When asked about whisky and where to get it from, your average Joe will tell you that Scotland is the home of whisky, and that the nation has a monopoly on the mysterious, ancient art of distilling.
However, in the last couple of years, we have seen a seismic shift in the production of whisky. There has been a surge in the Far East, with the Japanese now producing world-leading whiskies, with two powerhouses leading the charge: Nikka and Suntory.
These two prominent distilleries are the foremost in Japanese whisky production, with the latter also owning various American expressions such as Jim Beam. Nikka was founded by Masataka Taketsuru, a Japanese man that apprenticed in Scottish whisky distilleries for two years before returning to Japan in 1920, releasing the first Nikka whisky in 1940. Suntory whisky was founded by Shinjiro Torii, another lover of Scotch whisky. The first Suntory release in 1929 flopped but just shy of a century on his vision of subtle, refined and complex Japanese whisky has been more than realised. Both distilleries are aided primarily by their youth, taking inspiration from the Scots and the Irish, but constantly innovating new concepts and perfecting their recipes.
We prefer whisky with a drop of water – and that is our suggestion for each of these whiskies, unless stated otherwise. In complex whiskies a drop of water can help unlock the flavours for a rounder, more satisfying finish. We’re also going to refer a lot to the nose, palate and then finish of a whisky. For any novices out there, the nose is the name given to the aromas a whisky gives off, and you will notice different scents depending on where you smell the glass. The palate is the taste you get from rolling the whisky around your tongue, while the finish is the lingering flavour you get after swallowing – the finish will develop and morph as the flavour decays.
As a final aside, you’ll notice that we’ve referred to Japanese whisky as opposed to Japanese whiskey. An 'e' is added to the word when describing an Irish or American bottle, but the common consensus is that owing to the heavy Scotch influence on the Japanese whisky industry, it should be afforded the same terminology – so without that extra letter. A small but important distinction.
1. Nikka Single Malt Yoichi, 45%: £67.45 for 70cl, The Whisky Exchange
The bottle is meant to represent the Nikka character: smoky and fruity. This goal is achieved with aplomb. The nose is after our own heart, shrouded as it is in our favourite whisky aroma: peat. It’s a key component in a lot of whiskies, lending a smoky, almost bacon-like taste and nose – it’s particularly prominent in Islay whiskies such as our dearest tipple, Lagavulin’s 16-year-old. Here, underneath the peaty hue we have the familiar tart citrus aromas that we’d expect from a bottle that is eminently Nikka. The palate is impressive, with its balance giving the familiar smokiness of the peat as much stage time as the trademark sharp fruits, and the two elements are bridged together by spices and nuts. The finish follows through with the peaty and fruity tones of the whisky and introduces suggestions of saltiness. A real triumph.
2. Suntory Hibiki 17 Years Old: £175, Harrods
This whisky is hand-blended by the distillery’s blender-in -chief, Shinji Fukoyo, using only the finest single malts to produce a dark amber drink. A sweet and nutty nose is followed by an even sweeter palate, with overtures of honey evident throughout. Accompanied by a fruity splash, it’s tempered by a sophisticated oaky and cocoa finish. This oaky inclusion is the calling card of the rare Japanese oak, mizunara.
3. Nikka from the Barrel, 51.4%: £32.40 for 50cl, Waitrose
Nikka is one of the most renowned Japanese distilleries – its name will appear on any list of Asian whiskies nearly by default. This edition is one of the most ubiquitous thanks to its affordability compared to the distillery’s other expressions. The nose is complex with notes of freshly cut meadow and a punch of pepper. On the palate, we have strong fruity notes with orange pushing its way to the top of the pile amid dashes of cinnamon and cloves. The finish is a well-balanced and has a satisfying smoothness.
4. Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old: £179-£550, House of Whisky
This much-acclaimed whisky has topped the blended whisky category four times at the prestigious World Whiskey Awards, and in 2014 it scored 96 out of 100 in Jim Murray’s influential Whiskey Bible. Impressive stuff. The nose is full of dried fruits and spices – a real sinus clearer, the type of smell that you would follow into the kitchen. The palate is characterised by a deep and sophisticated oak that is matched by a sultry caramel, followed by a long smoky finish. It is a dangerously drinkable pour. The whisky is hard to come by, apart from at hugely inflated prices, so sign up for a restock on The Whisky Exchange or splash out if you’re desperate.
5. Nikka Coffey Grain, 45%: £49.95 for 70cl, 31DOVER
It’s no secret that the Japanese look towards the Scotch and Irish methods when producing their whiskies. This pour is distilled using two coffey stills imported from Scotland in 1963 – and the coffey still itself is an Irish invention. The whisky is produced using mainly corn and is reminiscent of a bourbon. The nose has a sumptuous sweetness to it, dominated by an enticing vanilla, and the palate delivers on the nose’s promise; it is an orgy of decadent sweet notes as maple syrup mingles with vanilla and brown sugar before being tempered by the corn to finish.
6. Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt, 45%: £67.45 for 70cl, The Whisky Exchange
This whisky is one of a number of whiskies in our list that are NAS (Non Age Statement). It’s a trend which, since the turn of the millennium, has sought to correct the myth that age directly equates to value. As a London bar manager explained to us, this revolution is owing to the fact that “the distilleries know better, they don’t want you just sticking with 16-year-olds all your life because you think an 8-year-old isn’t good enough, they know better than us”. The whisky has a barley spine, featuring heavily in the nose, palate and finish. The nose is full of heart-warming whispers, apple pie is accompanied by a fresh floral suggestion. This continues into the palate with the introduction of citrus alongside toasted barley and an almond note that seems more on the marzipan end of the spectrum. The finish follows through with the nutty and barley flavours.
7. Suntory Yamazaki 18 Years Old: £450, Amazon
Described as ”legendary” by the whisky buffs at Master of Malt, this whisky won gold at the 2007 World Spirits Challenge and double gold at the 2005 San Francisco World Spirits Championship. The nose is soothing with its vanilla and almond tones, leading into a palate of citrus and woodiness. The finish is long and follows through with the zest of the palate. This 18-year-old has a cult following and as such is hard to come by at RRP, although it is definitely worth a purchase. If you want to add this drop to your collection immediately then you’re going to be paying an inflated price.
8. Suntory Hakushu 12 years old, 43%: £75 for 70cl, Drink Supermarket
This whisky is distilled in Suntory’s mountain forest distillery, using the pure water of Japan’s southern Alps. It helps to produce a delicate and balanced whisky which is described, perhaps a bit too specifically, by the producers as “ideal for the culturally curious, adventurous dad”. The nose is a flurry of natural aroma, dominated by fresh meadow and supplemented by toasted barley, with just a suggestion of sweetness. The palate introduces a touch of fruitiness but this plays a secondary role to the grassy and smoky overtones. The finish is where the pure water makes itself known as clean mineral notes dominate the short finish.
The Verdict: Japanese whiskies
The Japanese have thoroughly cemented their place on the world whisky stage, rightfully earning this spot with the fantastic whiskies we mentioned and many more that we have not. The only trouble they have at the moment is supply, as many of the finest bottles are regularly out of stock and you have to keep a keen ear to the ground. We’d recommend the Yoichi Single Malt as the Best Buy – there are few whiskies on the market that can rival it in its price range and it does an excellent job of showcasing Japanese whisky. Seeing as it was produced in order to save Nikka’s threadbare stocks, you should always be able to find a bottle in stock, too.
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