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5 Great Japanese Spirits That Are Not Whisky

Love Japan’s whisky? Wait until you try the country’s other spirits.

a collage of Japanese spirits bottles on a moody blue-red backdrop
Image:

Liquor.com / Tim Nusog 

If you’re drinking a Japanese spirit, chances are it’s whisky. Thanks to their uncompromising approach to craftsmanship, the Japanese continue to release elegant whiskies that are some of the most coveted in the world.

But there’s more to Japanese distilling than whisky. A handful of top-notch clear spirits have emerged from the Land of the Rising Sun, from silky gins to lush, creamy vodkas. These are five bottles you should try now.

  • Nikka Coffey Gin ($55)

    Nikka Coffey Gin bottles

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    After nearly a century of whisky production, iconic Japanese brand Nikka rolled out a duo of clear spirits as part of its Coffey series. The gin is loaded with botanicals ranging from angelica and orange peel to yuzu and kabosu. It clocks in at a stiff 47% ABV with a silky texture and piquant note of sansho, a local pepper. Try it in a Martini variation with the addition of a drop of white soy sauce.

  • Nikka Coffey Vodka ($50)

    Nikka Coffey Vodka bottles

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    The powerhouse brand’s vodka is made from a blend of corn and barley distilled separately in the company’s famous Coffey stills, which were brought over from Scotland in the 1960s. The spirit is then filtered through white birch charcoal to yield a silky, clean-drinking vodka marked by soft citrus.

  • Suntory Ao Vodka ($50)

    Suntory Ao Vodka bottles

    Liquor.com / Tim? Nusog

    Suntory broke with an almost century-long whisky tradition to birth its own first clear spirit: Ao vodka. Named for the Japanese word for “blue,” Ao is made from Japanese rice and water sourced from the country’s southern island of Kyushu. Distilled in copper pots and refined through a bamboo filtration system, this vodka is creamy and lush, with an ethereal lightness and purity reminiscent of fresh spring water. Such a delicate spirit would get lost in a complicated cocktail, but shines in a Vodka Martini.

  • Suntory Roku Gin ($28)

    Suntory Roku Gin bottles

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Suntory named its first gin Roku, which means “six,” the number of Japanese ingredients used to flavor this 43% ABV spirit. Those are added to eight more common gin botanicals. Think sakura (cherry blossom), sakura leaf, yuzu peel, green tea and sansho, plus more usual suspects like juniper berry, cinnamon and cardamom seed. The result is a smooth, aromatic gin imbued with complex layers of bright citrus and spicy pepper. Try it in a fragrant G&T.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • The Kyoto Distillery KI NO BI Dry Gin ($75)

    The Kyoto Distillery KI NO BI Dry Gin bottles

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Bartenders are intrigued by this sophisticated, cocktail-friendly gin. Paying homage to its namesake prefecture, the distillery sources most ingredients locally, using botanicals like juniper, orris, hinoki wood, yuzu, lemon, ginger, bamboo leaves, shiso and green tea. It’s Kyoto’s first homegrown gin, made by dividing the botanicals into six categories, each macerated in rice spirit, then separately distilled and blended. The resulting 45.7% ABV spirit shows delicate yuzu, followed by a subtle green note from the sansho and hint of warmth from the ginger.