Japanese whisky ascended quickly, like a firework, and it exploded across the highest tiers, racking up awards and accolades. Cocktail bars and collectors couldn’t get enough of it.
The last time Wine Enthusiast ran a feature-length article on the category, in 2016, signs were there that its popularity caught producers off guard. Bottles faded into the hands of buyers.
Today, they’re back. The landscape has changed, and stocks haven’t completely replenished, but new bottlings have started to appear.
“With great demand, many suppliers saw a strain on their supply,” says Emiko Kaji, the international business development manager for Nikka. “We started allocation in 2016 and still keep this scheme to control the speed of growth and keep quality.”
The U.S. is recognized as an important market, she says, and often is prioritized for new releases.
“Japanese people like to consider the smallest details,” says Koki Takehira, the new distiller for Mars. He makes an “American-inspired” Iwai whisky that includes corn and is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. “As a result of this inquiring mind, we create something new. That is our craftsmanship.”
A fast-growing number of new producers, including Kaiyo, Kanosuke and Akkeshi, fill out shelves. Of course, not everyone is pleased with this boundary pushing. As a result, on April 1, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association tightened the definition of Japanese whisky and implemented new labeling standards so consumers know what they are getting.
In the meantime, the new wave of Japanese bottlings arrives from all corners. Even whisky giant Suntory rolled out two new global special releases that included one aged in sakura cherrywood.
Here are four worthy newcomers to sample. As Japanese whisky makes its comeback, it’s exciting to see the category regain its sparkle.
Light and Bright
Nikka Days ($50; 40% abv)
Nikka founder and “father of Japanese whisky” Masataka Taketsuru was the descendant of a saké producing family who went to Scotland to learn how to make whisky. After returning to Japan, Taketsuru established the Yoichi Distillery in southern Hokkaido in 1934. The development of a second distillery, Miyagikyo, followed in 1969, on the island of Honshu.
Today, most of Nikka’s bottlings combine liquid from both distilleries. Whisky made at Yoichi is richer, more robust and often peated. By comparison, Miyagikyo is known for lighter, more floral malts.
Nikka Days also combines whiskies from both distilleries, which includes a good measure of grain whisky for a light, silky texture. The result is an easy-drinking blend with hints of honey and juicy stone fruit. It’s ideal for casual sipping or to mix into highballs.
The Akkeshi Single Malt Whisky ($75; 55% abv)
The Akkeshi Distillery opened in 2016 in Hokkaido, not far from Nikka’s Yoichi. Some draw parallels between the islands of Hokkaido and Scotland’s Islay. Both are cold and rural, which creates a concentrated, dense whisky, and the sea air can provide a similar maritime flavor. But Akkeshi takes the concept a step further.
“They’re using locally grown peat, which is kind of unheard of,” says Kris Elliott of High Road Spirits, which imports Akkeshi and other brands to the U.S.
“They’re trying to make an Islay-style whisky in Japan.”
The end result is a lightly peated whisky with toasty almond, espresso and vanilla tones that wind into a pleasantly smoky exhale.
Ohishi Single Sherry Cask ($85; 41.9% abv)
One of the oldest distilleries in Japan, founded in 1872, Ohishi is perhaps best known as a producer of saké and shochu, two beverages that can be made from rice. So it makes sense that they also produce a rice-based whisky. Of course, a whisky made from anything but malted barley draws fire from traditionalists.
Yet, there’s a long tradition of whisky made by saké brewers, writes Brian Ashcraft in his book, Japanese Whisky (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), particularly after World War II, as whisky became more popular.
“Since saké does not have a long shelf life and because production is seasonal, whisky making could supplement business,” says Ashcraft.
What does all this mean to the whisky? It’s notably feather-light, as the Sherry cask contributes delicate, lingering dried fruit and spice tones. For those who seek even more of a splurge, keep an eye out for the 11-Year-Old Sherry Cask ($99), a new release in 2020, as well as a 16-Year-Old bottling ($160), anticipated later this year
Kaiyo Whisky The Peated ($90; 46% abv)
Launched 10 years ago, Osaka “blending house” Kaiyo sources whisky from various distilleries around Japan. They have a unique method for aging the whisky. They send it out to sea for months or years. In Japanese, kaiyo means “ocean.”
The Peated bottling ages in ex-Madeira casks for two years, then a cask made from Japan’s prized Mizunara oak. That cask spends four years at sea, a process that mellows the spirit. The final six-year-old spirit drinks like a gently smoky sea breeze anchored by vanilla and coconut.
Cofounder and Master Blender Jeffrey Karlovitch is a veteran of Scotland’s Bunnahabain and Japan’s Chichibu, among others. When he found a cooper who worked with Mizunara oak, his journey began.
“I didn’t set out to make Japanese whisky, just the best whiskey in the world,” he says. “The best just happened to be Japanese whisky.”