By Richard Thomas
The two big stumbling blocks for anyone trying to get into Japanese whisky are the price tag and availability. Japanese whisky is as expensive or more expensive than comparable Scotch whiskies, and many key expressions are a damn sight harder to find.
It’s not hard to see why. Japanese whisky has become wildly popular around the world recently, and this sudden surge of demand fell on a whisky industry that is roughly comparable to the Irish industry in terms of size, but one that has a vastly larger domestic market to tend to. Ireland is home to just 4 million people, and nearly all of its whiskey is exported; Japan hosts a population of 128 million. Many of the reasonably priced, mass market Japanese whiskies are kept at home, and appear abroad only as pricey special import items. It’s the premium stuff that we see internationally, and a small stock of the it has to be shared globally.
Even so, it’s not like Japanese whiskies are unobtainable or unaffordable. Here are five Japanese whiskies that all cost less than the typical Fast Cash withdrawal from an ATM:
Mars Shinshu Iwai Tradition ($50)
Mars is often referred to, somewhat erroneously, as a Japanese craft distillery. It doesn’t quite fit that model, because it is independent rather than being small or new. The distillery dates back to 1985, and suffered a closure from 1992 to 2007. They are noted for their straight-head stills, designed by Kiichiro Iwai and based on Japanese whisky Founding Father Masataka Taketsuru’s design, and for their location. Mars sits in a high altitude village, where winters can be bitterly cold, but summers are often mild. Mars Shinshu Iwai Tradition represents the distillery’s mid-range blended whisky.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt ($55)
Speaking of Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru, this vatted malt whisky blends contributions from Yoichi and Miyagikyo, aged in ex-bourbon barrels, new American oak casks, and refilled Sherry butts. This is the NAS version of Nikka Pure Malt, and while some people turn their noses up at anything without an age statement, it’s still a widely appreciated expression. Moreover, it’s $30 cheaper than the 12 Year old Takestsuru Pure Malt.
Nikka Coffey Malt ($55)
This is a relatively new expression from Nikka, an NAS added in 2014 and a counterpart to their Coffey Grain. Like the Taketsuru Pure Malt, it’s a blend of malts. What sets it apart from the Pure Malt is that it was made using not pot stills, but column (Coffey) stills. In the Scotch production model followed in Japan, column stills are usually reserved for making grain, not malt, whisky. By making malt in a column still, they produced a lighter, sweeter malt whisky.
Suntory Hibiki Harmony ($55)
This Suntory NAS blend is made with malts from Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as grain whisky from Chita. Between the three distilleries, there is whisky in this blend aged in five different types of cask, including ex-bourbon barrels, new American white oak, Sherry butts and Japan’s own Mizunara oak. It’s noted as an approachable light, and lightly oaked, whisky, smacking of honeyed citrus.
Suntory Toki ($45)
Whereas the Hibiki blends, like the aforementioned Harmony, base themselves on Yamazaki malt, Toki leans more on Hakushu and Chita grain whiskies. Moreover, it is mostly aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, with some Yamazaki Spanish oak-aged stock in there too. This shift in sourcing is why Toki can be $10 cheaper than Hibiki Harmony. It’s a fruity, easy drinking Japanese whisky, with just a whiff of smoke to keep it interesting.