Even though you can pick up some Japanese whisky from your favorite local liquor store, some of the best Japanese whiskies are slightly harder to find. Many of these rarer items had limited runs; some are from distilleries that no longer exist. If you're curious about exploring the world of rare Japanese whisky, we need to start by talking a bit about its history.
The history of Japanese whisky started in 1923, so it's a little over a hundred years old. Shinjiro Torii is where the story begins. Torii created a sweet red wine, but it eventually led him to create the first malt whisky distillery, which is now known as Suntory ( which you will see on our list a few times). He started to work with Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist who studied whisky in Scotland. Torii hired Taketsuru as the director of his distillery, but their views and opinions differed on the drink. This led Taketsuru to create his business, Nikka Japanese Whisky (They made our list).
Although the brands above are the original players, the world of Japanese whisky has grown significantly since its creation a hundred years ago. From sub-tropical islands to Mt. Fuji to areas that mimic Scotland, the world of Japanese whisky distilling is diverse and unique, and that's what gives Japanese whisky its distinct flavor. Below, we've explored and found some rare and tasty whisky that will inspire you to pick up something new next time you're on the hunt for something special.
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Yamazaki 18 Year Mizunara Anniversary Edition
To celebrate the 100th year of the anniversary of the brand with premium bottles, Suntory released their iconic Yamazaki 18-year-old whisky in a special bottle. It is also a limited edition release, so it's a little more difficult to find a bottle. The Yamazaki range is the flagship single-malt whisky of Suntory, which is also the oldest malt distillery in Japan.
This bottle is a combination of single-malt whisky aged at least 18 years in Mizunara casks (these are the most expensive casks in the world). Using this style of cask is nothing new to Japan and Japanese culture since the Mizunara is native to Japan.
If you get your hands on this, on the nose, you can expect to find notes of berries and spices. On your palette, you'll find notes of the orange as well as incense (which tastes way better than it sounds). The finish for this whisky is long and lingering, with woodsy and sweet notes.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Anniversary Edition
The Hibiki range from the Suntory focuses on subtle creations that are luxurious and harmonious, making it quite a bit different from other Suntory ranges. To celebrate its 100 years in business, Suntory also released a limited edition designed bottle.
The bottle has a stunning bridge that was done in the style of Setsugekka. The Setsugekka style features different aspects to showcase the transition of seasons to unite the seasons; there is a bridge, which also symbolizes the past and the future. Additionally, the stunning bottle also has 24 facets that represent 24 Japanese seasons in a year, as well as the hours of the day. It is another rare find due to its incredible packaging and limited edition run.
When it comes to the nose, this will feel fruity and woodsy but with a touch of herbs. When it comes to the palate, you'll find some sweeter notes like chocolate, orange, and honey. The finish will leave you daydreaming of the Japanese oak and it is a bit more tender and subtle.
Hanyu Ichiro's Malt Card Series Card Series Ace Of Spades
One of the rarest and most coveted Japanese whiskies is Ichiro's malt card series, including the Ace of Spades. Each bottle from this series was created to represent a deck of cards. It comes from the Hanyu distillery founded by Isouji Akuto, which was closed in 2000. Before they shut everything down, the grandson of Akuto, Ichiro, took over. He hand-picked each item in this series, and each item is from a single cask. The casks featured in this collection are dated from 1985 to 2014.
It is a rare find since everything came from 400 casks, and the distillery no longer exists. Additionally, there was limited stock and packaging for every item in this series. Each card has only five bottles available for purchase. Although any of these are coveted, the Aces are extremely desired by collectors. The collection was released between 2005 and 2014 and is noted as a collector's item. A set of the full collection was sold in 2020 by Bonhams Hong Kong for $1.5 million. In 2022, one Ace of Spades sold at Christie's for $111,803.
Shibui 23 Year Rare Cask Reserve Single Grain Japanese Whisky
The Shibui rare cask reserve 23-year Japanese whisky has earned a spot on our list due to its very limited availability. The incredible art-deco-inspired packaging makes this look as good as it tastes. Complete with black and gold detailing with floral detailing. This limited edition whisky was aged for 23 years in ex-bourbon casks, and each has a 100% natural color. It is also worth noting that this is a single-grain whisky.
On the nose, it promises to have floral and fruity notes. When it comes to taste, you'll find notes of toasted oak and spices, as well as chocolate and orange. The finish has dried fruits and notes of baked goods.
It comes from Kumesen Distillery, which is located in Okinawa. One of the things that makes this a rare and interesting find is that the whole process is done on a sub-tropical island, which gives it a unique character.
Hibiki 30 Years Old
Where do we even start with 30-year-old whisky? It's luxurious, beautiful, and tasty. The bottle is simple and chic, but what's inside is much more complex than the packaging.
This is a rare find due to its age. It is also noted as part of the more luxurious range at the house of Suntory, which was launched in 1989 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Suntory. This range is called "Hibiki," and it prioritizes more subtle flavors, which makes it stand out from the others on this list. The range includes malt and grain whisky blended to give you a complete luxury experience.
When it comes to the nose, you'll find yourself smelling a mixture of dried fruit as well as leather, but once you take a sip, you're transported to a world of sugar and spice; think gingerbread with a fruit jam with a touch of cedar. In the finish, you'll find notes of cinnamon and oak.
Kujira 25 Year Ryukyu Whisky
Created on the island of Okinawa, this sub-tropical island is home to this rare whisky. This brand uses black koji to create its whisky, which is indigenous to this region, making it a more localized product. The island on which this brand is produced uses a different brewing technique than others. Additionally, The warm and humid climate year-round also impacts the entire process of maturation as well as the taste of this drink.
Kujira's master blender, Naoshi Arakaki, hand-picks Ryukyu whiskies that have been aged for over 25 years for this bottle. Each of the chosen whiskies was aged in bourbon casks, white oaks casks, and sherry casks.
When it comes to the nose, you'll find yourself falling in love with notes of tropical fruits and floral, as well as coconut. When it comes to the palate, you'll find this sip is full of dried fruits as well as chocolate. The finish of this has spice with a hint of smokiness.
Karuizawa Japanese Trees
Out of every single item on this list, this is the rarest of them all. The Karuizawa Wealth Solutions Japanese trees are a super unique find since there are only 13 in existence — and yes, you read that right. Each of the 13 trios of whisky was created to celebrate the famous trees of Japan. Trees featured in the collection include the oldest cherry tree in Japan, the largest cryptomeria-japonica tree in Japan, as well as a bonsai tree planted in 1610, among others.
The Karuizawa distillery was created in 1955 and began producing whisky in 1956. It is worth noting that this brand was very experimental since importing items was quite complicated, and it only produced single-malt whiskies. The style of production for this brand was a lot more similar to Scottish Whisky. The brand shuttered its sports in 2001. However, the still was saved and brought to other distilleries. In 2007, an independent bottler released some single-cask items. If you're interested in purchasing this bottle, you can pick it up for $18,710.99 on Frootbat.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 25 Year Old Blended Malt Whisky
This limited and exclusive edition of the 25-year-old beverage is hard to come across, but if you're lucky enough to come across it( you can order a bottle on Vint Marketplace, you're welcome), its packaging is equally as charming as the bottle itself. It was bottled in 2012 and created as a tribute to the brand creator, Masataka Taketsuru. When tasted, this has floral and peat notes as well as touches as sherry.
In the introduction of this article, we touched on the history of Japanese whisky, and of course, we needed to include some items from Nikka, which was the name of Masataka Taketsuru's distillery. This whisky is blended and was made with malt whisky from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The Yoichi area has a colder climate near the sea, which gives its whisky a boldness and burntness, whereas the Miyagikyo is a more mountainous area, which gives the whisky a more soft and floral flavor. Both of these use a different distilling method, but together, they make for a super well-rounded flavor.
This rare and delightful drink is noted as the first single vintage Japanese whisky bottle, which makes it an incredible collector's item. It was the first and only single malt whisky released from Shirakawa Distillery. Shirakawa Distillery opened in 1939 and shut its doors in 2003, making it challenging to secure any bottle from its collection. Not only is it dubbed the rarest whisky in the world, but was also a limited release.
The packaging comes with a box with gold detailing, explaining the history of the brand and drink. The bottle itself is relatively simple, with tones of rich gold and amber showing and reminding purchasers that it is, in fact, one of the most luxurious items you could ever own.
On the nose, it leans spicy, floral, and also woodsy. Some notes you'll also find are marzipan, fresh-cut grass, and more. The flavor profile of this complex spirit comes in the form of fresh and juicy fruit, softness from white chocolate, and tropical trail mix. The finish has a bit of spice, nuttiness, and smoke.
Karuizawa 38 Year Old Ruby Geisha Sherry Cask
This is another item from the Karuizawa distillery, so this is another experimental single malt item. Although the distillery closed in 2001, a lot of the brand's bottles are still floating around but are a little harder to come across. This specific bottle is part of the Geisha collection, which had a limited run and produced a limited number of bottles.
The bottle for this stunning drink showcases a red and ruby colored label featuring the half-face of a Geisha. Complete with black and gold foil detailing, this is almost too pretty to drink — almost. It comes with a stunning woody box that would look incredible on display next to it. If you want to order yourself a bottle, you can check out Valentine Liquors (and spoiler alert, they ship).
The 38-year-old whisky comes from a sherry butt, which helps give it a fruity note when it comes to tasting. This whisky boasts tropical fruit, floral, and a warm and spicy flavor profile. The finish is long and warm.
Nikka Yoichi 20 Year Old Japanese Single Malt Whisky
It would be criminal not to include this incredible 20-year-old whisky from Nikka. This item is rare because it was discontinued in 2015 but has grown in popularity among collectors (we did find a bottle at Dekanta, in case you want to add it to your collection). It comes from the Nikka's Yoichi range, which focuses on single malt expressions from the Yoichi distillery. The brand is still producing items from the Yoichi distillery, just not this specific bottle.
The Yoichi Distillery was actually the first distillery created by the brand's founder. It was chosen as the first distillery because it reminded Taketsuru of Scotland. Due to its environmental conditions, this whisky is incredibly peaty and smoky, and it also has a touch of brininess from the nearby bay. To create this whisky, the distiller uses a traditional coal-fired distillation process, which gives this bold and burnt flavor character. It is quite rare to find distillers still using the coal-fired distillation process because it is an extremely demanding process.
FUJI Single Grain Japanese Whiskey Aged 30 Years
This award-winning whisky is rare and well-loved by many. This whisky features a blend of Canadian-style grain whiskies that have been aged somewhere between 30 and 40 years (yes, it includes some 40-year whiskey). In 2020, it won the World's Best Grain Whisky at the World Whisky Award. Due to its age and awards, it's a bit harder to come by.
Fuji Whisky is based in the Mt. Fuji area. Since the environment is entirely different from the sub-tropical regions of Japan, as well as dense forests, this means you're going to get a very different flavor profile. When it comes to whisky from this area, it tends to be a bit more mellow than you're used to, and it is also a bit more fruity than your typical Japanese whisky.
When it comes to the nose, you'll find that this whisky is reminiscent of fruit as well as brown sugar. As you get into the palate, you'll find this full of sweetness and as well notes of bitterness. The finish is lingering with notes of wood.
Read the original article on Tasting Table.