Sean Murphy: Why you should try Japanese whisky

Those whisky fans who are blindly following Scotch are missing out on a world of great drams, writes Sean Murphy

Published 9th Jan 2017
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Let's face it Scotch whisky is great, amazing even, and with such a wide range of styles from single malts to premium blends and single grains, most of us don't even have to look elsewhere to get our whisky fix.

In fact, looking at other countries is often frowned upon by the more ardent Scotch whisky fans out there, but as a look across the Irish sea and the great new distilleries there or even south to Wales and Penderyn shows that there are some great non-Scottish whiskies close to home that are worth checking out.

Further afield, American and Canadian whiskies are once again taking centre stage at many spirit awards and drinks competitions around the world.

However it is Japan, and the whisky made there, that has its star firmly in the ascendancy.

Even before Jim Murray's plug in his infamous Whisky Bible, in which he rated the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 as his best whisky in the world ever in 2015, Japanese whisky had quietly and steadily been making waves in the world of whisky.

The History

Beginning with founding fathers Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, who set up Suntory's Yamazaki distillery and Yoichi distillery respectively.

Taketsuru had travelled to Scotland in 1918 to not only study chemistry at Glasgow University but also to learn the art of distilling at three different distilleries - Longmorn, Bo'ness and the original Hazelburn - before returning to Japan to help establish the country's first distillery in Yamazaki, an area of Kyoto famed for its water, with Shinjiro Torii.

In pursuit of perfection, Taketsuru left Suntory to create his own company (which would go on to become Nikka), heading north to the island of Hokkaido to create a new distillery in a climate and region which he believed to be closer to Scotland's, in a bid to produce whisky closer to Scotch.

These two companies, Suntory and Nikka, went on to help establish Scottish style whisky produced in Japan as one of the country's leading drinks with nine major distilleries now in production around the country.

Today, Japanese whisky is more popular than ever, with more of its whisky exported around the world than ever before and to growing acclaim.

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The whisky itself is described by whisky retailer Master of Malt as "lying between Lowland and Speyside in style" being "delicate and perfumed with honeyed sweetness".

Where to start

For most people, understanding Scotch whisky can seem dauntingly complex, and that's without throwing a whisky from half way around the world into the mix.

However, much like Scotch whisky, you don't have to be a drinks expert (or rich) to enjoy Japanese whisky, there are many great examples available from spirits retailers around the country for great value.

The obvious place to start would be with one of the bigger brands, and in particular Suntory, with either their Yamazaki single malts or their blended Hibiki range.

Hibiki 12 year old

(Style: Blended whisky, Price: approx. £40)

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Admittedly becoming scarcer in the UK (thanks to the category's growing popularity in Japan and abroad), you may have slightly more success finding the slightly more expensive Harmony.

The Hibiki is a cracking little dram that is an award-winning blend of malt from the Hakushu and Yamazaki distilleries, with some aged grain from Chita, part-matured in plum liqueur casks.

Light and sweet, with clean citrus notes filled with orange and plum, it's an excellent introduction to Japanese whiskies and great for most palates.

Yamazaki 12 year old

(Style: single malt, Price: £89.95)

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Arguably the most famous single malt from Japan available today, the Yamazaki is quintessentially Japanese in style. Clean and smooth, it's deliciously drinkable and offers a striking alternative to the Scotch you'll be used to.

Beginning with that delicate perfumed sweetness, the flavours quickly unveil their complexity with notes of spice, boiled sweets and rich fruit.

Nikka from the Barrel

(Style: Blended whisky, Price: Approx £35)


A true favourite of mine and one of my favourite whiskies to gift; such great value for what truly is an astounding whisky. Multi-award winning Nikka's little gem comes in at a whopping 51% abv but remains dangerously drinkable.

Beginners might want to enjoy it with a splash of water but it's also highly enjoyable neat. Complex and filled with flavour it will be unlike anything you've tried before and a fun alternative to your usual dram.


Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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