Vintage Cellars

The Essential Guide to Japanese Whisky

The fusing of tradition and craftsmanship with creativity and innovation is central to so much of Japanese culture, from fashion to food, art and architecture. And one art form where this philosophy can be seen – through amber-hued liquid – is in the world of whisky.

The Japanese only began making whisky exactly 100 years ago when the House of Suntory – a brand etched into pop culture forever by Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation – created the first Japanese whisky distillery surrounded by the rolling hills, beautiful bamboo forests and pristine waters of Yamazaki. Rooted in Scottish methods of fermenting and distilling malted barley and ageing in oak casks, as their practice has matured, the Japanese have developed their own approach to making whisky that emphasises continuous improvements over long-held tradition.

From infusing their whiskeys with unique spice, citrus, and incense qualities that come specifically from being aged in casks made from the wood of their native mizunara tree, to their dedication to perfecting and refining their distillations to achieve a more delicate and not overly dominating taste, the unique character of Japanese whiskey has seen it gain recognition as a global leader.

Due to the balancing of the fruity, floral, oily, salty, and mineral flavours that fine single malt can display, in Japan whisky is seen as an accompaniment to a meal, and is often served with water or as a highball.

Here, we break down the Japanese whiskeys to try, and what decadent delicacies to serve with them.

For the beginner: Hibiki Japanese Harmony 100th Anniversary Edition

What makes it unique: A blend of more than ten various malt and grain whiskies from Suntory’s Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries,  this is the perfect introduction to Japanese whisky. For an even more memorable experience, buy the special limited edition bottle released to celebrate Suntory’s centenary (or give it as a gift to the whisky novice in your life).

For the expert: Yamazaki 12YO Single Malt Japanese Whisky

What makes it unique: Suntory’s flagship single malt, from Japan’s first and oldest malt whisky distillery. This 12-year-old first came onto the market in 1984 and has since acquired something of a cult following for its subtle but striking ripe fruit flavours from being aged in white oak, sherry and mizunara casks.

Pairs well with: Tempura.

For the experimenter: Hakushu Distillers Reserve Single Malt Japanese Whisky

What makes it unique: Thanks to a mountain microclimate of luxurious forests and water filtered by rain and snow, Hakushu is a uniquely vibrant, herbal and gently smoky single malt.

Pairs well with: Oysters.