“Sitting, dock of the bay with a big yacht / Sippin’ Yamazaki on the rocks.” In the final track of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s 2018 collaborative album, “Everything is Love,” Suntory’s flagship whisky figures centrally in the celebrity duo’s description of having made it, a sure sign of Japanese whisky’s ascendant status.
If the cultural cachet of Japanese whisky had been on the rise in the States for some time, by 2018 it had become a full-blown phenomenon. Today, distillers can hardly keep up with demand. But what is it about Japanese distilling that allowed Yamazaki and its competitors to make such dramatic waves in bourbon country? The answer to that question lies, in part, in the very fact that Japanese whisky is not bourbon. Nor rye, nor even Scotch. Until recently, Japanese whisky had borne the reputation of borrowing the practices of Scottish distilling to the point of mimicry. In fact, the founding distiller at Nikka studied Scotch production in Scotland and sought to recreate what he learned in Japan down to the tee. But today it’s the differences—in climate, aroma, flavor—that make Japanese whisky so enticing. So enticing, in fact, that it has become one of the most coveted and collectible spirits on the planet.
Where to start, you might ask? Here are our essentials, suitable for the novice and already-converted alike.
Bottles to Try
As one of the most in-demand spirit categories, Japanese whisky is often allocated, sometimes making it hard to come by. When it is available on shelves, the prices are typically marked up to match the demand. The bottles recommended here, however, have become more common sights at nationwide retailers and exemplify what the category has to offer.
Suntory Toki: The best bang for your buck when it comes to Japanese whisky, Toki—typically under $50—is also one of the few bottles reliably available stateside. A blend of Hakashu and Yamazaki single malts and Chita grain whisky, this distinctive bottling is the perfect introduction to the category from the oldest whisky producer in Japan.
Nikka Coffey Grain: Released in 2012, Nikka Coffey Grain is an unconventional expression distilled from corn (and a little barley) using a Coffey still imported from Scotland in the 1960s. The production method lends this bottling its characteristic delicacy. While Nikka’s other Coffey-distilled whisky, Coffey Malt, does not meet the requisite criteria outlined by the Japanese Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association to be labeled “Japanese whisky,” the grain whisky does, and can typically be found for less than $100.
Yamazaki 12: Suntory’s flagship whisky, Yamazaki 12, hit the Japanese market in 1984 and reached the United States in 1990, making it one of the first internationally marketed Japanese whiskies. Since its introduction, its popularity has hardly wavered. Today, the coveted single malt is synonymous with Japanese excellence in distilling and, with luck, can be found for less than $200.
Japanese Whisky Highball
Ice, whisk(e)y, soda. On paper, there is little distinguishing a Japanese Whisky Highball from an ordinary whiskey highball. But walk into any Japanese or Japanese-style bar and you’ll notice that the preparation of the ubiquitous cocktail (known simply as “highball” in Japan)—the type of ice and how to stack it, the quantity of soda water and how to integrate it—are as thoughtfully considered as the whisky itself. The method is strictly prescribed, elevating what might seem like a straightforward call drink into something worthy of serious contemplation.
On the homepage of this Japanese spirits webstore, founder Makiyo Masa explains that “in Japan, we believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing to the best of our abilities.” It’s the driving philosophy behind the creation of Dekanta (Japanese for decanter), arguably one of the best retailers of Japanese spirits, in particular Japanese whisky. Here, you can find close to 2,000 expressions of Japanese whisky, many of which are not available at retailers in the U.S. They offer worldwide shipping.
The Way of Whisky by Dave Broom
In The Way of Whisky, spirit expert Dave Broom recounts his nearly two decades spent visiting Japan’s distilleries. Part travelogue, part guidebook, Broom’s tome sets out to explain—through deep dives and interviews with distillers, chefs and bartenders—what makes Japanese whisky so unique.
Kikatsu Old-Fashioned Glass
This mouth-blown, hand-cut Old-Fashioned glass borrows a traditional etching technique known as edo kiriko, but updates the design with modernist lines. Ultra-thin, yet surprisingly durable, the Kikatsu glass is the ideal companion to whisky neat or on the rocks. The price is steep, but Umami Mart offers a selection of more affordable glassware too, including the hefty Doraku rocks glass, all worthy of becoming your dedicated Japanese whisky vessel.