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.
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.