Japanese whiskey brands are in hot demand at the moment. If you’re wondering what sets them apart from America’s famed bourbon and Scotland’s popular whiskey, the answer is a favorable manufacturing process free of the harsh standards required of the two widely recognized Western varieties. In Japan, one rule applies and not much else — Japanese whiskey is simply made within the country. It’s this level of freedom that has provided the space for great talents to explore unique ingredients and come up with nice blends; some of which have turned into vintage masterpieces.
Regarding taste, Japanese brands closely come off like Scotch. This is understandable given that the country’s renowned distillers honed Scotland’s production techniques. Although, their uniquely silky texture offers a sharp contrast from the varieties that provided the nation’s whiskey blueprint. Before the wave of demand skyrocketed a few years ago, aged statement whiskeys like the Hibiki 12–Year–Old where the most common in the US but keeping up with a market base that was growing by the day plummeted such varieties into scarcity. Non-aged statement brands have now taken their place on the shelves of liquor stores and after initial turbulence, they’ve soared to the same heights as their predecessors. That said, what follows is a compilation of four Japanese whiskeys that sit at the summit of the industry:
This whiskey variety stepped forward to fill the shoes of the Hibiki 12-Year-Old when it became rare due to the increased demand for Japanese Whisky. A quick sip of the flavor and you’ll instantly notice that the composition is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the brand it aimed to substitute with custardy vanilla fused into an alcoholic treat also encompassing a dash of spice, a hint of dark chocolate, and a trace of mild smoke. When presented in a customary 24-faceted glass vessel representing the country’s seasons, this Hibiki impresses from the get-go.
This single malt work of art is created at the base of Mt Kaikoma by a similarly named distillery that perfectly encapsulates an herbaceous and smoky flavor beautifully entwined with peppermint and confined in the alluring chamber of an emerald casing. The taste, in general, is full of pleasant grassy notes that coalesce seamlessly through the palate, with a mildly bitter taste smoothed out by cascading sweet notes of mint that get stronger with every sip. The Hakushu earns its acclaim for an exquisite finish and its authentic assortment of unspoiled natural ingredients.
Made by Japan’s oldest Whisky producer is the Akashi White Oak whose roots can be traced back to the first makeshift family distillery in 1888. It has aged gracefully over the decades as the creators have perfected the formula to achieve a nice balance of flavor. Fruit, oak, and spice are quite palpable yet not overwhelming while that sharp taste of whiskey is toned down beautifully by the combo resulting in a raw silky texture that is charming and pleasant. The glass is endearingly straight to the point unperturbed by many engravings but for a simple depiction of the name and Japanese inscriptions. It’s as easy on the eye as it is on the tongue.
Nikka from the Barrel is a single-barrel whiskey that’s a huge success with Western audiences, and those seeking out a maiden taste of Japanese whiskey on account of its unrivaled quality and affordability, two words that are rarely found in the same sentence in the whiskey realm. It has two accolades under its belt, it earned the top prizes in the 2010 and 2007 edition of the World Whisky Awards which serves as a testament to its prowess. This accessible brand is comprised of an assortment of all sorts of worthy flavors including orange, cinnamon, clove, mustard, and vanilla.
When whiskey enthusiast Jim Murray declared a Japanese single-malt whiskey as the world’s best, it brought a great deal of attention to the Japanese whiskey industry, further bolstering an increasing fan base. Even without his intervention though, whiskey from “the Land of the Rising Sun” has long been at the top of the most-wanted lists the world over. Its superiority over all others has over the years boiled down to not only the level of ingenuity that goes into its manufacturing but also the smooth-sipping trademark flavor and, perhaps most importantly, a richness in diversity.