Believe it or not, it’s about time to put a bow on the year 2021. It’s been an interesting year for the Japanese whisky category. New guidelines from the Japanese Spirit & Liqueurs Makers Association caused many makers to rethink their selling strategies, while popularity and demand for the spirit continues to rise across the globe. The result is a slight decrease in supply, which makes these highly-sought Japanese whisky brands all-the-more coveted.
As we look forward to 2022, it’s time to update the ol’ best of list. Just like last year’s edition, these bottles are the creme de la creme in the US Japanese whisky market, and some wear the price tag to prove it. If you find your whisky budget shrinking next year, no worries—that’s why we make the annual budget-friendly list, too.
What’s the criteria?
Great question. How does a brand make the list? We don’t take this decision process lightly—there’s only one per year, after all, and lots of incredible Japanese whisky brands to choose from. We take a few main factors into consideration when finding the best Japanese whiskies every year:
– Awards and Recognition
As any whisky aficionado knows, awards are a crucial part of the industry and culture. Award conferences like the World Whisky Awards help the rest of us know what’s good (and what’s next) from true tasting experts. So many of these bottles have won a contest or two.
We also took into account praise from other highly-regarded outlets like the Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine, who also employ their own professional judges and rating systems. And of course, with our general involvement in the industry we pick up on what’s popular among the opinions who really matter: drinkers, like you.
The Japanese Whisky blog is always looking for special gems, beyond the usual best-sellers. It’s kind of our M.O. On this year’s list you’ll see the usual suspects that are simply hard to ignore, but also smaller, independent releases that have gained attention and reputation despite more limited supply.
After all, brands that bring interesting ingredients, historic elements, and unconventional distilling methods is what makes Japanese Whisky such an exciting category. It’s why we’re all here.
(Speaking of ingredients—despite the labeling requirements that came out of Japan this year, we didn’t exclude rice whisky from this list. We break that down here.)
Japanese whisky has come a long way…literally, in the US. Most brands are happy to quench the thirst of the US market—but it’s not easy for everyone. We made sure our list of best whiskies only includes those available in the United States. We’re not going to flash the best bottles of the year for you if you can’t get them. We’d never do that to you.
That being said, many of these are indeed specialty and some may require a bit more searching than others. But all should be available for you to scoop up to impress your holiday guests, or to ring 2022 with a classy glass or two.
Let’s get to the list.
1. Mars Tsunuki Peated Single Malt
Mars Shinshu is a group of distillers from the historic Hombo family, which were actually one the first ever spirit producers in the whole country of Japan. Touting a strong history and family-owned unity, recent years has aligned Mars with some of the biggest whisky players, all the while holding on to it’s trendy independent status.
This truly delectable peated selection is the 2nd release from newly-renovated and re-opened Tsunuki distillery, which officially began operation in 2016. We love it for it’s peated nature and rose-petal flavor, a ringer for the uniqueness category we’re always looking to share.
Order from dekanta for $350 but you may be able to find it locally for less. Godspeed.
2. Ichiro Malt & Grain Blended
Okay, we broke our own rule—this one is a repeat from last year’s list. But frankly, that’s how good this selection is from master blender Ichiro at Chichibu Distillery. Rich but smooth flavors of citrus and butterscotch come from the blending of both malt and grain whisky from around the globe. This brand coined the category of “world whisky,” which owns the popular blending process with the transparency that many are asking for. It says “so what if it was blended from whisky distilleries? It was masterly blended, and it’s a masterful product.” And we dig that. Look out for other world whiskies in 2022 and years to come.
A cool $100 at total wine, which is up from last year. So get on it before it gets any higher.
3. Nikka Yoichi Single Malt
We simply couldn’t make a best-of list without the brand name Nikka. And, for the sake of both variety and quality, there must be a single malt or two. This bottle was a no-brainer for 2022’s best Japanese whiskies. As you probably know by now, there are two distilleries that make up the historic Nikka, named for the region they call home: Yoichi Distillery founded in 1934, and Miyagikyo Distillery established in 1969. This selection, as you can likely tell from the name, is the flagship release from Yoichi.
This original distillery’s location was chosen by founder Masataka Taketsuru because of it’s environmental conditions similar to Scotland, where Japanese whisky-makers have always pulled their inspiration. As a result, the Nikka Yoichi Single Malt remains, this year and every year, one of the best examples of a classic Japanese whisky. A pure, warming spirit that poignantly defines the single-malt category.
Just under $100 on Flaviar—an excellent bang for the buck if you ask us.
4. Shinobu 10 year
This premium blended Japanese whisky comes to us from Shinobu Distillery, the first licensed whisky-makers in the beautiful Niigata prefecture of Japan known for its “three white treasures:” namely snow, rice and sake.
This 10-year expression of their staple brand is a masterful blend of pure-malt whiskies aged for a full decade in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry before a luxurious finish in authentic Japanese Mizunara oak, which give this whisky it’s deep maturity and unique Japanese flavors. A multi-award-winning must-try for Japanese spirit lovers and seekers.
$123.99 on Flaviar, very reasonable for a whisky 10 years in the making.
5. Yamazaki 18 year
While we always put an emphasis on small independent and up-and-coming makers, this list gives credit where credit is due: in this case, the flagship brand from historic and timeless Suntory. Yamazaki 18 year is a near-perfect example of Japanese whisky at it’s best, sweeping the award shows since the early 2000’s when Japanese whisky was seeing it’s first boom in the US. This luxurious selection is a single-malt, aged for 18 years and finished in Mizunara oak, three features that add to it’s renowned recognition and premium reputation.
Be warned: this selection is expectedly hard to find and rightfully just as difficult to afford. Made for deep wallets and high occasions, it goes for over $1,500 at online retailers like dekanta. For the truly elite whisky drinker, look for the 25 year age note at over 15k per bottle.
6. Kujira Ryukyu 20 Year
Another brand you might recognize from last year’s list, when we featured the 30 year aged expression of the island-made Kujira Ryukyu brand. This year we recommend the 20-year, a tad more accessible but an equally as stunning representation of the rice whisky category.
This single grain rice whisky is one of the most popular whiskies in it’s homeplace of Okinawa, the island region informally known as the “Kentucky of Japan,” where a history of rice spirit aficionados transitioned into modern-day experts of Japanese whisky. And now, well-deserved popularity at home has traveled across the world to right here in the US.
Get the oldest age expression on the 2022 list for around $380 and congratulate yourself on whisky well purchased.
7. Fukano 16 Year Sherry Cask
Last but not least is a selection for the sweet sherry fans. From the up-and-coming southern Japan region, the Fukana 16 Year upholds the richest of red berry notes—whereas even the most dedicated of red wine drinkers will be delighted to indulge. Fukano is known for it’s a long history of distilling in unusual cask types, and this is a standout among their many long-aged releases. Don’t forget to hold your nose to the glass and savor the complexity of sherry notes before your first sip.
You may need to get on a waitlist, but for a premium Japanese whisky aged 16 years in sherry casks, we’re willing to bet it’s worth the wait.
There you have it. The best Japanese whiskies of the year.
It’s been another strange year, but we’ve made it through. You’ve earned some good whisky, wouldn’t you agree? We’re proud to bring you another annual roundup of the best in the biz. Use this list to guide your ultimate Japanese whisky experience.
From the folks here at the Japanese Whisky Blog, we wish you a warm holiday season with full glasses and full hearts. Cheers to 2022!