Given that lengthy aging periods are so fundamental to whiskey production, the Japanese whisky industry presently exists in an uncharacteristic state of flux.
In early 2021, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) announced a new set of labeling standards dictating what can and can’t be called “Japanese Whisky.” For the time being, the guidance remains an agreement among producers rather than law, and brands have a transitional period of up until 2024 to make sure their labels comply.
Provenance and ingredients form the heart of the new standards, which will prevent producers from importing whiskey, bottling it in Japan, then selling it labeled as Japanese whisky. Nor will they be able to sell aged, 100-percent rice distillates as whisky — even though they qualify as such in countries like the United States.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality of such distillates, but it’s worth pointing out that these developments are happening in Japan, and that producers appear more focused than ever on transparency.
So what should you expect from Japanese whisky here and now, in 2022? To begin with, single malts, blended whiskies, and grain whiskies, all arriving with a wide range of age statements (and without). Drinkers can look out for bottles made using a range of cask finishes, too. That might sound a lot like Scotch, and the similarities are numerous, but Japanese whisky holds its own distinct profile and identity — two things that bodies like the JSLMA are working hard to protect.
Now that we’re up to speed on the latest happenings in the category, here are 14 of the best bottles of Japanese whisky, in ascending price order.
(Please note that prices listed here are MSRPs provided by producers and/or importers and distributors. Given both the popularity and relative rarity of Japanese whisky in the U.S. market, actual retail prices may be significantly higher in some cases.)
The Best Japanese Whisky Under $50
Akashi Blended Whisky
From the Eigashima distillery, located in Akashi City, this blend of malt and grain whiskies matures for an undisclosed period in bourbon, shochu, and virgin oak casks. Rich malt notes mix with bright orchard fruit on the nose, with a hint of dried apricots lingering beneath. A subtle peatiness emerges on the palate, which has a good concentration of flavor despite its 40 percent ABV content. This bottle delivers great value for money and mixes a complex, enjoyable highball.
The Best Japanese Whisky Under $75
Hatozaki Small Batch Pure Malt Whisky
The definition of “pure malt” lies somewhere between blended whiskey and single malt. Produced only from malted barley, it contains distillates from more than one distillery. In this case, the composition is a blend of 5- to 6-year-old single malts aged in bourbon, sherry, and Mizunara casks. Light in color and malt-forward, whiffs of damp earth meet caramel on the nose. The light, spritely palate makes it perfect fodder for highballs with a citrus or apple garnish.
Average price: $57
Kaiyo The Signature 43% Japanese Whisky
Kaiyo isn’t afraid to experiment with maturation and all of the brand’s releases spend at least three months at sea aging in Mizunara oak barrels. This bottling spends three years and six years aging on land either side of that voyage, once again in Mizunara casks. The oak lends a perfumed character to the nose, while well rounded fruit and malt notes set the tone on the palate.
Average price: $65
The Best Japanese Whisky Under $100
Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky
Named in honor of the continuous stills invented by Irishman Aeneas Coffey — two of which Nikka continues to operate to this day — this is a fruity malt whisky with attractive floral aromas. The palate introduces deeper malt flavors and rich servings of caramel. While undoubtedly sippable, its straightforward profile and slight lack of depth mean it shines best in cocktails.
Average price: $75
Mars IWAI Tradition Wine Cask Finish
One of multiple cask-finished expressions from Mars’ IWAI Tradition line, this non-age-statement, limited-edition release ages in bourbon casks before entering Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels for a finishing period. The process brings a fruity sweetness to the otherwise rich and malty Tradition distillate, and with it arrive new layers to enjoy and savor while sipping.
Average price: $76
Tenjaku Whisky Pure Malt
Available in the United States since late 2020, this pure malt is double copper pot distilled and aged for 5 to 6 years in heavily charred Kentucky bourbon barrels. Fresh apple aromas are matched by more decadent notes of figs and prunes, leading to a balanced, rounded palate. While its alcohol content is relatively light (40 percent ABV) as far as modern whisky standards go, the palate has a rich weight and brims with luscious caramel notes.
Average price: $80
Hibiki Suntory Whisky Japanese Harmony
There’s a temptation to lament this whisky’s loss of age statement, but on the other hand, it stands as a testament to the popularity and reputation of Japanese whisky. Made using a blend of malt and grain distillates, this bottle lives up to its name and billing, with tropical fruits and flowers defining the nose, and honeyed, malty sweetness coating the palate.
Average price: $94
The Matsui Single Malt Sakura Cask Whisky
This non-age-statement single malt undergoes a double maturation process, with the first period spent in ex-bourbon casks and the second in bourbon barrels whose heads have been replaced with sakura wood. Its light, fruity, and floral aromas point to this still being a very young single malt, but it’s not lacking concentration of flavor, nor will it leave you yearning for more time in barrel.
Average price: $95
Honkaku Spirits Takamine 8 Year Old Koji Whiskey
This whisky is named after the late 19th-century professor Jokichi Takamine who patented a whiskey-making process using the traditional Japanese sake brewing technique, koji. Fittingly, this expression utilizes the “malting” microbe prior to fermentation and distillation. Aged in new American oak as well as ex-bourbon casks, it opens with a lively, rum-like molasses aroma. The palate continues in a similarly bright and energetic manner, with stone fruit preserves and peppery spice emerging on the finish.
Average price: $99
The Best Japanese Whisky Over $100
The Hakushu Single Malt Aged 12 Years
This is the youngest and most obtainable expression from Suntory’s Hakushu line. Distilled at the Hakushu facility, nestled in wooded mountains some 100 miles west of Tokyo, this whisky is notable for its delicate smokiness. It has clean, pure orchard and stone fruit aromas, and a savory green tea note on the palate that plays wonderfully with the hint of peat.
Average price: $150
Kanosuke First Edition 2021 Single Malt
Aged for a little over three years in re-charred American oak casks that previously held rice shochu, this small batch single malt is the first release from the Komasa Kanosuke distillery, located in Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan. Aromas of plums and sweet apple preserves set an inviting first impression. The palate follows with rich depth and a range of flavors including malt, earth, fresh fruit, and oak. Its texture is weighty and the finish lengthy. Even if you can’t find a bottle of this release, Kanosuke should be on your radar.
Average price: $199
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Whisky Limited Edition
The limited-edition version of Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Whisky, this release blends the distillery’s Japanese single malt with Scotch, Canadian rye, Irish whiskey, and bourbon. Each of the components are at least 10 years old, while some of the world whiskeys range in age from 20 to 40 years, according to the brand. Coming together with seamless grace, the final blend offers deep layers of concentrated flavors and aromas, and complexity. Sweet sherry cask aromas lead to oaky vanilla, leather, and dark chocolate. Its 48 percent ABV content excites the palate without leaving a trace of heat, while peated, earthy notes bring further character to the palate. File this under: contemplative sipper.
Average price: $229
Mars The Y.A. #01
The first edition from Mars’ brand new “Y.A.” series, this line seeks to showcase the unique influence of aging pure malt on Japan’s Yakushima Island. Primarily matured in bourbon casks, this whisky sings a tune of salty seawater and tropical fruit. It soon follows with a broad range of aromas and flavors, including leather, licorice, and cedar wood. A slightly smoky finish brings further nuance, and at 52 percent ABV, this dram can comfortably handle a few drops of water, bringing new and interesting flavors and aromas to the fore.
Average price: $250
The Yamazaki Single Malt Tsukuriwake Selection Puncheon 2022
There’s a large chance you may never come across this bottle on liquor store shelves or even on a bar or restaurant’s spirits menu. If you do — and if you can stomach the surely lofty price tag — don’t think twice about pulling the trigger. This is one of the most interesting spirits we’ve sampled this year and a must-try for any Japanese whisky aficionado. Released earlier this year, the Tsukuriwake Selection broke down Suntory’s iconic Yamazaki whisky into four essential pillars, each of which received their own dedicated bottling. For us, Puncheon proved the standout of the lot (the others being: Spanish Oak, Peated Malt, and Mizunara Cask). Molasses and intense tropical fruit mix on the nose, which has an overall sweet profile. The palate reins things in with textured tannins, and earth and malt notes. Special drams like this really don’t come around very often.
Average price: $450
How do I find affordable Japanese whisky?
For recommendations for great, affordable bottles of Japanese whisky, check out these tips from the experts.
How did Japanese whisky become so popular?
The availability of beloved brands Suntory and Nikka, as well as the Japanese Highball trend, may be to thank for Japanese whisky’s rise to popularity.
VinePair’s Tasting Methodology: How We Rate
Throughout the year, VinePair conducts numerous tastings for our popular Buy This Booze column and wine and spirits reviews. Our mission is to offer a clear, reliable source of information for drinkers, providing an overview applicable to day-to-day buying and drinking.
In alignment with our reviews mission, we believe in purposefully tasting all products as our readers typically would, with full knowledge of the producer, the region, and — importantly — the price. Tastings are therefore not typically conducted blind.
For Buy This Booze roundups, we usually include a maximum of one expression per brand, though we do allow multiple products from the same production facility (i.e. released under different labels). For this reason, you may note that multiple Suntory and Mars releases feature on this list.
We considered a number of different factors before finalizing this list of the best Japanese whiskies. Our overall aim was to showcase multiple styles at a range of price points. Given how rare and expensive Japanese whisky has become in recent years, the bottles included in this list are generally harder to come by and more expensive than we might recommend for other spirits categories. Nevertheless, we are confident that every bottle in this roundup delivers on flavor, balance, depth, and complexity for each of their respective price points (relative to the current market).