Us Britons are lucky enough to enjoy excellent whiskies from close to home – hello delicious Scotch – but we also like a foray into bottles and blends from the other side of the world.
According to the Spirits Embassy, Japanese whisky is enjoying unprecedented growth in the global whisky market. Its popularity in the UK is ever-increasing and supermarkets, bars, off-licenses and boutique whisky suppliers will likely hold a variety of Japanese whiskies to choose from.
But, with prices ranging from around £30 up to six figures and very little information given away on the bottle, it can be hard to pick the right tipple: what makes a good one?
James Shea, a whisky specialist and co-founder of Firecrown Whisky Tastings with Jennifer Bradly (firecrown.co.uk), explains: “When whisky was first sold in Japan distillers tried to mimic Scotch, including the peaty whiskies, which simply didn’t go down well with the Japanese palate. In Japan whisky is often consumed with meals with water or soda so bold flavours stand out despite dilution: flavours akin to a traditional Speyside, so typically unpeated but still big and fruity.”
He adds: “Despite their narrow range of flavours, Japanese whiskies are rich in character and have become a worthy challenger to Scotland’s dominance. Look out for the sharp, spicy characteristics of those matured in sought-after Japanese Mizunara oak casks, which add an element of uniqueness, and experiment. With no distinct regional styles and a broad range of micro-climates, there’ll be plenty of pleasant surprises but be warned: with demand outstripping supply, prices can be very high.”
In our testing, we were looking for as broad a range of characters as possible within an affordable price range. We used a small panel of whisky fans to sample 15 Japanese whiskies under the same conditions: neat and unchilled, then with a splash of water – many Japanese whisky makers recommend this to open up the flavours and the Japanese market mostly drink whisky mixed with soda as a highball.
We were looking for interesting flavour profiles, drinkability and value for money in the testing, and found a host of styles from the big and bold to the subtle and harmonious. Here, then is our decisive edit of whiskies worth opening your wallet for, whether it be for sipping, for cocktails and for digestifs. Kanpai!
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Nikka Whisky from the Barrel, 51.4%, 50cl: £38.99, Waitrose & Partners
For many, this will be the most recognisable Japanese whisky, and whisky specialist Shea feels for good reason. He says, “Nikka from the Barrel is a classic. It’s a blended whisky, very complex and represents real value for money. I always have some at home.” Despite the mid-range price, the bottle feels very premium as it’s heavy and comes in a smart box, which makes it good for a gift. We felt this whisky was in a different class to most of the others at the same price; the colour is a deep amber and the aroma is heavy with toffee. This whisky has been double matured, which you can really taste – there’s spicy, woody, barrel flavours together with mixed peel and citrus fruitiness. It changes with water and the spicing melts into the toffee, woody caramel than you got an initial whiff of. The whole panel were fans.
Suntory The Chita whisky, 43%, 70cl: £52, The Japan Centre
The house of Suntory is one of the biggest and best-respected producers of Japanese whisky and this one takes its name from the Chita distillery on the shores of the Chita Peninsula where three generations have worked as master blenders to produce famously harmonious, balanced whiskies and other spirits. The Chita is a single grain whisky with a light-medium colour, which looks slightly aged thanks to time spent in sherry, bourbon and wine casks. The result is a complex sip but “harmonious” really is the right word: there’s mint, but there’s light spicing, there’s sweetness but there’s oak. No one note dominates, making it a versatile – and delicious – drink for any occasion. It opens up to deeper malt loaf and floral notes with water, so drink as you will.
Suntory Toki whisky, 43%, 70cl: £35, Tesco
The lowest-priced whisky we sampled is this Suntory Toki. Shea says, “This is very inexpensive which makes it a good bottle to dip your toe into Japanese whisky with. It’s very light.” And it is; this blend from the Suntory house is an almost-there pale straw colour to be exact. Our testers described it as; “Soft, refined and easy-drinking with a fruity smell and a healthy dose of initial fire.” It’s not super-expressive, but this is Suntory’s version of an accessible whisky that blends its more sophisticated Chita with its fresher Hakushu for a sweet, herbal sip that works well in highballs and makes a good first foray into the field.
Tokinoka Blended Whisky white label, 40%, 50cl: £33.50, Ocado
Originating from a coastal distillery famous for making exceptional sake since 1888, Tokinoka White Label is made in the Scottish style using barley imported from Scotland and the same water from an extremely pure underground source as is used in its sake. The location of the distillery is subject to wild temperature fluctuations between summer and winter, which means balance, as always, is key in the making of this blend. We found a tempting toasted cereal aroma that moved into very delicate flavours of white fruits with a touch of something sweet – honeyed vanilla maybe – but nothing overt. Again, don’t expect brash, big flavours: they do not appear in Japanese whisky it seems. At 40% ABV it’s at the lower end of the spectrum and a good one for mixing thanks to its smoothness and versatility.
Hatozaki Pure Malt Japanese blended whisky, 46%, 70cl: £45, Ocado
The paleness of this whisky is at odds with how it tastes, as although it’s very light coloured there’s a lot of richness from this pure malt Hatozaki blend. Using whiskies distilled in Japan together with imported stock, the whiskies are then aged in several cask varieties including sherry, bourbon and those in-demand Mizunara oak casks. The result is rich, complex and sweetly smoked, with discernible honey and sultanas from the sherry and wood smoke from the Mizunara; it’s like a young, good quality slightly sweeter Speyside. Add water and we found tropical fruits appeared too. We’d sip this all night.
Drinks by the Dram Japanese whisky tasting set: £32.95, Master of Malt
If you’re just beginning your journey into Japanese whisky, or are just plain indecisive, may we direct you to this handy taster set. Here, five 30ml drams of award-winning Japanese whiskies are included to demonstrate the breadth of the category. There’s a delicate Hibiki (fruits, flowers, oak), The Chita and Nikka from the Barrel (covered in this article), a Nikka Taketsuru (a malty spiced number named after the Godfather of Japanese whisky) and a Mars Maltage Cosmo (woody, vanilla, delicious) and designated note cards for you to record your preferences.
Nikka Days Japanese blended whisky, 40%, 70cl: £35.95, The Whisky Exchange
The newest addition to the Nikka range is the zippy Nikka Days Blended Whisky. The packaging is youthful and bright and matches the whisky well. The flavours are fresh, zesty and light in a way that whisky usually isn’t and while the common (and welcome) smoky charred notes are present, there’s plenty of space for them to rub against fresh green apple, zesty citrus all enveloped in a rounded, creamy mouthfeel. It’s pleasurably smooth to drink and a great all-rounder with enough interest to stand up straight up, and enough power to cope with being mixed into cocktails. A great price too.
Suntory Yamazaki distiller’s reserve, 43%, 70cl: £62.95, The Whisky Exchange
This stood out from the crowd and our panel either loved or hated it. The Yamazaki is a famous fine Japanese whisky and this version (there are lots of aged bottles with hair-raising price tags) was dominated by the Mizunara matured whisky it contains. There’s lots of aromatic woody spicing next to juicy red cherries and berries: it feels like it has soaked up a great deal of Japanese terroir rather than mimicking popular Scottish notes like some others. Some of our testers found the flavours too big and bold, especially when compared with the usual Japanese preference for a balanced, harmonious dram. We were impressed by the lack of burn, making it a fresh, sippable choice or used in a high ball.
Hakushu single malt whisky distiller’s reserve, 43%, 70cl: £62.50
If you’re a fan of peated whiskies then look no further than the Hakushu as it’s rare you’ll find it in other Japanese bottles. A single malt example, whereas our other whiskies are all blends, the characteristics of this whisky are all allowed to really stand out. The profile is deep, rounded and rich and while the peated malts don’t overpower, they’re very much there along with smoke, botanical flavours from herbs and a dash of lime. If you like a sweeter whisky then this isn’t for you, but anyone who enjoys a minty, clean and green whisky will enjoy. They say it’s perfect for highballs but served straight on the rocks was a favourite for our panel.
The verdict: Japanese whisky
We’ve awarded the Nikka from the Barrel our Best Buy, as both the panel and our whisky specialist Shea were so impressed with the value for money it offers. As we’ve seen, many Japanese whiskies emphasise their balance and elegance so much that it becomes difficult to pick out any favourite strong characteristics, but the Nikka from the Barrel definitely has its own rich, woody personality and it’s a crowd-pleaser to boot.
On the other side of the coin is something like the Nikka Days or the Suntory Toki: both light, bright, fun whiskies that make a perfect first step into the world of Japanese whisky and are versatile enough to be drunk however you best enjoy.