With my new 190-page book 50 Japanese Whiskies recently released in paperback and a more expensive collector’s hardcover on Amazon, I’ve had the pleasure of being approached by Tokyo Night Owl to write a piece on the subject matter.
I think something of interest to share would be a top 10 Japanese whiskies list. This list won’t be a subjective list of what I deem to be the top 10, but a showcase of the ten hottest whiskies trending among sellers, collectors, and traders now in 2020 in Facebook groups and forums. It is all based on observations. I’m a member of about ten groups total focused solely on Japanese whisky, and this includes my own Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky group that hosts 4,500 members.
Let’s cut to the chase and do a countdown to the number one most poppin’ whisky, or rather most uncorkin’.
10. Nikka Whisky From The Barrel
This little 500ml bottle of malt and grain goodness from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries has gained popularity since 2018 after picking up a few awards here and there. Whisky Advocate magazine gave it their number one spot for Top 20 Whiskies of 2018, and it is a Gold Winner in the category of Best Japanese Blended whisky for the World Whiskies Awards 2020. At those times it was winning, it was booming for those months. But as soon as the hype started to die down after, so has the desire to seek it. And for that, it makes number 10.
9. Nikka Whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo
The Miyagikyo is a single malt whisky that comes from Nikka’s second oldest distillery of the same name built in 1969 in the mountains of Sendai. Nikka is full of what Japanese calls “pure malt,” or as we like to say in the rest of the world, blended whisky. The Miyagikyo is one of the few single malt offerings from the company. It’s a sophisticated drink that smells of sherry, smoke, solvents, and features a cinnamon and black licorice taste. As good as it is, it is not as popular as some other Nikkas and the premium offerings from Suntory.
8. Nikka Whisky Single Malt Yoichi
And here is the other single malt from Nikka, named after their first distillery in Hokkaido. Founder Masataka Taketsuru picked the location of this distillery because it is the place in Japan with a climate most similar to that of Scotland. In terms of popularity, I guess you could say this, and the Miyagikyo are interchangeable. If buyers are going to buy one, they will usually buy the other to complete their set. I just set it at number eight out of respect for it being the elder of the two.
7. The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky Aged 12 Years
This is the first age statement whisky to appear on this list. In May 2018, this single malt from Suntory became discontinued. You may get lucky and find it trading around and selling on second-hand markets, albeit at a higher price, naturally. The Hakushu range is a whisky line that evokes greenness and nature. Suntory describes the Hakushu 12 as having a nosing experience of basil, pine needle, and green apple. The taste is sweet pear, mint, and Kiwi.
6. The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky Aged 12 Years
I’ll be honest with you; this isn’t one that I’m too fond of, but again this list is not about what I think. The Yamazaki 12 makes traders go crazy. Despite my not liking the taste and just being tolerant of it, I’m not a fool, and I recognize a money maker when I see it. I flipped twenty-five (or was it thirty?) 50ml miniatures that I paid around ¥25,000 for $600.00 US. And it seems like even if somebody around has one, they will go out of their way to buy another if an excellent opportunity comes along. I don’t fight it; I go along with it.
5. Hibiki 17 Years Old
The Hibiki blended whisky line was first released in 1989 and made Japanese whisky famous outside its home nation. It had great help from the motion picture Lost In Translation in 2003 that saw actor Bill Murray’s character Mr. Bob Harris flown to Japan to shoot a whisky commercial. That movie and this whisky can never be unassociated with each other. The comedy made the world notice, but in the real world, we knew once we saw that bottle with the twenty-four facets going around it, the corkscrew top, the washi paper, we knew it was quality, and something we needed to have. This one never ceased to amaze whether you bought the NAS (no age statement) or age statement variants. You can secure this particular one in Japan for about ¥45,000 or even more if elsewhere.
4. The Hakushu Single Malt Whisky Aged 18 Years
The Hakushu 18 is a higher aged and more sought after version than the number seven whisky on this list. The Hakushu Distillery of the same name from which this derives is Suntory’s second wholly-owned distillery after The Yamazaki Distillery. This whisky is associated with a whole lot of seconds. The vision of Suntory’s second master blender Keizo Saji (son of Shinjiro Torii), is Suntory’s second single malt whisky, and it’s the second most popular single malt. Westerners get a kick out of this one because although it plays second fiddle to the Yamazaki 18 single malt, it seems like there is less of it going around, thus making it harder to find. My speculation is, the ones who love hunting for it probably enjoy the success of the find.
3. Hibiki Aged 21 Years Kacho Fugetsu
By far the most sought after Hibiki for collectors and one of the most expensive. The Kacho Fugetsu has the same juice inside the bottle as a regular Hibiki Aged 21 Years whisky, but the bottles are painted with scenes of nature and are limited. Depending on which painting you get, these can quickly run over $1,000, and easily over $2,000. Here comes my trademark phrase; these are not for the faint of pocket. Only serious collectors (or maniacs) are putting in this type of money. You’ll be shocked to hear they often buy multiple of the same one, if not variants featuring different paintings.
2. The Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky Aged 18 Years
Easily the most bought and sold Japanese single malt. These things are like the Rolexes of Japanese whisky. They not only retain their value but are rare enough that they appreciate. I remember back when I bought my bottle for ¥30,000 on Christmas Day. Now two years later, they sell for ¥70,000 plus. Who knows when that’s coming down. You better do your dealings as quickly as possible before the situation starts to normalize. I’ve never been a collector; I’m a drinker, so mine has already finished. And what a drink it is. I think it represents the pinnacle of Japanese single malts.
1. Hibiki Japanese Harmony
I mentioned about Lost In Translation and Bill Murray in entry number five. Everything that I said about that can go for this. But why is the cheaper of the two at the number one spot? Hardcore collectors and aficionados will undoubtedly go after the 17 years old, but even more casual drinkers will go for this NAS version. I don’t know too many people that drink Japanese whisky that doesn’t have this in their inventory. It’s almost a prerequisite to have to discuss Japanese whisky. All my friends in my whisky circles have at least one. I still have my empty bottle that I keep around for its beauty, and use it as a decanter for other whiskies or spirits. The abundance of this stuff that’s been sold and is still being moved, it has to be number one.
Marc Antomattei’s 50 Japanese Whiskies is a review guide, databank, and reference book, that you can read cover-to-cover and find exciting stories about the Japanese whiskies you know and love, and some rarities. Every whisky has a story. And for supplemental material, there’s a featured travel guide showcasing Japan’s best distilleries and bars. Pick up your copy today.
Purchase a copy of 50 Japanesse Whiskies on Amazon.