A bottle of good Japanese whisky (they spell it without the “e”) is incredibly difficult to get your hands on these days, and stupid expensive if you do. Yamazaki 12 used to cost around 50 bucks, but now you can expect to pay at least triple the price at any liquor store that actually has it in stock. So why does Japanese whisky cost so much, and is it really worth it? The answer to the latter question is yes; it is more often than not delicious whisky that is quite different from single malt scotch, its closest spiritual relative. The former question, however, requires some explanation.
Sean Ward, mixologist for new San Diego restaurants Huntress and Lumi by Akira Back, has been stocking his bars’ shelves with a ridiculous amount of rare Japanese whisky. "There is a serious shortage,” he says, “and the prices have doubled over the last few years. Blended Japanese whiskies are becoming more available, and many are excellent.” A few years back, Japanese whisky exploded in popularity outside of Japan, catching the distilleries off guard. Stocks of aged whisky dwindled, and now companies like Suntory have to release non-age-statement blends of younger liquid to keep up with demand. Of course, there’s more than likely an opportunistic angle here; talking about how rare your whisky is can be an annoyingly good marketing tool (see Pappy Van Winkle). Whatever the reason, the effects are real; Japanese whisky is now officially rare and expensive.
As for what makes Japanese whisky special, Ward points to several key factors. “The water, the climate, and the people,” he says. “The water is very pure, as it is mostly snow melt from Mt. Fuji [depending on the distillery], and the climate is warmer in Japan in the summer than it is in Scotland, which creates different flavor profiles for the whiskies. Lastly, the people—many take great pride in spending their entire careers perfecting the art of crafting the perfect whisky."
So don’t give up on the Japanese whisky hunt, because with enough cash and persistence, you can still find age statement bottles, along with plenty of newer, more readily available blends. Here are 11 bottles of Japanese whisky that you should try at least once, from the easy to the impossible to find.
From: Esquire US