I first tasted the new Kaiyo Japanese whiskies weeks ago during a brief tasting with my sales rep who had sample vials rather than the actual bottles on hand. I loved what I tasted, gave her my order, and waited with gleeful anticipation for the cases to show up. Not only was I looking forward to seeing the labels, I was excited to write these babies up on the blog and provide a fun new option for my most obsessed Japanese whisky fans. My allocations were slim (I was going to have to enforce bottle limits), but I was confident a big email would get everyone pumped up for future shipments.
Then I finally got a look at the bottles and was immediately concerned. I'll tell you why.
Japanese whisky is hot right now and supplies from the main core of distillers are incredibly limited. As we learned from the great Kentucky rye whiskey shortage of 2010, that type of vacuum inevitably creates alternative market options that, while often delicious, aren't necessarily the same thing in the eyes of the consumer. For example, barrel-aged Japanese rice spirits are now becoming popular here at K&L (oak-matured shochus that qualify as whisky in the U.S. due to the fact that rice is a grain by our definition, but are not considered whisky by Japanese definition). I'm a huge fan of the Ohishi and Fukano selections we carry, but they're not traditional Japanese whiskies. I've also come across Japanese-labeled malts that appear to be Japanese in origin, but in reality are purchased from Scotland and bottled in Japan. They've been reduced with Japanese spring water or aged in a Japanese warehouse, but did not originate from Japan. Again, delicious, but not Japanese.
When I couldn't find any indication of the words "Japanese whisky" on the new Kaiyo labels, I thought this might be yet another Japanese "malternative," but after talking extensively with the supplier on the phone this week I found out the reasoning behind the rather sparse label. I thought I'd share the full scoop with all of you here so that there's no confusion moving forward.
Kaiyo is a negotiant bottler started by a drinks group led by former Asahi employee Mr. Watanabe who was able to purchase "teaspooned" malt whisky barrels from an unnamed Japanese whisky supplier via his connections in the industry ("teaspooning" is when a distiller adds a teaspoon of another whisky into the barrel before selling it, thus preventing the purchaser from claiming it as a single malt from that distillery. For example, if you put a teaspoon of another distillery's whisky into a barrel of Macallan, it ceases to be both Macallan and a single malt immediately). Hence, the reason the Kaiyo whiskies are not labeled as single malts. We've purchased numerous "teaspooned" barrels from Scotland in the past (and I have a few more on the water as we speak). I have no problem with selling teaspooned whiskies. In fact, it's usually with teaspooned casks that one can find the best possible deals since you can't market off the name of the malt itself! Issue number one was settled.
But what about issue number two? Why not refer to the Kaiyo whiskies as specifically Japanese? Why the word play with Japanese Mizunara oak, but not actual Japanese whisky? The reason is that the whiskies from Kaiyo are not matured entirely in the country of Japan. As I learned while working directly with Michel Couvreur, the Scotch single malt bottler located in France, if Scottish malts are not both distilled and matured in Scotland, you will face the wrath of the Scotch whisky authorities should you attempt to label it as Scotch whisky. In the case of Kaiyo, the Kaiyo team and Mr. Watanabe found that the Mizunara oak aging gave immediate flavor during the early years of maturation, but after that the intensity of the oak influence began to wain a bit. After hearing about Kelt Cognac's ocean-matured brandy and the reinvigorating effects of marine travel, they decided to give it a try. Thus, the Kaiyo whisky barrels do not spend their entire life maturing in Japan. They are aged partially on a boat!
The Kaiyo company wanted to avoid any labeling controversies associated with maturation issues, so Kaiyo decided to leave the term Japanese whisky off the label. However, the whiskies are indeed created from malt whiskies distilled in Japan. The whiskies are purchased as teaspooned new make (unaged distillates) and then put into Japanese Mizunara oak barrels from Ariake, considered one of the best manufacturers in the world (each new Mizunara barrel costs between $6500 - $7500). For the moment, the U.S. market has two flavors available: regular and cask strength. Let's examine the flavor differences.
Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Japanese Whisky $69.99 - If you're unfamiliar with the legend of Japanese Mizunara oak, it's become heralded in the whisky world both for the exotic flavors of incense, sandalwood, and coconut it passes along to the spirit, as well as its expense. Difficult to cooper and notoriously inefficient as a vessel, editions of Yamazaki and Bowmore aged in Mizunara wood have sold at four figure prices, making the Kaiyo whiskies in comparison seem like a steal. You get an exotic note of tea and faint orange peel on the nose of the standard Kaiyo edition, but the soft and rather delicate palate brings more of the vanilla and oak character. The spices come out on the finish with lots of pepper and oolong. It's very Japanese in its restraint, graceful from front to back without any serious peaks or valleys.
Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Cask Strength Japanese Whisky $99.99 - The cask strength version of Kaiyo Mizunara is basically a stronger, more intense version of the regular edition with everything turned up. The orange peel notes and oak spices on the nose jump out of the glass, the sandalwood and vanilla are bold on the palate, and there's a lot more concentration of oak on the finish. It's a more expressive and intense version of the Mizunara influence. Definitely worth the extra cash if you're a fan of bolder editions. However, I will say that Japanese whiskies are usually the epitome of balance and in my mind the standard edition has found the perfect equilibrium.
What's perhaps most important to interested drinkers, however, is that neither whisky tastes like anything currently coming out from Yamazaki, Hakushu, Yoichi, Miyagikyo, or Iwai. They're both tasty editions that carry Japanese craftsmanship and provide fans of the genre with true-to-form, malt-based, Japanese-distilled options aged in the coveted Japanese Mizunara oak.
It took a bit of digging to get all the details, but in the end it was worth doing (and these whiskies are definitely worth drinking!)