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For the past few years, whiskey fans have had to come to grips with the new reality of Japanese whisky (they spell it without the “e” like the Scots)—age statement bottles are in short supply, and very expensive when you can find them. Major distilleries like Suntory and Nikka have discontinued some of these expressions, due to what they claim is demand outpacing supply. “Suntory is scarce for a reason—because it’s a product not many can compete with, much less replicate,” said Israel Jiles, managing member of Ani Ramen/Montclair Hospitality Group. “The process, the knowledge, the climate, and the barrels make the brand and its products a gold standard in the whisky world. However, we believe… non-age statement whiskies and [whisky from] lesser known distilleries is tightening the gap that was much larger just a decade prior.”
The Japanese have been making whisky for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until the past five years or so that it really caught on here in America, contributing to Yamazaki and Hakushu expressions becoming unicorn bottles. Fortunately, some new Japanese whiskies have been released over the past year, some from upstart distilleries and others from well-established operations. There are new single malts coming out now, as well as blends of malt, grain, and even rice whisky. Occasionally, whiskey from other countries is included in the blend, which brands are starting to be more transparent about. This is important, because according to Kris Elliott, cofounder of Japanese spirits importer High Road Spirits, the lack of regulations currently means that “you can pour brown coloring into vodka and call it whisky” in Japan. He says this is set to change in the next few years, as Japanese whisky becomes a legally defined category in the same way that scotch or bourbon is.
So yes, sadly you may not be able to find an affordable bottle of Hibiki 17 anymore. But here are nine new Japanese whiskies that you can find now, from affordable to expensive, that should fill the void.
Shibui Japanese Whisky
The slogan for Shibui Whisky is “we don’t distill, we discover.” What this means is that the brand doesn’t produce whisky; instead, it sources barrels from distilleries both in and outside of Japan and blends them into the various products in its lineup. And there are many, some with age statements and others that are NAS blends of malt and/or grain whisky. The Niigata Range consists of Shibui Grain Select, Shibui Pure Malt, Shibui Pure Malt 10YO—malt and wheat whiskies distilled at an undisclosed distillery in Niigata and blended with lowland single malt scotch or single grain wheat whisky. The Okinawa Range includes single grain whiskies aged in different barrel types for eight to 30 years. These are distilled from rice at three Okinawa distilleries—Shinzato, Masahiro, and Kumesen. The Grain Select is full of light corn and vanilla notes. The 30-year-old is aged in ex-bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and European virgin white oak, giving it dark berry and stone fruit notes along with some caramel, vanilla, and a bit of Cherry Coke on the palate.
To buy: $50 - $1000, totalwine.com
The Mikuni is a blend of malt and grain whisky, some of which comes from Scotland and some that is distilled in Japan. According to the brand, master blender Kenji Wantanabe also uses “fresh mountain water drawn from 250 meters (821 feet) underground, filtered through porous, volcanic rock” in the whisky. It’s aged for three years in bourbon barrels at the foot of the Japanese Southern Alps. This blend is meant to be an unintimidating, affordable whisky that can be sipped or used in a highball or any variety of cocktails. The nose is soft with vanilla and caramel notes, which expand into sweet grain, malted chocolate, and dried fruit flavors on the palate. Those who are fans of blended scotch will surely enjoy this whisky.
To buy: $50, shoplightspeed.com
Tsunuki: The First
Mars has two distilleries in Japan—Shinshu, high up in the Nagano Alps, and the sea-level Tsunuki located on the southern island of Kagoshima where humidity is high and temperatures fluctuate between cool and warm. It’s here that this new whisky was distilled, and aged for at least three years in bourbon and sherry casks. It’s bottled at cask strength of 59% ABV, making it a hot sipper that mellows out with a bit of water. This allows the dry, fruity nose and notes of chocolate and citrus on the palate to really shine. As indicated by the name, this is just the beginning for this new distillery, and it’s a sign of good things to come.
To buy: $250, dandm.com
Kanosuke First Born
This little bottle of whisky from Kanosuke is young, vibrant, and exciting. Right now, 200ml bottles are being released to show the progression of the whisky as it ages, which will culminate in a full 750ml bottle when it reaches three years of age. The most recent expressions were the 2019 which was aged for 16 months in ex-bourbon barrels, and the 2020 edition which was distilled from peated malt and aged for two years in white oak. The 2019 belies its youth with rich notes of orange, vanilla, and ripe green apple, bringing a complexity that you might not expect. It’s bottled at 57% ABV, so this is another whisky that responds well to a splash of water. It seems that good things are to come from this new distillery in the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan.
To buy: $130, dekanta.com
In a national park on the northern island of Hokkaido, you’ll find the Akkeshi distillery, another relative newcomer to the scene that opened in 2016. This is the first single malt whisky from the distillery, as previous releases were part of the Foundations series and consisted of blends of malt and grain whisky. Sarorunkamuy, which means “white crane,” was aged in a combination of Mizunara, bourbon, sherry and red wine casks, giving it a range of flavors that pop with notes of vanilla, spice, and dried cherry. And at 55% ABV, it’s a hearty sipper. Just 3,000 of these 200ml bottles are available to purchase here in the U.S.
To buy: $200, dekanta.com
Mars Iwai 45
This new release from Mars Shinshu ups the proof of the original Iwai expression from 80 to 90, providing a better base for making cocktails with stronger flavors that shine on the palate of this blend. The mash bill remains the same as the original blue label - 70 percent corn and 30 percent malt, aged in ex-bourbon barrels for a few years. The malt all comes from the Shinshu distillery, while some of the grain whisky is imported. Notes of fruit, vanilla, and oak make this an ideal whisky for use in any suitable classic cocktail, like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan.
To buy: $40, caskers.com
It’s not all blends from the Mars Shinshu distillery, as proven by this new single malt release. This is the third in the distillery’s Limited Edition series, named after a mountain peak that towers over the surrounding landscape. It was aged for about three years, mostly in sherry casks with some new American white oak barrels as well, imbuing it with notes of vanilla, honey, spice, and citrus on the palate and nose. The sherry cask influence is immediately apparent, giving the whisky a hit of dried fruit and syrup on the first sip. If you have only explored better-known Japanese single malts from Suntory or Nikka thus far, give this one a try to see how it compares.
To buy: $200, klwines.com
Chichibu Malt and Grain Limited Edition
Like the recently released Ao from Suntory, this is what the distillery refers to as an “all-world blend.” This means that in addition to 10-year-old malt whisky from the Chichibu distillery, a couple of hours west of Tokyo, whisky (and whiskey) from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and America are all included in the blend. For this limited edition, the sourced whisky is aged between ten and 30 years in its individual home country. Then the liquid is brought to Chichibu and aged for another three to five years in the warehouses there. The result is quite appealing, with big notes of sweet caramel and vanilla up front, followed by hints of orange peel, baking spice, and some grainy flavors. This is a versatile whisky that would work as well in a cocktail as it does in a sipping glass.
To buy: $250, blackwellswines.com
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
This fall, Nikka released what it called a “refined” version of this blended malt whisky, named after founder Masataka Taketsuru. The whisky is a blend of malts from both the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, and features a new label design on the bottle. According to the distillery, the influence of sherry cask maturation remains the key note in the whisky’s flavor profile, but a stronger presence of malt from Yoichi makes the overall palate a bit smokier. This shines through, as a bit of sweetness complements the dry spice and subtle peat flavors on the palate. This is a NAS whisky, but the focus here is really on the art of blending, not how long the whisky has been inside a barrel.
To buy: $80, flaviar.com