Scots and Scots Irish are credited with inventing whisky, but many other cultures have taken a liking to the spirit. Among those are the Japanese. That’s right, the Japanese have been making whisky since the 19th century! Our pick for the best Japanese whisky is Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky. This delicious whisky from the storied Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, which is located southwest of Kyoto, lives up the hype that now accompanies Japanese whisky – it’s some of the best whisky in the world!
Though the Japanese have been making whisky for well over 100 years, only recently has it become a major player on the international market. Based on spirit making methods developed in Scotland and then imported into the country, Japanese whisky is now widely respected by whisky connoisseurs around the world – that’s right, even folks from Scotland love Japanese whisky!
This new found international presence was even celebrated in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray’s character is hired to do commercials for Suntory whisky. The timing of the movie was pitch perfect – and a little ironic – given that Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt had won the “Best of the Best” at the Whisky Magazine awards in 2001. Nikka and Suntory are the chief rivals of the Japanese whisky world.
Since then, a shortage has hit the market in regard to aged Japanese whisky (more on that below), which has led to a proliferation of NAS (no age statement) whiskies of varying quality. So choosing a good Japanese whisky requires some thought – especially given how extraordinarily expensive they can be. Well, our ranking is here to offer some thoughtful advice as you consider which Japanese whisky you want to enjoy in your next highball!
So how did Scotland’s favorite spirit make its way to Japan? The story is rooted in the vagaries of western imperialism and the Japanese determination to modernize and take its place as an Asian powerhouse.
Japanese whisky production began in earnest in 1870 under the guidance of Shinjiro Torii. Torii was an enterprising pharmacist who began his career in the liquor industry by importing Portuguese port wine. He later decided to make whisky for the Japanese market.
The 1870s were a heady time in Japan as they marked a turning point in the direction of Japanese society. The Japanese Revolution, or Boshin War, had culminated in the restoration of political authority with the emperor and a decided effort on the part of the Japanese state to modernize so as to become independent from western imperial designs which had dogged Japan since the 1850s.
In 1899 Torii established Kotobukiya which later became Suntory. Though the early whisky produced in Japan was described as a western alcohol, more than likely it did not taste like the current version of today. This is because it missed perhaps the most vital ingredient: Masataka Taketsuru, the “father of Japanese whisky.”
Taketsuru was the son of a sake brewer who fell in love with Scottish whisky. In 1918 he was sent to Glasgow by the Settsu Shuzo company to study organic chemistry and the fine art of making Scotch. While in Scotland Taketsuru had apprenticeships at Longmorn distillery in Strathspey, James Calder & Co.’s Bo’ness in the Lowlands, and at Hazelburn in Campbeltown.
He also fell in love and married a Scottish woman, Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan over the objections of both their families. Taketsuru returned to Japan in 1920 carrying two notebooks filled with his notes on what he had learned about whisky production.
Upon return he worked briefly for Settsu Shuzo, but plans to build a distillery fell through so he worked for a while as a high school chemistry teacher. Then in 1923 he was found by Kotobukiya and hired because of his expertise in Scottish whisky production methods.
He helped to design Japan’s first whisky distillery, which began production in 1924. His obsession with the “Scotch” method, however, did not go over well with his superiors who believed a blended whisky was more appropriate for Japanese tastes. So Taketsuru was put in charge of a beer refinery.
He remained loyal – even if unhappy – for a decade, and then left the company in 1934 to establish his own distillery which later went by the name Nikka. With the appearance of Nikka Whisky Rare Old, the rivalry between Nikka and Suntory was born.
From the 1940s on whisky consumption waxed and waned, but one thing remained constant – the Japanese penchant for the highball. Basically a “scotch and soda”, the Japanese have perfected the art of making a very basic drink into a refreshing cocktail.
One of the instruments in this process was the so-called “Tory’s Bars,” which were opened in the 1950s in Japan. These bars specialized in highballs and became very popular in Japan.
(Not) Lost in Translation
Japanese whisky was generally available in Asia and Europe up into the late 1980s. In 2001 the Yamazaki Single Malt arrived in America. In 2003 the Nikka 10-year Yoichi Single Malt won the “Best of the Best” at the Whisky Magazine awards.
In 2004 Yamazaki whisky was introduced to the US. This was fortuitous as the Japanese market for whisky had taken a downturn in the 1990s. This downturn was due to the financial crisis that hit Japan, as well as changing tastes.
Since the early 2000s, Japanese whiskies have been bringing home the gold, beating out other competitors in several different international blind taste testing contests.
The Yamazaki Crisis
The 1990s downturn in consumption and production has now created a new crisis – the so-called Yamazaki Crisis. Basically there isn’t enough whisky on the market to meet the surging demand. This is because not enough of the spirit was processed back in the 1990s when many 17-year or older whiskies being sold today would have been casked.
In 2018, stories of bottles being on the shelf for a mere 10 minutes became commonplace. This severe shortage explains why prices for Japanese whisky are currently through the roof. The high cost may be good news for whisky producers, but also presents risks as an increase in production could cool what is an intense raging inferno of demand.
The good news, ultimately, is that the shortage of Japanese whisky won’t last since more and more batches will come available. So if you are a fan of Japanese whisky, but you can’t afford the exorbitant price, then exercise your patience and you may just be rewarded before you know it. And, if all else fails, see if you talk a friend into going in with you to split a bottle!
Our rankings are the result of careful analysis of meta-data from numerous trusted review sites, as well as hours of online research reading and listening to various reviews from industry experts, mixologists, and single malt lovers around the world! That research led us to develop the following list of the very best Japanese whiskies.
In our examination of the data and in trying out the products themselves we were led to the following criteria to help us in determining our ranking:
- Flavor: What is the flavor profile of this whisky?
- Finish: How much heat, and how smoothly does it go down?
- Aroma: The smell of a good whisky can be almost as enjoyable as the taste – almost.
- Production Process: What kinds of barrels are used?
- Packaging: Craft is something that the Japanese take great pride in, and this comes through not only in regard to the product it the bottle, but also packaging.
- Price: Well, they are all expensive – but some more so than others!
So, before you drop down a significant amount of money on your next bottle of Japanese whisky, take a look at our rankings to help you make an informed decision – you won’t regret it!
Is it cheaper to buy Japanese whisky in Japan?
Japanese whisky prices have gone through the roof. This is in part because of the so-called “Yamazaki Crisis”, which refers to the shortage that has hit the market due to lower production levels which began in the late 1980s and into the 1990s when the Japanese economy began to cool.
It’s not uncommon to find bottles of Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt listed for over $2000 in your local liquor store – if you can even find the spirit there. And back in 2018, a 50-year old bottle of Yamazaki sold for an astounding $343,000!
But even online, prices are through the roof. So, the legitimate question to ask is: should we just hold off buying our favorite spirit until we visit Japan?
Going to the source is always a good idea – and in the case of Japanese whisky, that is no different. There is no doubt that you can indeed find some bottles of whisky for substantially less if you actually go to Japan and purchase them. But there are other bottles that will cost about the same, so it really depends.
One good rule of thumb is not to buy your whisky at duty-free.
Many who travel to Japan will argue that it is better to go to the distillery – or if you can find a local specialty shop then go there – for buying whisky, rather than purchasing your bottle through duty free. There are two reasons: first, the duty-free offerings tend to be pretty limited in terms of selection. Second, the prices are often more than what you might pay at home.
All of this is to say that if you really love Japanese whisky, and you want to get a bottle – or 10 – then why not plan a visit so you can experience the culture, see the sites, and drink with the locals? You never know, it may wind up being a remarkable adventure!
How do you enjoy Japanese whisky?
Well, you drink it. Seriously though, if you are asking how do the Japanese like to drink their whisky then the answer is: in a highball.
Obviously, we don’t to over-caricature an entire culture, so what I am about to say needs to be couched with reality that there are many delightful exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority of whisky consumed in Japan is in the form of the highball, or what is also called the “Scotch and soda.”
But, here’s the thing – the Japanese highball is not just your average whisky soda. No, they have been perfecting this drink for the past 100 years, and you better believe that the attention to detail and craft for which the Japanese are known also played a role in fashioning their favorite whisky concoction.
Typically, you start with block ice in a glass, which must be stirred until frost appears in the glass. Then any excess water should be poured out.
After that you add an additional cube of ice and then the whisky. The proper mixture will be one part whisky and 3 parts soda, so be sure to leave the appropriate amount of room.
Once the whisky is poured into the glass, then you stir 13 times clockwise. This ensures a proper cooling down and whisky ice mixture. After that, place an additional ice cube in the glass.
Then add soda water. And voila, you have a Zen-ed out Japanese highball – now drink!
What is the best Japanese whisky?
Determining the best Japanese whisky for yourself is a very personal choice. It has to do as much with taste and aroma, as with the aesthetics of the packaging and the story behind the spirit. And with the current shortage of available Japanese whisky, and the sky-high prices that go with it, how do you choose which one is the best for you? We have crafted this short ranking to help with just that question.
Based on extensive research our assessments include consideration of some of the following categories:
- Color: Honey gold, amber, or caramel – these colors are all attractive, but some more than others.
- Taste and finish: What is the flavor palate and how does the spirit finish?
- Aroma: What are the scents that greet your nose when you first take a whiff of a beautiful whisky?
- Price: Though most Japanese whisky on the market is expensive, some are more worth the price than others; and there are actually some deals to be had out there.
- Mixability: The Japanese love to drink highballs, so does this whisky do well when mixed with water and served cold?
- Packaging and history: What is the story behind the spirit and what kind of craftsmanship has gone into creating the bottle?
These and other factors have led us to choose Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky as the best Japanese whisky.
Take a look at our list before you make your next purchase for your “relaxing time.”
Here are some other highly rated products to enjoy with your next beverage: