In general, Japanese whiskies are not too expensive, but of course there are many that are. There are also some that are so expensive that at first you don’t believe that could be the price and are amazed when you discover that it is. Here’s a list of the twelve most expensive Japanese whiskies ever – so far.
(As an aside, I wrote a detailed article that explains exactly why some whiskies are so expensive, which you can find here.)
1. Karuizawa Aqua of Life White 50 Years – $87,302
A legend of the whisky world, the small Karuizawa distillery was opened in 1955 with the aim of producing traditional, small-scale but high-quality whisky. They had four small stills, wooden washbacks, Golden Promise barley from Scotland, sherry casks from Spain and a low temperature / high humidity environment that’s ideal for making whisky.
However, in 2011 the distillery closed – although it already hadn’t been producing whisky for over a decade, and a year later it was completely shuttered with everything sold off including the ground on which the distillery stood. The remaining stocks are independently released which is why Karuizawa is one of the most collectible Japanese whiskies.
Aqua of Life White was distilled in 1968 and aged for 50 years in sherry casks until it was bottled at cask strength, in this case 59.2%ABV. Its name was inspired by the Irish name for whisky, uisce beatha which literally means water of life, and the Tai Chi Yin-Yang theory — a circle of life.
Only 347 bottles were made, the most expensive of which costs $87,302.
2. Hibiki 35 Years Tokuda Yasokichi III – $101,952
Hibiki is a brand of Suntory, the oldest whisky making company in Japan and today the country’s largest and most recognizable producer of quality whisky. Hibiki is the hallmark of their whiskies, and it has won lots of international prizes and recognition.
The Hibiki 35 Years Old Kutani Decanter Tokuda Yasokichi III is one of the best limited releases Suntory has ever made for the Hibiki brand. It’s a blended whisky presented in a decorative, handmade, water drop shaped, Kutani ceramic decanter made by Tokuda Yasokichi III. Kutani ware is a style of Japanese porcelain and Tokuda Yasokichi III is one of the most famous Kutani potters in the world.
Only 150 of these decanters were made, the most expensive of which costs $101,952.
3. Karuizawa Ghost Series 7 Bottle Set – $111,500
The Karuizawa Ghost Series is a collection of rare whiskies from the above-mentioned, now closed Kuruizawa distillery (hence the name Ghost). The series was launched by Stefan van Eycken – a pre-eminent authority on Japanese whisky and a fan of the Karuizawa distillery.
There are eight whiskies in the series so far, with each bottle featuring a different signature print from ‘New Forms of 36 Ghosts’ by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
Finding a complete Ghost Series set however, is very difficult. That’s because the sixth bottle no longer exists – Stefan decided they all had to be opened before they were delivered and so by now have presumably been consumed, and because the number of bottles in each edition varies from more than 100 to only 22, making the smaller number the maximum number of sets possible.
The remaining seven bottles that make up one of the rare sets are:
- Karuizawa Ghost Series 14 Years Old (distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2014)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series 16 Years Old (distilled in 1996 and bottled in 2013)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series Double Distilleries (also distilled at Chichibu)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series Time Slip (distilled in the 1970s and bottled in 2015)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series 18 Years Old (distilled in 1995 and bottled in 2013)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series 33 Years Old (distilled in 1980 and bottled in 2014)
- Karuizawa Ghost Series 4 Decades (distilled between 1960 and 2000 and bottled in 2014)
By themselves each bottle can cost anywhere between $8,500 – $25,000 but a full (minus the sixth bottle obviously) set costs $111,500.
4. Karuizawa Cities of Japan 6 Bottle Set – $132,000
This is another rare set from the closed Karuizawa distillery. All six single malt whiskies were distilled in 1981 and matured in a single sherry cask for 35 years until 2017 when they were bottled at 59.1%ABV. This limited amount of whisky was released in six editions, with each one featuring a different gold painted design representing one of Japan’s great cities, on the glass bottle.
The six editions or cities are:
There are only 23 bottles of the Tokyo edition, and only 20 bottles of each of the other editions, making this a rarer set than the Ghost Series. Each bottle separately originally cost $12,500 although today the most expensive price for a full set is $132,000.
5. Suntory Yamazaki Vintage Malt 1980 – $139,999
As mentioned, Suntory is the oldest whisky making company in Japan and the country’s largest and most recognizable producer of quality whisky. Its flagship distillery, Yamazaki was in fact Japan’s first whisky distillery.
In its early days Yamazaki produced both malt and grain whisky for Suntory’s blends, but the opening of the Chita distillery in 1972 allowed it to focus on its single malt brand that have since then, won many international awards.
The Suntory Yamazaki Vintage Malt series are high-quality single malts that are renowned for being the finest single malt whiskies in Japan. The 1980 edition was distilled in 1980, matured in a Spanish sherry Oak cask and bottled in 2004 at 56%ABV. There are only 300 bottles.
Many of the whiskies in the series cost over $10,000, but the most expensive price any has sold for is the 1980 for $139,999.
6. Karuizawa 1963 50-Year-Old – $149,999
This is another whisky from one of the remaining casks of the now closed Karuizawa distillery. It’s a single cask whisky that was distilled in 1963 and matured in a sherry cask for 50 years, until it was bottled in 2014 at a cask strength of 59%ABV.
The whisky comes in an engraved and silver embossed bottle and wooden box. There are only 131 bottles and while you can buy one for significantly cheaper – although we’re still talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, the most expensive price a bottle of Karuizawa 1963 50-Year-Old has sold for is $149,999.
7. Suntory Yamazaki 35-Year-Old – $169,999
The Suntory Yamazaki 35-Year-Old is one of the oldest expressions of Yamazaki whisky ever bottled.
It was distilled between 1966 and 1970 and matured in special 90L second-fill Spanish sherry Oak casks. The size of the cask is important as it’s less than half the size of barrels usually used for maturing whisky. This means there’s a higher surface area per volume of whisky which gives it richer, more intense, and more complex flavors in a shorter period of time.
The small size of the cask is also the reason why only 200 bottles were released. The bottle comes in a wooden box and includes a certificate. Once again, it’s possible to buy a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 35-Year-Old for significantly less – although still not what I would call cheap, but the most expensive price for a bottle is $169,999.
8. Karuizawa 1965 50-Year-Old – $221,192
Similar to the Karuizawa 1963 50-Year-Old, the Karuizawa 1965 50-Year-Old comes from one of the remaining casks of the now closed Karuizawa distillery. It’s a single cask whisky that was distilled in 1965 and matured in a sherry cask for 50 years, until it was bottled in 2016 at a cask strength of 62.3%ABV.
Included in the wooden presentation box is an ink plate, dried ink, brush and stamp. There are only 309 bottles and while you can buy one for significantly cheaper – although we’re still talking in the tens of thousands of dollars, the most expensive price a bottle of Karuizawa 1965 50-Year-Old has sold for is $221,192.
9. Karuizawa The Dragon 1960 52 Years Old – $312,103
The Dragon is the oldest Karuizawa whisky in the world. It’s a single cask whisky that was distilled in 1960 and matured in a sherry cask for 52 years until it was bottled in 2013 at 51.8%ABV.
Of course, such a unique whisky comes in a special package where each element has been carefully crafted. The label of Japanese Washi paper was handmade by Norito Hasegawa – a third generation paper maker, and then embellished by Master Calligrapher, Soji Nishimoto.
The inner Ash wood and outer Wenge wood presentation case is modelled on traditional Japanese puzzle boxes and was handmade by an accomplished British cabinetmaker. The box is adorned with pieces from the original sherry cask shipped from Karuizawa.
Each of the 41 bottles made are named after the unique Netsuke – Japanese miniature sculpture, that hangs from the neck of the bottle. Being so old and so rare, it’s no surprise that one of The Dragons fetched $312,103 at auction.
10. Suntory Yamazaki 50 Year 3rd Edition – $654,423
The Suntory Yamazaki 50-Year-Old is one of the oldest and rarest single malt Japanese whiskies in existence. It was matured for more than half a century in the very finest Japanese Mizunara oak barrels.
The etched bottle the whisky comes in is signed by Suntory’s Master Blender Fukuyo Shinji and it’s topped with delicate Japanese Washi paper tied with a scarlet and gold cord. The bottle comes in a black, handcrafted oak box.
There are actually three editions of the 50-Year-Old Yamazaki. The first edition bottled in 2005, the second edition bottled in 2007 and the third edition bottled in 2011.
Only 50 bottles were produced for the first and second editions, and 150 bottles for the third. However, despite the fact that the first edition is rarer than the third, the most expensive price a bottle of the first edition sold for at auction was (only!) $429,798 but the most expensive price for a bottle of the third edition is $654,423.
11. Suntory Yamazaki 55-Year-Old – $1,142,84
The Yamazaki 55-Year-Old is the oldest single malt ever released by Suntory and the oldest Japanese whisky in existence. All three generations of Yamazaki Master Blenders had a hand in making it.
Master Blender and Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii (also considered one of the founding fathers of Japanese whisky) distilled the first component in 1960 and aged it (mostly) in Mizunara Oak casks. His son, Master Blender Keizo Saji, distilled two more components in 1961 and 1964 and aged them in American white Oak barrels. His son, Master Blender Shingo Torii blended the three whiskies together in 2020.
The whisky comes in a crystal bottle with sand blasted calligraphy featuring gold dust and lacquer. It also features traditional Japanese crafts such as Washi paper on the capsule and a Kyo-kumihimo plaited cord. The bottle comes in a custom box crafted from Japanese Mizunara wood that’s finished with lacquer.
It’s age, history and the fact that there are only 100 bottles in existence, make the Suntory Yamazaki 55-Year-Old one of the most sought after and collectible bottles of whisky to ever come to market. And while you could buy one for a couple of hundred thousand dollars less, the most expensive price for a bottle is $1,142,84.
12. Hanyu Ichiro’s Malt Card Series Full Set – $1.52m
The Hanyu distillery was the smallest distillery in Japan. It was founded in 1941 but had to close in 2000 after being hit by the Japanese recession. Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the distillery’s founder, rescued 400 casks which were the remainder of its aging stocks.
In 2005 he created Ichiro’s Malt Card Series, a collection of single cask releases from Hanyu’s old stocks, each of which feature a label depicting a unique playing card. Ichiro released these single malt whiskies in a slow and steady stream over the next nine years and they eventually gained a cult-like following.
Each of these whiskies are rare – only 100 bottles of each ‘card’ were created, and a set of Ichiro’s Malt Card Series – consisting of a full deck of 52 different card bottles plus two jokers, is rarer still. There are only four known sets in existence.
In 2015 a full set sold for $480,000 at auction and in 2019 another set sold for $917,000 at auction. However, in 2020 yet another set sold for $1.52 million at auction, making it the most expensive Japanese whisky ever – so far.