All The Must-Drink Japanese Whisky Brands In 2024
— Updated on 28 December 2023

All The Must-Drink Japanese Whisky Brands In 2024

— Updated on 28 December 2023
Randy Lai
WORDS BY
Randy Lai

Decidedly no longer the insider’s commodity that it was at the turn of the new millennium, for discerning drinkers, Japanese whisky is as much a part of the cultural firmament right now as Scotch or Bourbon.

Our latest Buyer’s Guide isn’t really the right format for an exhaustive retelling of Japanese whisky’s fascinating origin story. But suffice to say, dram lovers reached a critical inflection point in the 2010s when stocks were so low and secondary market prices so speculative that it literally changed the way the industry does business.

RELATED: 16 Of The Best Bourbon Whiskies Worth Drinking In 2024

Pictured: An extremely rare ‘full set’ of Ichiro’s Malt Card Series Whiskies, which sold at auction in 2020 for US$1.52 million. Results like these helped to burnish Japanese whisky’s reputation as a serious, often investment-grade spirits category.

Fortunately, there are a host of exciting new developments happening in the world of Japanese whisky in 2024. Between the arrival of long-anticipated laws governing the production of ‘Japanese whisk(e)y’ and the rise of independent, boutique distilleries; there’s plenty to buoy both longtime dram lovers and drinkers just starting to get into the category.

Below, we delve into a dozen or so of our favourite Japanese whisky brands — available to order in Australia right now.


Table of Contents


The Best Japanese Whisky Brands In 2024

Fuji Whiskey

Japanese whiskey
  • Parent Company: Kirin Holdings
  • Distillery location: Gotemba, Shizuoka
  • Signature bottles: Single Grain Japanese Whiskey
  • Price point: Starting at $140

Nestled in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, the eponymous Fuji Whiskey is operated and owned by Kirin Brewing. The original distillery was built in 1973 as part of a joint venture with Chivas Brothers and American drinks giant Seagram. Under the leadership of critically acclaimed Master Blender Jota Tanaka, Fuji has developed a specialty in distilling various styles of whisky that go beyond the traditional, Highland-inspired Scotch.

That interest in premium Canadian and US distillation is reflected in the brand’s flagship ‘single grain whiskey’ (spelled, for good measure, in accordance with North American convention): a careful blend of light, medium, and full-bodied distillates, aged in white oak barrels.


Hakushu Whisky

  • Parent Company: Suntory Group
  • Distillery location: Hokuto, Yamanashi
  • Signature bottles: Hakushu 12YO, Hakushu ‘Distiller’s Reserve’
  • Price point: Starting at $160

Nestled amid the greenery and pristine waters of the Mt. Kaikomagatake range, Hakushu takes its branding from the distillery of the same name. One of the most southerly production facilities operated by the House of Suntory, Hakushu possesses a well-known appeal amongst drinkers who enjoy a peaty and lightly smoked style of Japanese single malt whisky.

The distillery’s uniquely high altitude (in combination with its naturally occurring environmental filtration systems) leads to a spirit that is crisp and vibrant — diametrically opposed in character to the whisky being crafted at Yamazaki.


Hibiki Whisky

Japanese whisky
  • Parent Company: Suntory Group
  • Distillery location: Various
  • Signature bottles: Hibiki ‘Harmony’, Hibiki 21YO
  • Price point: Starting at $200

Literally translated into English as “resonance,” Hibiki originally began life as a commemorative release — in celebration of Suntory’s 90th anniversary.

In contrast to the various Yamazaki and Hakushu expressions, it consists of a blend of malt and grain whiskies sourced primarily from the two aforementioned distilleries, in addition to Chita. The range’s beautiful, 24-facet decanters have become something of a visual signature among whisky enthusiasts.

A paean to the lofty and somewhat alchemical art of whisky blending, the 21-year-old expressions (widely considered to be the apex of the range) regularly command prices in excess of $2,000. With a rich, and appropriately harmonious profile of flavours, even the more mature age statements are a delight to drink over a large, spherical chunk of ‘diamond’ ice.


Yoichi Single Malt Whisky

  • Parent Company: Nikka Whisky Distilling
  • Distillery location: Yoichi, Hokkaido
  • Signature bottles: Yoichi Single Malt NAS, Yoichi 10YO
  • Price point: Starting at $150

Historically renowned as the first distillery to be built by the Nikka Distilling company (in 1934), the site of the Yoichi township held a special significance for founder Masataka Taketsuru — the Father of the Japanese whisky industry.

Located in the cold northern reaches of Hokkaido, Yoichi’s physical location bears the closest resemblance (in climate and geography) to the Scottish Highlands (where Taketsuru learned the craft of Scotch-style whisky distillation).

Often described by Japanese malt enthusiasts as having a “bold and strong” style (suffused with a hint of peat) Yoichi’s core expression since 2016 has been a non-age statement. A combination of different malt whisky vattings — reportedly including five and seven-year-old statements — the Yoichi NAS nevertheless strikes a deft balance between smoke and dried fruit aromas. A great way to acquaint yourself with the ‘house style’ of a Japanese icon.


Miyagikyo Single Malt Whisky

  • Parent Company: Nikka Whisky Distilling
  • Distillery location: Sendai, Miyagi
  • Signature bottles: Miyagikyo Single Malt NAS, Miyagikyo 12YO
  • Price point: Starting at $150

Named for the second distillery set up by Masataka Taketsuru’s legendary Nikka Distilling company, Miyagikyo contrasts with the Yoichi distillery in both condition and climate.

Set up in the central Japanese prefecture of Miyagi in 1961, the signature style of whisky here utilises both non-peated and lightly peated barley. Characterised by light and fruit-driven flavour, Miyagikyo moved to a range of non-age-statement expressions in 2016.

The now-discontinued 12 and 15-year-old expressions can still be found online; although both are invariably offered at a premium of around $1,000 and $1,500 respectively.

RELATED: Fuji Single Grain Whiskey Makes For Flawless Winter Drinking


Yamazaki Whisky

  • Parent Company: Suntory Group
  • Distillery location: Shimamoto, Osaka
  • Signature bottles: Yamazaki 12, Yamazaki ‘Distiller’s Reserve’
  • Price point: Starting at $180

Bound to be the most universally recognisable brand of any on our shortlist, the Yamazaki takes its moniker from the Osaka distillery of the same name — known, in Suntory’s parlance, as “the birthplace of Japanese whisky.”

The entry-level 12-year-old bottling is widely revered as the archetype of Japanese single malts: a dram full of genteel stone fruit, vanillin and candied ginger notes; with a signature undertone of coconut that is the unique by-product of maturation in mizunara oak casks.

This year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of parent company Suntory, Yamazaki has launched an array of specially packaged 12-year-old editions: great for buying into the fanfare behind Japan’s most critically lauded whisky brand, without necessarily dropping the five figures needed for now-legendary award winners like the 2013 Sherry Cask.


Nikka Coffey Grain

Japanese whisky
  • Parent Company: Nikka Whisky Distilling
  • Distillery location: Sendai, Miyagi
  • Signature bottles: Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky
  • Price point: Starting at $130

In contrast to the eponymous Yoichi and Miyagikyo collections, Nikka Coffey Grain is not themed around any one specific whisky distillery. Instead, the brand takes its name from a distinctive kind of column still popularised by the Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey.

Masataka Taketsuru, legendary founder of the Nikka Distilling Company, was profoundly impressed with the purity of flavour and “distinctive creamy texture” delivered by the Coffey still; and so, in 1963, became the first person ever to import them to Japan.

Today, Nikka still employs these stills in the creation of their signature ‘Coffey Grain’ whisky: a sweet and mellow concoction (composed predominantly of corn-based distillates) that gives lifted complexity to a range of classic cocktails.


Kakubin Blended Whisky

  • Parent Company: Suntory Group
  • Distillery location: Various
  • Signature bottles: Kakubin blended whisky
  • Price point: Starting at $50

Marketed by Suntory — almost matter-of-factly — as the ‘foundation’ of Japan’s whisky-drinking culture, Kakubin (“square bottle”) is similar to the Hibiki brand in that it consists of a blend of whiskies from the Chita, Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. That, however, is where the similarities end.

Now an international bestseller (Suntory move about 12.7 million cases of the stuff per year) Kakubin is a light-bodied style of whisky with a dry finish, formulated specifically for serving as a highball.

Perfectly serviceable (but not much more than that) on its own, you’ll commonly find Kakubin behind the bar in good-quality izakayas and okonomi: poured straight from the freezer, likely into the signature ‘tortoiseshell’ mug.


Kanosuke

  • Parent Company: N/A
  • Distillery location: Hioki, Kagoshima
  • Signature bottles: Limited Edition 2022
  • Price point: 

A relatively new boutique distillery that I was first introduced to through the elite specialists at Time For Whisky, Kanosuke is unusual in both its approach and locale.

Situated on the west coast of Kagoshima (right on the doorstep of the picturesque Fukiagehama beachfront) Kanosuke opened its doors in 2017.

The distillery’s parent company, Komasa Jyozo, has been in the vanguard of making high-end shochu since the late 19th century; so it’s perhaps not surprising that the Kanosuke house style is one focused on smoothness, depth, and resinous flavours of spice and citrus.


Togouchi

Japanese whisky
  • Parent Company: Sakurao Distillery
  • Distillery location: Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima
  • Signature bottles: Japanese Blended Whisky 9YO
  • Price point: Starting at $200

Initially marketed as a ‘Japanese-blended’ brand making use of a variety of North American whiskies, Togouchi recently became a fully domestic operation — owned and operated by sake brewers, Chugoku Jozo.

Distilled and matured in underground rail tunnels amid the Chugoku range, Togouchi’s setting between the mountains and the sea fetter it with access to high-quality groundwater and the dry, cool climate that is so essential to whisky distillation.

Encompassing a mellow and perfectly delicious range of whiskies, the brand’s various ‘cask finish’ expressions (including those utilising beer or junmai barrels) are well worth sampling.


Akashi

  • Parent Company: High Road Spirits
  • Distillery location: Akashi, Hyōgo
  • Signature bottles: Akashi ‘White Oak’ blended whisky
  • Price point: Starting at $80

Covering a range of both blended and single malt whiskies, Akashi takes its name from the location of the Eigashima Shuzo distillery where its products are produced.

Located in the southerly prefecture of Hyogo, the climate at Eigashima is warm and temperate year-round— meaning that distillation is usually reserved for the second half of the year (i.e. between September and March).

A decidedly boutique operation with an outsized reputation overseas, even Akashi’s entry-level blended whiskies are made with the assistance of a toji — master sake brewers who oversee the integration of shochu casks and traditionally distilled spirit, for a minimum ‘reserve’ period of three years.


Ichiro’s Malt

Japanese whisky
  • Parent Company: High Road Spirits
  • Distillery location: Chichibu, Saitama
  • Signature bottles: Malt & grain blended whisky
  • Price point: Starting at $175

A name that shall be intimately familiar to 99% of diehard Japanese whisky enthusiasts, Ichiro’s Malt is as much a reflection of whisky distiller Ichiro Akuto’s impact on the global whisky-making scene as it is the Chichibu distillery.

Hailing from a lineage of whisky distillers, Akuto first came to worldwide attention for bottling and releasing limited quantities of whisky from the now-legendary (and long since shuttered) Hanyu distillery. The mythic status of these releases — many of which would be grail-status collectables by themselves — is best epitomized in the ‘Playing Card Series’: 54 individually unique bottles, a complete series of which previously sold for US$1.52 million back in 2020.

Fortunately, through Ichiro’s Malt, Akuto continues to make more accessible and contemporary whiskies — at the state-of-the-art Chichibu distillery, two hours west of Tokyo. The brand’s non-age-statement ‘Malt & Grain’ (said to be Akuto’s own go-to dram) is one such example: a combination of global distillates, matured for a further three years at Chichibu using a solera-style system of fractional blending.


Frequently Asked Questions About Japanese Whisky

Why is Japanese whisky so expensive?

There is a long answer with a historically grounded basis to this question, but essentially: mature-age Japanese whisky’s prohibitive price point is due to a longstanding supply shortage and the category’s popularity amongst critics.

What are the key differences between Scotch and Japanese whisky?

At many of Japan’s flagship whisky distilleries — such as those operated by Suntory and Nikka — the craft of blending and distillation remains deeply influenced by Scotch distillation.

That said, there are a number of characteristics (in both production processes and the product itself) that may be uniquely Japanese. These include the use of koji bacterium in fermentation; maturation with casks made of mizunara; and the relative lack of heavily peated flavours such as those you’ll find in Isley whisky.

Which Japanese whisky brands under $100 would you recommend?

For sub-$100 Japanese whisky brands that we enjoy (that mightn’t necessarily appear in this Buyer’s Guide) we’d recommend Nikka From The Barrel, Suntory Chita Grain Whisky, Nikka Days, and Mars Shinshu Blended Whisky.

Randy Lai
WORDS by
Following 6 years in the trenches covering consumer luxury across East Asia, Randy joins Boss Hunting as the team's Commercial Editor. His work has been featured in A Collected Man, M.J. Bale, Soho Home, and the BurdaLuxury portfolio of lifestyle media titles. An ardent watch enthusiast, boozehound and sometimes-menswear dork, drop Randy a line at [email protected].