Japanese whisky? What are we talking about? Aren’t the Scottish brands better?
That’s where you’re wrong. Japanese whisky has been in demand ever since Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt won “Best of the Best” at Whisky Magazine’s awards. A lot has changed since Shinjiro Torii opened the Yamazaki whisky distillery in 1923.
Japanese Whisky Brands
Who is who in the world of Japanese whisky? Several distilleries operate throughout the country under familiar brands.
Suntory distills their whisky at their Yamazaki , Hakushu, and Chita distilleries. The Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, and Toki brands are their most famous offerings.
Nikka distills whisky at their Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. They produce single malts from both distilleries and a wide variety of other award-winning brands.
Kirin produces one malt and three grain whiskies from their distillery at Fuji Gotemba (at the foot of Mt. Fuji, in Shizuoka).
Chichibu is an independent whisky distillery located in Saitama Prefecture. They produce a variety of single malts and single casks.
Shinshu is an independent whisky distillery located in Miyata villiage on Kyushu. They produce “Mars Whisky” and “Komogatak,” primarily in single malt and single cask.
The White Oak distillery (west of Kobe) is another independent whisky distillery. They are primarily known for their Akashi brand.
Award-Winning Japanese Whisky
There are almost as many awards as there are whiskies, but there are several authoritative sources. Whisky Magazine was the first to recognize the quality of Japanese whisky. The World Whiskies Awards and the International Spirits Challenge are also recognized as authorities in the whisky-ranking game.
Where to Drink Japanese Whisky in Tokyo
“All this is very nice,” you might say. “But where can I actually try Japanese whisky in Tokyo?” As luck would have it, Tokyo has several places where you can try Japan’s award-winning whiskys.
Apollo has a great selection of Suntory whisky, but doesn’t skimp out on the others. A great place for jazz.
Bar BenFiddich has an impressive array of older Japanese whisky, in addition to more modern offerings. Also, try the absinthe!
Bar Plat is close to Jimbocho station, which is great news for the stagger home. Try the Ichiro’s Malt (from the Chichibu distillery) from the playing card bottle of your choice.
Bar Tsurukame has an excellent selection of aged Japanese whisky, with a price tag to match.
Bar Urushi is a quiet, second-story place near Ebisu Shrine. Good range of quality Japanese whisky and an excellent array of cocktails.
Brilliant in the Keio Plaza Hotel offers the best whisky in Japan and drinks from all over the world. Frequent visitors can pay to keep a bottle here.
Jazz and Cafe Bar DUG is a nice little jazz bar in Shinjuku with a great selection. Opens at noon, for all of you early (or way too late) drinkers.
More Japanese Whisky Bars
JBS is a whisky bar that plays jazz music. Or it’s a jazz cafe that serves whisky. Either way, it’s a great place for a smooth glass and some smooth jazz. It’s so awesomely throwback that it has a Geocities site.
Nikka Blender’s Bar bears the name of a prominent Japanese whisky, it also sits underneath their corporate headquarters. You know what you’re getting here.
The Old Imperial Bar at Imperial Hotel Tokyo is a fancy hotel bar. You can choose from a great selection of Japanese whisky in a nice setting. The Old Imperial Bar opens at 11:30 a.m., should you feel like getting on your coat and tails for an early drink.
Peter at the Peninsula Hotel is also a luxury hotel bar and restaurant, but more relaxed than the Old Imperial. A great place for Suntory whisky.
Piano Bar MyScotch has a great selection, hand-chipped ice balls, and a quiet atmosphere. Piano music nightly.
Shinjuku Suntory Whisky Lounge does that “go away, foreigner” thing by having an all-Japanese menu with no pictures (not to mention the sign). Still, you can use the place to test your reading ability or just point at what you want behind the bar.
Shot Bar Zoetrope is an unusual place. It’s great for Japanese whisky, and the owner likes to show movies. You may find yourself watching an old Japanese film while enjoying your drink.
The Tokyo Whisky Library is one of those fancy kinds of places, with a food menu and lots of expensive domestic whisky. If your wallet can take it, it’s a fine place for dinner and drinks.
How to Drink Your Japanese Whisky
Do not mess around with fine, award-winning single malt Japanese whisky. You will pay a premium for these drinks, so you should do it right. Neat or on the rocks only.
Restaurants commonly offer whisky highballs, or haibōru. These are blended whiskys or no-age single malts mixed with soda water. Highballs go well with food, and are a great way to test out Japanese whisky if you aren’t sure if you’ll like the taste. Convenience marts across Japan sell highballs by the can.
Most Westerners are familiar with whisky and water. The Japanese call this mizu-wari (水割り). People commonly drink this way in neighborhood bars, where being social is more important than tying one on. I drink this way when I’m practicing my Japanese in my local neighborhood bar. Obviously, you’re not going to drink an expensive single malt this way, but it is a good way to pass the time and make a few friends.
Westerners may not be as familiar with o-yu-wari (お湯割り), which is whisky served with hot water. As with mizu-wari, you would only drink this with a less expensive whisky. O-yu-wari is a great war to stay warm and enjoy your Japanese whisky during the cold Tokyo winter.