The Ultimate Guide to Must-Know Japanese Whisky Brands
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Japanese whiskies have made their way to the top of the food chain. Beating out many traditional Scotches in international competitions, the Japanese are finally being recognized for their generations of hard work and meticulous distilling practices.
Our list of the best whisky brands includes some of the oldest, most celebrated and most collectible Japanese whiskies on the market today. But there are also some hidden gems and affordable, entry-level whiskies if you’re new to trying the Japanese style.
Japanese whiskies are known for being more is refined and complex in taste and texture. Their palate is lighter and subtler than American bourbons or Scottish whiskies. If you’re wondering which Japanese whisky to buy, which to collect and which is best for drinking, you’ve come to the right place.
Nikka’s first distillery opened in 1934. Legendary founder, Masataka Taketsuru, chose the Hokkaido region for his first distillery because of the climate and conditions being like those in Scotland. He wanted to recreate what he had learned on his overseas travels in his home country. Yoichi produces an excellent single malt.
This brand, owned by Suntory, has three products under their Hibiki range. They are all blends and among them, hold the title of Japan’s highest-awarded blended whisky. Hibiki whiskies are described as a harmony of Japanese culture and nature. The range includes the sweet and delicate Japanese Harmony, the complex and fruity 17 Years Old and finally, the rich and graceful 21 Years Old.
Miyagikyo is Nikka’s second distillery, built in 1969. It is located in the Sendai mountains close to the coast. The brand currently produces a single malt and a 15 Year Old whisky, which both excite the palate with spicy and fruity flavors. There is also a sherry cask influence as the whiskies are distilled in a pot still heated by indirect steam. Miyagikyo is the perfect Japanese whisky for your first experience. The entry-level single malt is light on the palate and introduces you to the brand in a very comforting way.
YamazakiThe Yamazaki brand is owned by Suntory and is the first and oldest distillery in Japan. It produces a 12 Year Old, an 18 Year Old and a 25 Year Old single malt. Yamazaki holds the title of not only Japan’s number 1 single malt whisky, but the Whisky Bible 2015 awarded Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the title of World Whisky of the Year.
Nikka owns two distilleries, namely Yoichi and Miyagikyo. They produce a variety of different whiskies, including single malts, blends, pure malts and grain whiskies. Nikka also produces Coffey Gin and Coffey Vodka in their distilleries. The brand has won many international awards, including the 2017 International Spirits Challenge Best Grain Whisky for the Nikka Coffey Malt. The brand’s founder, Masataka Taketsuru, is a legend in Japanese whisky history and it’s largely thanks to him that Japanese whisky is so well-known today.
Another brand owned by Suntory, Hakushu distillery is nestled deep in the forest of Mount Kaikomagatake in the Southern Japanese Alps. It was built in 1973 before the second distillery, Hakushu Higashi, which followed in 1981. Their whisky is known for its fresh, verdant flavor and herbaceous palate which reflect its untouched natural setting. Hakushu’s products include a 12 Year Old, 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old single malts.
The Akashi distillery is the latest to open at Eigashima. It has been going since 1984, using a pot still refining method and was built based on Scottish design. They produce Akashi 5 Year Old Single Malt, Akashi 5 Year Old Single White Malt, Akashi Eigashima 5 and 12 Year Olds and the Akashi Single Malt Cognac. This brand may be less famous locally, but it has a lot of success in the European market.
Since it was founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the Suntory brand has been a pioneer in Japan, leading the country’s whisky reputation to international fame and success. The brand owns Hibiki, Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita whiskies and three different distilleries. Suntory’s whiskies are a harmony between the Japanese people and their rich natural resources. It has lived up to Torii’s dreams of creating a complex yet refined whisky that would suit the Japanese people’s delicate palate and enhance their dining experiences.
Chita is the first single-grain whisky brand from Suntory. In 1972, Keizo Saji, the second Master Blender from Suntory, founded the Chita distillery on the tranquil shores of the Chita Peninsula. His goal was to produce the best Japanese grain whisky, which he achieved with the Chita. The distillery produces clean, medium and heavy grain whisky made from corn.
This brand was named to honor the founder of Nikka and its whisky is a no-age blend. Masataka Taketsuru understood that climate and surroundings greatly influence a whisky’s quality, so he carefully selected Yoichi and Miyagikyo as locations for his distilleries. Made up of several 10-year malts from Nikka’s different distilleries, Taketsuru is the brand that best represents Nikka’s history and diversity.
Founded by Ichiro Akuto in 2004, the Chichibu distillery is relatively small and very hands-on, but already well-known by Japanese whisky enthusiasts. The brand is fast on its way to becoming the first 100% Japanese whisky, moving away from importing products and using local resources instead.
The Golden Horse range is owned by Toashuzo, a relatively small player but a producer of excellent quality whiskies. The brand stopped producing for a period before coming back in 2016 with a different look. The whiskies used to feature age statements on their labels, but have stopped doing it since their comeback. The two whiskies produced by Golden Horse are the pure malt Musashi and the blended Bushu.
The Hanyu brand is actually from the Akuto family and used to produce whisky in the town of Chichibu, before closing down in the early 2000s. However, Ichiro Akuto relaunched business with his new Chichibu brand. Hanyu whiskies from the time before the family-owned business shut down are rare and expensive – a real collector’s item.
Named after its owner, the Japanese whisky extraordinaire, Ichiro’s is distilled at the Chichibu distillery and is the pride and joy of Ichiro Akuto. The worldwide blended products include Ichiro’s malt & grain, 2010 Chibidaru and 2009 Port Pipe.
The distillery opened in 1955 near the active volcano, Mount Asana. They produce a large variety of different whiskies, but sadly closed their doors in 2001. The remaining stocks were bought by UK-based company Number One Drinks in 2011. Today, Karuizawa whisky is a rare and treasured collector’s item.
This newcomer to the Japanese whisky scene is interesting because it is a rice whisky. Natural spring water, fertile soil and an ideal climate make for velvety smooth and aromatic whisky. Its style is different to other Japanese whiskies and its unique taste won the Gold Medal winner at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
The Shinshu distillery was founded in 1985 by the Hombo family, who have been distilling for over a century. They are situated deep in the Japanese Alps and their whiskies are named after Kiichiro Iwai, a silent pioneer in the Japanese whisky world. Mars’ whiskies are inspired by American bourbon and contain complex, fruity flavors.
Coming from the Miyashita distillery in the South of Japan that recently turned 100 years old, the whisky was in celebration of the brand’s long history of brewing beer, sake, and shochu. Okayama’s single malt whisky is known for its floral and spicy flavors.
Owned by Sapporo Shuisei, this brand produces two whiskies – the Sapporo whisky and the SS. Both blends are loyal to the Japanese style. The SS is good for an introduction to Japanese whisky, whereas the Sapporo whisky makes a great highball in classic Japanese fashion.
This unique brand is known for their Sasanokawa Cherry Ex Whisky Liqueur, made from a blend of cherry-flavored unaged whisky and aged whisky from Yamazakura. The dry finish to the sweet, fruity flavor is what makes Sasanokawa so interesting and original.
Togouchi whisky, produced by the same team who makes Chugoku Jozo, is made from Canadian grain and Scottish malt but blended in Japan. The distillery is set in an old tunnel that was built for a train but never used, making for an interesting anecdote. They have various blended whiskies on the market.
Brought to you by Sasanokawa Shuzo, the Yamazakura brand that means “mountains” and “cherry trees”. The name perfectly describes their blended whisky, known for its vanilla and orange blossom flavors.
Our list of the must-know Japanese whisky brands might seem long, but that’s because there are just too many good brands. It’s difficult to track down a “bad” or low-quality Japanese whisky. In their nature, the Japanese are a committed and hard-working people, meaning their whiskies are all of the star quality.
Whether you’re a newbie to Japanese whisky, a seasoned expert or a collector, you can’t go wrong in selecting your next pour from our list.
Enjoy this article? Don't forget to share.