As part of our “World Whisky” series, this post is dedicated to a category massively on the rise in recent years – Japanese whisky. With its history deeply entwined with Scotch whisky, Japan’s whisky industry has captivated global drinkers and carved out a niche in its own right. This is a quick introduction to Japanese whiskies.
While Japan’s first whisky distilleries were inspired by their Scottish brethren, the regulations surrounding what Japanese whisky can be a little different. In fact, in Japan, it’s completely legal to sell an aged spirit made from rice as whisky! This has led to confusion for some, but thankfully there are now lots of delicious, high-quality whiskies available on the market here in Europe.
Most Japanese whiskies are designed for Japanese palates, which generally speaking means the whisky will be on the lighter side, with a more delicate fragrance and subtle fruity, floral notes. The two big names in Japanese whisky, Suntory and Nikka, have multiple distilleries, stills, and grain varieties. That means there can be many different flavour combinations present in each of their releases. Some distilleries also use peated malt, so some whiskies will have light Campbeltown-esque smokiness to them, although there aren’t many that use heavily peated malt in the Islay style.
While the many brands, releases, and styles of Japanese whisky might seem a bit daunting to begin with, there are some gems to be discovered for those who try. The best way to find your new favourite Japanese whisky is to try them, of course! While we haven’t done a dedicated Japanese whisky tasting box yet, we have featured a few before and definitely will be again. So it’s a great time to subscribe without forking out loads of money on a whole bottle only to find it’s not for you.
Here are a few of my favourite Japanese whiskies. Like the rest of our World Whiskies series, I’ve organised the introduction to Japanese whiskies according to the flavour profile, so it’s easier to find your favourite style.
It’s all about the barrel here with this release from Nikka, combining a massive variety of casks of both grain and malt whiskies from both their Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. It’s bottled at a punchy 51.4% ABV, which I think is just right to get all those wonderful spicy, caramelly, rich dried fruit flavours coming through. There’s a good reason this is a multi-award winning whisky.
A blended malt containing whisky from the Mars Shinshu distillery, this is a wonderfully balanced dram with lots of ripe cherry, plum and orange flavours, backed up by toasty oak and baking spice. A hint of tobacco and a long finish means this is a whisky well worth seeking out.
Master of Malt, £58.84
“Meisei”, meaning celebrity in Japanese, comes from lesser-known distillery White Oak’s Akashi range. It’s a blended whisky, with about 45% malted barley, mostly aged in American oak. This is an excellent starter for Japanese whisky, particularly if you’re a bourbon drinker, as it’s sweet and soft, with flavours of caramel, vanilla, and light spice.
Whisky Exchange, £35.75
Japanese whisky powerhouse Suntory’s flagship grain whisky, coming from their Chita Distillery. Light and delicate, with flavours of mango, honeysuckle, mint and citrus peels, this is an easy-going dram with a creamy mouthfeel. A great everyday sipper, or try it as a refreshing highball with soda on a hot summer afternoon.
Nikka’s Pure Malt range comes in three varieties, Red, Black, and White, each composed of a different blend of peated and unpeated single malts from their Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. Each one is good in their own way, but the White edition shines through with a great whack of smoke from the peated whisky. There’s also a soft fruitiness on the palate, with notes of berries and prunes, finishing aromatic and with more smoke again. If you like your smoky “island” Scotches, this one is for you.
The Whisky Exchange, £99.95
Well, that wraps up our introduction to Japanese whiskies. If there’s a Japanese whisky you’d like to see us feature in a tasting box, I’d love to hear about it! You can also show us what great Japanese whisky you’re drinking at the moment by tagging The Dram Team on social media.
Warmest whisky wishes,
Chris (Founder, The Dram Team)
P.S. I write to our members a few times a month, and I try to make the emails interesting for any whisky fan. You can get those emails by signing up here.
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