Japanese Whisky Meets Exotic Wood

Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara 2017
Yamazaki 18 Year Old Mizunara 2017

It’s the talk of the town – aged Japanese whisky is running out.

The past decade has seen Japanese whisky demand skyrocket as more attention is paid to these whiskies by enthusiasts and top investors. For instance, expressions such as the Hibiki 21 year old has ensured the Yamazaki range is always in the spotlight, while smaller producers in Japan, like the Chichibu distillery, continue to amass a global, cult-like following.

Things were very different decades ago, when whisky consumption in Japan had hit an all-time low. Japanese producers never expected their whisky to ever become so popular in Japan, or overseas. The whisky that went into barrels was reduced, and some producers (like Nikka) even halted production for a few years.

Today, that decision has cost the whisky world dearly. Bottle numbers of the popular aged expressions are scarce and their prices reflect that. Most Japanese producers have introduced no age statement releases to combat the impending drought, until aged stock is replenished. This is expected to happen by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japanese distillers have started experimenting. Casks previously holding exotic and unusual spirits are part of this movement, meant to expand their NAS expressions. With some of the most unique expressions announced only recently, 2017 will be ending on a positive, exotic note.

Yoichi & Miyagikyo Single Malts (Rum & Moscatel Finish)

Yoichi and Miyagikyo Moscatel finish
Yoichi and Miyagikyo Moscatel finish

Nikka, owner of the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, sadly completely discontinued its aged single malt range several years back, now offering only NAS versions.

So, the announcement of these unique cask-finished expressions was warmly welcomed by fans worldwide.

The Yoichi and Miyagikyo Moscatel single malts were released on September 26th, in Japan. The two rum cask-finished expressions were also announced, coming in November this year for Europe and the U.S. Nikka didn’t want to leave their Western fans feeling unloved.

The Portuguese Moscatel wine brings honey and tropical fruit notes, which enhance the sherried fruit and sweet oak of the classic Miyagikyo character.

The Yoichi, on the other hand, bursts with peat and strength as the Moscatel balances the dram with sweetness, making the experience smoother and fruitier.

Yamazaki 18 Mizunara 2017 Edition

While the art of Japanese Mizunara oak maturation isn’t quite new, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery has perfected the practice. The new 2017 Mizunara Edition was released last month to overwhelming popularity. The price on the secondary market has more than tripled since its release, and for good reason.

The Mizunara influence paired with the deeply complex Yamazaki character, makes this an unforgettable dram.

Kyoto Noh Aged Gin

Yes, this is a gin, but stay with it. The expression by the artisanal gin Kyoto Distillery was aged in ex-Karuizawa whisky casks.

Karuizawa shut-down in the early 2000s, and its whisky has since become some of the rarest and most expensive in the world. Earlier this year a large Karuizawa collection sold at auction for over $1 million!

Number One Drinks, a UK-based company, owns all the remaining Karuizawa stock as well as the Kyoto Distillery. So, aging gin in the empty casks was a natural step to take.

The gin was released in Japan, and sold out in the first few days.

Chichibu IPA Finish

By the amazing Chichibu distillery, owned by Japanese whisky legend Ichiro Akuto, this expression presents a step forward in the industry.

Chichibu teamed up with two of Japan’s most popular craft beer breweries here. First fill casks holding Chichibu whisky were emptied and sent to the breweries. After barrel aging an India pale ale in them, the casks were returned. Whisky was then added to the IPA casks.

Abundant grapefruit, orange, and a slight bitterness is added to the rich, malty whisky. One of the most exciting bottlings of the year, 6,700 bottles have been distributed across Japan, Europe, and the U.S.

Keep your eyes peeled!


Bainbridge Yama Whiskey

While most Mizunara aged whiskies hail from Japan, distillers in the West are also experimenting with Japanese oak.

The Yama whiskey is a wonderful example. Claiming to be the world’s first whiskey exclusively aged in Mizunara oak, the whiskey is named after the village of Yama which was founded back in 1883 by Japanese immigrants on the island of Bainbridge.

Distilled using organic ingredients and placed into virgin Mizunara casks for maturation, this single grain expression has been an instant hit.

It’s been an exciting year for Japanese whisky, and exotic wood continues to appear in lovely, experimental batches across the country as it influences others. The NAS movement has grown in popularity, and shaken off the image of a cheap replacement for aged expressions.

Aged stock will soon be replenished and, hopefully, this passion for innovation and experimentation will only grow. Putting the two together gives us much to look forward to in the years ahead.