You may have heard: there’s a frightening shortage of Japanese whisky.
Good news is that unless you’re obsessed with age-statement tipples like a Hibiki 17 (what Bill Murray drank in Lost in Translation) or a Hakushu 12, you still have plenty of choice when it comes to the increasingly popular spirit, which is somewhat akin to Scotch in its distilling process but arrives with its own idiosyncrasies.
Whether you’re a newcomer to Japanese whisky or a longtime fan, you’ll welcome the advice of Frank Cisneros, the consulting beverage director at Bar Moga — a 1920s Japan-inspired cocktail bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that has one of the largest Japanese whisky collections in the country.
"I always struggled with Scotch since I found it overwhelming,” he says. "Japanese whisky was softer and more refined, and bridges the gap between the beauty of bourbons and the power of Scotch."
Below are a few of his favorite Japanese whiskies, along with a few words from Cisneros. (Side note: If you’re looking for a refreshing whisky drink for summer, yours truly would suggest a Japanese whisky highball.)
“From the very first whisky distillery in Japan, this is the benchmark of Japanese whisky. It’s lush, floral and at times even tropical with exotic spices. It’s perfectly balanced and my go-to daily Japanese whisky.”
Nikka Coffey Grain
“I first learned about this whisky in Japan, as it was our well pour at the Mandarin (where I worked). Even then, it was a pretty extravagant well pour, but this is such a unique product. It’s grain-driven and therefore rounded with cocoa and vanilla notes like a bourbon. The use of a Coffey still gives the refinement of a column still with the expressiveness of a pot still.”
“Hibiki is a landmark whisky in that it demonstrates the abilities of a master blender to select the best barrels from Suntory's three distilleries and elevate them to an art higher than the sum of its parts. It’s rich and nuanced with a bourbon-like approach and a hint of smoke from the Hakushu that’s blended in. It’s a tragedy this has been discontinued due to the shortage of Japanese whisky supply; I highly recommend grabbing a bottle while you can.”
“The Matsui distillery in Tottori has been around for a century, producing shochu. Like many shochu distilleries, they have recently started producing whisky as well. Their approach, however, is a blended malt of both Japanese whiskies distilled and aged in Japan and spirit distilled in Scotland. It’s an innovative way to get around the lack of whisky inventory in Japan, and it offers up a balanced whisky with an age statement at an approachable price point.”
Ichiro's Malt Chichibu - The Floor Malted
“Hailing from Saitama, north of Tokyo, Ichiro is like the bad boy of Japanese whiskies. He acquired barrels of the famed Hanyu distillery, which burned down, and releases whiskies as a set of 52 playing card-themed bottlings, which have become some of the rarest and most desirable whiskies on earth. He takes a Bruichladdich approach to whisky, taking lots of risks and pushing the envelope. This whisky is floor malted, which is a laborious and antiquated method used in Scotland decades ago, but it results in a floral and deeply malty whisky with spice and tons of character.”
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