Japanese Whisky Makes You Feel Sophisticated, Drunk

Alcohol in general is very, very easy to get in Japan. You can buy sake in convenience stores, chuhai out of vending machines, and beer practically anywhere you look.

But one liquor in particular has grown in sophistication and popularity both in Japan and abroad: whisky.

You can find some of the old reliable brands of American whiskey in Japanese stores: Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey can all be had pretty easily if you know where to look.

Leo, doing his best Lost in Translation impression

There are also lots and lots of domestic whiskies, made right in Japan. And for a country with no real cultural ties to Scotland, there are a surprising number of whisky manufacturers.

In the last couple of decades, Japanese whisky has earned quite the reputation as a quality whisky, winning awards all around the world and even trouncing Scottish whiskies.

At the time, Japanese whiskies beating out Scottish whiskies was unheard of. It would be like Scottish sushi winning international acclaim.

Now though, people all over the world recognize and enjoy Japanese whisky as some of the finest out there. But a lot of people still don’t really know the different Japanese brands.

Fear not! I’m here to help you out, and show you some of the major players in the Japanese whisky market today:

Suntory

After Bill Murray endorsed Suntory in Lost In Translation, it seems like almost everybody now knows about Suntory whisky.

Suntory deserves to be well-known, too. It was the first company to make whisky in Japan, and is still a powerhouse on the market today.

Suntory whisky is everywhere in Japan. I think no matter what convenience store I went to in Japan, no matter where I was, I was able to find Suntory whisky of some kind.

But the convenience store whiskies aren’t why Suntory is known throughout the world. The company also produces more high-end brands like Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki. In fact, on its English website it doesn’t even mention its name-brand Suntory whisky.

Nikka

In business for the better part of a century, Nikka is one of Japan’s most recognizable whisky brands. Every bottle of the company’s spirits has the face of the blue-eyed, mustached W. P. Lowrie, an obscure figure in the history of whisky.

nikka

Best friends Koichi and W. P. Lowrie

Nikka is probably best known for Nikka Black, a cheap whisky available basically everywhere, most notably in convenience stores. Nikka also offers much more high-end whiskies for those with more refined tastes.

White people will give you a mustache and make you drink whisky

We actually got the chance to visit Nikka’s original distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido while we were visiting Japan in February. (Expect a video of our visit to Nikka in the future.)

Not only did the Nikka distillery have Nikka Black and the fancier varieties, but the tasting room there offered blended whisky, single malt, pure malt, and virtually any other kind of whisky you can think of and virtually every age imaginable.

Kirin

Kirin always kind of seems to be playing catch-up. Its beer has trailed behind Asahi after the great beer wars of the 80s, and it plays third string to Suntory and Nikka in the whisky game.

fuji-gotemba-whisky

Still, Kirin has been doing its best to catch up with Suntory and Nikka, producing very respectable whiskies of its own. Its Fuji Gotemba brand has some of the most incredible single malt whiskies available in Japan.

Highballs

While Japanese whisky is widely enjoyed, it’s not the kind of thing that most people can enjoy on an everyday basis. After all, it’s expensive, powerful, and doesn’t always go down smoothly.

For those reasons and more, highballs — whisky mixed with soda water — have recently become one of Japan’s favorite drinks. Even though the Japanese have been enjoying highballs for almost 100 years, they’ve seen a massive revival in recent years.

You can find highballs in basically any restaurant that has both whisky and soda, and more and more you can find vending machines and convenience stores stocked full of the stuff.

A while back, the guys at Néojaponisme sampled a variety of canned highballs and reported the results. The verdict? Not great:


Have you tried Japanese whisky? What do you think? How well does it stack up against other whiskies? Let me know in the comments!


Further reading: Nonjatta, Beginner’s guide to Japanese Whisky

Header image by Shoko Muraguchi

  • DAVIDPD

    Note on Nomenclature: There is whiskey and there is whisky. I see there was a slight amount of flip flopping in the beginning of the article. Whiskey is alcohol produced in the same manner as whisky, made anywhere in the world, but Scotland. Whisky is only produced in Scotland and no where else. Once you know this check any label and you will see it is always spelled whiskey when produced outside of Scotland, and whisky inside of Scotland. Distillers that have tried to spell their liquor “whisky” outside of Scotland were browbeaten into submission.

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    But the irony is zero alcohol beer such as the Kirin Free get a massive success on Japanese market since 2012, zero alcohol becomes a new favorite of Japanese people and ofcourse it becomes the new rival for Jack daniel even Chuhai. http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Where are your conbini whiskey ratings?

  • henderson101

    This is unfortunately a common misconception. Either spelling is correct, both spellings have at one time or another curried favour in Scotland, though the more common usage is now “Whisky”. However, to state that all “Whisky” is produced in Scotland and all “Whiskey” is produced elsewhere is simply untrue. There are countless cases where historically that was untrue, and even today the supposed convention is ignored by a number of distilleries world wide.

    What *is* correct, is that “Scotch” is only ever produced in Scotland.

    Another point – given the fact that both the Irish and Scottish Gaelic speakers originate from the same tribes, and given that a high proportion of the Gaelic speakers in Scotland migrated there from Ireland, the statement that “Whisky” solely originates in Scotland is a little shaky. Given the fact that both Irish and Scottish Gaelic render “Whisky” as uisce beatha / uisge beatha depending on dialect, both the origin of the name and the product itself are really inconclusive.

  • DAVIDPD

    I see we differ on the matter. To each his own, I suppose.

  • Jo

    Thomas Blake Glover, from Aberdeenshire in Scotland, moved to Japan and had quite an influence on Japanese trade and commerce. I wonder whether he had any hand in whisky becoming known in Japan, as there are a lot of whisky distilleries in Aberdeenshire?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Scottlavigne Scott Lavigne

    Chuhais are basically cannedh highballs and they’re great!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I flip-flopped at the beginning because I was talking about American whiskey. I was under the impression that the Japanese product was spelled “whisky,” the same as the Scottish product.

  • Campbell Wallis

    I was reading that a brewery in Arran is brewing Scottish sake. Cultural ties and all that.

  • Mescale

    The Term Scotch Whisky is a Protected Geographical Indicator, in China, India, Thailand, Turkey, Throughout the EU.

    Scotch Whisky is now always spelt Whisky, no e.

    The GI protection of scotch whisky is fairly new, in lets say, a geological time frame, and its protection varies from place to place.
    In the UK scotch whisky is spelt whisky, other whiskies otherwise, naturally the brand protection in the UK is more protective than in other countries.

    American products such as Jack Daniels are generally sold with other comparable alcohols such as surgical spirit and meths.

    I drank a Japanese Whisky once, I think it may have been a Suntory Yamazaki 12 year old. I think it was good.

    I’m pretty sure i’m no whisky epicurian, though I personally prefer single cask whiskys, non-chill filtered, with an age of at least 20 years. Never have ice in them, or water. Whilst I enjoy heavily peated whisky I do find the smoother types enjoyable. I prefer whisky aged in Sherry barrels as opposed to Bourbon barrels. Oak is the preferred wood of course.

  • DJLadyjunk

    I was unknowingly served whisky and ginger ale shots at a club in Roppongi–they were super smooth and super dangerous if you want to remain sober. There’s a KFC whisky bar I plan on visiting next trip.

  • lalapaloser

    Oh man, I was getting highballs in Shimokitazawa for 80¥ per drink. It was a good night. Also, the Suntory Yamazaki is extremely good. One of the best whiskeys I’ve had.

  • Abe

    I don’t mind Yamazaki and recently tried Hibiki and Yoichi on a recent trip to Tokyo. But the absolute standout is Hakushu. Blew me away with its subtle peatiness. It could have been an island malt and is on a par with Talisker or Lagavulin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/helenadetroy Helen Kirifides

    Lol. This is a great article. I know nothing about whisky, and i did not know that Suntory was a real company! hahaha. But now i know all about Japanese whisky, which is awesome.

    p.s. i found this link in the comments on the Leo commercial, if anyone was ever interested in what the “Suntory Time” director, Yutaka Tadokoro (who starred in the American film Tokyo Pop & was frontman for the popular Japanese band Red Warriors (for you film/music peeps)) was saying in Lost in Translation. I can’t account for accuracy though. http://www.weareawake.org/suntorydirector.htm

    Well, I feel worldly and educated now. Thank you Hashi!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Teasel.Ian Ian Harris

    The current rule-of-thumb seems to be that spirits distilled in the traditional Scottish manner call themselves whisky, whereas those using other processes use whiskey. So you have Scottish, English, Welsh, Swedish and Japanese whisky, but Irish and American whiskey. As always there are exceptions… eg the Scottish Auchentoshan is a sweet, triple-distilled affair, but still calls itself whisky, whereas the Irish Redbreast is double-distilled and peated, and therefore tastes much more like Scotch, but still calls itself whiskey.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Teasel.Ian Ian Harris

    I think you’re confusing “blend” and “vat”. A “blended” whisky is where you take a grain whisky (usually made from corn, using continuous distillation) and add small amounts of various malt whiskies (made from barley, using batch distillation) for flavour. A “malt” whisky is entirely made from barley and tastes very different from anything grain-based. A “single malt” whisky is a mixture (please don’t use the word “blend” in this context!) of malt whisky casks from a single distillery, though not necessarily a single year. You are correct that occasionally people have been known to mix together malt whisky from different distilleries. This is called a “vatted malt”. It is relatively rare, but it is still very much a malt whisky, and still tastes completely different from any blend. Your preferred option seems to be a “single cask” whisky. This allows the character (good or bad!) of an individual cask to shine through, but provides the bottler with little scope for achieving any consistency from one year to the next. In my experience, it’s a bit of a gamble… you always pay a higher price, but are occasionally rewarded with something unique.

    If you prefer single cask and sneer at single malt, then fine. But comparing single malt with blended whisky is like comparing Scotch and Bourbon. They’re different drinks, made from different grains, using different distillation processes!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Glad you liked it! :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Very educational, thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.ubikcentral.com Chris Ubik

    My county stores have discontinued the Suntory Yamazaki 12 and 18 years. I am heartbroken and the surrounding counties do not carry it. I’ve found it in Washington DC, but they are heavily marked up (I have a hard time paying $65 for a bottle that used to cost me $45).

  • PhilipMacGregor

    One does not simply use Jack Daniels / Jim bean and sophisticated in the same sentence.
    #SingleMalt4Lyfe

    On a serious note. Nice job with all these random videos about Japanese culture.