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These Japanese Whiskies Make The Perfect Starter Bottles

Japanese whisky can be a very intimidating category, even for seasoned whisk(e)y drinkers. A big part of that comes down to accessibility. Japanese whiskey simply doesn’t make it to your average liquor store shelf as often as other regional-specific styles. On top of that, Japanese whisky isn’t cheap. $40 is where it bottoms out — about double the price of a perfectly drinkable bottle of bourbon.

All of that aside, Japanese whisky is a fascinating category of barley single malts, mellow maturations, varied sourcing, masterful blending, and unique finishings. If I were to call out a single throughline for the whole category, it’d be “mellow.” This whisky is generally very soft, fruit and floral forward, and really embraces the malt and water at the base of the spirit. Those are very broad brushstrokes, of course, but it feels like a good place to start.

The ten whiskies below represent a good primer if you’re looking to get into Japanese whisky. Most of these bottles are fairly easy to find and relatively affordable, but I’ve thrown in two spendy bangers at the end for good measure. If any of these pique your interest, make sure to click on the prices to give them a shot.

Suntory Whisky Toki

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $40

The Whisky:

This whisky is a blend of single malts and grain whiskies from Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. Hakushu is the main component of the blend in this case. The single malt is aged in American oak before it’s married to the grain whisky from Chita and a touch of the Yamazaki single malts, which were aged in Spanish and American oak.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with a bright and floral note of apple blossoms next to fresh green grass on a summer’s day with a touch of lemon-honey-basil iced tea. The palate holds onto that bright greenness with hints of fresh mint sprigs next to cold and sweet green grape skins, a touch of rosemary, and a slight grapefruit pith bitterness. The end returns to that lemon-honey sweetness and adds in a small dose of fresh ginger juice spice and a very distinct echo of bourbon vanilla.

Bottom Line:

This is the perfect introductory bottle for anyone looking to dip their toe in the world of Japanese whisky. It’s also a very solid cocktail mixer.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $95

The Whisky:

This blend marries the single malts from Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries with a grain whisky from the famed Chita Distillery. The whiskies are aged in five types of oak, including the much-sought-after Mizunara. Finally, Master Blender Shingo Torii creates a blend that exemplifies Japanese whisky in a single bottle.

Tasting Notes:

That signature fruitiness of Japanese blends is on display from the first whiff with a focus on bright, tart berries and honey-soaked cinnamon apples, and a note of orange marmalade. All of that fruit carries on and adds juicy, sweet peaches before a spiciness kicks up a notch while a creaminess counterbalances the sip. The oak and spice carry on towards the end as a final hint of sweet toffee lingers on the slow fade.

Bottom Line:

While this is a little bit on the pricier side, it’s one hell of a sipping whisky. The reason I listed it second here is that it’s a great counterpoint to the whiskies in the Toki expression above and a good stepping stone to bigger sippers in the category.

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

Asahi Group Holdings

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $75

The Whisky:

We’re staying in the pricier side of things. But, we’d argue that this one is well worth the price tag. The “Coffey Grain” in this whisky refers to the Scottish Coffey stills and the corn “grain” mash bill.

Tasting Notes:

The nose on this one is very bourbon adjacent with sweet corn vibes and vanilla woodiness drawing you in. The whisky’s palate is full of melon candies, pithy grapefruit, and malty vanilla wafers. The mid-palate sweetens with a Caro syrup feel as the vanilla kicks back up with an almost masa dryness on the back end.

Bottom Line:

This is an interesting bridge of whisky between Kentucky and Japan. It’s not a bourbon by any stretch but it feels like a familiar sipper that’ll help you get into the style a bit.

Ohishi Whisky

Ohishi

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $75

The Whisky:

In another departure, this single malt whisky is made from malted and unmalted rice. The mash bill is 30 percent gohyakumanishi rice that’s grown in the distillery’s own fields. The rest is Kumamoto mochi rice. The juice is then aged in ex-sherry casks. The final blend is a marrying of the 27-year-old, ten-year-old, and seven-year-old whiskies.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a definite rice liquor note up top next to a floral essence and an almost molasses sweetness. Those florals give way to nuttiness and a spicy edge that hints at salted black licorice. The end is longish with the spice hints lasting the longest.

Bottom Line:

Rice whisky is its own thing and worth checking out. While I’m not over the moon about this expression, it’s very interesting and palate expanding. That makes it worth giving a shot.

Hatozaki Japanese Blended Whisky

Hatozaki

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $40

The Whisky:

This whisky is named after the oldest lighthouse in Japan, which dates back to the 1600s. The juice is a blend of single malt and grain whiskies from Japan and abroad that are aged in ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and Mizunara oak.

Tasting Notes:

You’re immediately met with floral notes and cherry next to a hint of lemon and orange. The sip has a real malt underbelly with a honey sweetness next to a whisper of oak that leads towards the finish. The malt sustains through the end as a hint of pear next to peach arrives late.

Bottom Line:

This is a nice sipper that’s clean, distinct, and very light. That fruitiness helps this go down easy while the malt reminds you that you are drinking some easy-sipping whisky.

Kamiki Cedar Cask Japanese Whisky

Kamiki

ABV: 48%

Average Price: $72

The Whisky:

This is a fascinating dram. The blend is comprised of single malts from around Japan and hand-selected international single malts. The juice is then finished in Yoshino-sugi barrels — that’s a Japanese cedar that imparts a big flavor profile into the whisky.

Tasting Notes:

This sip opens with a note of peat next to spicy baked apples cut with orange zest. More floral orange notes and stone fruit wind towards a mossy cedar forest on a rainy day. The oak kicks in late with a bit more of that initial spice as the wood becomes resinous and dry on the long finish.

Bottom Line:

I’m a big fan of cedar in my whisky, so this is an easy pick. That being said, this is a solid example of the unique finishings coming out of Japan.

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Nikka

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $82

The Whisky:

This newly formulated malt from Nikka is a blend of single malts from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The base malts are both peated and unpeated with a sherry cask finish.

Tasting Notes:

The nose opens with freshly cut green grass next to a bold grilled pineapple, bright orange blossoms, and coconut cream pie with a vanilla pudding base. The taste really leans into the fruit with sweet pear candy next to white peach, cream soda, and wildflowers in full bloom. The end takes its time and attaches a bitter peatiness to the fruit with a final whisper of burnt cinnamon and clove left to linger on your sense.

Bottom Line:

Peaty Japanese whisky has a totally different vibe than most peat monsters, especially from Islay. This is subtle, fruity, floral, and really keeps the smoke in check.

Shibui Pure Malt Whisky

Shibui

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $72

The Whisky:

Shiibui pure malt is a marrying of both Japanese and Scotch malt whiskies. The Japanese malt is blended with a Lowland single malt. The whiskies spend time mellowing a medley of barrels, including bourbon, Oloroso sherry, and Mizunara casks.

Tasting Notes:

The malty grains are the star of the show on the nose and in the taste. Those malts present as a dark chocolate-covered Graham cracker next to a light orchard fruitiness on the nose. The taste layers in vanilla from that bourbon barrels as dark raisins, a touch of holiday spice, and a buttery shortcakes flavor profile drive the palate back towards that dark chocolate and cracker.

Bottom Line:

This is a cool example of how sourced Scottish juice can play with Japanese whisky in the bottle. It’s subtle yet stands out as something a little bit different and delicious.

Hakushu Aged 12 Years

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $168

The Whisky:

Okay, we had to include one stellar, albeit spendy bottle to cap off this list. Hakushu 12 is a sort of Japanese highland whisky made in the pine forests near the Japanese “Alps.” The juice is a combination of three whiskies produced at Hakushu: A non-peated whisky aged in ex-bourbon, another non-peated whisky aged in ex-sherry, and a peated whisky aged in American oak.

Tasting Notes:

This sip is grassy, nutty, floral, and slightly bitter on the nose. The dram then leans into ripe yet tart fruits, lemon citrus, and a herbal tea note while a wisp of smoke and an undertow of creaminess arrive. A fresh ginger spice arrives with a note of orange zest as the sip quickly fades away with a final floral note.

Bottom Line:

This is just freakin’ good from top to bottom. You’re getting a masterclass on what truly great Japanese malts can do when put together by masters high up in the mountains of Japan. It’s an eye-opening experience.

The Yamazaki 12

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $170

The Whisky:

This is a beloved expression of whisky from Suntory’s most important distillery. The juice is a blend of spirits that come off three old stills and then ages in a combination of bourbon, sherry, and Mizunara oak for at least 12 years before masterfully being blended into this iconic whisky.

Tasting Notes:

The whisky opens with a matrix of rich holiday spices next to ripe peaches and pears next to a subtle floral nature that leans towards orange blossoms and lemongrass with a touch of soft, old wood. That winter spice marries to a bright orange oil on the palate as a flutter of creamy coconut leads towards buttered scones and cranberry sauce cut with clove and cinnamon. That spice drives the finish towards a subtly mellow end with the orange oils, spices, and tart fruit coming together for a warming embrace.

Bottom Line:

This feels like it should be an advanced dram you spend a lifetime getting to know. While that can be true, the brilliance of this whisky is that as soon as you sip it, it’ll be like you’ve become old friends from the jump. It’s familiar yet new and enticing.

It’s nuanced yet approachable. It’s also just damn good.


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