The Best Top-Shelf Japanese Whisky You Should Know

These are the most high-end Japanese whiskies you need to try.

The Best Top-Shelf Japanese Whisky You Should Know
collage of three bottles of japanese whisky
Here’s everything to you need to know about the most high-end Japanese whisky. Observer

Japanese whisky exists today as one of the most sought-after styles of spirit on the planet. It’s difficult to imagine that a little over a decade ago, it was collecting dust on liquor store shelves. What changed? Well, it wasn’t actually the liquid itself. The country has been consistently demonstrating its superior craftsmanship within the category since 1923, when Shinjiro Torii founded the Yamazaki Distillery outside of Kyoto. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that connoisseurs really began to take note of what was happening there—that’s the year in which a now-iconic bottling from the legendary facility was singled out as the world’s best whisky in the annual Whisky Bible, besting fierce competition from Scotland and Ireland. The outcome grabbed international headlines and the fortunes of any entire industry were forever shifted.

Unfortunately, it has also come to mean that you have to possess a small fortune in order to get your hands on the stuff. Japanese distilleries are producing truly exceptional liquids, and they just can’t make it fast enough to keep up with swelling demand. As a result, prices have surged and allocations have become scant. Those that are willing and able to shell out the cash are rewarded with meticulously-sculpted single malts and blends that hum with sophistication and complexity. They flex a depth of flavor and a length of finish that can compare favorably against the loftiest of scotches.

Certain expressions of such are downright impossible to source. The aforementioned Yamazaki, for example—the Sherry Cask 2013—is touted online by several international retailers at around $14,000 per bottle. Spending that much money on the whisky doesn’t even guarantee you a solid bottle; it requires quite a good deal of faith in the specific site and its packing and shipping prowess. Either way, you’re not going to see this one lying around your local bottle shop—or any bottle shop, for that matter.

If you’re looking to amass an enviable collection of Japanese whisky for your home bar, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we share a balanced list of offerings spanning the breadth of beauty and flavor profiles characterizing the category. And for the sake of those who are realistic about their pursuit, we’re sticking with stuff that you stand a chance of actually scoring—even if at a hefty premium. If you want to avoid that last part, you’ll need a time machine, as the days of affordable top-shelf Japanese whisky are a thing of the past.

Subscribe to Observer’s Lifestyle Newsletter

All products featured are independently selected by Observer editors. When you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission that supports our work.

  • A light brown whisky with a blue label.

    Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Limited Edition Blended Japanese Whisky

    Despite all the talk about exorbitantly priced Japanese whisky, this one is actually rather reasonably priced, especially when considering its layered complexity and age; nothing in the blend is younger than 10 years old. The catch here is that some of the liquids used in the marriage are hand-selected from whisky-producing regions outside of Japan, including Scotland, Ireland and Kentucky. But that’s not really even a catch, because blender Ichiro Akuto serves no master aside from exceptional flavor. He takes great pride in combining the malts he does make in-house with whatever sourced liquids will enhance the final result as meaningfully as possible. Here that equals a 96-proof “world whisky,” with touches of toffee and apple pie crumble.

    $230, Shop Now
  • A brown bottle of Nikka Whisky on a wooden table with a dark red velvet background.
    Nikka Whisky.

    Nikka Whisky Yoichi Single Malt 10-Year-Old

    In order to deal with soaring demand for its spirit, Nikka Whisky had to do away with most of its age statement expressions after 2015. This one was just reintroduced earlier in 2023, and connoisseurs are already clamoring for it, as evidenced by the current price tag, which is nearly double for what it was initially scheduled to retail. Still, even at $300, this nuanced juice is entirely worth the squeeze. It offers a floral-forward nose, drops orchard fruit atop the tongue, then fades from view with a treatise in spearmint. To glean such character from a whisky just over 10 years in age is a testament to the mastery of the malt-makers from this legendary Hokkaido-based distillery.

    $299, Shop Now
  • A bottle of brown whisky next to the black box it comes in.

    The Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky

    It’s frustrating to think that as recently as 2019, Yamazaki 18 was still attainable at around $400 a bottle. Alas, here we are—you don’t realize what you have until it becomes exorbitantly priced. Regardless, this spry single malt remains worthy of acquisition at three times the price. In fact, it might just be the quintessential representation of Japanese whisky in bottle today.

    There’s so much to consider in each swig. An initial sweetness born of honeysuckle and vanilla eventually yields to spice in the form of incense wood, cedar and clove. Steering this sensory journey is Shinji Fukuyo. The brand’s fifth generation chief blender carefully assembles aged malt collected from Japanese, European, and American oak to arrive at a one-of-kind 86-proof whisky which is staggeringly greater than the sum of its parts.

    $1,299, Shop Now
  • A tall bottle of light brown whisky with a green cap.
    The Last Drop.

    The Last Drop 20 Years Old Japanese Blended Malt Whisky

    The Last Drop is a U.K.-based independent bottler that specializes in procuring impossibly rare spirits from across the globe, bringing the precious stock to connoisseurs before it vanishes forevermore. In over 30 releases, this is only the second time that the brand has worked with Japanese whisky—and it was well worth the wait. Upon first inspection, the assertive 120-proof blended malt is brimming with stone fruit and marzipan. Let it sit and open in the glass, and tropical notes begin to emerge. Although it is labeled as 20 years in age, there are liquids in the blend up to four decades old, all of which came together in a cask constructed from Japanese Mizunara oak. Only 180 bottles emerged for worldwide distribution, so stocking one on your backbar is a serious flex.

    $6,000, Shop Now
  • A small bottle of amber-colored whisky next to the dark brown box it came in.

    Suntory Hibiki 30 Year Old Japanese Blended Whisky ($10,000)

    When Shinjiro Torii opened the Yamazaki Distillery a century ago, he also formed its parent company, the House of Suntory, with the ultimate mission of creating the world’s best blended whisky. He wasn’t alive to see it happen, but Hibiki 30 is the realization of that ambitious dream. By definition, a blended whisky must include liquids from multiple distilleries. The Hibiki line combines liquid from Yamazaki along with its sister property, Hakushu, suspended high in the Japanese Alps (it opened in 1973, 10 years after Torii passed). This is the brand’s elder statesman, which only became available in the U.S. last year. It is a revelation: a bouquet of orange marmalade, fig jam and tangerines, balanced against mocha and dark chocolate in the back palate. It goes a long way in exemplifying why Torii valued blended whisky over single malt—and it also might set you back five figures if you want to own it.

    $10,900, Shop Now
The Best Top-Shelf Japanese Whisky You Should Know