“Is Japanese whisky Better than Scotch whisky?” Without a doubt it’s one of life’s great questions, up there with “should the chap in the Clash song have stayed or gone?” and “is it pronounced scone or scone?”

  1. He should stay. If he stays there’d be trouble, if he goes there’d be double. His best course of action is clearly to halve his potential trouble by staying.
  2. “Scone”, obviously.

If only everything in life were so simple. However, as they say in Germany, life is no pony-yard. Some debates will rage on forever, and this is no exception. Let’s look at the facts of the case…

Master of Malt bucket list

Yoichi distillery, Japanese whisky made here

The history

Scotch whisky certainly has the upper hand when it comes to long-standing heritage. But how long has it been going? 40 years? 50 years? Tempus immemoria, i.e. always

Actually, even longer than that. In fact, the first documented mention dates all the way back to 1496. This was when whisky-making was referenced in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (an ancient document chronicling the financial admin of the day). It indicated Scotch distilling was already well established by that point, and likely learnt from techniques introduced by medieval monks. 

For centuries it was a relatively small-scale, domestic affair, made with whatever ingredients were to hand. This began to change in the 18th century when large scale distilling came to the Lowlands with giants like Haig’s vast Kennetpans distillery which was powered by the first steam engine in Scotland. Highland distilling remained small scale and often illegal until the 1823 Excise Act which saw the development of increasingly large malt whisky distilleries like Macallan and Glenlivet. Then with the development of blending by shopkeepers like John Walker and Arthur Bell, Scotch whisky went global. 

The huge variety in region, and production techniques resulted in arguably the world’s most diverse spirit. For that reason, Scotland is typically broken down into regions, each with its own characteristics and style. If that sounds a tad pedantic to you, take a sip of a soft, floral Lowland whisky like a Glenkinchie, and compare it to one of the peaty, smouldering malts from Islay, like an Ardbeg. Though there are anomalous distilleries like Bunnahabhain on Islay that make atypical whisky.

Japan, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the game. Its history is a 20th-century affair, dating back to 1918 when Masataka Taketsuru embarked on a voyage to Scotland to immerse himself in the art, chemistry, and magic of whisky-making. He did this at several distilleries, including Longmorn in Speyside, and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. He returned to Japan two years later with a wealth of knowledge, Rita Cowan (his Scottish bride), and a recipe for deep-fried Mars bars (OK, that last one may be fictional).

Then, in 1923, he joined forces with another legend of Japanese whisky – Shinjiro Torii, of Suntory fame. Together they founded the country’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto, choosing the land for its clean water and superb Highland like climate. Taketsuru went on to found Nikka, which, alongside Suntory remains one of the biggest brands in Japanese whisky today.

View of Ardbeg Distillery on Islay

Ardbeg distillery on a particularly dramatic day

The characters and flavour profiles

One of the initial struggles Taketsuru and Torii faced was the Japanese palate’s preference for lighter, less robust spirits. To meet this demand, Japan’s distilleries generally produce malts which lean toward a gentler, more floral style.

Of course, that’s not to say you won’t find some smokier, richer drams. Single malts from Yoichi often exhibit notes of peat, and some of Yamazaki’s sherried single malts can be extremely full-bodied and laden with umami.

The country’s climate also plays a significant role, varying significantly from north to south, often resulting in a faster maturation process compared to Scotch. Couple that with enviably pure water, often sourced from mountain springs, and the result is a uniquely clean, balanced flavour profile. To further complicate things, much bulk Scotch whisky is imported  into Japan and is used many Japanese whisky blends so if you think some Japanese whisky tastes very Scottish that’s because it is.

Scotch is harder to categorise due to the  sheer variety of whisky produced. Each region has its own methods and styles, from the sweet, rich, fruity malts of Speyside, to the oily, smoky drams of Islay. Part of this difference comes in the form of peat – a traditional fuel used in some distilleries during the kilning process, and one which imparts all those smoky, bonfire-like flavours. You’ll also see a great deal of variation in the use of casks in Scotland. Bourbon and sherry oak are the most prevalent, but many distilleries experiment with all manner of casks, from Port and wine to more outlandish examples like rum. You’ll get a little of that in Japan too, of course, but not to the same degree. Though Japan does have its own unique type of oak, mizunara, which adds a spicy, cherrywood tinge to its whiskies. 

Broadly speaking, Japanese whisky is noted for its elegant, refined style, whereas Scotch is known for its wide-ranging, often more pronounced spirits.

What do the experts say?

At one point Japanese whisky was something only appreciated at home but one day that all changed with the release of a book, its cover adorned with a photo of a man with a Panama hat and glowing amber eyes, like a daemonic Man from Del Monte. The book? The 2015 Whisky Bible. The man? Jim Murray, one of the industry’s best-known critics. 

In it are reviews and notes for more than 4,500 whiskies. One, however – a 2013 sherry cask single malt from Yamazaki – was named the World Whisky of the Year, with an almost-perfect score of 97.5 out of 100. He described it as “near incredible genius”.

Awards and accolades like these also brought about a shift in consumer opinion and, of course, a surge in popularity. Sadly for us whisky lovers that also meant spirits which were once undiscovered and almost underpriced started to become scarcer, with higher price tags to boot.

You can still get some value-for-money gems from Japan, but gone are the days of picking up a bottle of Yamazaki 18 Year Old for 80 quid a bottle.

Since 2015, both Scotland and Japan have collected myriad awards and trophies in competitions and blind tastings, but the paradigm has shifted, and Japan is no longer the scrappy underdog…

Our favourite Japanese whiskies…

To further compare and contrast Japan and Scotland, let’s take a look at some of our favourite expressions from each country, starting with Japan. These showcase the classic styles, the production processes, and the astounding quality on offer.

Long Drinks for the Long Weekend

Nikka Whisky from the Barrel

To kick things off, we have one of Japan’s best bargains in the form of Nikka’s From the Barrel. This is a blend of both single malt and grain from the Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries (and probably some Ben Nevis). Once blended, the whisky is married in a range of casks, including both sherry and bourbon. As the name suggests, when bottling, this whisky is straight from the casks, with no dilution. The result is intense, and also really rather wonderful.

You don’t just have to take our word for it, either… It took home Gold at the 2015 International Spirits Challenge. Why? Well, it packs a serious punch. The nose has a range of notes from the various ageing casks. You’ll get berry fruit, hints of chocolate orange and cocoa, light spice, malt… a touch of oak… The palate is jam-packed with rich fruit and malty honey notes. Expect plum, berry… a little citrus. This is all complemented by thick, mouth-coating vanilla, which builds into a long, spicy, oaky finish. The higher ABV really takes it up a notch.

Yamazaki 12 Year Old

This is from Japan’s oldest distillery and is one of its earliest age statement bottlings, and the first to get some serious marketing. It was launched in 1984 and since then it has picked up shelffuls of tin, including Gold metals from both the International Spirits Challenge and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. 

It’s aged in a variety of casks, including American, Japanese, and Spanish oak. The combination creates an exceptionally balanced, complex, sophisticated whisky. On the nose, it’s a nutty, floral, tropically fruity spirit with whispers of earthiness and spice. The medium palate is all honey sweet, with zinging citrus, a little more of that tropical fruit, and a wonderfully rum-like, zesty, lingering finish. Great stuff.

Yoichi Single Malt

More recently, Japan has put out an increasing number of no-age-statement (NAS) single malts. Much of the reason for this comes from supply and demand – there simply isn’t enough aged spirit to constantly be putting out a full range of your standard age statements. Without an age statement, the distilleries and blenders can bottle a selection of casks of various ages, and still guarantee top quality. There will certainly be some very well-aged whisky in the blends, but, by law, a whisky is only as old as its youngest component…

This one is a classic example from Yoichi, a distillery known for its direct-coal-heated stills and use of peat. It has a softly peated, gently smoky nose with winter spice, citrus fruits, and something almost herbal and floral. The palate is wonderfully rich, with nutty, tropical sweetness, hints of cocoa and building peat smoke. That smoke continues to develop into the long, malty, plummy finish. 

Our favourite Scotch whiskies…

Japanese whisky vs Scotch whisky

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old

Kicking things off, we have the legendary Glenfarclas 15. Imagine taking a big ol’ Christmas cake, and then blending it and somehow converting it into booze. That’s basically what you get with this. It’s an absolute prime example of sherry-matured whisky: rich and concentrated. At a slightly higher-than-average ABV (46%), it’s incredibly full-bodied and complex. It also picked up Gold at the Scotch Whisky Masters and the International Spirits Challenge.

We love the stuff, starting with the creamy, robust sherry nose, with manuka honey, dark dried fruits, cinnamon, and mince pies. The palate is rich, full, and laden with sherry. You might get just a whisper of smoke, with all those Christmas cake notes, light spice, and malt. A long, spicy finish with Winter spice and raisin. Mouthwatering stuff.

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Even its name is full of mystique and intrigue; Uigeadail (pronounced “OOG-a-dal”) means “dark and mysterious place” in Gaelic. It’s one of the biggest, boldest, and most spectacular examples of Islay single malt. The combination of Ardbeg’s signature oily, tarry, medicinal peat smoke notes meld fantastically with the influence of the sherry casks. Not only does it have a slew of gold medals from the top competitions, but it was also named the best whisky in the world in 2009 by none other than the aforementioned Jim Murray. 

In the glass, it has a wonderful mahogany colour thanks to the sherry cask maturation. The nose is intense, with clouds of peat smoke, sweet malt, toffee, coffee, and tar. The palate is rich and a balance of the sweet, rich caramel and malt, balanced out against the smouldering peat, burnt sticking plasters and salinity we associate with the distillery. A very, very long finish on this one, with toffee sweetness and mouthwatering peat notes to the very end.

Balvenie DoubleWood

DoubleWood by name, DoubleWood by nature… this is matured in two kinds of casks which impart a lovely balance and some really rich flavour. Its 12-year maturation begins in refill American oak casks. Being refill, these offer a slightly subtler bourbon character. The final nine months, however, are spent in first-fill European oak Olosoro sherry butts. This brings both colour and a lovely nutty flavour.

The International Spirits Challenge has given this multiple Gold awards. We like to think of it as one of the ultimate examples of the classic honeyed, malty Speyside single malt. Expect a spicy, nutty nose with dried fruits inviting sweetness. The palate is sweet, rich, and more complex than you’d expect for a spirit of this age. There’s plenty of dried fruit, winter spice, vanilla sweetness, and a little oak which lingers on the finish. Lovely.

So, is Japanese whisky actually better than Scotch?

We’ve not answered the question have we? We’d love to but it’s just not possible. Whisky is subjective. Some utterly adore the fragrant, floral, unique palates of a Hakushu or a Miyagikyo. Others want something big and bold, like a Laphroaig, or a heavily sherried Speyside single malt. It’s all about finding what you like…