Japanese Whisky

Review: Fuyu Blended Japanese Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Distiller N/A

This whisky has shown up in Ontario and Quebec, and very little is known about it. That always makes me a bit nervous with Japanese whisky, which is quite unregulated - you can blend other types of whisky (like Scottish or Canadian) together in Japan and still call it Japanese whisky. This, however, is partly (if not all) from Japan. The Japanese whisky scene, in Canada at least, has never been big but has taken a sad turn in the last few years with more brands popping up but of questionable quality.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

This actually smells rather Canadian to me- like some of the cheaper corn-heavy, lightly spicy blends with notes of white pepper, orange peel, coriander, clove, and some dried chickpeas. The palate is spicy, a bit dry, and a bit sweet. Overall, it’s fairly light in body. The finish remains spicy, a touch sweet, with a bit of oak and more dried citrus peel coming through. It has a relatively short finish. The spiciness and dry-ness are mildly appealing as you drink more.

I wanted to review this in part to say this:  I don’t think it’s a good expression, nor necessarily very representative, of good Japanese whisky. There are lots of newcomers to Japanese whisky who might, upon seeing a nicely packaged Japanese whisky for $70, jump at the chance. But, it’s not something I’d pay $70 for, nor would recommend. It’s an analog for what I see often with Canadian whisky – Canadian whisky is often not available overseas and the expressions available are not representative of the styles and whiskies I’d recommend.

Value: Low. 70$ is a lot to pay, especially when I could recommend some similar profile Canadian whiskies which are better and cost $25.


Review: Ohishi Sherry Cask Japanese Rice Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Ohishi+1.jpg
ABV
40.8%
Aging
Sherry Cask
Recipe
Malted and Unmalted Rice
Distillers Ohishi Distillery (Hitoyoshi, Japan)

Now here is something to write home about - a Japanese whisky distilled wholly from a mixture of malted and unmalted rice! It certainly has my interest piqued! There is actually a lot of distilled rice in Japan - usually shochu which is typically bottled above 25% but below 40%. However, this is a bit odd - because it’s distilled from rice, it wouldn’t be naturally associated with “whisky” (though it fits the definition), but because it’s aged, it wouldn’t naturally be associated with shochu. Notably, a large portion of the grain used in this whisky is grown on the distillery estate. And, like a few stills in Canada, the pot still is made of stainless steel, not copper.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2018

A very rich, unique nose – licorice root, tamarind, dried rice, soy sauce, prunes, plaintain, apple seeds, and a bit of sherry. Terrifically unique. The palate is fruity, with a big sherry influence but also lots of rice notes and even some kidney bean. The finish is similarly interesting, with loads of rice notes, dried fruit, and spice.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). On a taste persepective, this just gets a “highly recommended” score, but I just think it’s so fantastic to taste a nice Japanes whisky, made from rice– a rarity for a Canadian without much access. This is very Japanese in a way I haven’t yet experienced in whisky, which is terrific.

Value: Average. Nice stuff, but Japanese whisky doesn’t go for cheap….this is about $107 CAD.


Review: Nikka Coffey Malt Japanese Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Grain Whisky (i.e. not Malted Barley)
Distiller Miyagikyo (Sendai, Japan)

Similar to the Nikka Coffey Grain (which I really like), this is a malt made in Nikka's coffey still.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 6/14E481631

  • Bottling Date: August 2016

A very Japanese nose – light incense, apple juice, vanilla, spicy oak, banana, and light dried citrus. Well balanced and elegant. The mouthfeel is rich, with a rich spiciness – clove, rosewood, and sandalwood – and light fruit and floral notes to balance it out. There is lots of vanilla and oreo ice cream. The finish is sweet with light floral notes, raisins, prunes and a suggestive maltiness. It’s very  easy to drink, but I think its sibling Coffey Grain is actually better.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average. Based on $90.


Review: Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Suntory Toki 1.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Hakushu, Yamazaki, and Chita (Japan)

This whisky has been designed exclusively for the North American Market, and comes at an entry level price. It really is entry level, but that is all it is trying to be. It is designed for versatility, based upon the various ways that whisky is consumed - neat, on the rocks, or in a highball.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Light fruit – pear, peaches, apples, light lemon and grapefruit, and a slightly spicy backdrop with some toffee, brown sugar, and light incense. The palate has a great feel, with some brilliant oak and grain whisky playing around in the background alongside some toffee, and light peach. It’s very easy, light, and relatively simple - i.e. not that interesting – but serves terrifically as a casual sipper and there aren’t any negative elements at all. I’m sure this is what they had in mind when they moved decided to produce this – and they have it accomplished!

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average, based on $60. But in terms of Japanese whisky, I think they did a pretty good job! I enjoy the stuff. You can do better in Japanese whisky, but it comes at a price…


The Value Score: 2.0 by Jason Hambrey

Of all the features of my website, the most feedback I get is about my value score - it's a mathematical formulation of value based on the average cost for a given rating and a deviation from it - i.e., if, based on standard "market" values, a whisky rated 85 is worth, on average, $53, then if the whisky is cheaper than $53 dollars, it is of high value, and if it is more expensive - it is of low value. The statistical formulation is shown in a previous blog post here, if you want the details. Because of the interest (and importance) of a value score, I have added a page to the website describing the best value whiskies. Check it out!

The story of how it came about is simple - I decided to graph all my whiskies which I had rated according to price and value. What I found, surprisingly, is that there is a rough trend - higher scores, on average, came from whiskies that cost more. After carefully selecting 300 standard whiskies which I had rated, I came up with an "average" line. You can see what I mean in the graph below:

The value score has served well, and I enjoy the result: I only rate the whisky, I input the cost, and mathematics does the rest. However, it relies heavily upon assumptions (of which there are many) - how the average line is defined, what whiskies I consider "standard" to set the market value, and what standard deviation to use (I am an aerospace engineer, so please forgive the jargon if you are lost). The implications of each assumption is actually staggering- so it has taken me some time to digest the score methodology itself. However, given my data of 500 or so whisky reviews, I don't have enough data to let stats do all the work - so these assumptions are necessary.

There has been one outstanding issue with the score as is - I have found that higher rated whiskies are not quite highly rated enough. For instance, a Longmorn 18 year old, at a price of $140,. which I rated a 92, was a bottle I bought two of even though it would have a value score of 64. That being said, it's not a bad value score and $140 is a decent amount to spend.

This lead me to look at options to tweak value scores at the higher end of the scale - by increasing the "average" line of what a whisky is worth for higher scores, or by changing the standard deviation for higher scores - meaning that a greater difference in price from the average cost of such a whisky matters less. But, as I said before - is this valid? Really, it implies that for higher rated whiskies value doesn't quite matter as much dollar for dollar. And then, you think, is it value? After tweaking around with the analysis, doing some more number crunching, I realized that, on a global scale, interesting tweaks help a little, but not a lot. So, the options for me: continue to refine and adjust my assumptions to try to come up with something "perfect" or just use the value score as a rough indicator, rather than the law. Coming up with more assumptions to adjust the score just means that it is more fine tuned to myself, specifically. Option 2 is way easier, and way more appropriate - it is a relatively simpler formulation of how I regard value which actually fits a broader population than just me. All this to say - despite its flaws, I have decided not to change the value score. A few considerations:

  • Beyond the assumptions, which I deem to be reasonable, the only subjective part of the value score is my taste rating of a whisky (which, indeed, is subjective - palates are incredibly diverse).
  • All prices are set to the Canadian Market. Thus, whiskies may be more valuable in different regions of the world as certain whiskies are cheaper than others depending on the market. I always say what the price is based on, but all scores are adjusted for inflation/increase in value so that the value score remains consistent with how the market value is increasing.
  • For different areas of the world - take a look at the average line in the graph above, representing the average cost for a given rating. This line corresponds to a value score of 72. If your whisky is the equivalent of $38 (the standard deviation) more expensive than this line, its value is 40/100. If it costs $38*2 = $76 less, its value is 15, etc. If it is $38 cheaper than the blue line for a given rating, its value is 91. If it is $76 dollars less, its value is 99. Etc...if you are in to this send me an e-mail.

Review: Nikka Taketsuru 21 Year Old Blended Japanese Malt Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Taketsuru 21.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
21 Years
Recipe
100% Malted Barley
Distiller Yoichi & Miyagikyo (Japan)

Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 6/14C221641

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

I get a lot more sherry here than in the 12 Y.O. Again very rich. Spicy – cinnamon, incense, green cardamom – but also raisins, figs, grape, vanilla, and, again, old wood. Rich and nutty too. Very nice, mature whisky. On the palate, it’s well integrated, with a very nice balance between the sherry, wood, brown sugar, candied orange, rancio, and green cardamom. Great whisky- very subtle and elegant- though quite tame, so if you like big bold whiskies this isn’t like that. Finishes with quite a bit of rancio, roasted nuts, and marmelade. Magnificent whisky.

It has the extremely satisfying, well-aged effect that you see in the development of great rancio and wood in old armagnac - it really is quite brilliant.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very low, at $373.


Review: Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Old Blended Japanese Malt Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Taketsuru 12.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
12 Years
Recipe
Malt Whiskies
Distillers Yoichi & Miyagikyo (Japan)

This is a blended malt Japanese whisky, and this version has recently been replaced by a NAS version because of the hugely increased demand for Japanese whisky.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

Terrific integration of the grain, though I do not mean the cereal notes (of which there are none). Lightly earthy, with lots of old wood and vanilla. Full of the richness of prunes and spicy, woody notes like incense. I quite like the profile here. With time, sherry notes come to the fore, alongside parmesan, honey, brown sugar, and mixed roasted nuts. Very clean on the palate, though a bit simpler than the nose, with the grain lightly leading the way along, with slightly sweet wood and vanilla. A bit spicy too, with some cinnamon and clove and anise. Tingles on the finish with wood, smoke, and a bit of white pepper. Slightly Dry. Terrific! If only the palate were a touch bigger…

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average, based on $100 CAD.


Review: Nikka From the Barrel Blended Japanese Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Nikka FTB.jpg
ABV
51.4%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Malt and Grain Whiskies
Distiller Miyagikyo & Yoichi (Japan)

The worldwide whisky boom has certainly affected multiple countries, Japan not withstanding. Earlier this year, Nikka decided to stop bottling the revered Yoichi single malt in order to meet demands for their blends – of which this is one. It is made by the Yoichi distillery, which lies in southern hokkaido and was founded by Masataka Taketsuru – the legendary pioneer of Japanese whisky who studied in Scotland and even had a Scottish wife.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 6/100561002

  • Bottling Date: ~2015

Nose: For a 50% whisky, the nose is surprisingly quiet. Primarily, wet, mossy earth and some fino sherry notes amidst vanilla, apricot, oak, pencil shavings, caramel, saffron, white grape, roasted almond, and milk chocolate. Very rich grain in this!

Taste: Thick, with very light earthy barley, dried apricot, pears, dried cherry, prunes, and a decent, but clean, malt backing and some oak in the mix. Clove, cinnamon, a bit of nutmeg, and caramel in the mix too. Quite sweet and sour – too much so, perhaps. With water, at first, it seems to become more sour and the malt comes out more. As you add more water, it becomes quite sweet but better balanced, and still retains flavour well – it makes me wonder, perhaps, if this one was made to be had with soda. I prefer it a bit watered down.

Finish: A bit of lingering peat, light caramel, white pepper, clove, vanilla ice cream, and malt notes.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average, based on about $90 CAD / 750 mls.


Review: Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Nikka Coffey Grain.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Grain Whisky (i.e. not Malted Barley)
Distiller Miyagikyo (Sendai, Japan)

Amidst all the craze around Japanese whisky, with many expressions dropping age statements or going out of production, there are a few great whiskies which appear to becoming more widely available (for now….) – including this one. This is a grain whisky, which, in short, means a whisky not made from malted barley as the definition arises from Scotland where the malts reign and this is part of the “other” whisky. Japanese whisky arose out of students of whisky who journeyed to Scotland to learn and take back what they learned – and, especially at the beginning (and still now) grains and stills were imported from Scotland to Japan – as in 1963 was the continuous coffey still used to make this whisky. The whisky is made in Miyagikyo. There aren’t many coffey stills currently in use, but they are around a few places, like here, or Crown Royal.


Review (2015)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 6/04E341428

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

Nose: Vanilla, caramel, candied orange peel, light oak char, stewed apricot, and dry fresh oak. It is sweetly floral with a chamomile-type profile. Slightly sour, and dried corn husks come out with time too. Simple, but deep, and very well integrated. The use of oak seems very well in line with my experience with other Japanese whiskies, and this is very much like a well-aged (not necessarily long) grain whisky like the older Canadian corn whiskies (i.e. the Highwood ninety 20, or century reserve 21) or Scottish grain whiskies. Very pleasing.

Taste: Hot and complex at first, before some vanilla, lemongrass, and creamy oak come rolling in with some chamomile, before fading slowly to spices. Between the way that your mouth experiences different textures and flavours as you go about tasting this whisky, and the overall balance – it’s a very enjoyable whisky, particularly the middle bit with the creamy oak. Great texture, and great balance of grain and oak. That creamy middle is just so fantastic!

Finish: Cloves, tannins, honey, vanilla, chamomile, honeydew melon, fresh charred oak – good flavour but a bit dry, thin, and short.

Very nice stuff! Good whiskies have a great start, middle, and end – and it’s rare to find whiskies which have such a nice middle as this on the palate. Pleasing all around.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average. Towards the higher end of the category for $100.


Review: Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Year Old Japanese Single Malt Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
10 Years
Recipe
100% Malted Barley
Distiller Miyagikyo (Sendai, Japan)

Miyagikyo is located in the foothills of the miyagi prefecture near the town of Sendai. It was built in 1969, the second distillery made by Nikka, after Yoichi. The distillery encounters very high humidity and still uses a coffey still dating back to 19th century. It took the meticulous Masataku Taketsuru 3 years to find the site, his second one.


Review (2015)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

A malty nose, with some incense-like woody notes. On a secondary level, very light floral notes, like lilly, cinnamon, wet earth, pear, lemon peel, and light sweet vanilla. Light and intriguing. The palate continues to be malt, with light fruit as well and a touch of a floral nature as well. There is a slight earthiness and smokiness resembling ever-so-light peat, as well as buckwheat. Very clean, well-balanced, with the players working together very well.

The finish is fairly light, with the maltiness coming through over and above everything else. A bit of smoke and spice, with a cayenne pepper feel, comes through over time as well. This is a very nice light malt, with a good mix of floral, fruit, and spice characteristics. It’s of a character that you could just sip it down casually and just enjoy, but if you were to stop you would find there’s a decent amount going on to create the character. Sophisticated.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Low, based on $160.