From The Legend of Zelda to Studio Ghibli to Pokémon, Japan has forever changed the face of global pop culture with its wealth of iconic games and films—and in recent years, this storied archipelago has established itself as one of the earth’s most renowned whisky producers as well, earning widespread acclaim for their meticulous approach to the distillation and blending process. Though whiskey reigns supreme in the realm of Japanese spirits, it’s far from the only distillate worth sampling during a trip to the country, with complex rums, fragrant gins, and flavorful shochu up for grabs as well.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or an expert within the world of Japanese travel, these five destinations offer some of the most spectacular spirits in all the nation, available both neat and in cocktail form.
When it comes to relaxing getaways, it’s tough to find a better East Asian destination than Oita Prefecture. This Kyushu region is famed across the nation for its high concentration of hot springs—and as an added bonus, the area offers top-tier distillate in the form of Iichiko Shochu, an unaged barley-based spirit that’s fermented with koji. Renowned for its fragrant fruit notes on both the nose and palate, this Japanese liquor stands as a testament to the purity of Oita Prefecture’s natural resources, crafted with spring water that’s been filtered by volcanic rock. To get a close-up look at the distillation process and enjoy a taste of Japan’s best-selling shochu, visitors can head to the historic city of Hita, where Iichiko’s polished distillery awaits.
Located roughly three hours west of Sapporo, the scenic Hokkaido town of Niseko is renowned for its incredible ski resorts, offering snow-capped peaks and a wealth of charming villages to explore. After a day spent cruising the slopes, the neighborhood of Hirafu is a paradise for top-tier cocktails, with local destinations ranging from Toshiro’s Bar—a cozy venue that makes an incredible Smoked Penicillin—to Bar Gyu+, a paradise for classic cocktails with a unique and flavorful twist. For those who prefer their spirits neat, the aptly-named Niseko Distillery is equipped with top-notch gin served in an elegant setting, while the stunning Higashiyama Niseko Village Ritz-Carlton Reserve offers a spectacular array of whiskies from across the nation alongside one of the finest omakase sushi experiences in all of Hokkaido.
A far cry from the sprawling mountain-laden landscapes found across Honshu, Okinawa Prefecture offers abundant natural beauty akin to the Caribbean, with sandy beaches and turquoise water lining its shores. In addition to fascinating native flora and fauna, the balmy climate has also fostered a particularly impressive rum scene thanks to the region’s propensity for sugar production. Just west of Okinawa Island, Iejima Distillery has earned widespread acclaim for their oak barrel-aged Santa Maria Gold, while Helios Distillery is an ideal destination for those who prefer to stick around the main island. Operating in the prefecture for more than 60 years, they’re best known for their flavorful sugarcane distillate, but the facility is no stranger to other Japanese classics, with top-notch awamori and sake up for grabs as well.
In the heart of Honshu, the tranquil Nagano Prefecture is rife with towering mountains and native Japanese wildlife—but for spirits fans in particular, the star attraction can be found in the city of Iiyama. Known as Iiyama Mountain Farm Distillery, this rustic operation is best known for crafting Nobushi Whiskey, a line of aged spirits that are crafted with Nagano spring water and grain sourced from local farms. While the facility isn’t set to offer tours until later this year, visitors are welcome to swing by a local liquor store and grab a bottle, then set off for a truly memorable afternoon at Jigokudani Yaen Koen. A short drive away from Iiyama, this iconic wildlife park is home to a huge population of Japanese macaques, who can be found bathing in the natural hot springs as Japanese serows—a type of endemic ungulate—graze nearby.
With roughly 37 million people residing within the metropolitan area, it should come as no surprise that Tokyo has developed a world-class cocktail scene over the past few years. For chocolate aficionados in particular, the iconic Memento Mori is an absolute must-visit, offering a fascinating menu that highlights the versatility of the cacao seed. After imbibing in velvety cocktails like the Amazon negroni and chocolate martini, there’s a treasure trove of rare and limited edition spirits awaiting visitors at Hibiya Bar Whisky-S—but when it comes to combining world-class mixed drinks with an electrifying atmosphere, there’s no beating the Four Seasons Tokyo Otemachi. Equipped with a menu based on Eurasian folklore and fairy tales, the dazzling hotel bar VIRTÙ offers a sophisticated blend of French and Japanese flavors, uniting the two cultures through masterfully-crafted cocktails ranging from the Armagnac-loaded Jolie Chocolat to the Someiyoshina, a refined blend of shochu, sake, and absinthe.
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