Tuesday 14 June 2016



The top five of Japan’s 12-year-old whiskies are: Yamazaki, Hakushu, Nikka Taketsuru, Nikka Miyagikyo and Hibiki. Drink them as you like, but note that the Japanese typically add a dash (or a lot) of water. I use between 5 and 15 drops of water, using a pipette or drinking straw. I like Yamazaki the most.I have included the Yoichi 10-year-old as a very close 6th.

1. Suntory Yamazaki









The Sweetest: The first seriously marketed whisky from the distillery that started it all: Yamazaki 12-year-old. This is the classic, and for good reason. It’s light. It’s floral. It’s delicious. For what you’re getting, it’s reasonably priced. On the nose, one gets hints of zest and honey, and the palate, smooth and sweet, brings flavors of citrus with some vanilla oakiness. If you have a snobbish friend who insists on Scotch, a glass of Yamazaki should be the first class in a course of conversion to the Japanese path.  

2. Suntory Hakushu








The Smokiest: Hakushu, Suntory’s third American release, comes in a green bottle (a rarity among most clear-bottled Japanese whiskies) that hints at its “green” flavor profile: leaves and fruits, particularly pear. Marketed as the “fresh” whisky, Hakushu 12-year-old comes from the forests at the base of the Southern Japanese Alps. However, you’d be forgiven if you mistake this for an Islay malt. Even thoroughbred tasters often fail to separate the two. The use of peated barley, imported from Scotland, gives the whisky a smoky nose that suggests seaside origins; then you taste the delicate whisky, and find yourself transported to the forests of Japan.

3. Nikka Miyagikyo



The Most Surprising: When you nose this whisky, it releases little by the way of aroma. It takes ten minutes to settle and a second sniff yields heavy doses of toffee and caramel. The taste — full of strong, sweet vanilla — mimicks the nose’s form: slow to build, but impressive at its peak.Very classy finish.

4. Nikka Taketsuru









The Smoothest: Interestingly, this is a vatted (a blend of single malts) versus blended whisky, brought over to the United States for the first time just last year. It combines 12-year-old malts from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The darkest of the five whiskies (though still light, as far as whiskies go), the Taketsuru wows your taste with its even balance and smooth finish. On the nose, you get hints of vanilla, apple and cinnamon (apple pie). However, honey dominates the palate — so much so, in fact, that you feel like you are drinking straight from a honeycomb. The finish is rather short. 

5. Suntory Hibiki

The Sexiest Bottle: Housed in a distinct, multi-faceted, corked (!) bottle, or decanter, this Suntory whisky looks like something pulled from Noel’s personal bar. Although the nose is a bit sharp, the Hibiki gains points for using whisky aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak, as well as casks formerly used to hold Japanese plum liqueur. Like the Nikka Miyagikyo, the Hibiki is rich and thick, bordering on syrupy. The taste mirrors the honey and vanilla of other offerings, but with an oily texture and small notes of fruit. An excellent blend. 

6. Yoichi 10 YO


A very well made single malt from Japan, Yoichi is the jewel in Nikka's crown, their 10 year old offering notes of vanilla and fruit.  Nose: Plenty of fruit notes - peach stands out in particular, ripe, vibrant and subtly floral. Then there's rich vanilla custard, peat smoke and a hint of nutmeg spice. Palate: Oily and sweet, with peat smoke following swiftly afterwards. Light oak and developing fruit notes beneath. Finish: Appealing oak lasts on the finish.


Japanese Whisky Growing In Popularity

The first commercial production Japanese whisky began in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than other major styles of whisky.

There are several companies producing whisky in Japan, but the two best-known and most widely available are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies and blended malt whiskies, with their main blended whiskies being Suntory kakubin (square bottle), and Black Nikka Clear. There are also a large number of special bottlings and limited editions.

Since 2011, there are nine active whisky distilleries in Japan:

Yamazaki: owned by Suntory, between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshū.

Hakushu: also owned by Suntory, in Yamanashi Prefecture on the main island of Honshū.

Yoichi: owned by Nikka, on the northern island of Hokkaidō.

Miyagikyo (formerly Sendai): also owned by Nikka, in the north of the main island, near the city of Sendai.

Fuji Gotemba: owned by Kirin, at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka.

Chichibu: near Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. This is the new Chichibu distillery, founded by Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the distiller at Hanyu. It opened in 2008.

Shinshu: owned by Hombo, in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshū.

White Oak: owned by Eigashima Shuzou, in Hyogo on the main island of Honshū.

Eigashima Distillery: Eigashima Shuzo is located in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, and first acquired a whisky-making license in 1919. The new distillery was established in 1984.
Since 2000, Japanese whiskies have won awards, including top honors, in international competitions, notably Suntory. At the 2003 International Spirits Challenge, Suntory Yamazaki won a gold medal, and Suntory whiskies continued to win gold medals every year through 2013, with all three malt whiskies winning a trophy (the top prize) in either 2012 (Yamazaki 18 years old and Hakushu 25 years old) or 2013 (Hibiki 21 years old), and Suntory itself winning distiller of the year in 2010, 2012, and 2013. The resultant acclaim nudged Japan's distilleries to market overseas.

Further, in recent years a number of blind tastings have been organized by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Nikka's Yoichi and Suntory's Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scottish counterparts.

In May 2015,  there were two official single cask festival bottlings: two Japanese whiskies (a Chichibu six-YO 2009/2015 and a Mars Komagatakefour YO 2011/2015). Both were excellent – and much sought-after – but the Mars seemed to be the crowd favorite. Seeing as this was the first single cask from the ‘new regime’ (i.e. distillate from after the two-decade hiatus in production), it seems to spell good things for the future. Prices keep going up, but that is a discussion we will keep for a rainy day!

The Hakushu distillery in central Japan was once the largest whisky distillery in the world, with an annual production capacity of 12 million litres. One of the best places online to discover more about Japanese whisky is nonjatta. blogspot.com. Their site is probably the most comprehensive sources on Japanese single malts for English speakers.

Considering there are only nine active single-malt distilleries in Japan, the variety of styles is startling. All share a basic DNA with traditional Scotch: Japanese whisky also starts with malted barley imported from Scotland, because it's the best and the cheapest. And yet there are differences. The Japanese don't acquire whiskies from other distilleries to make their distinctive blends, the way the Scots do. Instead, each distillery creates its many in-house variations using an array of copper pot stills and wooden barrels.

Coal Fires

The resulting whiskies are more floral, with softer, silkier textures, than those from Scotland. At Nikka's Yoichi distillery, the pot stills are heated by coal fires, as opposed to steam, which gives their single malts richer, peatier flavors. And the Yamazaki distillery's use of virgin mizunara barrels contributes aromas of temple incense and sandalwood.

Climate and landscape are also key flavour influencers. Whiskies produced at higher elevations, such as those at Suntory's Hakushu distillery in the southern Japanese Alps, are notably clean and crisp, as are those from the Fuji-Gotemba distillery, which uses snowmelt from Mt. Fuji.

Single-Cask Bottles

Part of the growing interest in Japanese whisky, says David Driscoll, a spirits buyer for California's K&L Wine Merchants, is that "people crave the new, the unique and the unobtainable."

Among the most-prized collectibles are single-cask bottles from Japan's storied, now-closed distilleries. For instance, UK-based Number One Drinks Co. obtained the distribution rights to the remaining 364 casks of Karuizawa. The legendary 1967, with notes of tobacco, sherry, dark chocolate and roasted coffee beans, originally sold in 2009 for $380 but now costs 10 times that, while the 1968 sold at a Bonhams auction in Hong Kong for almost $6,000, far above the high estimate.

Equally rare are Ichiro's Malt Card whiskies from the shuttered Hanyu distillery, with labels that look like playing cards; a set of 13 brought $12,642 at Bonhams's November Hong Kong sale.

The Three Top Botttles
Japanese whiskies aren't just Scotch made in Japan. They embody a different, especially delicate aesthetic, based on harmony and precision. They're more subtle Zen garden than sturdy Scottish kilt. The top bottles aren't easy to find, even in Japan, but they're worth the search.

Hakushu 12-year-old single malt This fresh, lightly smoky whisky from Suntory's forest distillery--inside a bird sanctuary 2,200 feet (670 meters) up in the southern Japanese Alps --and has notes of green apple and smoky autumn leaves. ($70)

Hibiki 21-year-old blended whisky This Suntory blend of more than 20 Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies is perfumed, subtle and sweet, with just the right touch of tartness. ($300) Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 21-yearold This blended single malt, named for Nikka's founder, is round and rich. ($170)

  Yamazaki 25-year-old single malt Judged best Japanese single malt in Whisky Magazine's 2013 World Whiskies Awards, Suntory's flagship is smooth, complex and perfectly balanced. ($1,600).