awarded premium blended whisky. It was so popular that the aged 17-year and 12-year offerings had to be discontinued because of intense demand.
It’s a smooth blend of malt whiskies from Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, along with grain whisky from the Chita distillery. It also comes in a beautiful 24-sided bottle, representing time, that will stand out in your collection. Tasting notes? A delicious sweet fruity nose with hints of apricots, which along with orange continues in the palate with a slight pepper spice to finish.
Toki Whisky Suntory
A cheaper Japanese Whisky offering from Suntory but a great option if you’re looking for a whisky to make a highball. The name Toki means “time” in Japanese, and the blend comes from Suntory’s three distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita, a blend of Hakushu single malt and Chita grain whisky. This whisky has aromas of basil and fruit, with the sweetness from the fruit continues with a lovely sweet apple and pepperminty taste and a spicy finish. This was lovely on the rocks but also works well in a classic highball. The price also makes it a great introduction to Suntory and Japanese whisky if you’re unsure about taking the plunge on some of the others.
Akashi single malt whisky
This single malt Japanese whisky comes from The White Oak distillery, one of the lesser known producers. The distillery is located in the city of Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture, facing the Seto Inland Sea, the only distillery in Japan to be situated by the coast. This location means a slight salty note comes through in the whisky. Overall this single malt Japanese whisky is very flavourful, which is down to the amount of casks in the blend, including Spanish Cherry, American Oak, and Bourbon Oak. The result is a great Japanese single malt option with caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon flavour notes.
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain
This is not a Japanese Whisky but is a blend from Japanese distillers, Ichiro Akuto. Unlike other brands claiming to be Japanese Whisky, but actually mostly whisky imported from abroad, this bottle clearly states it “is a worldwide blended whisky”. Mislabelling has been cracked down on; previously Japanese whisky was defined simply as anything bottled in the country. As of 2024, the regulations will be fully enforced to prevent this.
That aside, this whisky from the Japanese distillery is a beautifully crafted blend of whisky from its own Chichibu distillery, as well as whiskies from America, Canada, Scotland and Ireland. Ichiro’s Malt & Grain has a peachy apricot nose, toffee and malt barley palate and a very smooth vanilla finish.
Togouchi Premium Blended Japanese Whisky
Togouchi Premium Blended Japanese Whisky is matured in a tunnel rather than a warehouse. The tunnel runs beneath the town of Togouchi and was made for a railway that was never used, so the 362 metre-long tunnel is now used for maturation. The whisky, as with Ichiro’s Malt & Grain is blended in Japan, but actually a blend of Scottish Malt and Canadian grain. The result is unremarkable compared to some of the other options. It has a vanilla and honey aroma, and is smooth but overall the flavours and finish were not as stand out in comparison to others on the market.
Nikka Days Blended Whisky
Nikka Days is the most easy-drinking option on this list, so a great introduction to the world of Japanese whisky. It’s a blend of grain whiskies and single malts coming from Nikka’s two distilleries: Yoichi and Miyagikyo. The blend has a fruity and floral aroma, with notes of apples and melon. The taste brings through apple and citrus before a subtle smoky finish. If you want something easily sippable, this is a great option, and definitely excellent for the summer. It’s another that works well mixed as a Highball cocktail.
Nikka Coffey Grain Blended Grain Whisky
This Japanese Whisky stands out among some of the other blends, as a single grain whisky, which is used in Nikka’s blends. The Nikka Coffey grain is distilled in “Coffey Stills” invented by Aeneas Coffey in 1830. When Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of the Nikka distillery was staying in Scotland, he learnt how to distill grain whisky in a Coffey and the first still was imported to Japan in 1963. The Nikka Coffey Grain Blended Grain Whisky was developed to demonstrate how the flavours can be retained, and the distinct creamy whisky that comes from Coffey stills. The result does not disappoint. This is a great fruity whisky to sip and has a lovely sweet coconut nose, with a toffee popcorn palate.
The iconic 24-sided bottle of Hibiki Japanese Harmony is the ideal introduction to the world of Japanese whisky. The awards don’t lie and this blend brings all the delicate and beautiful flavours that the Japanese whisky is so famed for.
Also as the crackdown continues on what can be classed as ‘Japanese Whisky’ you can rest assured that Suntory products are distilled, aged and bottled in Japan to meet the new standards. Overall there’s a reason Suntory was forced to discontinue its 17-year and 12-year offerings due to the incredible level of demand, but this no-age offering of Hibiki Japanese Harmony is a great accessible option to start your Japanese Whisky journey.