Along with Scotch, Irish, American, and Canadian, Japanese whisky is one of the five major whiskies in the world. But where to begin? Presenting the Foodism guide to Japanese whisky written by the experts at the Japan Centre. From how it's made, tastes and differs from Scotch to which ones are the best and where to buy them, this is the ultimate, comprehensive guide to Japanese whisky. Kanpai! 

The fundamentals

Whisky was brought to Japan in 1853 during the isolation period. In 1871, after the Meiji Restoration, they started importing whisky for foreigners living in Japan. At first, consumption was not very high, but after the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed in 1902, a large amount of Scotch whisky was imported from England, and it gradually spread to Japan.

In 1923, Japan's first distillery, the Yamazaki Distillery, developed in Yamazaki, Kyoto, was established. It was founded by Mr Shinjiro Torii and distillery engineer Mr Masataka Taketsuru – known to have built the foundation for Japanese whisky.

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Yamazaki is the birthplace of Japanese whisky and has long been known as the home of famous water. The quality of the water and the high humidity created by the unique topography of the area were said to be the perfect environment for ageing whisky.

How is Japanese whisky made?

According to the Japan Western Liquor Brewers Association, the standard procedure for businesses crafting traditional Japanese whiskies must meet all the following requirements:

Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation

These steps must be completed at a distillery in Japan, and the alcohol content at the time of distillation should be less than 95 degrees.

Wooden barrels

The product must be packed in wooden barrels with a capacity of 700 litres or less and stored in Japan for at least three years from the day following the date of filling.

Whisky barrels

Alcohol content

The alcohol content at the time of packaging and filling in Japan must be 40% or higher and the use of caramel for fine adjustment of colour tone is allowed.

In Japan, the entire whisky manufacturing process is carried out in-house, from unblended whisky, fermentation, distillation, ageing, blending, and bottling.

Unlike other countries, it is rare to procure a portion of unblended whisky from other companies, so as a result, we have accumulated experience in each process and require high technical capabilities.

In particular, the know-how to create various types of unblended whisky is state-of-the-art, and it is thanks to this that Japanese whisky can be finished in an elegant and delicate way.

Suntory Hakushu Distillery

How does it taste?

Unlike Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky is said to be peat-free and less smoky (to suit Japanese tastes), but this is not necessarily always the case. For example, Yoichi and Ichiro's Malt use a relatively large amount of peat.

Hakushu also uses peat, which gives it a slightly smoky flavour. In any case, there are many whiskies with delicate and complex aromas and flavours compared to whiskies from around the world.

In Japan, barrels made of Mizunara wood are sometimes used to age unblended sake. This is very rare, and it is said to produce a unique, refreshing scent like fragrant wood that has a great influence on depth and complexity - a symbol of Japanese whisky. When brewed in these barrels, the whisky has a flavour reminiscent of Kyara, sandalwood, and honey and has been highly acclaimed around the world.

Whisky glasses

Traditionally, Japanese whisky has been said to be characterised by its sweetness. Whisky is, after all, a sugar-free drink. Japanese whisky is perceived as sweet not because of its “taste” but because of its aroma. It is said that this sweet aroma is imparted by the ingredients contained in the barrel and raw materials used for ageing that dissolve into the whisky.

In addition, it is said that the secret of the sweetness of Japanese whisky is also in the type of alcohol, ethanol. This ethanol stimulates the mucous membrane of the mouth, and when the brain recognizes it as pleasant, it is said that it brings out its sweetness.

Served straight on the rocks or with a mixer is the best way to enjoy Japanese whisky, to experience its full flavour - enjoy a glass of good quality Japanese whisky on every occasion.

What is the best Japanese whisky?

Suntory Toki

Suntory Toki

Blending old and new to deliver a whisky that matches the ever-changing seasons, this whisky offers a light taste, inviting you in from the start with a herbal sweetness and basil and thyme notes to add a silky warmth to the refreshing taste of orchard fruits and grapefruit. This soothes and unravels into a sharp peppermint kick at the finish that reveals some of the whisky's earthier tones whilst keeping it sweet and simple to savour. An excellent tipple to top off a rich meal or mix into lighter modern cocktails and highballs.

70cl, 43%; £32,

Beniotome Shuzo Toki No Choestsu Barley Shochu

A smoky-sweet bottle of aged barley shochu. Matured in oak barrels stored in the cool, humid mountain storehouses of Fukuoka for a total of 10 years, Beniotome Shuzo offers its most fragrantly rich bottle of barley shochu. Brewed using their own rice koji malt and soft groundwater collected from the same Mino mountain range where it is matured, this is both sweet and smoky, carrying soothing vanilla notes and the distinctive French oak aromas of its barrel cask. Naturally high in citric acids, this exquisite shochu ends on a crisp and refreshing sour finish, best enjoyed straight or on the rocks.

70cl, 25%; £29,

Nikka Whisky From The Barrel

Nikka Whisky from the Barrel

This Japanese whisky from the award-winning Nikka Distillery has a floral aroma with a touch of orange peel and apricots combined with the delicious taste of boiled sweets and spices. The matured malt whisky and grain whisky have been blended together to create a harmonious, deep cocktail of flavours that go from spicy oak and ripe fruit, finishing with a kick of spices. Ideal as a gift for seasoned whisky drinkers looking to experience the Japanese take on an old favourite.

50cl, 40%; £45,

Suntory Yamazaki Cask-Matured Umeshu Plum Liqueur

Smooth plum wine infused with Yamazaki whisky. By using the oak-matured tones of their famous Yamazaki whisky to enrich this fruity plum wine, Suntory takes inspiration from Western-brewing techniques to create a rich and thoroughly refreshing umeshu plum liqueur. Blended with fruity and roasted vanilla notes, thanks to the expert use of Yamazaki whisky casks, this plum wine is aged to produce a wonderfully deep and aromatic palate. Finished with a touch of brandy to sweeten the bitter edge of this complex plum wine, this exquisite beverage is best enjoyed chilled, whether straight or mixed with soda water.

75cl, 20%; £30;

Where to buy it

Japan Centre, Europe’s largest Japanese food hall, can be found in Leicester Square, Westfield White City and Stratford, where it sells a large range of authentic Japanese food ingredients and food to go, alongside a huge selection of sake, whiskies, from Shochu to Suntory and Nikka.

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You can also find authentic Japanese whiskies from The Whisky Exchange, founded in 1999 with shops in London Bridge, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia, where they sell a large range of whisky, from Nikka 12 Year Old to Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve.

If you're looking to find a bar to sit and relax and sip on divine Japanese whisky this summer, then Soma bar in Soho has exquisite cocktails made with authentic Japanese whisky, including the 'Mango' made with Toki Whisky, lacto-fermented roasted green mango and Ancho Reyes Verde.