On the rocks: 10 best Asian whisky brands to know about

When it comes to Asian whisky, it goes without mentioning that Japanese whisky has taken the global market by a swirl. Such is their demand and popularity that distilleries struggle to supply the high standard dram. In fact, Japan witnessed a whisky crisis a couple of years back, as the market is soaring exponentially and takers are ready to shell out as much as needed for the premium malts.

But that has not slowed things down even a bit. Distilleries and brands have also spread their wings accordingly to fill the highball glasses.

Moving over single malt scotch whisky and a classic bourbon, other Asian, non-Japanese, grain whiskies and blended spirits are also sure to appeal to your taste buds and give you a smooth sip. As a nod to the craft of making exquisite whiskies, the third Sunday of May is observed as World Whisky Day, with the day falling on 21 May this year.

While talking about whiskies, one question that often pops up is what makes bourbons so special and how to tell one apart from other whiskies. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

How is bourbon different from other whiskies?

Bourbon
Image credit: Anastasia Zhenina/ @disguise_truth/ Unsplash

All bourbons are whisky but all whiskies are not bourbons. To be classified as a pure bourbon, there are a few criteria that have to be met.

All whiskies are made of malted barley or other fermented grains but the kind of grains used and their ratio makes all the difference. According to the American Bourbon Association, a classic bourbon is made out of a mix of grains or mash, which is 51 percent corn and distilled at 160 proof or less. This is what imparts the sweet taste to the drink. Bourbon casks have to be made of new charred oak and cannot contain any additives and colourants. Also, the drink must be stored at 125 proof or less.

For the premium quality, the drink needs to age for at least two years in these barrels. Bourbon indeed gets its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky, USA. However, it is not mandatory that to achieve the name, it has to be produced in Kentucky.

Japanese whisky may have hit it hard with whisky connoisseurs but several other Asian brands are becoming increasingly popular as well. Be it the Asian malt and grain whiskies or the blended whisky, drinks from Taiwan and India are catching up fast and giving a stiff competition to some of the best Japanese whisky brands.

Here are some of the best Asian whiskies that are gaining attention

(Main and feature image credit: Yuri Shirota/ @itshoobastank/ Unsplash)

1 /10

Yamazaki

Yamazaki is a top-graded and supreme-quality Japanese whisky that has its own heritage and history. There are several factors which make Yamazaki whisky one of the best Japanese whiskies in the world. Though its production began in the 1870s, commercial releases started only in the 1920s. At such a juncture, a liquor importer named Shinjiro Torii opened his own distillery in Kyoto’s Yamazaki neighbourhood from which the brand takes its name. Later, the company took the name Suntory and is currently known as Suntory Yamazaki Distillery.

The brand is renowned for its smooth and well-crafted whiskies and doesn’t shy away from experimenting with its stills and the barrels used for ageing. The Yamazaki 25-Year-Old Single Malt is one of the best. Aged only in sherry casks and limited to about 12,000 bottles per year, the whisky has a fine lustre and has reasons enough to claim such high price tags. Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Single Malt or the 12-Year-Old pour are equally prized and have high demands globally.

If you are visiting Japan, this distillery is open for tours and offers a detailed guide through the whisky-making process.

2 /10

Kavalan

Established in 2005, Taiwan’s Kavalan Whisky is currently giving Scotch whiskies a stiff competition. With the advantage of the country’s sub-tropical climate and many takers too, the brand skyrocketed in a very short time and today it is one of the big whisky players in the world.

By 2012, Kavalan secured a spot in Jim Murray’s acclaimed Whisky Bible. Its Solist Fino Sherry Cask whisky even bagged the ‘Best World Whisky’ title, which was previously held by Japan’s Yamazaki.

The brand’s entire Solist series deserves all the attention. The Solist Fino Sherry was the first of the sherry whiskies to gain worldwide fame. It added a sweet and toffee-like taste to Kavalan’s traditional fruity and citrus flavoured profile. The Solist Ex-Bourbon Cask is also another illustrious example, which has taken the usage of sherry casks to a different level. Kavalan’s classic single malt— Kavalan Classic is a signature drink that bears tasting notes of mango and other floral and citrus flavours that speak of the drink’s tropical home ground.

3 /10

Nikka Whisky

One of Shinjiro Torii’s top executives, Masataka Taketsuru, went to Scotland to learn more about whisky making and upon returning, launched Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido in 1993. Later, though the distillery would bear the original name, Taketsuru’s company was called Nikka.

There are several famous brands under the Nikka umbrella as well as some award-winning whiskies launched by the company itself. In 2018, Nikka From The Barrel, bagged the Whisky of the Year and has been a widely acclaimed Japanese whisky.

Another Nikka premium expression is the Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt. Launched in 2020, this marked the brand’s first step in blended whisky. Instead of grain whisky, it is a concoction of malt whiskies from two of Nikka’s distilleries — Yoichi and Miyagikyo. What defines it, is the fusion of smokiness from the Yoichi distillery, which uses peated malt and the Miyagikyo distillery’s use of sherry cask and fruity flavours.

The Nikka Days is a recent no-age-statement blend. This easy and smooth whisky is for the lighter palate and is based on the concept of ‘whisky for every day.’ According to Nikka’s official website, this Japanese whisky is made of, “mellow grain whiskies and slightly peated malts. With impressive floral aromas, this expression offers an extremely silky mouthfeel and fruity flavours that rise and expand, leaving behind a delightful aftertaste.”

4 /10

Amrut

Among non-Japanese whiskies, India’s Amrut is a globally known premium whisky brand. Established in 1948, the company was the first to produce single malt bottlings for sale outside India. Though it has made its name in rum, gin and other liquors, its whisky remains the star product and is a major Indian player in the market.

In 2010, Amrut Fusion bagged the third position in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. While most whiskies in India might have a waxy and rum-like consistency, Amrut has set itself apart and uses only barley, which is grown in the Himalayas. Aged in ex-bourbon casks, it has hints of fresh fruits like peach and apricot along with fruitcake. Spices like black pepper and cinnamon and an earthy molasses-like sweetness also render a different flavour profile to it.

One of the latest Amrut expressions is the Amrut Naarangi. According to the website, “It is the only single malt whisky ever produced in the world to have expressions of orange, which brings forth a new level of experimentation to the malt world.”

Amrut also has a standout peated whisky — the peated Cask Strength Single Malt. It has lingering notes of sod, which gives a different flavour to the single malt. The Amrut Peated is a smoky whisky with savoury fragrances and hint of tropical fruits like pineapples, tangerines and limes, which lend a typical Indian flavour profile to it.

5 /10

Hibiki

Shinjiro Torii started the whisky production culture in Japan and later the company was called Suntory. The company has some of the best and most celebrated brands that have caught the likes of whisky lovers all over the world.

Hibiki is one such brand, which is well known for its blended spirits. In Japan, blending is a key component of whisky-making. Special care and attention needs to be given with regard to the accurate proportion of liquids to make a smooth and flavoursome drink. Launched in 1989, Hibiki has a few expressions which are prized possessions. Expressions like Hibiki 21-Year and 30-Year are statement pours and the blends are as good and silky as any single malt range.

The Hibiki Harmony, another malt and grain whisky, is a no-age-statement blend and aged in various casks. Every sip brings out distinct tastes of orange peel and white chocolate. For the nose, the aroma of rose, lychee, rosemary, mature woodiness and sandalwood make it an enticing drink. The finish is subtle and tender along with hints of Japanese Mizunara oak.

6 /10

Hakushu

Hakushu is another Suntory gem. The company’s second President Keizo Saji established the Hakushu distillery at the foot of Mount Kaikoma in the Southern Japanese Alps in 1973. Located amid a beautiful park, which is also a bird sanctuary, the Hakushu distillery is known for using peat ovens to produce whiskies with a distinct smokiness, much like noted Islay single malts such as Bowmore and Ardbeg.

One of the most famous Hakushu single malts is the Hakushu 12 Year. The subtle taste of pure orchard and stone fruit fragrances coupled with hints of green tea and peat fire, make this quite a delicate pour. The Hakushu 18 is another signature bottling that you wouldn’t want to miss out on if you find one. Traces of dried cherries with smoke, fresh malt and fruits make it a classic Japanese spirit.

This pristine distillery also offers guided tours and takes visitors on tasting as well as shows the process that goes behind creating these masterpieces.

7 /10

Paul John

Maker of the Great Indian Single Malt, Paul John is another Indian whisky brand that has a strong grip over the global whisky sector. Established in 1996, the brand produces award-winning single malt pours that have changed the perception of Indian whiskies in the western world as well as the blended spirit — Original Choice.

The company has headquarters in Bengaluru but the unpeated liquid gold is produced in Goa. The tropical sea surf adds salinity to the whisky, which is quite different from the northern Atlantic-washed scotches.

With 46 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), the Paul John Edited strikes the right balance between the sweet notes and savoury smokiness. The cinnamon along with the spices and fruity and herbal undertones make it a gorgeous dram. A whiff of this pour elicits aromas of honey, cocoa and a shot of espresso. The website says, with every sip you can hear the tales of Goa’s sea, ‘unedited.’

Other must-have Paul John expressions include the Classic and Balanced ranges as well as new experimental ones like the limited edition Oloroso classic cask. The soft and delicate single malt, with rich intense flavours, finished in Oloroso casks is sure to captivate every whisky lover’s taste buds. Such is its popularity that Paul John introduced the Oloroso and PX as part of their select cask range with an ABV of 48 percent.

The Paul John Nirvana is another noted Paul John expression from the Goan shores which tickles the senses with a ‘soft whiff of bourbon, fruitcake and an enticing caramel pudding,’ as per the website.

8 /10

Chichibu

Chichibu is another Japanese distillery which is known for its ‘world blends.’ Founded by Ichiro Akuto in 2004, the small batches of production make the liquor from this distillery quite a prized possession. The marriage of whiskies from other countries, like Scotland, the USA, Canada, Ireland and Japan, make the brand’s blends rich, aromatic and smooth.

Chichibu became operational in 2008 and finds its base on the ruins of the Hanyu distillery. It might be comparatively smaller in size, but the whiskies it produces are a class apart. Some of its fabulous drams include Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘The Peated’ 2015 Cask Strength and Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘On the Way’ Single Malt. Another limited edition label from the brand is the Chichibu US Edition 2020. This five-year single malt whisky is a peated drink and is in line with Islay scotches like Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Matured in bourbon, wine and chibidaru casks, it doesn’t contain any caramel colouring.

9 /10

Rampur

Rampur whisky was established in 1943 and is known as the Radico Khaitan distillery. Handcrafted single malt whiskies that have high taste values and have bagged several accolades, Rampur drams are for the whisky connoisseurs who love to savour classics.

The Rampur Select is a noted label from the brand, which is made of Indian six-row barley. Every whiff carries a biscuity malt fragrance along with notes of tropical melon, papaya and soft yellow jackfruit. The creamy oily texture and a long finish with flavours of cocoa, grilled pineapples, hibiscus blossoms and spices make this Indian dram quite a popular one.

An award-winning whisky from Rampur, this label is the Rampur Select. It has won double gold medals at the 2017 San Francisco Wine and Spirits competition as well as the Monde Selection gold medal in Brussels in 2017. The drink also ranks at the fifth position among the top 20 whiskies by Whisky Advocate.

The Rampur Double Cask is another award-winning pour. It has bagged the gold medal in Fifty Best World Whisky, 2020. The World Whisky Survey carried out by Whisky Advocate Magazine in 2019, awarded the drink 93 points while it earned 92 points in Ultimate Spirits Challenge, 2020.

10 /10

Nantou

Nestled in Nantou Hsien, Taiwan, this distillery was founded by the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation in 1978, however, it was only in 2008 that it produced its first whisky. This world-class distillery is behind the noted brand Omar. It has its own bottlings as well.

Recently in 2022, the Omar Cask Strength single malt whisky emerged as winner at the World Whiskies Awards. This is not something new for the Nantou brand. It has been winning prominent accolades from all across the world including the Malt Maniacs Awards, International Wine and Spirits Competition and others since 2014.

Forming the core of Omar drinks, Nantou produces both bourbon and sherry drinks, which are extremely high in demand. A well-known pour is the Omar single malt whisky, which is matured in bourbon casks. Another noted whisky is the That Boutique-y Whisky Company (TBWC) bottling — Nantou 4-Year-Old. It was the first single malt that was bottled by TBWC and is matured in bourbon casks. Appealing to whisky lovers as well as who enjoy all things aesthetic, the label of this bottle features Taiwan’s famous Sun Moon lake.

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