Japan is currently home to the hottest whisky in the world. Earlier this year, a 50-year-old bottle of Yamazaki single malt was auctioned off in Hong Kong at $300,000—a new record. What makes it so special, aside from the fact that Beyoncé regularly sings about it? Khaled Dajani, co-owner of Nihon Whisky Lounge in San Francisco, says, “Japanese whisky is unique because it’s elegant but also very approachable and easy to drink.” Opened in 2005, Nihon was an early adapter of the Japanese whisky trend. Today, the bar has amassed one of the largest collections of the spirit in the United States.
But you don’t need to be a pop diva to pop bottles. There are, thankfully, a handful of affordable Japanese labels hitting the market today. Nikka Coffey Grain, for example (named after the large, column-like stills that produce it), is ultrasmooth, with hints of melon and a dark chocolate finish. Sweeter still: A bottle typically retails at around $70. If you prefer something with more spice, the same brand just released From the Barrel, a complex, high-proof blend packaged in a beautifully designed glass-block bottle.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Shojo is bringing Asian whisky to a hip, late-night cocktail scene spreading across the city. Here you’ll find the Kusarigama: Iwai Whisky and a maraschino-cherry liqueur in a well-balanced combo. For something a bit lighter on the pours, there’s the Tarantino-inspired O’Ren Ishii: PX sherry stirred with a rice-derived whisky called Ohishi.
And at the Black Dice Cafe in Toronto, simpler is better. “People often ask me to make highballs, which are really popular in Japan,” says owner Hideki Saito. “It’s just a whisky and soda on the rocks with a twist of lemon.” Black Dice boasts one of the bigger collections of Japanese whisky in the city, and Saito recommends exploring the category neat or on the rocks before wading into cocktail territory. Start with something light, like Toki Japanese Whisky. Then mine the complexities of a slightly smoky sipper, such as Yoichi Single Malt. Somewhere, Beyoncé will be smiling.