If you’ve never tried Japanese whiskies, have you even really lived?

Oh sure, we all hear about how wonderful Scotch is, how  bourbon is the real man’s drink, and how rye whiskey will put hair on your chest. But when it comes to delicate elegance and the precise perfection of craft, you can’t beat Japanese whisky!

Below, we’ll walk you through what makes these Japanese-made whiskies so divine, and what sets them apart from all the other whiskies produced in Ireland, Scotland, the U.S., and Canada.

And, for your sampling pleasure, we’ve curated a list of the 15 best Japanese whiskies you can find today.

I guarantee that once you have your first sip, you’ll be hooked! Even if you’re not fully converted to drinking only Japanese whisky, you’ll agree that it’s worth always having a bottle (or three) in your bar for those nights when you want a fancy cocktail or a sipper that prioritizes smooth flavor over potency.

What is a Japanese Whisky?

Japanese whisky is (no surprise) a whisky produced in Japan, using malted grains and water extracted in Japan. Certain elements of the process—including fermentation, distillation, and bottling—also have to take place in Japan (though, as you’ll see below, some Japanese whiskies source their mash from outside the country). The whisky must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV, and, finally, it must spend at least three years maturing in (unspecified) wood casks in Japan.

A lot of Japanese whiskies are single malt and blended whiskies, but you’ll also find “pure malt” and “world whisky” uniquely in Japan.

A pure malt whisky is a blended whisky made using whiskies pulled from a distiller’s various locations around Japan (a common practice among the Japanese). A world whisky is any whiskey made in Japan that doesn’t quite fit the specifications listed above—the ABV is too low, the whisky is made, bottled, or matured elsewhere, etc. 

What Makes Japanese Whisky Unique?

Japanese whiskies are typically heavier in barley than Western whiskies. Unlike the pot-stilled Scotch whiskey from which they originate, Japanese whiskey is distilled in a continuous still.

One fascinating element of Japanese whisky is that the whisky is often aged in casks previously used for sherry, bourbon, or other liquors. The casks are then stored in a number of warehouses around the country—some cold and humid, others hot—to ensure a variety of aroma and flavor profiles as they mature. These whiskies are then blended together to make a lighter, more fragrant whisky that is heavier on the fruit and floral notes than the peat-heavy Scotch whiskies.

Other elements unique to Japanese whisky include:

Take the time to read over the list of Japanese whiskies below, and give each one due consideration. You’ll find that each has something unique and special to offer and will make a worthy addition to your wet bar or liquor cabinet!

15 Best Japanese Whiskies

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SHINOBU JAPANESE BLENDED WHISKY

You’ve never had a whisky quite as light and drinkable as this one by Shinobu! While it makes its mark as one of the most affordable of the Japanese whiskies, it never sacrifices quality in the name of a lower-than-average price tab. Every sip will display its refinement and elegance, and you’ll love it on its own, sipped over ice, or mixed into a cocktail.

The name “Shinobu” means “forbearance”, a perfect name for the time and patience that went into crafting this whisky. It’s aged in Mizunara oak barrels—some of the most expensive and rare in the world—and made using pure Niigata water, the result of snowmelt running off the nearby mountains. The combination of 50% malt and 50% grain makes for a truly sippable, delectable whisky that you’ll always want to keep stocked.

Specs

  • Barrel: Mizunara oak
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Black pepper and clove come through early on the palate, ripe citrus fruit and baked apples
  • Age: Minimum of 3 years (unspecified)
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Nikka Coffey Grain

This whisky is named in honor of Aeneas Coffey, the man who in 1830 invented the continuous whisky still that Japanese distillers use to this day. Nikka Whisky continues the traditions their founder, Masataka Taketsuru, learned during his years in Scotland, and still utilize the traditional Coffey still alongside the more advanced distilling equipment. The result is a flavorful whisky with creamy texture found nowhere else in the world.

The signature grain whisky is made using corn as the largest percentage of the mash bill, resulting in a sweeter liquor. The whisky matures in old casks—including re-filled, remade, and re-charred American oak casks—that ensure the rich sweetness of the Coffey whisky sings in every sip. Bourbon fans will love this Japanese whisky.

Specs

  • Barrel: Old American oak
  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Coffee, and Caramel
  • Age: Minimum of 3 years (age unspecified)
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Kaiyo The Signature

Kaiyo is a brand famous for being adventurous with its whisky production, which is why all of its whiskies spend 3 to 6 months out at sea. The combination of the salt-heavy air and unique temperatures make for a truly spectacular whisky, which is only further enhanced by the time it spends in Mizunara oak casks. With a total time of around 10 years of aging, the finished product is well-rounded with a beautiful balance of malt and fruit.

Let’s be clear: this is not a cheap whisky, even by Japanese whisky standards. You won’t want to down this one in a hurry, but it’s one to be sipped and savored to the last drop. But it’s well worth buying at least once to experience the unique flavors and complexity of this signature Japanese whisky.

Specs

  • Barrel: Mizunara oak
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, ripe dried fruit and hints of cherry
  • Age: Unspecified (10-12 years)
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Suntory Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt Japanese Whisky

For those who love their Scotch but want to give Japanese whisky a try, this bottle blends the best of both worlds into one delightful bottle. It’s a single-malt whisky distilled very much in keeping with Scottish traditions, but its style is unique enough that it will be a brand new drinking experience. Just be prepared to pay a steep price—easily $200 or more—for this prized top-shelf Japanese whisky.

The notes of fruit and flowers make it an intriguing whisky, with flavors that set your palate dancing and a body that’s rich but somehow still light and airy. With strong tastes of coconut and cranberry to match the aromas of peach, pineapple, candied orange, and grapefruit, it’s a liquor that will keep you coming back for sip after sip to explore its new complexities.

Specs

  • Barrel: Unspecified
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Coconut, cranberry, butter
  • Age: 12 years
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The Matsui Single Malt Sakura Cask Whisky

One of my fondest memories of growing up in Japan was enjoying Sakura (cherry blossom) season, when cherry blossom trees around the country would come into bloom and the country was awash in bright white and pink petals. This single malt whisky is the perfect whisky to sip while reminiscing about those lovely times, and it’s even got the flavor of cherry blossoms!

The whisky is distilled in double pot stills then aged in casks made from Sakura trees, resulting in a slightly sweet, lovely-flavored whisky that is light and airy while still having excellent depth of flavor. The time it spends in bourbon casks (before going into the Sakura casks) gives it a bit of extra sweetness that pairs wonderfully with the fruity and floral aromas. It’s a top-shelf Japanese whisky worth every penny.

Specs

  • Barrel: Ex-bourbon oak casks, Sakura wood casks
  • ABV: 48%
  • Tasting Notes: Baking spices and citrus, with a light whiff of spring blossom
  • Age: Unspecified (minimum of 3 years)
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Hatozaki Small Batch Japanese Whisky

If you’re the sort of connoisseur who delights in drinking only small batch whiskies, give this one a try. Made with pure malt, it’s aged in a mix of bourbon and sherry casks imported from the U.S. and Japanese Mizunara oak barrels. The natural sweetness and rich malted flavor blend with the hint of deep sherried fruits and a smoky undertone that make it perfect for mixing into cocktails.

Though it’s one of the newer Japanese whiskies to hit the international market, it’s quickly drawing notice thanks to its balance of flavors and complexity.

Specs

  • Barrel: Bourbon and sherry casks (oak), Mizunara oak
  • ABV: 46%
  • Tasting Notes: Sweet cereals and malty dried fruit with a light touch of smoke and honey on the finish
  • Age: Unspecified (estimated between 5 and 6 years)
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Akashi White Oak Single Malt

Japan’s White Oak Distillery (Eigashima) is located in the small town of Akashi, near Kobe, and has the distinction of being the country’s oldest (and smallest) distillery of fine whiskies. It’s operated by just seven people, but it still produces one of the tastiest, most elegant bottles of whisky to come out of Japan.

The hot summers and cool winters create a unique maturation process that accelerates flavor development, meaning even younger Akashi whiskies taste like much older, more elegant liquors. The temperature variation also ensures the whisky picks up more of the characteristics of the oak barrels in which it’s stored. Add to that the sea salt in the air, and there’s a hint of brine that plays wonderfully with the natural sweetness of caramel and subtle peating common to Scotch-style Japanese whiskies.

Specs

  • Barrel: Bourbon barrel (oak)
  • ABV: 46%
  • Tasting Notes: Marshmallow, barrel spices, raw corn, and vanilla
  • Age: Minimum of 5 years
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Mars Maltage Cosmo

If you’ve never tried a “world blend” Japanese whisky, this one by Mars should definitely be your top pick. It’s crafted using a delightful blend of Japanese-distilled whisky and Scotch produced at one of Scotland’s finest distillers. The time it spends in sherry butts produces a drink that tastes just like Scotch that has had the vanilla sweetness and plum richness turned up to the max. Its storage in ex-bourbon casks also adds a touch of butteriness that makes every sip a delight.

This is definitely one Japanese whisky to add into your cocktails, though it holds up on its own, too. Like all good Scotches, you can drink it neat or enjoy it over an ice cube to let the chill really open up the complex flavors and aromas.

Specs

  • Barrel: Ex-bourbon casks and sherry butts
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Citrus oil leads, followed by fleshy oranges, chocolate and oaky spices.
  • Age: Unspecified (minimum of 3 years)
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Kikori Rice Whisky

There will be those who argue that this particular whisky isn’t, in fact, a whisky because it’s made of rice. A lot of whisky snobs consider this an “aged shochu” (rice wine) instead. However, because of its aging process—and the fact that it spends time resting in French and American oak barrels and sherry casks—it’s considered a whisky by U.S. standards.

The whisky has a delightfully unique flavor, with hints of fruit and a slight sourness found in no other whisky. It’s a lovely summer drink on its own, over ice, or mixed into an Old Fashioned, with a floral brightness that you’re guaranteed to go back to time and again.

Specs

  • Barrel: American and French oak, sherry casks
  • ABV: 41%
  • Tasting Notes: Floral, Vanilla, Citrus
  • Age: Unspecified, estimated to be 3-8 years
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Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

For those who like the peat-heavy flavors of classic Scotch, the Nikka Yoichi Single Malt is the Japanese whisky you’ll want to sample. It’s almost on par with your favorite Islay whiskies, with plenty of smoke and peat to enchant your palate. The boldness is the result of the coal-fired distillation process, but there’s a unique brininess to the flavor thanks to the time it spends near the sea breezes rolling off Ishikari Bay during the maturation process.

This is definitely not a cocktail-friendly whisky, but one to enjoy either neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of club soda. You’ll want to pay close attention to the subtle flavors beneath the smoke, with just enough hints of vanilla, almonds, and tropical fruits to wake up your palate.

Specs

  • Barrel: Unspecified
  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Almond, Smoke, Vanilla
  • Age: No Age Statement (minimum of three years)
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Hibiki 17 Year Old

Looking for something a bit more mature and robust? This 17-year old Hibiki is a splurge (one of the pricier bottles on our list), but well worth it for its unique complexity and depth of flavor. With each sip, you get aromas of peach, rose, melon, apricot, and lemon leaf, with just a hint of lily. The sweetness of vanilla and toffee are complemented by the cherry edge.

The blends two whiskies from Suntory’s distilleries, and the time it spends in Mizunara oak barrels gives it a beautifully smooth mouth-feel. You want to keep this for only special occasions and sip it slowly to savor every last drop.

Specs

  • Barrel: American oak, Mizunara oak
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Toffee, black cherry, vanilla, and Mizunara (Japanese oak)
  • Age: 17 years
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Suntory Toki Whisky

Suntory is one of the best-known alcohol makers in Japan, famous around the world for both their beer and whisky. No surprise that their fine Toki whisky ends up on this list, then! It combines many of Suntory’s finest whiskies into a blend that is far more than the sum of its parts. The fact that it’s young means its flavors are light and airy—with honey and green apple aromas that pair perfectly with the flavors of thyme, peppermint, green grapes, and grapefruit—but the finish is subtly sweet and has just a hint of spice to give it some kick.

It’s also one of the more affordable whiskies on our list, and is commercially available in most of North America. Add a splash of sparkling water and a spritz of lemon for a truly simple and delightful whisky drink.

Specs

  • Barrel: Unspecified
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, green grapes, peppermint, thyme
  • Age: No age statement (minimum of 3 years)
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Hakushu 12 Year Old

Single malt fans, you’re going to want to give this Japanese whisky a try for sure! It’s made using malted barley and produced in just one Japanese distillery (like all your favorite single-malt scotches). Because of its location—in the Japanese Alps mountains on the island of Honshu—the Hakushu Distillery is exposed to a unique microclimate that combines with the natural granite-filtered water to produce something as delightful and enchanting as any Islay single malt.

The whisky is heavy on the herbs with plenty of woodsy flavors, but with just enough hint of fruit to contrast its light peatiness. It’s one of the most approachable of the peaty whiskies, perfect for newbies and connoisseurs alike.

Specs

  • Barrel: Unspecified
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Sweet pear, mint, kiwi
  • Age: 12 years
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Suntory Hibiki Masters Select

The Hibiki whiskies from the Suntory Distillery are so good that we had to include two bottles on our list! The “Masters Select” whisky is a limited edition offering that is rendered unique by the time it spends aging in Yamazaki sherry casks (along with the standard oak casks), which gives it sweeter, richer flavors (marmalade and dark chocolate) that contrast its mild bitterness. Sweetness lingers on the finish and there are notes of spice and wood to make it a true delight.

It’s made using ten different grain and malt whiskies from Suntory’s various distilleries around Japan, and ages in five different casks to ensure that it’s one of the most complex blended whiskies the country has ever produced.

Specs

  • Barrel: Various, including Yamazaki sherry casks
  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Orange marmalade, dark chocolate, a slight bitterness
  • Age: No age statement (minimum of 3 years)
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Mars Tsunuki Peated Single Malt Japanese Whisky

Anyone who wants a peaty kick to their whisky will want to sample this Mars Tsunuki single-malt. Though most of its whisky is Japanese, it does source whisky from Scotland to bring in the flavors and richness that originated it. Some of the whisky included in the blend spends time in sherry butts, which gives it a light flavor of sherry-casked Scotch. The blend also includes ex-bourbon barrel-aged whisky to bring in the sweetness and richness of bourbon.

The result is a whisky that will stand up on its own but makes the perfect base of your favorite cocktails. Mix it up into an Old Fashioned or Manhattan for a truly delightful experience. Because its so young, the peat hasn’t had time to overpower the more delicate floral and fruit flavors. Definitely a whisky worth owning anytime you want a special treat.

Specs

  • Barrel: Various, including sherry butts and ex-bourbon casks
  • ABV: 50%
  • Tasting Notes: Rose petals, green apples, and honey, mixed with lightly scorched earth.
  • Age: No age statement (minimum of 3 years)