Japan’s whiskies are held in high regard, but does the liquid live up to the fame? Clinton Cawood joins a panel of experts as they taste their way through the best that the land of the rising sun has to offer
It’s rare. A whisky category with a virtually unblemished reputation; its spirits revered by aficionados, and with impressive collections starting to spring up in bars all over the place. Over the years Japan has repeatedly shown that it deserves its place in the international canon of whiskies, culminating in Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 famously being named the best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015.
We’re not talking about vast numbers of distilleries here, but those producers are able to create a disproportionate spectrum of whiskies.
Over here we only see a limited selection of these, with only three suppliers in the UK, and there’s seldom abundant stock of these either. The result is a scarce, niche category with a glowing reputation… And it has the prices to match.
But if you’ve got the bankroll, there’s plenty of quality products offered by this category – this tasting proved that. No matter what these whiskies did, they seldom, if ever, put a foot wrong.
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Florian Dubois, Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown; Tim Laferla, City Social; Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe; Sophie Mackay, Barrio Bars; Alyster Mills, Milroy’s of Soho; Nico Piazza, Equal Sign Projects; David Wrigley, Tonkotsu; Cyan Wong, Original Sin
HOW IT WORKS
Suppliers of Japanese whisky in the UK were asked to provide a representative selection from their portfolios, across a range of styles. These were tasted blind by a panel of bartenders, who were only aware of each whisky’s category, abv and price. These were scored out of 20, resulting in an average score for each. All prices used here are RRPs for a 70cl bottle, unless otherwise specified.
77 Nikka Coffey Grain
Standing out as the only grain whisky in this tasting, this is produced primarily from corn, using Nikka’s Coffey stills from the 1960s. Our tasters were won over by its lightness and elegance, not to mention a slight bourbon-like sweetness that was nicely balanced.
Citrus and vanilla notes combined with bitter almond and chocolate complexity, all lifted by a spicy grassiness. This was rounded out by some toffee and honeycomb. ‘This would sing in a Manhattan, paired with a good, restrained vermouth,’ said one taster.
45% abv, £49.95, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
81 Hibiki 17yo
Hibiki is Suntory Whisky’s iconic blended range. The 17yo was our panel’s favourite blend, even with its hefty price point. This was all about mature fruit on the nose, with everything from pear and green grapes, to dried stonefruit and raisins. There was a distinct sherry note here, combined with some cinnamon spice and a slightly savoury note too.
Almost every taster commented on this whisky’s soft, chewy mouthfeel, beautiful complexity on the palate, and long finish. ‘Deep and complex, and a good example of the category for sipping and savouring,’ said one taster, while another thought this was ‘deliciously styled for lovers of Grand Champagne XO cognac.’
43% abv, £109, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
77 Nikka Whisky From the Barrel
Nikka’s blended whisky proved that it deserves its established reputation in whisky circles, drawing unanimous praise from our panel. This opened with plenty of fruit, including stewed plums, dark cherries and raisins, as well as a soft-serve vanilla note. The palate was rich, with balanced alcohol – impressive, at 51.4%. There was yet more fruit, a little oak influence, a touch of smoke and a herbal, earthy note too. A chewy, powerful palate, that showed a maple-like richness and depth.
‘Blinding for the price. This would be great in a sour,’ commented one panellist. Others thought it would work well in a Bobby Burns or Affinity cocktail.
51.4% abv, £34.95/50cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
68 Hibiki Japanese Harmony
The latest blend from Suntory was something of a panel divider. Its proponents found much to like, from soft honeyed fruit on the nose, as well as a clove spice note, to a ‘vibrantly floral and fragrant palate, with jasmine, orange and cherry blossom’. One taster even used the word ‘harmonious’.
For others, this was a bit too restrained on the nose, and not quite as complex as the competition. Though the biggest concern for some of our panellists was less to do with the liquid itself, and more the price tag.
43% abv, £53.49, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
SINGLE MALTS AND BLENDED MALTS
86 Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu Chibidaru 2014
In what was an overwhelmingly positive tasting in general, tasters were unanimous and generous in their praise of this offering from Chichibu, aged in Chibidaru casks – quarter casks made by shortening the cask’s staves. The resulting whisky isn’t cheap, but our panel didn’t care. This was bold from the outset, with big chocolate and coffee aromas, as well as a fresher grassy character. One taster identified a ‘beef burger in brioche’ note – enough to grant any whisky first place in a tasting.
The textured, rich palate featured more coffee notes, accompanied by caramel and dried fruit, as well as roasted apple and mixed spice. ‘An amazing, creamy mouthfeel – I wouldn’t guess this had such a high abv. I could sit and sip this all night with cigars and good cheese!’ enthused one taster. ‘Ten out of 10, would drink again,’ said another.
53.3% abv, £94.95, Number One Drinks Company, 01603 327233
85 The Hakushu Single Malt 12yo
There was huge complexity from Suntory’s Hakushu distillery here, starting with an aroma that included not only fruity apple flavours and some more delicate floral notes, but also an iodine-like element, ending with a cream-soda note. The palate moved into far more earthy, savoury, smoky territory, accompanied by some fresh pine notes, as well as a coffee-like bitterness. One panellist called it ‘rich, complex and smoky, with a depth that only the Japanese can achieve with their crazy amounts of different barrels’.
‘Such an interesting profile,’ said another. ‘I’d say the price is worth it.’ Another recommended this to be enjoyed with a good cigar.
43% abv, £72, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
81 Shinshu Mars Sherry and American White Oak
With that abv, this was never going to be a shy, restrained single malt, and it delivered character in spades, appealing to most of our panel. There was smoke in abundance, as well as a sweet, buttery note, balanced by what one panellist described as ‘savoury, Marmite and sherry notes’. ‘Almost like a smoky barbecue rub,’ added another.
The palate opened with some distinct oak, then leading to richer smokiness, along with some intriguing herbal notes. There was also a rich cocoa and ripe plum element to the palate. ‘Powerful, spicy and bold,’ said one taster.
57% abv, £99.95, Number One Drinks Company, 01603 327233
79 Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Single Malt
Nikka’s Miyagikyo distillery differs from its Yoichi site in a few ways – steam distillation is used, as opposed to coal at Yoichi, for example – resulting in a generally softer and gentler whisky. This no-age-statement example was primarily notable for its sweet caramel notes, with some added herbaceous complexity, and a fresh green apple note too.
The palate was rich and warming, with some ripe, juicy fruit and baked apricots, some more herbal notes, and a nutty element too. A comforting single malt, ideal for sipping, according to our panel.
43% abv, £39.95/50cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
79 Shinshu Mars Cosmo Blended Whisky
A preview of a forthcoming release from Mars, this combines Japanese and Scottish single malts – to great effect, as it turns out. Maltiness was a major description when it came to the nose, combined with distinct oakiness, and an overall savouriness that followed through to the palate.
There was a ‘beautiful mouthfeel with ripe nectarines, mandarins and dates on the palate’, described one taster, while others found chocolate and mocha notes, as well as some well-placed smoky notes, and more savouriness too.
43% abv, POA, Number One Drinks Company, 01603 327233
78 Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt
Nikka’s blended malt was widely praised by our panel, in part for showing some interesting character that went beyond the Scotch-like style of many of the others in this tasting. The malted barley was a major player in the aroma here, combined with some appealing nuttiness, and interesting rich fruit notes, including raisins and peaches.
More nuttiness was identified on the palate here, with tasters describing everything from pistachios to cashews and walnuts. Coffee was another major player in the flavour, joined by an attractive spicy element. ‘This is the perfect everyday sipping whisky for the connoisseur at a price point like that,’ said one panellist.
43% abv, £46.45, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
78 The Yamazaki Single Malt Distiller’s Reserve
The complexity here drew some of the most diverse tasting notes from our panel. Some found plenty of fruit – everything from oranges to umeboshi plums, as well as more tropical notes such as pineapple, banana, guava and papaya. Others mainly identified sweet marzipan, caramel and toffee notes. Still others found plenty of bitter chocolate and coffee notes here too. Some oakiness and a touch of smoke also came through on the warming palate.
One taster summarised it best, saying: ‘Very soft on the palate – I’d have this for breakfast.’
43% abv, £50, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
77 Nikka Whisky Yoichi Single Malt
The nose on this no-age-statement whisky from Nikka’s other single malt distillery failed to convince some of our panellists, however the palate redeemed it. Tasters described estery aromas like pear, accompanied by some candy/bubblegum notes, all combined with a touch of smoke – a combination that caused one taster to draw comparisons with agricole or armagnac.
The palate was more coherent – elegant and Speyside-like, with excellent mouthfeel and plenty of summer fruit notes, plus a touch of peat. One taster thought this would work well with cardamom and green tea flavours.
43% abv, £39.25/50cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
74 The Hakushu Single Malt Distiller’s Reserve
It says something about a category when the lowest-scoring whisky clocks in at 74%... This offered a real departure from some of the sweeter, fruitier whiskies here, with delicate herbal and earthy notes throughout. Tasters identified fresh mint, cucumber, juniper and pine notes, combined with espresso, cinnamon, allspice and tonka beans.
There was some peatiness on the palate and a welcome savoury note, with a camphor-like element too. ‘The palate is a bit too delicate for my big clomping gaijin tastebuds,’ said one taster. Worse things can be said about a whisky.
43% abv, £50, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
- Our panel awarded these whiskies an extraordinary average overall score of 78.5%, which rose to an average of 80% for the single and blended malt category. Some whiskies here were clearly better than others, but there was nothing bad at all, with the lowest score a very respectable 68%.
- Tasters were inspired to talk about mixability when it came to the blends and single grain whiskies, but this wasn’t a factor when it came to the single malts. Then it became all about sipping, with more than one mention of cigar pairing.
- Prices were high overall, but you certainly get what you pay for here. The higher-priced whiskies scored well, and tasters generally felt they were worth the money. High prices have implications for how these are used in bars though, particularly when it comes to mixing.
FROM THE PANEL
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘On this evidence, Japanese distillers are getting it right. These were all beautifully made, with a range of styles, good use of peat, and overall accessibility – aside from the prices, that is.’
Florian Dubois, Experimental Cocktail Club Chinatown
‘These were well made, and there were some very interesting examples, with a mix of casks. But over here Japanese whisky is very expensive, so you can’t use it in cocktails. And you’d want to, in Manhattans, etc.’
Tim Laferla, City Social
‘The attention to detail here allows the Japanese to put together some of the richest and most complex, yet also light and delicate, whiskies on the planet. There is a Japanese whisky for every palate and occasion.’
Gaëlle Laforest, Imbibe
‘There was real variety here. Some were more approachable on the nose than others, while a few would be whiskies for more seasoned drinkers. Some of the higher price points weren’t necessarily justified, but there were cool, interesting bottles. There’s real effort there.’
Sophie Mackay, Barrio Bars
‘Japanese whisky makers are doing some interesting things. My favourites were the higher-end ones you’d pair with a cigar. Some of the lower-end ones would be good for cocktails, but they’d be expensive.’
Alyster Mills, Milroy’s of Soho
‘These can be a gateway to move people from bourbon to drier styles of whisky. They are quite quirky, quite niche, and beautifully packaged. But the supply isn’t keeping up.’
Nico Piazza, Equal Sign Projects
‘I was expecting to find more smoky whiskies. A lot of the lovely stuff we tried here could have been Highland or Speyside. The prices did influence my scores though, although there were some that were worth the money.’
David Wrigley, Tonkotsu Mare Street
‘This was a mostly very well blended and constructed collection. I think the harmonious nature of Japanese whisky is one reason it wins awards so often. I miss the elbows and knees, the imbalance you get with great Scotch.’
Cyan Wong, Original Sin
‘When it comes to cocktails with Japanese whisky, it’s an exciting category, but it needs to be the right menu at the right venue, if you want to be able to balance the costs. Cocktails with these would cost more, but they’re worth having on the menu.’
Many thanks to Milroy’s of Soho for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Steve Ryan.