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Wine and Spirits

Top-Shelf Spirits to Transport You to Japan

Our bar cart picks for everything from koji whisky to yuzu liqueur.

A photograph of Takamine’s 8-year Koji Whiskey Shop at Umami Mart

ON A RECENT trip to Japan, I took the opportunity to expand my palate and savor some of the country’s most unique and hard-to-find spirits. While I typically prefer sake, this time I let the locals guide me toward their personal favorites. Everyone recommended I try shochu, Japan’s most popular alcohol, distilled from rice, barley, or sweet potato. During the winter months, the Japanese mix shochu with hot water to create their own version of a hot toddy. My first shochu was served on the rocks; it had a complex flavor profile reminiscent of potato vodka, but smoother and earthier with a hint of sweetness.

Upon returning to the Bay Area, I paid a visit to Umami Mart, an Oakland shop specializing in Japanese spirits, ingredients, and kitchen accoutrements. I was amazed by the shochu variety and stocked up on a few staff picks along with my go-to Japanese gin and whiskey. My bar cart is now an homage to Japan, and I’ve knocked some former front-runners down to the basement to make room. Here are the ones that best showcase the country’s flavors and craftsmanship.

Shop at Umami Mart

Takamine’s 8-year Koji Whiskey

Using centuries-old methods that substitute koji (a fermentation-culture mixture used to convert starch to sugar) for malt, Takamine’s 8-year Koji Whiskey has subtle notes of vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, and butterscotch, and a hint of persimmon for a buttery smooth finish. This is a whiskey best enjoyed neat so you can really savor the flavors and appreciate the magic behind the koji fermentation process. SHOP NOW

Shop at Yuzuri


Yuzu, a fragrant citrus fruit, is the perfect blend of tangy and sour with subtle notes of sweetness. Its exotic flavor is a wonderful complement to alcohol. I suggest enjoying the fruit by adding Yuzuri to your next cocktail. It’s a citrus liqueur made from yuzu harvested once a year on the island of Kyushu. Yuzuri adds a bright, lemony splash to any drink. SHOP NOW

Shop at Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich's Grand Yozakura

Glenfiddich’s Grand Yozakura, a 29-year-old, limited-edition, single-malt scotch whisky, will invariably impress at your next dinner party with its layered toasted oak, vanilla toffee, sherbet lemon, and crunchy green-apple notes. This rare spirit comes housed in an exquisite box adorned with sakura imagery in celebration of Japan’s cherry-blossom season. SHOP NOW

Shop at Umami Mart

Colorful Sweet Potato

If you haven’t tried shochu, start your journey with Colorful Sweet Potato. This traditional Japanese spirit, made with two sweet-potato varieties, bursts with hints of raisin, papaya, and, best of all, sour gummy worms. This is the perfect shochu to whet your palate and start your own collection. Enjoy in a highball or as a replacement for gin or vodka in a mouthwatering tonic cocktail. SHOP NOW

Shop at Umami Mart

Osuzu Gin

Osuzu Gin adds a tropical twist to your favorite cocktail. With notes of tangerine, ginger, mint, and a hint of mango, these exotic and summery flavors will transport you to your favorite island getaway. Using shochu as the base, this gin is bursting with bright and complex notes that are best enjoyed neat. SHOP NOW

Our Contributors

Elissa Polls Writer

Elissa Polls is the head of production for Departures. A producer who typically stays behind the scenes, she has worked with creatives from around the world, helping bring their ideas to life. Polls has over 15 years of production experience and lives in Berkeley, California.

Departures and American Express do not provide, endorse, or guarantee any of the items, and the sale of such items is governed by the third-party seller’s policies, terms, and conditions.

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