By Tim Hornyak

Japanese whisky has gone from strength to strength in recent years, winning popularity among drinkers around the world and garnering prizes in international competitions. A new book in English by the aficionados Brian Ashcraft and Kawasaki Yūji provides an overview of the Japanese drink’s history and tips on delicious selections that won’t break the bank.

Every year, the drinks website presents the World Whiskies Awards to recognize excellence in whisky. It wasn’t surprising that in 2018 the accolades for the world’s best blended malt and single malt went to Japanese whiskies—Hakushū 25 Year Old and Taketsuru 17 Year Old. For another feather in Japan’s cap, the World’s Best Blended Limited Release Award was presented to Ichiro’s Malt and Grain Limited Edition from the small player and relative newcomer Venture Whisky.

 “Japan beating Scotland at its own game to become whisky world leader.”

Ever since Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Old single malt became the first Japanese whisky to win a gold medal at the prestigious International Spirits Challenge in 2003, Japan has gone from strength to strength in whisky making. Awards competitions now have separate categories for Japanese whisky, and Japanese distillers are dominant players on the global scene. Indeed, an Associated Press article that ran in the Independent in 2017 carried a headline that captured just how far upstart Japan has come: “Japan beating Scotland at its own game to become whisky world leader.”

The international recognition of premium Japanese whisky, along with a domestic boom in whisky highballs, caught makers by surprise and brought soaring demand and prices. At one duty-free shop at Haneda Airport, the daily stock of 12 bottles of Suntory Hibiki sells out in 10 minutes every morning, while bottles of Yamazaki are being snapped up for ¥50,000 in Tokyo’s Ginza, according to Nikkei Asian Review. Some buyers are picking up Japanese whiskies as an investment, and Suntory recently announced it will stop selling Hibiki 17 Year Old (featured in the film Lost in Translation) and Hakushū 12 Year Old due to dwindling supplies. Vintage whiskies are now increasingly rare in Japan, and if you walk into a liquor shop these days, you’ll be lucky if you can find any domestic whisky with an age statement.

Deep Dive into the Japanese Dram

For those who are intrigued by, or already enamored of, Japanese whisky, there are many questions. When will aged Japanese whisky be available again at more reasonable prices? Are there good alternatives to the most sought-after blends? Perhaps more importantly, what makes Japanese whisky Japanese? The distilling process isn’t Japanese, most makers import their barley, and nearly all woods used for aging Japanese whisky are from North America or Europe. And yet, it has a unique Japanese character.

In their new book Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Desirable Spirit, authors Brian Ashcraft and Kawasaki Yūji present the story of Japanese whisky, its unique heritage and production, and advice on which tipples to choose. Lavishly illustrated, the book contains insights about everything from Japan’s barley to casks to whisky bars, and profiles the big brands as well as up-and-coming distillers such as Venture Whisky, founded by Akuto Ichirō in 2004, and its Chichibu Distillery in Saitama Prefecture.

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