The annual Spirit of Speyside festival, this year taking place from April 27 to May 1, is the major happening in Scotch whisky. Centered on the Highlands region found between Aberdeen and Inverness that hosts the bulk of the industry, Spirit of Speyside boasted over 500 events at the 2016 festival.
Expanding on an ambitious events schedule, one that averages over a hundred events per day, Spirit of Speyside is reaching outside of Scotch whisky for the first time to include a Japanese whisky this year. Yumi Yashikawa, the global ambassador for the Chichibu Distillery, will hold a seminar at The Highlander Inn as part of the official festival docket. Craigellachie’s The Highlander Inn, in turn, hosts one of the largest collections of Japanese whisky outside of Asia.
That a Japanese whisky distillery now has a toehold in Scotland’s biggest whisky festival underlines just how firmly established in the mainstream Japanese whisky has become. When the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named World Whisky of the Year by whisky writer Jim Murray, it propelled the entire category out of the hands of small group connoisseurs and into a much larger marketplace. Initially, that made Japanese whisky a very hard to obtain commodity, as interest far outstripped supply. Nowadays, Japan’s “Big Two” whisky-makers of Nikka and Suntory have adjusted, small producers like Chichibu have stepped up to the table, and importers are doing a better job keeping up with demand.
Here are several Japanese whiskies, all readily available in the United States for $100 or less.
The Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Single Malt ($99)
The Yamazaki Distillery is the oldest in Japan, founded in 1923, and their 12-Year-Old single malt is not just the flagship for the distillery; In some ways, it was a pioneer for Japanese whisky as a whole. Introduced in 1984, it was the first Japanese single malt that received a serious effort to market it outside of the home market. It’s full-bodied, yet also elegant, and a worthy addition to the shelf of any serious whisky enthusiast.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky ($70)
Japanese whisky follows the Scottish model, with malt whisky, blends of malt whiskies and blends of malt and grain whisky. Grain whisky is usually made from corn, distilled in a column (Coffey) still rather than a pot still, and often has a lighter character than pot-distilled malt whisky. As a result, it is most often found in blends, but what Nikka has done here is showcase their high-quality grain whisky and released it as a standalone product. The flavor is indeed soft and light, but yummy with vanilla and tropical fruitiness.
Ichiro’s Chichibu Blended Whisky ($99)
Ichiro’s Blended Whisky (made from malt and grain whiskies) is the entry point for most who become acquainted with the work of the Chichibu Distillery, who are participating in Spirit of Speyside this year. The distillery is a small one (they would likely be called a craft outfit in the U.S.) and has only nine full-time employees. This widely appreciated, sweet and spicy whisky, partly sourced from outside Chichibu, is named for Ichiro Akuto, modern Japan’s most famous blender and distiller.
Mars Iwai Blended Whisky ($40)
If you want something both interesting and not too expensive, Mars Iwai Whisky is the Japanese way to go. Mars Shinsu is another one of Japan’s small distilleries. This version should not be confused with other Mars whiskies bearing the name “Iwai”; it’s just “Iwai” and not “Iwai Tradition” or “Iwai Wine Cask.” Plain old Iwai is described as a “Bourbon-inspired blend,” made using 1/4s malt whisky and 3/4s corn-based grain whisky, albeit grain whisky made in a pot still. It came out rather Bourbonized too, with a dollop of vanilla atop its cake and melon sweetness.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt ($75)
Named for Masataka Taketsuru, the “father of Japanese whisky,” this is a blend of malts from their two distilleries: Yoichi and Miyagikyo. Although it bears no age statement, the whisky stock used averages at about 10 years old, and a hefty proportion of Sherry cask-aged whisky was included to endow it with a rich, spicy, dried fruits aspect. If Nikka Coffey Grain spotlights what the company can do with grain whisky, this is their showcase for the sum of their malt whisky.
And if you want a taste of the whisky that started it all, several retailers around the U.S. have the 2016 release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask in stock… for about $2,700 for a bottle, if not more.