Zoomed in photo of Kujira 30 Year Ryukyu Whisky bottle placed in its box and held diagonally against a white background, focusing on the bottle label.
December 30, 2020

There is (finally, thankfully) a whole new year ahead of us. While we were staying safe, staying at home and simply trying to get through 2020, hopefully we were also able to indulge in the pleasure and exploration of Japanese Whisky. 

If you’re a seasoned whisky sipper, you may recognize many on this list—but if you happen upon some unfamiliar labels, ‘tis the season to try new things. Maybe you’ve dabbled in the luxurious liquor, or you’re just a lover of the finer things and want to learn more about the whisky all your fancy friends are raving about. Either way, we’ve got you covered with this complete guide to 2021’s must-try bottles.

Yes, you’ll see the usual suspects.

If you know anything about Japanese Whisky, you know the names Suntory and Nikka. There’s a reason for that—they are true legends who have well-earned their recognition as two of the best makers in the game. It wouldn’t be a best whisky list without them.

But we won’t stop there.

For those ready to explore the beyond, the boutique and the newly becoming, this is the list for you. With the industry growing at such a beautifully rapid pace, 2021 brings a few rare gems that you may want to get in your glass. Because even with whisky, everybody loves an underdog.

Here’s how the whisky was scored.

We did not take this list lightly. Here’s all the specifications we took into account when looking for the top Japanese Whisky of 2021: 

  • Awards and Accolades

A no-brainer. We have whisky competitions for a reason. The quantity—and quality—of each whisky’s awards was a big determining factor. 

  • Tasting Notes and Ingredients

Important details to the keen Japanese Whisky drinker. What is the whisky made of, where is it from and what kind of unique flavors does the combination impart? 

  • Price 

We know the best Japanese Whisky can cost a pretty penny. These bottles made the list because they’re worth every one. 

  • US Availability

We considered each bottle’s level of difficulty to get your hands on. Because whisky is made to be actually enjoyed. Not just read about on the internet. 

And now, the list.

*queue drumroll*

Meiyo - Single Grain - #1 Japanese Whisky of 2021

Credit: whiskeyconsensus.com

10. Meiyo Single Grain Whisky 17 Years

“Meiyo” is a Japanese word for “honor,” as in, it’s an honor to add this exceptional spirit to our 2021 list. The Kumesen Distillery in Okinawa is known for the distilled rice spirit Awamori. A member of the newly-notable Bushido Series, Meiyo is also made from Indica rice that is treated like premium grain, distilled and then aged in ex-Bourbon barrels for 17 years. The result is an increasingly sought-afterJapanese Whisky that matches any single-malt in the game.

Tasting Notes: Wheated Rye aromas with strong notes of cinnamon, vanilla, blackstrap and charred oak. The palate can be described as thick, with luxurious tastes of pecan pie, toffee, stewed plums and maple syrup. 

Aged: 17 years

Price: $250-350 range

Availability: A simple google search should do the trick. 

Where to find it: Order online with Flaviar, try Total Wines or even Costco in some states. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Best Whisky at 2020 Bartender Spirits Awards
  • 94.5 Rating in 2020 Whisky Bible
  • Gold Medal at WSWA (Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America) Awards
  • Platinum Medal in 2019 SIP Awards
  • Silver Medal at 2019 SF World Spirits Competition
  • Top 10 Highest Scoring of 2019 by Whisky Advocate (93 points)

About the Distillery: 

Founded in Okinawa, Japan in 1952, Kumesen Syuzo began with Awamori, the indiginous rice spirit of the Ryuku Islands. Around 1989 they began aging their Awamori in barrels, creating a unique kind of Japanese Whisky. 

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9. Matsui Pure Malt Whisky – The Kurayoshi Sherry Cask

Matsui Kurayoshi Sherry Cask - 9th Best Japanese Whisky 2021

Credit: nishikidori.com

The second of two sherry-forward expressions within Matsui Shuzo Distillery’s Kurayoshi line, the Kurayoshi Sherry Cask Pure Malt is made with 100% malted barley Scotch Whisky, blended in Japan and then cut to proof with the legendary volcanic stone filtered water of Totorri Prefucture. This affordable selection brings one of the more unique profiles on the list. 

Tasting notes: Despite three years of aging, volcanic-filtered water imparts a bright, fresh and citrus-forward flavors that surprise and delight. Inhale berry and lemongrass on the nose, taste citrus zest, sherry and young strawberries with a medium length and lightly tart finish. 

Aged: 3 years

Price: $70-$80

Availability: A simple google search should do the trick. 

Where to find it: Total Wine or order online in most states. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold Medal for Japanese Whisky at 2020 International Spirits Competition (ISC)
  • Best Japanese Whisky at 2019 International Whisky Competition (IWC) 
  • Best Single Malt Japanese Whisky at 2019 IWC
  • Silver at 2019 SF World Spirits Competition
  • Finalist in 2019 Ultimate Spirits Challenge (94 points) 

About the Distillery: 

Matsui Shuzo is famed for it’s northwest location of Kyoto where it faces Mount Daisen—a mile-high volcanic mountain amidst the fertile soil of Totorri Prefucture. While it’s products are renowned for special purity and distinction, the Distillery itself keeps a low profile without visitors or direct sales. 

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8. Shinobu 15 Year

15 Year Shinobu - 8th best japanese whisky 2021

Credit: Shin Group

If Niigata is famed for the Three White Treasures—snow, rice and sake—local distillery Shinobu’s vintage expressions are the true mahogany treasures. This pure malt whisky spends a full 15 years aging, finishing in Mizunara Oak in authentic Japanese style. “Shinobu” meaning endurance, perseverance and patience, is the guiding inspiration behind Shinobu Whisky, where master blender Usama Ken brings outstanding diligence and expertise to every bottle. 

Tasting notes: Deep wood aromas sweetened with nectar and fruit on the nose. A decade and a half in the barrel brings a complex aftertaste of sweet malt and awakening spice. Emergent flavors of lemon peel, cinnamon and ginger mark the distinct taste of Mizanura Oak. 

Aged: 15 years

Price: $180-$200

Availability: May require a bit of a hunt.

Where to find it: Boutique online retailers such as Mash and Grape are your best bet, but be prepared for the occasional Out of Stock alert. Also try your luck on wine-searcher.com. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold at 2020 International Spirits Challenge 
  • 100-Point Century Award – Unanimous Perfect Score – PR%F Awards
  • Category Winner at 2020 World Whiskies Awards
  • Gold at 2020 World Spirits Competition 
  • Double Gold at 2020 SF World Spirits Competition
  • Gold at 2019 Wine and Spirits Competition
  • 1st Place at 2019 International Whisky Competition

About the Distillery: 

The Japanese concept of “Shinobu” meaning endurance, perseverance and patience, is the guiding inspiration behind each expression of Shinobu Whisky. Master blender Usama Ken realized his dream in Niigata, Japan: a whisky distillery which portrays the purity of the snow-melted rivers and the passion of the local whisky community. Every bottle of Shinobu Whisky finishes in Mizanura Oak, inheriting the historic spirit of the Japanese warriors while imparting complex, unique aromas of Japanese whisky.

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7. Nikka Coffey Grain

Nikka Whisky - 7th Best Japanese Whisky 2021

Credit: Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

This unique release from the Nikka Whisky Company’s second Miyagikyo Distillery gets its name from the Coffey Still, aka a patent still, imported from Scotland in 1963 by Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru. The Coffey still is the historic go-to for grain spirits high in alcohol content and rich in flavor. Mashed with mostly corn grain and a dash of malted barley, this is another whisky that wins for uniqueness. 

Tasting notes: Aromas of corn, herbal spice and camomile are balanced with a sweeter palate of melon, grapefruit, syrup and fresh vanilla. Be prepared for a long, corn-forward finish. 

Aged: NAS

Price: $70-$75

Availability: A simple google search should do the trick. 

Where to find: Most online retailers and likely your larger liquor stores. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold at 2019 World Whiskies Awards
  • Category Winner in 2019 Flaviar Community Awards
  • Japanese Whisky of the Year 2014 Ultimate Spirits Challenge

About the Distillery: 

Founder of the Miyagikyo Distillery, as well as the Nikka Whisky Company, Masataku Taketsuru is known as one of the “Fathers of Japanese Whisky.” Masataku was uniquely dedicated to bringing the Scotish whisky traditions to Japan, and built Miyagikyo in the northern part of the main island, where mountains and two pure rivers mirrored the whisky-making environment in Scotland. 

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6. Hakushu 12 Year

Hakushu 12 Year - 6th Best Japanese Whisky 2021

Credit: Beam Suntory Import Co

The Hakushu brand fits in perfectly to Suntory’s premium Single Malt portfolio. The Hakushu 12 Year is crafted in the Islay style, meaning makers import peat from the Islay island off the coast of Scotland which imparts the authentic, smoky characteristics of scotch. 

Tasting notes: Fresh aromas of cut grass, sliced peaches and subtle smoke meet the flavors of summer fruits and smoke against a backdrop of lemon zest and oaky malt. The finish is medium-length with cinnamon and a dash of sugar. 

Aged: 12 years

Price: $200-$250

Availability: Not super easy, but you’ve got this.

Where to find: Try online retailers like Flaviar and Caskers. Your local Total Wine or similar retailers probably won’t have it in stock. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold at 2018 World Whiskies Awards
  • Double Gold 2013 SF World Spirits Competition
  • Gold 2012 SF World Spirits Competition
  • Double Gold 2011 SF World Spirits Competition

About the Distillery: 

As aforementioned, you can’t spell Japanese Whisky without S-U-N-T-O-R-Y. Founded by another Father of Japanese Whisky, Shinjiro Torii, Suntory began by importing spirits before turning a passion for Scotish Whisky into the Japanese-made product and category that we now know and love. Keizo Saji, the second Master Blender, established Hakushu Distillery in the deep forests of Mt. Kaikomagatake, making it one of the highest distilleries in the world. 

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5. Yamazaki 12 Year

Yamazaki 12 Year - 5th Best Japanese Whisky 2021

Another brainchild of Suntory’s Shinjiro Torii and his descendents earns it’s spot on the 2021 list. Grandson Singo Toriii took over the Yamakazi Distillery and continued the spirit of innovation, switching to small pot still in order to produce a variety of top-shelf single-malt whiskeys. This beaut is made from 100% malt Whiskies aged for over a decade in a mixture of American, Spanish and Japanese oak barrels. 

Tasting notes: A longer fermentation than usual results in a creamier character, with lots of floral, nut oils and tropical fruits on the nose. Palate is smooth and full-bodied with vanilla and citrus and sweet candied flavors atop ashy and cedarwood dryness. Finish lingers with dried fruit and spice. 

Aged: 12 Years

Price: $200 

Availability: A simple google search should do the trick. 

Where to find: This collectors-item bottle is (surprisingly) likely available in retailers near you. Check drizly or your local Total Wine. Suntory also has a handy finder on their website. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold Medal at 2019 World Whiskies Awards
  • Gold Award at 2018 International Spirits Challenge 
  • Gold Award at 2017 World Whiskies Awards
  • Double Gold Award at 2013 SF World Spirits Competition

About the Distillery: 

Yamakazi Distillery is Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, established by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii and modernized by his son and grandson, Keizo Saji and Singo Toriii. In a region formerly referred to as “Minaseno,” Yamakazi is nestled next to some of the purest water sources in Japan. The region’s diverse temperatures and humidity make it ideal conditions of cask aging, known as Yamakazi’s signature “Suntory Maturation.”

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4. Taketsuru Pure Malt

Taketsuru Pure Malt - 4th Best Japanese Whisky 2021Credit: Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.

Another from legendary Nikka, the Taketsuru Pure Malt is a line of blended malt whiskies named  after founder and “Father of Japanese Whisky” Masataka Taketsuru. 2020 brings us the latest  expression of this smooth and well-balanced premium Japanese malt whisky, a vatting blend from both Nikka Distilleries Yoichi and Miyagikyo and an excellent introduction to the world of Japanese Whiskies. 

Tasting notes: Expect classic floral aromas with hints of caramel and cinnamon. Then a kick of  spice on the tongue, with nutmeg and oaky vanilla and a burst of red fruits. The finish lingers long, filled with warm cinnamon and creamy caramel. 

Aged: NAS

Price: $80-$170

Availability: Not super easy, but you’ve got this. 

Where to find it: For the latest release, online retailers that ship to the US like Flaviar and Dekanta are your best bet, but be prepared to pay high shipping costs. 

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Japanese Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2020
  • (Previous Expression) World’s Best Blended Malt in 2019 World Whiskies Awards
  • (Previous Expression) World’s Best Blended Malt in 2018 World Whiskies Awards

About the Distillery: 

Nikka was born in 1934 in Hokkaido and is known for its two unique distilleries: Yoichi, with an environment similar to Scotland, and the other in the mountains of Miyagikyo. The natural surroundings as well as a history rooted in expertise produce a variety of whisky styles or single malts, grains and blends that are renowned throughout the globe.

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3. Kujira Ryuku 30 Year

992310 Kujira 30 YR with box

Each expression of the Kujira Single Grain Ryuku Whisky hails from the fabled island of Okinawa, where majestic Grey Whales find winter sanctuary among warm, crystal blue waters. It’s no surprise that this bottle, made 100% in Japan with long grain Indica Rice and aged for 30 years in select barrels, stands out among the rest and earns it’s spot in the coveted top three. 

Tasting notes: Beautifully dark amber and full-bodied, this bottle pours aromas of nectar and  woodsmoke, with an eclectic profile of citrus, caramel pudding, ripe berries and chinese herbs. 

Aged: 30 years

Price: $1,100-$1,500

Availability: May require a bit of a hunt.

Where to find it: This specialty expression makes Americans earn their taste. Try your luck online or call around to whisky bars and US distributors. 

Awards and Accolades: 

Not quite yet—but certainly to be coming soon!

About the Distillery:  

Masahiro Shuzo is the most prized distillery of Okinawa, dedicated to the craft since 1883. The native tradition of Awamori-making led to an expertise in Japanese single grain rice whisky. In 1980 the Master blenders set out to make the finest whisky Okinawa had to offer, and 30 years later Kujira was ready to be proudly presented to the world. 

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Frankly, there is not a lot on the Japanese market of this caliber. But you may be inclined to try a younger expression of the Kujira Single Malt, or perhaps a traditional scotch of the same age. 

2. Hibiki Harmony

Hibiki Harmony - 2nd Best Whisky 2021

This Suntory classic slides rightfully in at number two on the list. Hibiki means “Harmony,” which is beautifully represented in every glass of this Hibiki whisky; a well-honed harmony of 12 premium whiskies from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries. If you haven’t already, this surprisingly affordable bottle is an absolute must-try for 2021. 

Tasting notes: You’ll find a delectable harmony of floral hibiscus and wood aromas meet a dry palate of raisins, honey, pear and cinnamon. Completed with a long, complex finish of malt chocolate, oak and a hint of smoke. 

Price: $75-$95

Availability: A simple google search should do the trick. 

Where to find: Call your upscale local liquor stores or check on drizly

Awards and Accolades: 

  • Gold at International Spirit Competition
  • Double Gold at 2016 SF Spirit Competition

About the Distillery: 

Some 90 years after Suntory’s establishment, the renowned whisky company has grown through its own brands as well as the acquisition of established whisky houses around the world. In fact, in 2014 the Suntory family welcomed American distiller Beam, Inc. You may recognize the name. 

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1. Akashi Single Malt White Oak

Akashi Single Malt White Oak - Best Japanese Whisky 2021

Credit: Whizzky.com

Finally, our #1 selection for 2021 Japanese Whiskies. Eigashima Shuzo, while holding Japan’s first ever Whisky license, remains one of the country’s smallest producers. Their emphasis on quality over quantity pays off in this truly exceptional Akashi single malt, distilled in copper stills and meticulously aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. This perfectly-balanced blend is the pinnacle of Japanese Whisky, rightfully placed at the very top of our list. 

Tasting notes: Mostly malty with some scents of black cherry, toffee and oak. Palate brings a smooth vanilla, caramel and pine nuts with a long, creamy finish. 

Price: $40-$50 

Availability: May require a bit of a hunt. 

Where to find: Like we said, quality far overtakes the quantity of these exclusive bottles. But depending on where you live, you may have some luck at online retailers like Caskers and Flaviar.

Awards and Accolades:

The Akashi Single Malt hasn’t racked up any awards like the expressions from the bigger distilleries. But even without medals and mentions, it’s widely known as among the best in the world. And that makes it extra special. 

About the Distillery: 

Eigashima Distillery lives in the town of Agashi, just steps from the salty magic of the ocean. It’s legacy is long-lasting, and it’s spirits are a taste of the magic and serenity that comes from the surrounding sea. This tiny distillery on the coast of the Kobe Bay brings whisky lovers the Purity of Spirit. 

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glass of Japanese Whisky

Photo credit: Robin Canfield

Here’s to a year of amazing whisky.