10 best Japanese whiskies: Choose from malt, blended and peated spirits

Inspired by the Scots but distinctively innovative, head east for some of the world’s finest dram

Nick Moyle
Thursday 17 December 2020 13:08
<p>Whisky connoisseurs will relish one of these exquisite tipples</p>

Whisky connoisseurs will relish one of these exquisite tipples

Japan has long been recognised as an outstanding whisky producing nation and, as its popularity increases, we are steadily seeing more of its products exported to the UK market.

Japanese whisky is mostly produced in a manner similar to Scotch, but there are a few other factors that result in the country having a broad style of its own.

Besides climatic conditions and the type of casks used, such as the Japanese mizunara oak, differences are also created through close attention to blending, which is seen as much more of an art in Japan than almost anywhere else in the world.

Different styles of whisky, often produced at the same distillery, are blended to create drinks that tend to possess a lightness and elegance that is distinctly Japanese.

You’ll also discover some more unusual whiskies – many from smaller operations eager to push boundaries – making Japan the place to turn for less traditional varieties.

This list contains releases from a few of those smaller distilleries, along with a handful from those owned by the country’s two biggest whisky players – Suntory and Nikki – whose drinks tend to be easier to find. If your tastebuds are ready for some Japanese elegance, then read on.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. 

Suntory hibiki Japanese harmony, 43%

Hibiki typifies the lightness and elegance sought by many Japanese whisky makers. Blended from Suntory whiskies that have been matured in five different casks, there’s a range of flavours subtly interacting without a single characteristic ever dominating. The delicate floral notes and sweet orange fruits are given depth with traces of oak, while the spicier flavours have been softened with honey. This is the most gentle of introductions to Japanese whisky.

Ichiro’s malt & grain Japanese blended whisky, 46.5%

Ichiro Akuto is one of Japan’s most respected whisky makers, and this blend contains varieties from his own Chichibu distillery along with others from Scotland, Ireland, America and Canada. It’s a medley of flavours and textures that befits a worldwide blend – a muesli of various grains, dried fruits and spices all mingling together with a final flourish of drying oak. And, to accompany this complex arrangement of flavours, there’s a smooth layer of caramel.

The Kurayoshi pure malt sherry cask, 43%

In this whisky Scotland meets Japan, with the Matsui Shuzo distillery blending malt whiskies from both countries to create its own unique expressions. This release has notes of chocolate on the aroma that build as you sip, with a touch of sweet, fruity richness coming through from the sherry cask finishing. There’s also a vibrant hint of plum to perk up the senses before more chocolate emerges during a silky smooth finish.

Nikka coffey grain, 45%

Produced using one of Nikka’s two Scottish coffey stills, this grain whisky is closer in flavour to bourbon than a Scottish malt, with sweet vanilla and corn aromas leading the way. It’s the kind of whisky that instantly fills all corners of the mouth with sumptuous boozy flavours, from sticky, sun-drenched soft fruits to toffee-coated biscuits dripping with sweetness.

Mars maltage cosmo, 43%

This whisky is produced at the Mars Shinshu distillery, high in the Japanese Alps, where both the local water and low humidity levels affect its flavour. Cosmo is a blend of the distillery’s own whisky with imported Scotch, and we think it has the kind of fruity, zesty, orange and butterscotch flavours you might expect in an after-dinner Scottish dram, along with some dry spice and chocolate.

Suntory hakushu distiller’s reserve, 43%

The vibrant green bottle gives a visual taste of this whisky, with fresh green grass and herbs brightening up its gently simmering notes of smoke. It’s a single malt from Suntory’s Hakushu distillery, and is as easy to drink as you could wish for – those fresh green flavours give it the gentlest welcome and, even as it builds into deeper territory, there’s a lemon-drop sweetness to keep it on a smooth-sipping path.

Kaiyo mizunara oak peated, 46%

Kaiyo sends its whisky-filled casks made of rare mizunara oak out to sea, where up to three months constantly rocking on the waves means the whisky never sits still, enabling it to have greater interaction with the wood. This whisky has light and delicate sweet vanilla aromas mingling with soft smoke, which burst into life when joined by fresh berries and honey-coated almonds upon sipping. That honeyed sweetness lasts as dusky, dry oak creeps in for the long finish. A gorgeous peated whisky – Japanese-style.

Nikka days, 40%

This blend of malt and grain whiskies from Nikka has a bright and cheerful nature that would make it an excellent choice for Japan’s favourite cocktail, the highball. But don’t think that means it’s only suitable for mixing. Full of zesty lemon with some toffee apple sweetness and the faintest hint of smoke, toasty grains add depth and character towards the finish. And it comes at a cheerful price, too.

Kamiki whisky, 48%

Yoshino-sugi (Japanese cedar) is the unique ingredient in this blend of worldwide whiskies, with casks made from wood claimed to be the first ever used in whisky production. And while it has a typically Japanese lightness, the flavour is unlike any other whisky we’ve tried. It’s like taking your tastebuds on a wander through a cedar sawmill, speckling them with dry sawdust and resins, with a subtle smokiness adding to the effect. Green pepper and a hint of stewed fruit add to the complexity, while some peppery spice adds a touch of warmth to your sipping pleasure.

Nikka taketsura pure malt, 43%

This blend is named after Nikka’s founder – Masataka Taketsuru, known as the father of Japanese whisky – and comprises whisky from two of the company’s distilleries; Miyagikyo and Yoichi. The blend is a fine balancing act between the lighter, refined notes of Miyagikyo’s whiskies and the punchier, peaty and charred oak flavours of Yoichi’s. Some sherried fruits provide it with an extra layer of richness, while a slightly oily texture helps carry some drier coffee and toasted grain flavours through to the finish.  

The verdict: Japanese whisky

For something truly different, take a sip of Kamiki, but for an introduction to the type of whisky Japan does best we recommend Suntory’s hibiki.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.