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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Header image by Shoko Muraguchi