The Ultimate Guide to the Best Japanese Whiskies: Tasting the Excellence of Yamazaki, Nikka, and More

Peng Lin

12 December, 2023

Japanese whisky, a world-renowned category in the spirits universe, has steadily ascended to prominence, captivating connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike with its unique profile and meticulous craftsmanship. This ascent is not just a testament to the quality of these whiskies but also to the dedication of Japanese distillers who harmonize traditional Scottish techniques with a distinctly Japanese attention to detail. In this guide, we delve into the rich tapestry of Japanese whisky, exploring celebrated labels like Yamazaki, Nikka, and beyond. Each whisky we discuss is not just a bottle but a story — of heritage, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of perfection. Whether you are a seasoned whisky enthusiast or new to this exquisite world, our curated selection promises to enhance your appreciation and knowledge of Japanese whisky. Join us as we journey through the delicate nuances, bold flavors, and the artful balance that make these spirits a prized addition to any collection.

Table Of Contents:

  1. Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky
  2. Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky
  3. Mars Shinshu Iwai 45% Whisky
  4. Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky
  5. Hakushu 12 Year Old Whisky
  6. Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky
  7. Hibiki 17 Year Old Japanese Whisky
  8. Nikka Yoichi Single Malt
  9. Mars Maltage Cosmo Single Malt Whisky
  10. Nikka From the Barrel Whisky
  11. Kikori Rice Whisky
  12. The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky 
  13. Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky 
  14. Kirin Fuji-Gotemba 'Fujisanroku' 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky 
  15. Matsui Shuzo 'The Kurayoshi' 18 Year Old Pure Malt Whisky 
  16. How is Japanese Whisky Made?
  17. How is it Different from Other Types of Whisky?
  18. Can You Mix it into a Cocktail?
  19. How did Japanese Whisky Become so Popular?
  20. Final Thoughts 

Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky

Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky is a flagship offering from Japan's oldest whisky distillery, Suntory's Yamazaki. This exquisite single malt is aged in a combination of American, Spanish, and Japanese oak casks, imparting a rich and multi-layered profile. It's characterized by its delicate fruitiness with prominent notes of peach and pineapple, complemented by a spicy finish of clove and ginger. The use of Mizunara oak adds a unique Japanese touch, introducing subtle hints of incense and a smooth, lingering finish. This whisky's balance of sweetness and woodiness has made it a beloved choice among whisky enthusiasts.

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

Nikka Coffey Grain is an innovative expression from the Nikka Whisky Company. This whisky is distilled in a Coffey still, a traditional type of continuous still which is rarely used today. The use of this still, combined with mostly corn in the mash bill, results in a complex, mellow flavor profile that distinguishes it from typical single malts. This whisky is celebrated for its delightful sweetness, rich texture, and flavors that range from tropical fruits to caramel and vanilla. It’s a versatile whisky that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or as a component in sophisticated cocktails.

Mars Shinshu Iwai 45% Whisky

Mars Shinshu, Japan's highest whisky distillery, is known for its extreme climatic conditions, which play a crucial role in the maturation of its whiskies. The Iwai 45%, named after Kiichiro Iwai, embodies the distillery's innovative spirit. It offers a harmonious blend of American and sherry oak cask flavors, giving it a rich, robust profile with a higher alcohol content. The whisky strikes a balance between sweet and smoky notes, with hints of caramel, fruit, and a touch of peat. Its finish is notably smooth and lingering, showcasing the unique character of Japanese whisky at a higher proof.

Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky

Suntory's Toki is a blend that represents a new direction in Japanese whisky, combining malts from the Hakushu and Yamazaki distilleries with grain whisky from Chita. Toki, meaning "time" in Japanese, is aptly named as it signifies a connection between tradition and innovation. This whisky is lighter and more approachable than many of its counterparts, with a clear, golden color. On the palate, Toki is smooth and silky, featuring bright notes of honey, apple, and citrus, with a subtle spicy undertone. It's a versatile whisky, perfect for sipping neat, on the rocks, or as the foundation of a refreshing highball cocktail, a popular serving style in Japan.

Hakushu 12 Year Old Whisky

The Hakushu 12 Year Old, from Suntory's distillery amidst the forests of the Southern Japanese Alps, is often celebrated for its herbaceous, lightly peated character. This whisky is like a walk through a lush forest, with notes of green leaves, citrus, and a whisper of smoke that speaks to its time in peat. On the palate, Hakushu 12 offers a refreshing complexity, with flavors of mint, cucumber, and a subtle smokiness, all underlined by a crisp, clean finish. The distillery's unique location, surrounded by nature, not only influences its flavor profile but also its philosophy, emphasizing harmony with the natural world.

Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky

Akashi White Oak, a blend from the Eigashima distillery, is a lesser-known but delightful entry into the world of Japanese whiskies. Eigashima, known for its sake and shochu production, brings a unique approach to whisky making. The Akashi White Oak blend is aged in American oak barrels, which impart a light, approachable character. It's a gentle whisky, with notes of vanilla, honey, and a touch of spice, rounded off with a light, oak-infused finish. This whisky is especially suitable for those new to Japanese whisky or for those who prefer a milder, subtler spirit.

Hibiki 17 Year Old Japanese Whisky

Hibiki 17 Year Old is a revered blend from Suntory, embodying the artistry of Japanese whisky making. This blend harmoniously combines malt and grain whiskies from Suntory's Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. Aged in a variety of casks, including rare Mizunara oak, Hibiki 17 is an exquisite symphony of flavors and aromas. It presents a luxuriant bouquet of ripe fruits, caramelized nuts, and a subtle smokiness. On the palate, it is a harmonious blend of flavors including toffee, apricot, and orange, layered with a smoky woodiness. The finish is elegantly long, striking a perfect balance of sweetness and subtle smoky undertones. The whisky is renowned for its silky texture and complex depth, making it a highly sought-after bottle among collectors and enthusiasts alike.

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt is a bold statement in the world of Japanese whiskies, hailing from the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. This whisky is known for its rich, peaty profile, a reflection of the traditional distillation methods used at Yoichi. The coastal location of the distillery imparts a unique maritime character to the whisky. It offers a nose of intense smokiness with a salty, briny edge, followed by a rich palate of deep peat, ripe fruit, and a touch of spice. The finish is robust and enduring, with a pronounced smokiness and a gentle hint of oak. Yoichi Single Malt stands as a testament to the rugged beauty and traditional spirit of its northern island home.

Mars Maltage Cosmo Single Malt Whisky

From the high-altitude Mars Shinshu distillery comes the Mars Maltage Cosmo, a blend of select Japanese whiskies that offers a nuanced and elegant drinking experience. The Cosmo showcases a refined balance between fruity sweetness and rich maltiness. It greets the nose with inviting aromas of cherry, dark chocolate, and oak. The palate is indulgent and smooth, with a rich tapestry of ripe fruit, creamy vanilla, and a subtle hint of peat smoke. The finish is both smooth and enduring, leaving a warm, satisfying aftertaste that speaks to its meticulous aging in the crisp, clean air of the Japanese Alps.

Nikka From the Barrel Whisky

Nikka From the Barrel is an iconic expression, a bold embodiment of Nikka's blending mastery. This whisky is a blend of multiple malt and grain whiskies, which are then re-casked (a process known as "marriage") to integrate and harmonize the flavors. Bottled at cask strength, it presents an intense and robust profile. The nose is a rich mix of spices and wood, leading into a full-bodied palate of sweet caramel, bright citrus, and floral notes. The finish is commanding and long-lasting, with a spicy and oaky resonance. Nikka From the Barrel is a celebration of the art of blending and cask strength bottling, offering a robust and unforgettable whisky experience.

Kikori Rice Whisky

Kikori Rice Whisky stands apart in the world of Japanese spirits, being distilled entirely from rice. This unique approach gives Kikori a distinct profile, different from traditional barley or corn-based whiskies. Produced in Kumamoto, this whisky is aged in a mix of American oak, French Limousin oak, and sherry casks, which contribute to its diverse and intricate flavor profile. It has a delicate, floral nose with hints of fruit. On the palate, Kikori is light and silky, with flavors of melon, almond, and a subtle inherent sweetness. The finish is crisp and clean, making Kikori an excellent choice for both sipping neat and as a refined ingredient in cocktails. Kikori Rice Whisky is a shining example of the innovative spirit and versatility in the realm of Japanese whisky making.

The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky 

The Yamazaki 18 Year Old is a profound and revered single malt from Japan's oldest whisky distillery, Suntory's Yamazaki. This whisky is a testament to the rich heritage and meticulous craftsmanship of Japanese whisky-making. Aged in a trio of cask types – American oak, Spanish oak, and Japanese Mizunara oak – it offers a complex and sophisticated taste profile. The Yamazaki 18 greets the palate with rich, mature aromas of dried fruits, chocolate, and a hint of Mizunara (Japanese oak). On the palate, it unfolds layers of berry, spice, and umami, followed by a long, well-rounded and smoky finish. This whisky is celebrated globally for its depth, complexity, and the sublime balance of sweetness and woodiness, making it a coveted bottle for collectors and connoisseurs.

Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky 

Hatozaki Small Batch, crafted at the Kaikyo Distillery, is a harmonious blend of Japanese malt and grain whiskies. Named after the historic Hatozaki lighthouse, this whisky embodies the spirit of exploration and innovation. It is matured in a mix of bourbon, sherry, and Mizunara oak casks, lending it a multi-layered character. The nose greets with delicate vanilla and floral hints, leading to a palate that elegantly balances sweet fruity notes with a soft malty undertone and a touch of spice. The finish is smooth and subtle, with a pleasant lingering sweetness. Hatozaki Small Batch is a versatile and approachable whisky, exemplifying the finesse of blending in the world of Japanese whisky.

Kirin Fuji-Gotemba 'Fujisanroku' 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky 

Produced at the foot of the iconic Mount Fuji, Kirin Fuji-Gotemba's 'Fujisanroku' 18 Year Old is a single malt that captures the essence of its majestic surroundings. Distilled in an environment graced by the purity of Mount Fuji's spring water, this whisky presents a complex and nuanced profile. The nose offers a delightful blend of fruity and smoky aromas, while the palate reveals a rich medley of caramel, citrus, and a subtle peaty note. The smoothness of the natural spring water is evident in the luxurious texture. The finish is enduring and warming, embodying the spirit and natural beauty of Mount Fuji, making this whisky a rare and sought-after experience for enthusiasts.

Matsui Shuzo 'The Kurayoshi' 18 Year Old Pure Malt Whisky 

'The Kurayoshi' 18 Year Old Pure Malt is a shining example of Matsui Shuzo's dedication to the art of whisky making. Nestled in the Tottori Prefecture, a region known for its pure water and serene landscapes, Matsui Shuzo brings a sense of place and tradition to every bottle. This 18-year-old pure malt is a harmonious blend of carefully selected malts, matured in oak barrels that impart depth and character.

Upon first nosing, 'The Kurayoshi' 18 Year Old greets you with an inviting aroma of malt, interlaced with subtle notes of dried fruits and a gentle wisp of smoke – a nod to traditional whisky-making methods. As you taste, the whisky reveals its layered complexity; a rich and velvety texture carrying flavors of dark chocolate and roasted nuts, with a delicate undertone of peaty warmth. The oak aging imparts a smoothness that seamlessly integrates these flavors, creating a well-rounded and deeply satisfying drinking experience.

How is Japanese Whisky Made?

Japanese whisky production follows a process similar to that of Scotch whisky, but with distinctive nuances that impart unique characteristics. The process begins with selecting the finest barley, which is malted, milled, and then mashed to extract fermentable sugars. The mash is then fermented, often with unique yeast strains that contribute to a distinct flavor profile. Distillation typically takes place in pot stills, and the spirit is then aged in a variety of barrels, including American oak, sherry casks, and the prized Japanese Mizunara oak. The aging process in Japan's varied climate contributes significantly to the flavor development. Japanese whisky makers are known for their meticulous attention to detail and their pursuit of perfection in every aspect of the production process.

How is it Different from Other Types of Whisky?

Japanese whisky differs from other whiskies in several key aspects. While it shares similarities with Scotch due to its production process and ingredients, Japanese whisky often exhibits a smoother, more subtle, and refined character. This is partly due to the influence of the unique Japanese climate and terroir on the aging process. Additionally, Japanese distilleries often experiment with different types of stills and barrels, leading to a wide range of flavor profiles within the category. The craftsmanship, precision, and innovation in blending and barrel selection also set Japanese whisky apart, allowing for a delicate balance of flavors that is often described as harmonious and elegant.

Can You Mix it into a Cocktail?

Absolutely, Japanese whisky can be a fantastic ingredient in cocktails. Its versatility and range of flavors make it suitable for a variety of cocktail recipes. From the classic Highball, a popular drink in Japan that simply mixes whisky with soda water, to more complex concoctions like the Whisky Sour or Old Fashioned, Japanese whisky's smoothness and subtlety can elevate these drinks. Its ability to blend well with other ingredients while still maintaining its character makes it a favorite among mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts.

How did Japanese Whisky Become so Popular?

Japanese whisky gained international acclaim and popularity through a combination of quality, innovation, and accolades. The pivotal moment came when several Japanese whiskies started winning prestigious international awards, outperforming traditional whiskies from Scotland and other regions. This caught the attention of whisky lovers and critics worldwide. Furthermore, the meticulous craftsmanship, dedication to quality, and unique profile of Japanese whisky resonated with a global audience. The portrayal of Japanese whisky in popular culture, along with the increasing global interest in Japanese cuisine and culture, also played significant roles in its rising popularity.

Final Thoughts 

Japanese whisky stands as a testament to the skill, dedication, and artistry of its makers. It has carved out a distinct niche in the world of spirits, celebrated for its quality, elegance, and unique character. Whether enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or as part of a sophisticated cocktail, Japanese whisky offers an experience that is both traditional and innovative, reflecting the rich heritage and forward-looking spirit of Japan. As it continues to gain accolades and admiration worldwide, Japanese whisky not only honors its past but also boldly steps into the future, promising exciting new expressions and experiences for whisky enthusiasts around the globe.

Peng Lin

Peng Lin

Peng, a dynamic entrepreneur and founder of DKK, VIVA, and Liiton, has built customer-centric companies with three successful crowdfunding campaigns, skillfully developing unique products for style-conscious consumers while mastering product-market fit, and currently resides in Toronto with his family, continually pushing entrepreneurial boundaries.