The Japanese whisky quickly rose like a firework and exploded into the top ranks, collecting awards and accolades. Cocktail bars and collectors couldn’t get enough.

In 2016, when an article on this category was last published, there were signs that its popularity was overwhelming manufacturers. The bottles faded in the hands of the customers.

You’re back today. The landscape has changed, stocks have not yet been fully replenished, but new bottlenecks are emerging.

For example, Nikka Whiskey released several new bottles in 2020: Nikka Days, as well as some limited edition single malts and a new blended malt Taketsuru.

Due to the high demand, many suppliers are facing a shortage of supply, says Emiko Kaii, head of international business development at Nikka. We started distribution in 2016 and are still sticking to this pattern to manage the growth rate and maintain quality.

 

The U.S. is recognized as an important market, she says, and new products are often a priority.

A number of small distilleries have also released new bottles. These include Chichibu (aka Pappy Van Winkle Japanese Whiskey), Mars Shinshu and Hotazaki.

The Japanese like to look at the smallest details, says Koki Takehira, a new distiller at Mars. He makes an American-style whiskey, Ivory Whiskey, which contains corn and is aged in ex-bourbon barrels. With this inquiring mind, we create something new. These are our skills.

A rapidly growing number of new manufacturers, including Kaiyo, Kanosuke and Akkeshi, are filling the shelves. Of course, not everyone likes to push the limits. That’s why the Japan Spirits and Liquors Association has put on 1. April has tightened its definition of Japanese whisky and introduced new labeling standards so consumers know what they are buying.

Meanwhile, a new wave of Japanese bottles is arriving from all over the world. Whisky giant Suntory has also released two new World Specials, one of which is aged in cherry wood sakura.

Here are four newbies worth checking out. With the return of Japanese whisky, it is becoming increasingly interesting to see this category regain its luster.

Light and bright

Nikki Days ($50; 40% off)

The founder of Nikka and father of Japanese whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru, came from a family of sake makers who went to Scotland to learn to make whiskey. After returning to Japan, Taketsuru established the Yoichi distillery in southern Hokkaido in 1934. In 1969, a second Miyagikyo distillery was built on the island of Honshu.

Today, most Nikki bottles combine the liquid from both distilleries. Yoichi’s whisky is richer, stronger and often peaty. For comparison: Miyagikyo is known for its lighter, floral malt.

Nikka Days also combines whiskies from both distilleries, including a good amount of grain whisky for a light, silky texture. The result is a light blend with notes of honey and juicy stone fruit. Perfect for everyday syrups or mixing with highballs.

Smoked Terroir

Akkeshi Single Malt Whisky ($75; 55% abv)

Akkes Distillery opened in 2016 in Hokkaido, near Yoichi Nikki. Some draw parallels between Hokkaido and the Scottish island. Both are cold and rustic, resulting in a concentrated and dense whiskey, and the sea air can give a similar nautical flavor. But Akkeshi goes one step further.

They use local peat, which is unheard of, says Chris Elliott of High Road Spirits, which imports Akkeshi and other brands into the United States.

They’re trying to make Islay-style whiskey in Japan.

The result is a lightly toasted whisky with notes of toasted almond, espresso and vanilla that meld into a pleasant smoky exhale.

From left to right: Ojishi Sherry Cask ($85; 41.9% vol.) and Kayo Suppressed Whiskey ($90; 46% vol.) / Photo: Ashton Worthington / Prop Style: Megumi Emoto

Rich things

Ohishi Single Sherry Cask ($85; 41.9% abv)

Ohishi is one of Japan’s oldest distilleries, founded in 1872, and is perhaps best known for its production of sake and shoshu, two rice-based drinks. It is therefore logical that they also produce rice whiskey. Of course, whisky made from any product other than malted barley arouses the wrath of traditionalists.

Yet there is a long tradition of whiskey making by sake brewers, writes Brian Ashcraft in his book Japanese Whiskey (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), especially after World War II, when whiskey became more popular.

Because sake doesn’t have a long shelf life and production is seasonal, whiskey production can complement trade, Ashcraft said.

What does all this mean for whisky? It is particularly light because the sherry barrel gives it subtle and delicate notes of dried fruit and spice. Those looking to spend even more can look forward to an 11-year-old sherry cask ($99), a new release in 2020, and a 16-year-old bottle ($160) expected later this year.

Era of the Ocean

Kayeux Pete Whiskey ($90; 46% off)

The Osaka-based Kaiyo distillery was established 10 years ago and supplies whisky from several distilleries in Japan. They have a unique method of maturing whisky. They send it out to sea for months or years. In Japanese, kaiyo means ocean.

The skimmed bottle matures for two years in ex-Madeira barrels, then in a barrel of precious Japanese Mizunara oak. This barrel spent four years at sea, a process that melts the mind. The latter, a six-year-old spirit, drinks like a sweet smoky sea breeze, anchored by vanilla and coconut.

Co-founder and master blender Jeffrey Karlovich is a veteran of Scottish Bunnahabein and Japanese Chichibu. When he found the cooper working with Mizunar Oak, his journey began.

I didn’t want to make Japanese whisky, I wanted to make the best whisky in the world, he says. Japanese whiskey turned out to be the best.

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