The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky got a major push towards cultural recognition in the movie Lost in Translation. In the movie, Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) travels to Tokyo to be the face of Suntory whisky—the fabled Hibiki 17 blended.

Japanese whisky starts with something that is well-known. Then it is reshaped into something of cultural significance. Think of a Grand Seiko watch—a common timepiece becomes something expensive and special. Japanese Whisky is similar.

Japanese whisky has its real start in the 1920s when the Scottish art of whisky-making came to Japan. Since then, Japanese distilleries have put their own spin on the art of whisky.

To start, you should know two of the biggest names in Japanese whisky-making: Suntory (the largest distillery), and Nikka (a close second). Together, these two distilleries control many of the most popular brands available on the market, such as Yamazaki and Hakushu.

A brief history of Japanese Whisky.

It’s impossible to talk about Japanese whisky without talking about these two distilleries. Japan had already been producing some whisky since the 1800s. But Suntory and Nikka both brought inspiration and recognition to Japanese whisky around the 1920s. They were run by Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru.

The history of these two friends and colleagues is interesting! Masataka Taketsuru was born into a family of sake makers. Shortly after WWI, Taketsuru was chosen by the company he worked for to go to Scotland and study whisky and the craft of distillation. Taketsuru studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He also apprenticed with whisky distilleries. When he returned home to Japan, he connected with Shinjiro Torii, a business entrepreneur with his own alcohol import company.

Together, the two opened the Yamazaki Distillery under the company name Kotobukiya. However, the partners eventually began having disagreements and went their separate ways. Taketsuru left the company and started Dai Nippon Kaju. Kotobukiya eventually became a Suntory distillery (which was bought by Beam Suntory in 2014). Dai Nippon Kaju became a Nikka distillery.

Japanese whisky has been around this whole time. But it didn’t reach international recognition until the distilleries began winning awards in the 2000s. Today, the industry is growing and expanding.


  • In 2012, they exported 1.5 million liters. Their exports amounted to about 43 billion yen.
  • In 2017 they exported 24.7 million liters.
  • In 2021 their exports amounted to about 46 billion yen.

Globally, the Japanese whisky market is valued at more than $600.2 million.

What is Japanese whisky? How is it different from scotch?

It’s perhaps easier to explain what Japanese whisky is by comparing it to whisky made in Scotland.

There are numerous similarities between the two, in part because of the industry’s beginnings in Scotland. For starters, most Japanese whisky distillers import ingredients from Scotland. Peated and/or malted barley are among the ingredients commonly brought in. 

One notable difference is that in Scotland, there are numerous distilleries. They each produce their own signature whiskies. These distilleries then work together to create blended scotches, which are known around the world. For example, Monkey Shoulder uses distillates from Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Kininvie.

In Japan, there are very few distilleries, so their system is different. One distillery produces multiple recipes and mixes its own in-house. So for example, Hibiki is made from Yamazaki, Hakushu, and grain whisky from Chita, all of which are owned by Suntory.

Another aspect that makes Japanese whisky different is the water that they use. The water in Japan is different from the water in Scotland. The Yamazaki distillery was opened in an area considered a prime location for brewing tea because of the pristine quality of the water.

Yet another difference is the type of wood used in the aging process. Wood from the Mizunara tree, only found in Asia, is used for the casks. This creates a highly unique flavor, often described as having spice, citrus, and incense qualities. Furthermore, the weather in Japan is much warmer than in Scotland. During the aging process, whiskies stored in mountain warehouses can reach about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the spirit matures more rapidly and gains a more profound complexity.

Here are some essential Japanese terms you should know.

First, we should point out that in Japan, they spell it “whisky” without the “e,” just like in Scotland.


Ji-whisky is made from a local distillery only available within that area (think craft whisky). Because rules about whisky production are somewhat relaxed in Japan, local whiskies might not be made using proper stills. They might not even be made of grain! (Read more)

Pure Malt

This is a term used by Nikka Distillery. “Pure Malts” are the same as a blended malt of Scotland. They are made from a blend of 100 percent malted barley and pot-still distilled whiskies.


This is the term for whisky and water.


This is like a Japanese hot toddy: whisky and hot water (but not tea).


This is a whisky and soda cocktail. You can even find these in the canned form at Japanese convenience stores.

Mizunara Cask

Wood casks are made from Quercus mongolica or Mongolian Oak. This tree is indigenous to Japan and greater Asia. It is very soft and porous with rich flavors, but tends to leak and is easily damaged.


Shochu is the name of a kind of liquor. Shochu is made from rice, barley, buckwheat, sugar cane, and/or sugar potatoes. It takes three months to three years for Shochu to mature. Some of these Shochu casks are then used to age whisky.

What are some great Japanese whisky brands to try?

There are only 26 whisky distilleries in Japan. (See the whole list here.)  You could break these down by geographic region or types of malt used. However, we’re just going to list the top few you should try.

Hibiki Harmony

Suntory Whisky makes Hibiki. Launched in 1989, this is a blend of at least ten malt and grain whiskies. It’s important to note that these whiskies have been aged in five different types of casks. The Hibiki comes in the Harmony, 17-year-old, and 21-year-old bottles. The Harmony has a honey-like sweetness, with candied orange peel and white chocolate flavors. The rich Mizunara oak casks come through in the finish.

 Hibiki Harmony

Suntory Whisky makes Toki. It has distinct grapefruit, green grape, peppermint, and thyme flavors, with a big nose of green apples and honey. It’s a very light, clear, pale gold-colored spirit that has a spicy finish: vanilla, white pepper, and ginger. Toki is made from a blend of Chita (heavy grain), Hakushu (peated grain), and Yamazaki (finished in Sherry and Bourbon casks). This is a fabulous bartender’s cocktail whisky.


Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt Whisky
The Taketsuru Whisky is a blend of single malt whiskies made at the Yoichi and Miyagikyo Distilleries. The owner is Asahi Breweries. The blend was aged for a minimum of 17 years before being vatted together. The Taketsuru has a malty aroma with hints of apricot and plum. The taste is of blood oranges, whipped cream, and milk chocolate. The finish includes bittersweet oak, cocoa, and fruit. This is a buttery and creamy blend with a dark apricot color.

Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt Whisky

Akashi White Oak Blended
The Eigashima Shuzo Co. makes the Akashi White Oak. The White Oak Distillery is located close to the sea, which is reflected in this bottling. This whisky is modeled after a Scottish-style blended whisky. It’s finished in ex-bourbon barrels and Japanese shochu casks (American oak).  Lightly peated and blended with grain whisky, it has malt, citrus, black cherry, vanilla, and oak flavors.

Akashi White Oak Blended

Wakatsuki Shuzou Sun Shine 20-Year Old Single Malt Whisky
This whisky will set you back a pretty penny, assuming you can find any. The Wakatsuru Distillery makes tiny batches of exceptional whiskies. The Wakatsuru Suzhou Sun Shine matures for 20 years in American White Oak casks. It has a minty, peaty, and floral nose that transitions into a smooth berry and lemon zest taste. This spirit has a long, warm finish with vanilla notes.

Wakatsuki Shuzuo Sun Shine 20-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey

Iwai Whisky
Made by Mars Shinshu and owned by Hombo Shuzu, the Iwai Whisky is inspired by American-style whiskeys. It’s a corn-dominated blend (75 percent corn and 25 percent malt) and is aged in ex-bourbon barrels. It has notes of pear, quince, and vanilla.

Iwai Whisky

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Masataka Taketsuru founded the Yoichi distillery in 1934 and the Myagikyo location in 1969. They compete directly with Hibiki. Nikka’s Taketsuru blends single mats from both sites and ages them in ex-bourbon and sherry casks. They smell like dried fruits and taste like chocolate and coffee with a long, slightly smoky finish.

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Other whiskies to look out for—most of which are incredibly expensive—include:

  • Hibiki 21-Year-Old Blended Whisky
  • Yamazaki Limited Edition 2016
  • Monde Royal Crystal Bottling
  • Taketsuru 17-Year-Old Pure Malt Whisky
  • Karuizawa 1964 48-Year-Old
  • Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky
  • Nikka G&G Whisky Military Commander
  • Sakura Kirakira
  • Usaki Aged Awamori

How can you best enjoy your Japanese whisky?

Using the right glassware is the best way to enjoy your Japanese whisky. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Yamazaki Single Malt or a traditional Tikka Taketsuru Pure Malt. Having a glass you love is part of the experience of luxuriating in expensive whisky.

Old-fashioned whisky glasses have straight edges, whereas the Kori whisky glass has a lotus-like look. The Glencairn Glass is the traditional glass for enjoying a dram of Scotch whisky.

Wide and thick bases distinguish the best whisky glasses. They are solid and stable and accommodate ice cubes and whisky stones easily. A wide lip allows you to savor the complex aromas of a great whisky.

For an exceptional cocktail experience, try Japanese whisky.

Hopefully, this article has given you some great pointers for navigating Japanese whiskies. It’s easy once you understand the terminology, the history, and the biggest brands and labels on the market today. Many Japanese whiskies are extremely expensive, making a bottle of these spirits a unique and special gift to the whisky lover in your life. Hit us up in the comments and let us know what you feel are the fundamental differences between Japanese and Scotch whiskies.