The best list: If you take your drink seriously, you must try Japanese whisky today

Best Japanese whisky: What is it about a Yamazaki or a Hibiki that have created an inexplicable craze among whisky connoisseurs?

japanese whisky collage

Who wouldn’t want to cheer for the underdog? One you wouldn’t give a chance surprises, turns the tables, and races ahead making the winning move. The classic tale everybody loves! 

Perhaps such is also the story of Japanese whisky. Not too long ago, a delicacy enjoyed only locally is soon becoming the darling of the world. 

What led to this paradigm shift? 

Also read: Best American whiskey: It's time you looked beyond Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam

yamazaki 55 dark

I have wondered too! And when a scheduled trip to the Land of the Rising Sun had to be shelved thanks to the lockdown, I found some time to reflect on the marvels of Japanese whisky. What is it about a Yamazaki or a Hibiki (and there are many more worthy brands) that have created an inexplicable craze among whisky connoisseurs? Once the closely guarded fiefdom of the Scots is making way to welcome new savants in the realm of taste and terroir. 

And when you think about it, you’re reminded of the rich historical narrative of entrepreneurial twists and turns of Suntory (Shinjiro Torii) — Nikka’s (Masataka Taketsuru) distillery journey. Not to forget how Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015 hailed the Yamakazi Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the "Best Whisky in the World". Imagine. The best whisky in the world, for once, was not Scottish. Surely, that invited more attention. Go back a few years and you might even remember Bill Murray famously declaring, "For relaxing times, make it Suntory time" in the 2003-drama Lost in Translation. 

Taste one and you’ll know. The indescribable eclectic taste with notes of smoky, peaty, light and so much more that these whiskies offer create a microcosmic world of maturation, ageing and craftsmanship in a glass. Japanese whisky sure has taken its own sweet time but it has finally arrived. Take my word, it has been worth the wait!

Most Expensive Japanese Whisky Ever Sold At Auction

yamazaki 55

Everything about the Yamazaki 55-Year Old, from its craftsmanship to the care with which it has been distilled and matured, makes it an object of desire. Distilled in 1960 and matured in a Mizunara cask for the next four years before being moved to a white oak cask, each sip of this will tell a vintage story. Little surprise then that the oldest Japanese whisky was sold for a record HK$6,200,000 (US$795,000) at Bonhams Fine & Rare Wine and Whisky Sale in Hong Kong this August. Bottled at 46 per cent ABV, only 100 bottles of Yamazaki 55 were created.

Also read: Beginner's guide to whiskey: Everything you need to know about Bourbon, casks, ingredients

Three For Your Home Bar

hibiki japanese harmony

Hibiki Japanese Harmony: An elegant expression with wafts of honey, orange, an herbaceous touch and light oak, the Hibiki Japanese Harmony is an exquisite whisky. Made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, and grain whisky from the Chita distillery, a total of ten malt and grain whiskies are aged in five types of oak, including the very rare Japanese Mizunara. While the 12 and 17 are no longer produced, you can get your hands on the Hibiki Japanese Harmony. Maybe you’d fancy the 21 or 30 too, the most renowned, exorbitantly expensive and often seen as a collectible. Available in India.


nikka yoichi single malt

Yoichi Single Malt: With aged malt whisky in short supply in the country, Japanese brands are increasingly turning to NAS variants. The Yoichi Single Malt from the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company is one such blend of single malts from various years. Smoky with a maritime character, it is crafted using traditional methods. Aged in a variety of casks including new American oak and ex-sherry, it strikes the perfect balance between peaty notes, smoky, fruity and floral aromas. This award-winning single malt that has replaced the other popular ones in the line — the Yoichi 10, 12, 15 and 20. 

$82  (Rs5,740 approximately)

hatozaki blended whisky

Hatozaki Blended Whisky: The Hatozaki blend brings together malt and grain whiskies, those distilled in Japan as well as imported ones. Named after the Hatozaki lighthouse, the oldest in Japan, this one from the house of Kaikyo Distillery is aged in different types of casks. Think sherry, bourbon and Mizunara oak. It gives the whisky a complex flavour with notes of pears, caramel and cherry blossom and a light sweet finish. This premium blend is aged up to 12 years with 40 per cent minimum malt content. Available in India.


Also read: Best summer cocktail recipes with gin, vodka, scotch and more

Blend it like a bartender with these classic cocktail ideas

toki americano

Nippon Cocktail: A cocktail created by Guiseppe Gallo to transport you to Japan. Combine Japanese Whisky (45ml), Martini Rossi Sweet Vermouth  (30ml) and Ginger Liqueur (7.5ml) into a mixing glass. Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

sidecar cocktail

Tokyo Sidecar: This tasty little treat called the Tokyo Sidecar is a variation of the classic Sidecar cocktail. Shake Japanese Whisky (60 ml), Cointreau (23 ml), Lemon juice (15ml) with ice in a shaker. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

matcha highball

Matcha Highball: Try this Matcha inspired twist of a classic highball cocktail. Combine the Japanese Whisky (60 ml), Lime juice (15 ml), Honey syrup (15 ml), Matcha powder (1/4th tsp) in a shaker and shake it well. Stir and strain into a highball glass filled with ice, top with soda and garnish with a slice of lime or mint.

Ichiro's Malt & Grain Japanese Blended Whisky, Limited Edition 2020

ichiro malt grain blended whisky

Ichiro Akuto, a small distiller makes some of the finest whiskies in Japan. The Ichiro's Malt & Grain Japanese Blended Whisky, Limited Edition 2020 from the Chichibu distillery, was adjudged the world’s best blended limited release at this year’s World Whisky Awards. The latest among several award-winning drams by the popular distiller, this one with hints of sulphur and a burst of mint with slight peaty notes should have you swooning. Just like the others from the house of Ichiro Akuto, this bottle will be a treasured possession. Worth holding on to.

$3,299 (Rs2,30,930 (approximately)

Also read: Dark or white for you? Rum is ready to take on its fine spirit rivals

Whiskypedia: Step up your Japanese Whisky Lingo

Mizuwari: Meaning “mixed with water”, Mizuwari is actually a very common way of serving spirits, not just whisky, in Japan. Typically, about two parts of  cold water is mixed with one part of the spirit and ice. 

Oyuwari: When the weather is cooling down, it’s the perfect time to start thinking oyuwari (means “with hot water). It's the best way to enjoy spirit like whisky and shochu.

Ji-Whisky: Ji means local area in Japanese, and Ji-whisky is the name given to smaller distilleries that produce whisky for their local market. You may think of these as craft distilleries like Wakatsuru, Mars and Chichibu. 

Haiboru: Name for Japan’s popular cocktail, the Japanese Highball. But Haiboru is not your average Whisky Soda. This is a cocktail made with attention to detail and zen-like focus built on years of experimentation and skill. As with all things, the Japanese put a meticulous spin on the norm, making the highball an art form with special details like thin glassware, intricate stirring and hand-carved ice blocks.

(Vaniitha Jain, a well-known wine, spirits and lifestyle consultant, is the founder of @ThePerfectPour)


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