The best Japanese whisky offers everything from bang for the buck to the most expensive bottles on earth because whether you’re buying from your local bottle shop or sipping from your favourite whisky bar it’s some of the rarest and tastiest juice on the planet. And while comparisons to Scotch are inevitable, don’t take that to mean Japan’s finest expressions aren’t unique in their own right. That extends well past the distinctive bottles to the spirits therein, which commonly deliver luscious notes of fruit, cereal, vanilla, and malted barley. It’s no wonder brands like Nikka, Hibiki, and Yamazaki are more popular than ever before.
Why is the best Japanese whisky often very expensive? Well, quality ingredients and proper maturation don’t come cheap, nor does the process of importing these drams to Australia. Furthermore, some of Japan’s foremost distilleries are struggling to keep up with global demand, to the point that there’s an actual whisky shortage. Hence, when you go hunting for this whisky online or at your local bottleshop you’ll be lucky to find a decent expression for under $100. We still say it’s worth it, presuming you know what to look for. Enter our trusty guide, which explores the not-so-wide world of Japanese whisky, and provides a rundown of the best drams from the best brands.
How We Chose this List of Japanese Whisky
When it comes to our list of the best Japanese whisky money can buy, it goes without saying, that expertise is key. While we’ve tasted every whisky on this list (often thanks to our friends in the industry), we’ve also turned to the wider public for their overall ratings. Our list takes into account three major perspectives to determine the overall rating. In addition to our own opinions, we take into account reviews via alcohol retailer The Whisky List and the Australian drinks retailer Dan Murphy’s. We then collate the information together and measure the whisky via overall flavour profile, reader ratings and commercial availability.
The Best Japanese Whisky
Yamazaki is the distillery that started it all is still up and running, and making some of the best Japanese whisky that’ll ever cross your lips. What’s more, the brand continues to experiment with the shapes and sizes of its stills, as well as the types of barrels it uses for maturation. Expect rich texture, palpable complexity, and unmistakable character from every sip of the brand’s top vintages. Our favourite drop is the Yamazaki 25-Year-Old Single Malt, which is aged exclusively in sherry casks and limited to just 12,000 bottles per year. Along similar lines, the Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Single Malt is the stuff of legend, though it too can get outrageously expensive. To hedge your bets, start off with a dram of the award-winning 12-Year (as seen above) it’ll still cost you, but not nearly as much as the $1 Million bottle we tried recently.
Founder: Shinjiro Torii
Output: 6,000,000 litres
Price range: from $110 AUD
Our favourite bottle: The award-winning 12-year-old.
2. Suntory Hibiki
Those who diligently swear by single malts are missing out on Hibiki, the blended whisky arm of Suntory and one of the most acclaimed Japanese brands. Statements like the Hibiki 21-Year and 30-Year are widely considered some of the most delicious whiskies on the planet, period. For something that you can actually afford, Hibiki Harmony will certainly suffice, a dram you can often find at your favourite bottle shop and whisky bar, the floral nose lies a smooth body of sherried sweetness and light smoke.
Founded: Introduced in 1989
Price range: from $115 AUD
Our favourite bottle: The original 17 and 21-year-old expressions.
3. The Hakushu
Another favourite whisky brand that falls under the Suntory umbrella, we love Hakushu for its 12 year, 18 year, and 25-year-old single malts. The original distillery was located in the forests of Mount Kaikoma, while production currently goes down at a second distillery nearby. If you’re looking for a smoky Japanese whisky, consider this your brand of choice with each expression being distilled from 100 per cent malted barley, which is dried over a peat fire. You don’t need us to tell you that the 25-year will taste the best and cost the most, but our top tip is to track down the Hakushu Heavily Peated.
Founded: Introduced in 1973
Price range: from $110 AUD
Our favourite bottle: The classic 12-year-old expression is a favourite for its sweet lime and green fruit palate.
Remember Masataka Taketsuru, who branched out to form his own distillery in 1934? Well, that distillery went by the name of Yoichi and it’s still churning out premium Japanese whisky under the Nikka umbrella today. With a considerable headstart on most of the competition, this brand has been able to craft a wide range of delectable classics, experimenting with all sorts of ingredients and techniques in the process. That said, straightforward statements like the 15-Year Peated Single Malt or the 20-Year Single Malt remain our pick of the bunch for those who don’t want to drop the entire mortgage. Ultimately, the privilege of tasting either will cost you, but you already knew that. Those on a budget should take a look at the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Single Malt that’s often available for under $150 AUD with a palate of brown sugar, licorice and a lightly peated finish.
Founder: Masataka Taketsuru
Founded: The distillery was built in 1934
Price range: from $150 AUD
Our favourite bottle: Money no object, straightforward statements like the 15-year peated single malt or the 20-year single malt.
Formerly known as Sendai, Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery distinguishes itself by way of several unique expressions. Due to its long-standing history, you’re able to veer off the beaten path and discover statements such as our favourite 2017 Rum Wood Finish Single Malt or the Sherry & Sweet, the latter of which is bottled at cask strength. If you’d rather not dig through the whisky archives of your local specialty bottle shop, we highly recommend sticking with something more traditional, such as the 15-year-old single malt whisky that certainly won’t disappoint. We love the medium-bodied palate laced with soft scents of stewed fruits, vanilla and hazelnut. Yum.
Founded: Introduced in 1969
Price range: from $120 AUD
Our favourite bottle: 15-year-old single malt, light-bodied and delicious.
While we’re on the subject of Nikka, we should mention the range of drams released under the company’s own name. Nikka Whisky from the Barrel ranks among the most acclaimed, but super-rare limited releases such as The Nikka Tailored (above) are a cut above the rest. In terms of the most popular, ‘The Barrel’ culls from over 100 different batches of malt and grain whisky, all of which are produced at the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, to pack its full body palate of sherry, cinnamon, orange zest, and a touch of smoke. Easily one of the best value-for-money Japanese whisky you’ll find anywhere.
Founded: 2 July 1934
Price range: from $94.99 AUD
Our favourite bottle: The Nikka Tailored is one of our favourite blends because of its Coffey still grain flavour.
All the Japanese beer lovers out there will recognise the name Kirin, but did you know the huge beverage company also runs a distillery at the southeastern end of Mt. Fuji? It goes by the name of either Kirin Distillery or Fuji Gotemba Distillery (depending on who you ask) and produces small batch blends as well as a 17-year single malt. The brand’s most popular blend, Kirin Fuji Sanroku 50 Proof, was recently discontinued due to the whisky shortage, so get it while you still can.
Founded: Distillery built in 1972
Price range: from $120 AUD
Our favourite bottle: Kirin Fuji Sanroku, pure rainwater and melted snow distilled? Hell yeah.
As the first new Japanese distillery since 1973, Chichibu came in at the perfect time, launching in 2008 and anticipating the global resurgence by just a few years. To say this whisky brand hit the ground running would be an understatement, especially when it comes to small batch single malts. Among the label’s veritable sippers are acclaimed annual releases such as Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘The Peated’ 2015 Cask Strength and Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘On the Way’ Single Malt.
Owner: Venture Whisky Ltd.
Distillery output: 60,000 litres
Price range: Discontinued.
9. Mars Shinshu
Located 2600 feet above sea level in the Japanese Alps is the country’s highest distillery, also known as Mars Shinshu. Along with the high altitude comes moderate humidity and an ample supply of pristine water, which respectively influence the brand’s single malts and popular blends. For a good sense of what this label can do, order a dram of Iwai Tradition. Comprised of both single malts and single grain whiskies, it delivers notes of brine, almond, peppercorn, malt, and peat smoke.
Owner: Hombo Shuzo Co., Ltd.
Price range: from $89 AUD
Our favourite bottle: Iwai Tradition, a delicious drop with sweet peat, orange marmalade, maple, and burnt sugar cane.
10. White Oak Akashi
Japan’s White Oak distillery was founded in 1888 and history says this was indeed the first in Japan to obtain a liquor license and distil spirits in 1919. Jump ahead a few decades and you’ll see this brand name on single malts and blends alike. We recommend choosing among a handful of Akashi whiskies via the links below, but what you won’t find are the label’s best expressions, such as the Akashi White Oak 5 Sherry Cask Single Malt. One of our favourites as it goes layers deep and balances sweet notes of brown sugar and cherry with brine and spice.
Price range: from $125 AUD
Our favourite bottle: The standard single malt (no age) is a great drop with a palate full of orchard fruit and a hint of sherry.
One look at the ornate bottle designs is all it takes to fall in love with Karuizawa Distillery, which launched in 1955 and officially closed in 2001. When a recent collection of rare bottles fetched record-breaking prices at auction, the elusive brand jumped to the top of numerous bucket lists. Whether or not these rare vintages are worth the high price of admission is something fewer and fewer drinkers will know as the years come to pass.
Closed: Closed since 2001
Price range: from $22,000 AUD
Our favourite bottle: Anything, considering the price we’d love even a drop.
History of Japanese Whisky
Japan began crafting its own whisky as early as 1870, but commercial production didn’t kick off until the early 1920s. That was when a liquor importer named Shinjiro Torii opened the country’s first distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto known for its excellent water supply. Serving as Torii’s top executive was a former student named Masataka Taketsuru, who’d spent three years in Scotland learning how to distil whisky.
In 1934, Taketsuru went off to open his own enterprise, Yoichi Distillery, in Hokkaido. While the distillery’s name would remain intact, Taketsuru’s company would eventually become Nikka. Torii’s company, meanwhile, would later become Suntory. As any Japanese whisky lover can attest, both companies continue to loom large.
As the decades progressed, Japanese whisky underwent numerous ebbs and flows. In the 1970s and early 1980s, an explosion in worldwide demand vicariously spawned a modest number of new distilleries and labels. That was followed by a drop in global popularity and then a recent resurgence. Today, there are approximately nine active distilleries in Japan.
Production Methods – Why Japanese Whisky Tastes So Good
When it comes to any exotic trend, there’s a tendency to over-hype quality based on things like scarcity or exclusivity. Japanese whisky is certainly no exception. What we’re saying is that the spirit is not intrinsically superior to any other form of dram, no matter what the nearest “expert” might tell you. Why does it taste so good? The answer, of course, boils down to production methods, which continue to take various cues from Scotland. For example, Japanese whisky is most often made from imported malted barley, some of which is peated. As with Scotch whisky, it’s also traditionally distilled twice using pot stills, and aged in either ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks (while some are aged in Japanese oak).
That said, Japanese and Scotch definitely strike their own unique accords. One variable is Japan’s climate, which experiences greater swings in temperature and thereby matures the whisky at a faster rate. Japanese distilleries also employ various innovations during production, such as using different types of yeast during fermentation or experimenting with the shapes of pot stills. This, in turn, leads to a broader range of distinctive flavours and profiles.
Japanese Whisky Shortage
In 2020, Suntory discontinued two of its most cherished expressions: Hakushu 12 Year and Hibiki 17 Year. According to Forbes, it was among the first warning signs that Japan was in the midst of a whisky shortage. Being that most of the best Japanese whiskies take years to mature, it’s safe to say the shortage will continue for an indefinite period of time. Apparently, you can have too much of a good thing.
It all makes for a textbook case in basic economics. From the mid-1980s to about 2011, Japanese whisky fell into obscurity on the world stage, prompting brands to reduce their supply and at least one distillery to shutter. That was followed by a meteoric rise in global demand. As a result of these two coinciding factors, Japanese distillers now have a limited supply of their best expressions. This is also why the best Japanese whisky is so expensive and will likely remain so.
What is the most expensive Japanese whisky?
Karuizawa is the most expensive Japanese whisky brand with some bottles fetching more than $40,000 AUD on the secondary market. Yamazaki does, however, often release limited bottles worth more than $1 Million.
Who was the first Japanese whisky distiller?
Japan’s White Oak distillery was founded in 1888 and history says this was indeed the first in Japan to obtain a liquor license and distil spirits in 1919.