Japan’s Best Craft Spirits (that aren’t whisky)

Today, we’re taking a step away from the wonderful world of Japanese whisky to take a look at all of our other favourite craft spirits from around Japan. While we’re all well aware of how well Japanese whisky is doing on the world stage, some of the other spirits being produced in the country often go unnoticed by an international audience, despite them being truly outstanding. 

So today we’re bringing you our Top 10 Japanese Craft Spirits that aren’t whisky. Each and every one of these beauties brings a story of its own and each brings a unique tasting experience waiting to be explored. What’s more, each of them has been crafted with the utmost attention to detail, in a bid to get them as close to perfect as possible, in true Japanese style.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it. 

1. Ki Noh Bi Cask Aged 22nd Edition


The Kyoto distillery, situated in Japan’s ancient capital,  has been producing brilliant gin expressions for a number of years now. Their Ki No Bi Dry Gin is one of the best and most popular craft gin expressions in all of Japan, delivering an excellent array of aromas and flavours in a smooth, balanced fashion.

But it is the Ki Noh Ni Cask Aged 22nd Edition that we are highlighting today – a limited edition release that takes the Ki No Bi and builds on it by cask ageing the liquid in some outstandingly rare and exciting casks, including ex-Karuizawa sherry and wine casks, as well as mizunara wood. The passionate team at Kyoto monitored the liquid through every step of the maturing process, ensuring the perfect balance between influence from the wood and the many botanicals they used in its creation. 

The results are an exciting, mouth-watering expression that brings notes of candied ginger, dried fruit and desiccated coconut on the nose, before rich oak, sweet caramel and hints of delicate violet develop on the palate. This is all topped off with a long and rounded finish.

The label of this gorgeous limited edition gin was created in collaboration with Kamiasobi Noh Troupe and it features Noh Mask “Zo Onna”.

With only 1,000 bottles produced, this one is limited as well as delicious and should you get a chance to try it, you should not pass it up. 

2. Ie Rum Santa Maria Gold


In recent times, the island of Okinawa has become home to Japan’s rum production thanks to the rich abundance of sugar cane growing there and a sub-tropical climate that is perfect for maturing the liquid. While the Japanese rum industry is still really in its infancy, we have already seen some wonderful expressions being produced. 

Our favourite release so far is the Ie Santa Maria Gold –  a rum agricole matured in oak barrels. 

Rum Agricole, which is created from the juices of sugar cane as opposed to molasses, was originally produced in the French Caribbean islands and has become quite popular among rum lovers around the world in recent years.

This one is subtly sweet, earthy, slightly floral and exhibits vegetal aromas and flavours such as freshly cut grass and rain-soaked oak that combine superbly with hints of citrus fruits. It’s a natural tasting expression and quite different from the molasses based rums that you might be used to.

If you haven’t tried rum agricole or Japanese rum before, this is a fantastic starting point that won’t let you down. 


3. Iichiko Special Shochu


Shochu is the most popular spirit inside Japan, with millions enjoying the drink every day alongside their dinner and as a way to relax in the evening. There are hundreds of producers across Japan and even more expressions to choose from, but our favourite has to be the Iichiko Special Shochu. 

The Iichiko brand has tens of superb expressions under their belt, but this one, an aged honkaku shochu, is the best of the bunch. Rich and fruity with hints of vanilla, oak and a range of gentle spices, it brings a rounded drinking experience that can be enjoyed on any occasion. It comes in a beautiful glass decanter, with no label and a golden stopper, making it look the part in any drinks cabinet. 

What’s more, this shochu beat out 257 other expressions to claim first prize at 2020’s Tokyo Whisky & Spirits Competition, showing that it is not just us that are in love with this superb creation. A real winner. 

4. Nikka Coffey Gin


The first step into the world of gin for drinks giant Nikka, this superb expression was created using the legendary Coffey still, brought to Japan by the great Masataka Taketsuru. We have seen this still used to make some world class whiskies, such as the Nikka Coffey Malt and Coffey Grain bottlings, but this is the first time we have seen it used for gin.

The continuous still, invented by Irishman Aenas Coffey, is notoriously hard to work with, but produces a spirit that maintains many of the flavours of its original components. It also adds a creamy texture, resulting in a full mouth feel and an explosion of flavour on the palate.

The Nikka Coffey Gin was created using a number of exciting botanicals, most notably yuzu citrus fruit and sansho, a Japanese pepper, and the results are simply superb. 

This one is perfect on the rocks, in cocktails or served neat and will keep you coming back for another glass time after time. It also offers fantastic value for money, allowing you to try a brilliant, painstakingly created gin without breaking the bank.

5. Nikka Apple Brandy Hirosaki 12 Year Old


Anyone who has ever visited a Nikka distillery will likely have tasted their excellent apple brandy expression, inspired by Rita Cowan, wife of the founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru. It makes up part of the tour at both Miyagikyo and Yoichi and tends to be incredibly well received by visitors from around Japan and indeed the world.

The Nikka Apple Brandy Hirosaki 12 Year Old brings a delectable array of light, fruity and sweet notes to the table, with freshly sliced apples, cinnamon spice and hints of poached plum being the stars of the show. It’s the kind of drink that is perfect as an aperitif and will be loved by not only you, but also friends and family. 

The expression was released as a distillery exclusive, meaning it is only available in the distillery shops themselves, however we have managed to secure some stock so that you can get a taste of this fascinating invention. 

If you’re looking to try something outside the world of whisky that delivers a memorable tasting experience and celebrates legends of Nikka, this is the bottle you’re looking for. 


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