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Japanese Whiskies in a League of their Own

The Japanese whisky category (no “e,” just like Scotch whisky, from which Japan’s version took its earliest cues), has been on a slow but steady ascent over the past couple of years.

In fact, the category has become so popular, the largest producers—Suntory and Nikka—found that stocks were in danger of depletion, and recently withdrew several age-statement whiskies in favor of new bottlings that contain a blend of ages. Hibiki 12 Years Old is now hard to find in the U.S., replaced with the new Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a blend of malt and grain whiskies that tastes strikingly similar to the 12 Years Old bottling.

That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the newer releases—they’re excellent, across the board. Of note, not a single Japanese whisky expression reviewed this month scored below 90 points. All retain the signature exquisite smoothness and balance of fruit, vanilla and smoke that make them so easy to savor. But if you have a now-scarce bottle of Hibiki 12 or Taketsuru 17, pour it only for people you like—it’s now a rare collector’s item.

In addition to the big two, also keep an eye out for bottlings from smaller distilleries like Chichibu, White Oak and Mars Shinshu, which are starting to make inroads in U.S. markets. Although some are relatively traditional, others are pushing the definitions of what the category can be. For example, Chichibu owner Ichiro Akuto recently debuted in New York a bottling called Ichiro’s Malt & Grain. It’s a veritable United Nations of Whisky, made with an unheard-of blend of whiskies from the countries Akuto describes as “the big five”: the U.S., Canada, Scotland, Ireland and of course, Japan. It’s silky and elegant, with warming, almond-like tones and a smoky finish.

Hibiki 21 Years Old (Japan; Beam Suntory, Deerfield, IL); $250, 95 points. This blended whisky is an ideal sipper, with an enticing crème brûlèe and dried apricot scents. Those notes are echoed on the palate, but are layered with drier oak and cigar wrapper notes, woven together on a light layer of peat smoke. Soft, complex and well-balanced.

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt (Japan; Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA); $70, 93 points. The luxe aroma mixes rich butterscotch and apple sweetness. On the palate, this whisky is light and gentle, interspersing fruit and smoke and finishing with a spark of cinnamon heat. Add a splash of water; recommended for sipping.

The Yamazaki 18 Years Old (Japan; Beam Suntory, Deerfield, IL); $250, 93 points. This complex single malt whisky has a dark honey hue and a bold aroma that entwines vanilla and juicy red apple. The silky palate mixes gentle smoke with mouthwatering dry notes—oak, leather and tea, finishing with a smoky exhale accented by orange peel and espresso.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony (Japan; Beam Suntory, Deerfield, IL); $65, 91 points. The newest blended whisky offering from Hibiki is burnished gold in the glass and has a bold aroma that mixes vanilla, fresh pear and a hint of smoke. The smokiness comes forward at the first sip, wrapping around a core of oak and vanilla custard and finishing long, with a mouthwatering bitter chocolate note.

Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky (Japan; Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA); $70, 90 points. The name of this whisky has nothing to do with coffee—rather, it’s named for a type of still invented by Aneas Coffey, which is used to make this golden spirit. It offers mild vanilla-pear aromatics and is relatively light and silky on the palate. Look for a light vanilla sweetness at first, which gives way to a rounded dark chocolate note and baking spice finish. Recommended for highballs and other mixed drinks.