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Japanese Whiskies To Help You Better Understand The Style This Fall

Japanese whisky is booming and has been for some time now — with an approach similar to that of Scotland, in that the main focus is on blends and single malts. But just because they spell “whisky” the same way, doesn’t mean that the Japanese and Scottish methods totally overlap. The climate, water, mashing, distilling, aging processes, and blending practices in Japan represent a wholly unique subset of whisky-making.

The main barrier to getting into Japanese whisky — especially living in the U.S. — is the price. Like scotch, the juice has to travel across oceans to land in the United States, where it’s then tariffed. That adds to the costs of production and the final sticker price. None of which is to imply you can’t get quality, inexpensive bottles of Japanese whisky. But it’s certainly harder than finding a solid bourbon on the cheap.

To help you take your first steps into the world of Japanese whisky, we thought we’d call out a few expressions we love. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive. Think of it as a starter course. An overview so that you can get a taste of the blends, the single malts, and the special casks. Plus some of the pricey stuff thrown in at the end for good measure.

Hatozaki Japanese Blended Whisky

Drizly

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Kaikyo Distillery
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:

I enjoy sipping this one in a highball. It’s super fruity and works well as a late-summer thirst quencher. It also makes for a nice break from the headier (and heavier) American whiskeys out there.

Tenjaku Blended Whisky

Tenjaku

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Sourced Blend
Average Price: $45

The Whisky:

This is a fascinating blend that utilizes corn and barley with ex-bourbon barrels for aging. It’s not a bourbon by any stretch but uses that as an interesting touchstone.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a bit of a “blended” quality upfront on the warm nose next to hints of pear and dried fruits with a wisp of smoke. There’s a creaminess in the mix, too — with a stone fruit supporting note that leads towards a mild oakiness. That oak carries on as the fruit and cream fade out quickly.

Bottom Line:

This is definitely a highball whisky that works well with hard and very fizzy mineral water.

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky

Nikka

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Nikka Whisky Distilling
Average Price: $70

The Whisky:

We’re already getting into 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:

There’s a hint of bourbon vanilla on this nose but it’s a ghost. The real star of the show is the fruit — mango, banana, orange — next to a hint of sweet corn. The sip leans into the fruit with undercurrents of citrus followed by a bit of toffee. Finally, that hint of vanilla returns alongside the orange and toffee with a nice rush of oak on the semi-long end.

Bottom Line:

I love this one on the rocks. Though, a single rock in a dram works well, too.

Kamiki Cedar Cask Japanese Whisky

Kamiki

ABV: 48%
Distillery: Sourced Blend
Average Price: $70

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:

This is an easy sipper with a rock or a little water. It’s also kind of magical in a cocktail with few ingredients.

Ohishi Whisky

Ohishi

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Ohishi Distillery
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:

This is an interesting enough dram to enjoy with a rock or some water. But it’s also really fascinating as a cocktail base with bitter and botanical mixers like Campari and sweet vermouth.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony

Suntory

ABV: 43%
Distillery: Yamazaki & Hakushu Distilleries (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $90

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:

This might be my favorite Japanese sipper on the list. Add a rock and watch the world go by.

The Matsui The Peated Single Malt

Matsui

ABV: 48%
Distillery: Kurayoshi Distillery
Average Price: $90

The Whisky:

This is a cool bottle visually (utilizing Hokusai’s “Great Wave”) and in taste. The peated malt is reminiscent of the Port Ellen Islays Scotch single malts with a Japanese essence and a bourbon barrel edge. All of that makes this a very unique dram to taste.

Tasting Notes:

Peat! There’s a very earthy and slightly funky peat note present next to billows of smoke and bready malts on the nose. A dash of bourbon vanilla arrives on the palate next to apples covered in spicy-yet-creamy caramel with plenty of oak and another dose of that peaty smoke. That peat lingers the longest as notes of apple and caramel drop in on the slow fade of this dram.

Bottom Line:

If you love the peat, this is the dram for you. Personally, it’s a little much for me — unless it’s in a highball.

Hakushu Aged 12 Years

Suntory

ABV: 43%
Distillery: Hakushu Distillery (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $150

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 a solid once-a-year celebration whisky to have on hand. Pour one for you and a loved one with a little water or ice and enjoy it slowly.

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