A trip to Japan is high up on many travelers’ bucket lists, but the country is especially alluring to whisky drinkers. As the home of some of the best booze one can drink today, Japan boasts several name-brands and craft distillers worth a pilgrimage. Japanese whisky is becoming more and more of a mainstream trend, but unlike the famous spirits brands in Scotland or Kentucky, the crowds have yet to descend en masse to Japan’s distilleries. While you could spend a week drinking the finest spirits and cocktails without ever leaving Ginza district in Tokyo, you’ll earn real drinking cred by being one of the few to venture directly to the source.
Begin your tour of Japanese whisky distilleries where Japanese whisky itself began, at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery on Honshu. The oldest distillery in Japan (founded in 1923), Yamazaki has created many of the award-winning whiskies responsible for drawing attention to Japanese distillers, including the eternal favorite among drinkers, the Yamazaki 12-Year-Old. Reserve your spot on a tour, then travel just 15 minutes from Kyoto by train to arrive at the distillery, where you’ll find a whisky library of over 7,000 bottles, a museum, and, of course, a tasting of Yamazaki’s world-renowned whiskies.
Masataka Taketsuru was integral to building the Yamazaki Distillery and launching whisky in Japan, but his true goal was to emulate the Scottish distilleries he loved. So in 1934, he left Yamazaki to set up his own operation on Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands in the archipelago. Wedged between the mountains and the sea, the Yoichi Distillery lives up to its Scottish inspiration, with coal-fired pot stills creating whisky full of peaty smoke and seasalt. It’s the complete opposite of Yamazaki — north vs. south, snow-dusted seaside vs. rolling forested hills, Yamazaki vs. Nikka (Yoichi is owned by Yamazaki’s primary competitor). The distillery only offers tour in Japanese, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll be relying on headphones and pamphlets to guide you through the facility. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to know Japanese to enjoy the taste of good booze.
When the lights and sounds of Tokyo begin to overwhelm you, escape to the idyllic Hakushu Distillery. Suntory’s other must-visit facility is entirely integrated into its home in the Japanese Alps, about three hours west of Tokyo. The forest cloaks the distillery in a serene shroud, melted snow from the mountains makes its way into the whisky, and an onsite bird sanctuary fills the air with the sounds of nature. There are no tours in English, but headphones are provided for tourists — and besides, there’s no better way to escape the hustle and bustle than to wander through a remote, forested distillery while talking to no one but the birds. Just be sure to reserve a tour, since this popular distillery tends to fill up.
Yamazaki and Nikka make up the bulk of most people’s Japanese whisky knowledge, so do yourself a favor and expand that by visiting this small, independent distillery that blows away the competition. Launched by Ichiro Akuto, a scion of the beloved (and dearly departed) Hanyu Distillery and the mind behind the internationally coveted Ichiro’s Card Series whiskies, Chichibu represents small yet quality whisky in the country. You’ll have to arrange your own tour by calling the distillery, since there are no established hours for tours, but the extra effort is well worth it to see the epicenter of craft Japanese whisky.
If you can’t be bothered to make time to travel to a distillery out in the middle of nowhere, hit Fuji-Gotemba on your way to the eponymous mountain. Located at the base of Mount Fuji, the Fuji-Gotemba Distillery was originally a cooperative operation between Canadian Seagram’s, the Scottish Chivas Brothers, the American Four Roses, and the local brand Kirin, though now Kirin owns the whole shebang. The facility claims to be the largest distillery in the world, including a bottling plant and a cooperage in its massive 1.7 million-square-foot space. Like the mountain it sits beneath, Fuji-Gotemba goes big.