Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt
The Yamazaki distillery was Japan’s first distillery—the birthplace of Japanese whisky. Centrally located near the confluence of three rivers outside of Kyoto, it’s Suntory’s flagship in many ways, so it’s only fitting that their 12 year expression was the first Japanese whisky available in the US.
A lovely single malt in the style of a Speyside Scotch, the Yamazaki 12 starts out light and fruity up front with the scent of apples and honey, transitioning into deeper malt flavor and a hint of barrel spices appear on tasting. With a light mouthfeel and finish fading from sweetness to spice, it’s devastatingly drinkable at 86 proof—a perfect entry point into the world of Japanese whisky, and the cheapest entry point at around $40 a bottle.
The Yamazaki 18 is also available at a more pricey $135 or so, as well as a limited-release expression of the Yamazaki 1984 (largely sold out even at a MSRP of $600). They are both exceptional whiskies, so if you’re looking to take the next step in your journey, these are the bottles for you.
Suntory Hakushu Single Malt 12
Further north, Suntory’s Hakushu distillery is located outside Hokuto in the Yamanashi prefecture. Nestled in Japan’s Southern Alps, it’s one of the highest single malt distilleries in the world, though its nickname is “the forest distillery.” A lightly peated whisky, the Hakushu 12 smells similar to the Yamazaki—sweet and fruity—but the delicate smoke adds a very lively contrast. On tasting, citrus and ginger start to emerge with a bit of pepper and heat. Once again, the mouthfeel is luscious but light, and the finish lingers briefly with a touch of dry smoke. It’s incredibly fresh and crisp for a peated whisky. Hakushu 12 is 86 proof and listing at around $55 a bottle.
Suntory Hibiki 12
A blended whisky made from malt and grain whiskies from Suntory’s distilleries aged in a range of barrels (including plum wine barrels) the 12 year expression is the sweetest of the Suntory whiskies. Honeyed and floral, with desert flavors of vanilla, clove, and almond, it’s rounded out by a substantial grain presence and enough wood to keep the sweetness in balance. The Hibiki 12 is 86 proof and lists around $60 a bottle. (Bonus: Bill Murray is selling the Hibiki 17 in Lost in Translation, but the bottle has the same appearance, so you can play the part at home!)
Nikka’s blended whisky offering to the US is not a blend of grain and malt whiskies, like the Hibiki, bur rather a blend of only malt whiskies (hence ‘pure malt’). Drawing on stocks from the Yoichi and Miyagijyo distilleries, it’s fruity and round. Apples, barley, and sweet grain transition to honey and wood spices, with just a trace of smokiness to pull it all together. With a heftier body than the Hibiki, it’s a more muscular blend without sacrificing balance. A wonderful pure malt that stands on its own at 80 proof, it’s priced at $70 a bottle.
Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15
The Yoichi distillery is on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japans four major islands. Situated on a coastal perch that’s partially surrounded by mountains, it’s Nikka’s oldest distillery. The Yoichi 15 is Nikka’s marquee offering stateside, and it’s the boldest whisky of the day. Sweet, nutty, and sherried on the nose, the malt transforms on tasting. Evolving very dramatically from a mild oakiness to intense spices and ginger to mild sweetness, it finishes with all of the flavors commingling and drifting off on a wisp of smoke. Full bodied and rich, it’s a journey in a glass. The Yoichi 15 is bottled at 90 proof and lists for $130 a bottle.