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Best Japanese whisky 2021: The best blended and single grain whiskies from Japan to drink now

Joanne Gould
10 Dec 2021

Whether you’re new to Japanese whisky or just want to try something new, these are the best of the best

Japanese whisky – not whiskey, mind – has exploded in popularity over the past few years, with the two main distilleries, Nikka and Suntory, earning themselves global fans for their delicious drams. The distilleries are popular for good reason: they’re home to some of the best Japanese whisky you’ll find around today.

Japan’s whiskies were originally made in the Scotch tradition, but the peaty, smoky flavours didn’t land well with Japanese palates. Instead, the distilleries turned their hand to more harmonious blends and the standout single grains we know them for today.

Unlike most whiskies, the best Japanese whisky has no real distinction in terms of regional styles, nor does it have any unifying character. This means bottles could be sharp and spicy, smoothly mellow, herbal and zesty or anything in between, depending on their blend, grain and cask-ageing method.

It’s important to note that the Japanese whisky industry has recently experienced a shake-up. Previously, producers could use ingredients from other countries as long as the whisky was bottled in Japan, but today stricter measures must be met in order for the product to carry the label “Japanese whisky”. You can read more about these conditions here.

In this list, we’ve chosen to include a breadth of whiskies from Japan, rather than simply those labelled “Japanese whisky”, but have made it clear which products don’t meet the new terms.

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Best Japanese whisky: At a glance

How to choose the best Japanese whisky for you

How much should I spend?

A shortage of aged whiskies, due to the recent global popularity of Japanese whisky, means that rare bottles will command eye-watering prices. But non-aged whiskies can be just as exciting and are readily available and reasonably priced. You can pick up a mid-range bottle from £35-65, and all of the bottles on this list fall within this price range. The benefit of not spending hundreds on your whisky is that you can happily drink it as a sipping whisky or mix it in cocktails or sodas alike. The Japanese tend to drink theirs in a highball with soda.

Single grain or blended?

Most Japanese whiskies are blends. With other whiskies, this is often seen as a negative, but the beauty of Japanese whisky is often in the mastery of harmoniously blending the different whiskies from around the country to create something new. There are also stunning single-grain varieties available, which are a pure expression of some of the most popular whiskies used in famous blends. The fun is all in the trying.

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The best Japanese whisky to buy in 2021

1. Suntory Whisky Toki: The best budget Japanese whisky

Price: £30 | Buy now from Amazon

The Suntory Toki is universally popular, with its relatively low price tag making it a great choice for those looking to start their journey into Japanese whisky. A blend of some of Suntory’s most lauded singles – the Chita grain, Hakushu malt and two hard-hitting Yamazaki malts – makes this is a crowd-pleasing, accessible whisky, which shows off many of the characteristics whisky from Japan is known for.

The Yamazaki malts are matured in Spanish oak casks and American white oak casks. These big, woody, spice flavours add a necessary level of complexity to the thinner grapefruit, green apple and herbal notes present in this youthful whisky. Extremely pale and clear gold in the glass, the Suntory Toki is more powerful than it looks. There’s a good balance of sweetness, spice and peachy softness that makes for a vivid neat sipping whisky, but it’s also delicious in a highball.

Key detailsABV: 43%; Size: 70cl

2. Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky: The best Japanese whisky for sipping

Price: £55 | Buy now from Amazon

Nikka Coffey Grain is unique in style compared to the generally well-balanced blends you may be used to in Japanese whisky. It’s a single grain whisky, used in many of Nikka’s award-winning blends, and this bottle offers a chance to show itself off as an elegant whisky in its own right. One of the few “official” Japanese whiskies remaining since the new legislation, Nikka Coffey Grain is distilled in “Coffey stills” imported from Scotland (named after their inventor, nothing to do with espresso), using corn and malted barley.

This whisky is then aged in used American oak casks, imparting a deliciously creamy, butterscotch edge that will please fans of bourbon. Still light and bright in the glass and on the palate, there are bags of fresh fruit flavours – banana and yellow pear – before it moves to a touch of exotic spice, finished with that recognisable bourbon buttery vanilla and silky mouthfeel. If you like bourbon, this is a great sipping option, but will also work beautifully in a classic Old Fashioned.

Key detailsABV: 45%; Size: 70cl

3. Nikka Days: The best Japanese whisky for mixing

Price: £33 | Buy now from The Whisky Exchange

A completely different offering from the Nikka Distillery is its Nikka Days Blended Whisky. The newest whisky in the portfolio, this is an entry-level bottle with an accessible price point and delicate, easy-drinking flavour. This whisky-from-Japan (it’s not allowed the official label) encompasses grain whiskies and single malts from two Nikka distilleries. These add up to a zippy and fresh youthful tipple, with green orchard fruits, a highly floral nose and just a touch of smoke for balance.

It’s summery, super-light and gratefully lacking that telltale rough burn that can accompany a less sophisticated drink. What this whisky lacks in complexity it makes up for in versatility, so go wild with Nikka Days in mixed drinks. It’s perfect for a Mizuwari, or you can start your sipping whisky journey by easing in with its gently rounded mouthfeel.

Key detailsABV: 40%; Size: 70cl

4. The Chita Suntory Whisky: The best Japanese whisky to drink with soda

Price: £45 | Buy now from Ocado

The Chita is a notable distillery on the Chita Peninsula, where three generations have worked as master blenders to produce some of the most famously harmonious whiskies around. This representation from the seaside distillery is the first “official” single-grain Japanese whisky from the House of Suntory, which allows the grain to shine as a single expression.

Having been distilled in a complex, patented system, the whisky is carefully matured in a range of used casks including Bordeaux, Spanish Oak and American Oak, each lending a different flavour profile. The result is a highly complex yet balanced whisky, where none of the notes overwhelms. Fresh spearmint, honey, melon, honeysuckle, vanilla, oak and orchard fruits are all equally present. There’s plenty more honey in the mouthfeel, too, with a luxurious, deep and rounded texture that justifies its price. Perfect for slow sipping or for opening up with a touch of soda, where it becomes even smoother and sweeter.

Key detailsABV: 43%; Size: 70cl

Buy now from Ocado

5. Akashi White Oak Japanese Blended Whisky: The best Scotch-style Japanese whisky

Price: £32 | Buy now from Ocado

The White Oak was the first Japanese distillery to gain a whisky distillation licence (in 1919) and today, it continues to make whiskies in the traditional Scotch whisky style. Akashi is a blend of characteristic Scotch malt and other grain whiskies. The result is a tipple heavy with cereal and spice, but still straightforward and simple enough for everyday drinking.

Naysayers criticise the Akashi for being one-dimensional, but fans delight in its unashamedly fruity, chocolatey and spicy profile. There are bags of molasses in here, lending a Christmas cake aroma, followed up with lots of dried fruit and almonds on the palate. The ageing in oak casks means there is an undercurrent of woodiness, too.

A touch of something fresh and menthol lends an almost medicinal note, but once left to breathe with a dash of water or ice, this becomes pleasant and vibrant – a welcome introduction to the heavier, dark sugary flavours. Good neat or mixed, this is a useful introduction to the world of Japanese whisky – just don’t go expecting a complex Scotch style.

Key detailsABV: 40%; Size: 50cl

6. Kyasuku Japanese Whisky: Best bargain Japanese whisky

Price: £25 | Buy now from Aldi

Ok, so while most of the whiskies in this list fall within the usual £35-£65 parameters, this Kyasuku is a tenner cheaper – why? Well, this is a prime example of the new divide in labelling regulation. Notice that it’s actually a ‘world whisky’ which has been blended and then matured in Japan, so being able to source various grain whiskies from elsewhere has meant lower production costs.

This doesn’t mean it’s bad. Japanese whisky makers have long sourced whiskies from elsewhere, particularly for their different characteristics. The skill of most Japanese whiskies is all in the blend and this one has been blended with care, giving a harmonious and sublimely smooth balance. While the nose gives away tropical fruits, plenty of florals and a hint of woodiness, the palate is all about those spicier, sweeter notes, which read like a fruit cake mix: orange, ginger, dried apricot, cinnamon, nuts and vanilla.

The finishing in Mizuna casks has allowed for some complexity, so it’s not as simple as a Nikka Days, for instance, but overall this is an easy-drinking Japanese whisky. A good suggestion for any whisky fan wishing to try the genre without the usual pricing.

Key details – ABV: 40%; Size: 70cl

Buy now from Aldi

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