Kikori Whiskey Review

Producer: Kikori. Distiller: undisclosed. Age: 3+ years. Grain bill: 100% rice. Price: $40.

First thing to know about “Kikori Whiskey”: it’s not whisk(e)y. It’s shochu, a Japanese spirit with a 500-year-old tradition, usually distilled from rice or sweet potatoes–though sometimes carrots or unmalted barley–and often sold at 25-35% ABV. It uses koji mold to break down starches in the grains before fermentation, and it can be aged, including in oak, as in this case.

Kikori (41% ABV) comes from an undisclosed distillery in Kumamoto, Japan. It’s made from local rice, and is a blend of 3+ year-old spirit, 80% aged in American oak, 10% each in French limousin and sherry casks. Sounds intriguing, and at $40 it seemed worth a try.

Very light straw color in the glass, with tiny brownish flakes swimming about. The nose suggests a young American craft whiskey. Fresh tobacco. Black tea. Pleasant, with some promise–but the palate betrays it: grain spirit, yeasty rice flavor, a little sweetness. Watery body. Finish: none to speak of, apart from a slight sourness. Gave this time, multiple tries over several nights–no improvement.

Why not call Kikori what it is–oak-aged rice shochu? Because there’s no global craze for oak-aged rice shochu. There’s no worldwide shortage of oak-aged rice shochu. There is, however, a global craze for Japanese whisky, with prices spiking, age statements vanishing, and importers looking for new ways to cash in.

In order to have the right to use the word “whiskey” on its label, Kikori had to convince the Alcohol & Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) that it met the category’s requirements. They obviously managed to do so–aided, no doubt, by the fact that there is no TTB category for shochu. They just haven’t convinced me. (See the Comments section for more geekery on this point.)

If you’re looking for Japanese whisky on a budget, try the Shinsu Mars Iwai blend, a mere $35, but with surprising richness and heft–or better yet, the slightly more expensive and significantly tastier Mars Iwai Tradition. If you’re looking for an oak-aged shochu that can stand proudly alongside traditional Japanese whiskies, try Fukano. Unlike Kikori, Fukano absolutely has “the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky” (per the TTB definition). And it’s flat-out delicious.

Kanpai! – BO

Buy Japanese whisky online at Mash + Grape

6 thoughts on “Kikori Whiskey Review”

  1. Help me understand this better please. “It uses koji mold rather than yeast for fermentation”. Isnt Koji used to convert the starches in the rice into sugar and then yeast is used to convert the sugars into alcohol since you cant just ferment rice, isn’t that why sake uses Multi parallel fermentation? Is it they use Koji mold for saccharification to get the mash started rather than germinating the grain to get the mash that makes it not technically a whisky. I love to learn and to teach. I was shocked to read “First thing to know about “Kikori Whiskey”: it’s not whisk(e)y. It’s shochu”. It got my curiosity going.
    The bottle says Whisky. Is this for taxable purposes?
    Help me understand better this is a product we are soon to introduce and I would love to better educated about it. You can get as technical as you want in your explanation please. I love learning.

    1. Hey Billy, thanks for reaching out. If Kikori’s coming to Nobu restaurants, that’s a huge coup on their part! On the whisk(e)y definition question, there’s wiggle room, and Kikori was smart to exploit it. The TTB definition of whisk(e)y is “spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).” Kikori meets the first and third criteria, and obviously was able to convince the TTB that it met the second too, since they were allowed to use the word “whiskey” on their bottle. They just haven’t convinced me.

      Kikori was produced in Japan as shochu–in this case, a single-distilled, rice-based spirit, using koji mold to break down the starches, then yeast for fermentation. (You’re right on the money about this: it’s koji before yeast, not koji instead of yeast. I’ve corrected this.) Shochu has a centuries-long tradition in Japan, and a taste and profile that are a world away from Japanese whiskies from Yamazaki, Yoichi, Hakushu, Mars, etc., even given the huge range of tastes and profiles Japanese whisky contains–and the range shochu can contain as well, since it can also be made from other products or multiply distilled. Kikori takes a half-step in the whisky direction with its oak maturation, but it would still be instantly recognizable in Japan as shochu, and I strongly suspect it could only be marketed there as shochu.

      It’s worth noting too that other Japanese distillers of traditional, single-distilled, rice-based spirits do market their products in the U.S. as shochu, including those that are oak aged.

      So why doesn’t Kikori? I reached out to them by phone and online to ask before I posted my review, but they didn’t respond. (A company rep did later comment on an Instagram post of ours, essentially saying “well, TTB says we’re a whiskey.”)

      The reason why they’d rather be called a whiskey rather than a shochu is obvious: virtually no one’s heard of shochu in the U.S., while just about everyone who’s heard the word “Pappy” has also heard at some point that Japanese whisky “is the best in the world.” (Kikori’s website cleverly uses “best Japanese whiskey” as their tagline.) So if the TTB will let you sell your shochu as whiskey, it’s a natural play.

      It turns out that the TTB doesn’t have a spirits category that would force Kikori to use the word shochu, so they made a bid for “whiskey.” And, again, they met the first and third parts of the technical definition. But does Kikori “have the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky”? I certainly don’t think so–not by the standards of U.S., Japanese, or just about any world whiskies. I don’t even think it’s a close call. But somebody at the TTB did. And “characteristics generally attributed” leaves a lot of wiggle room.

      All that said, there is another oak-aged shochu that is new to the U.S., and is also being marketed as “Japanese rice whisky,” Fukano. Unlike Kikori, Fukano absolutely has “the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky.” And it’s flat-out delicious. For the moment it’s only in CA, and is highly limited, but if you’re looking for a “Japanese rice whisky” for Nobu or anywhere else, Fukano is _definitely_ the one to seek out. Cheers!

  2. There is a decent shoju by Jinro I’ve had which could pass for a kind of whiskey. It’s their top high grade shoju (shochu). Hard to find in Japan. Was given as a gift once. It’s called “Otsu”. The lable is written with a kanji I believe.

    1. Thanks for the tip, Jack! I’m long overdue for a whisky pilgrimage to Japan…hoping to make it there later this year.

  3. It surely has a very lovely colour to it. The 500-year-old tradition intriguing enough for me to pick it up from the shelf. Even more when you say this baby is only for $40, that is a great deal for -I bet- great spirit. I’m sure it is a great spirit, though. Japanese spirit never fails to amaze me, be it the taste or it’s tradition.

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