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

Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon Review

Distiller: Wyoming Whiskey. 44% ABV. Age: 5+ years. Mashbill: at least 51% corn, undisclosed proportions of wheat and malted barley. Price: $47.

Wow. There’s nothing like trying a bottle from a microdistiller that’s all but unknown outside its home state, and being not just pleasantly surprised, but truly impressed. Wyoming Whiskey trumpets a 95 rating from WhiskyCasts’s Mark Gillespie — and I can see what he liked.

Wyoming Whisky It’s not a Kentucky bourbon profile, nor should it be. It’s a purely local product: all Wyoming grain and Wyoming water. The company signaled its seriousness early on by hiring as its master distiller Steve Nally, who spent 33 years with Maker’s Mark. (Read the Q&A with him in Imbibe.) They released their first product — their wheated small batch bourbon — in December 2012.

Nose: a touch hot at first, but no white dog bite, no small-barrel blues. Strong green apple. Calvados. Potpourri. With time, toasted baguette with butter.

Palate: black tea with honey. Sandalwood. Sauteed mushrooms? And an empty Chardonnay cask sort of funk that’s hard to place, but I love it. The nose is enjoyable, but it’s the palate that really sets this bourbon apart. You won’t mistake it for anything else on your shelf. Complex, lingering finish.

It’s a distinct enough product that it won’t suit every bourbon drinker. But for my money, that’s exactly what real microdistillers should be doing: producing stuff that expresses a local character, that shows a variety and uniqueness that the big boys don’t.

As with any small distiller, there may be a question of batch-to-batch consistency…I haven’t heard the same wildly split opinions batch to batch as I have with Stranahan’s, but that may also be because Wyoming Whiskey is still little-known. (For reference, I’ve got Batch 28.)

In any event, if you run across it, don’t pass up the chance to try it. And definitely let us know what you think. As of August 2015, it’s sold in 12 states, and the company tells me it’ll soon be sold in 25. It should be sold in all 50.

Hats off, Wyoming Whiskey! – BO

The distiller graciously provided a bottle for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Buy Wyoming Whiskey online at Mash + Grape

Black Dirt Bourbon Review

Distiller: Black Dirt Distillery. 45% ABV. Age: 3+ years. Mashbill: 80% local corn, 12% malted barley, 8% rye. Price: $40-50

Black Dirt Bourbon comes from the New York State microdistiller of the same name, nestled in the fertile valley just north of the New Jersey border where the corn for their mash is grown. (Full disclosure: I’ve got a soft spot for the place since I used to pick apples at the Warwick Valley winery/orchard where the distillery grew up, and often came home with a few bottles of the American Fruits brandies and liqueurs they made before they obtained a license for whiskey distilling.)

They start with points for transparency: their site lists age, mashbills, and char levels for every batch of their bourbon. I tried Batch 6: 45% ABV; 80% local corn, 12% malted barley, 8% rye; 3+ years in new American oak with char level 3. While not quite the first-glass knockout that Wyoming Whiskey was for me, Black Dirt, like WYW, has the unique local character that I think a true “craft” whiskey should, and it gets better every time I revisit it.

Heat on the nose soon dissipates, revealing red clay, black tea, creek stones dried in the sun. The palate’s on the dry side, quite spicy, with burnt corn on the cob and spikes of black pepper — intriguing, especially given the low rye content. With time, dried fruit, and walnuts enter the mix. Dry wood spice on the long finish. The astringency makes it great warm-weather sipper.

Black Dirt Distillery is definitely one to watch. Their latest single barrel is a wheater, which I’m going to try at the first opportunity. They’re only selling in NY, NJ, and CT for the moment, though they’ll be distributing in CA via Young’s as of 2016. Cheers, friends! – BO

Black Dirt graciously provided a bottle for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Buy Black Dirt Bourbon online at Mash + Grape

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Review

Distiller: Tuthilltown Distillery. 46% ABV. NAS. Mashbill: 60% corn, undisclosed proportions of rye, wheat, and malted barley. Price: $50 for 375ml.

Tuthilltown Distillery is a pioneer NY state microdistiller that won the national distribution lottery after being purchased by William Grant & Sons in 2010. Raft of awards aside, the knock on Hudson/Tuthilltown is that they coast on their excellent packaging and early reputation, while selling underaged spirits matured (mostly) in 3-gallon barrels that do the product few favors — for the equivalent of $100 for a 750.

That said, the Four Grain is the best-reviewed of their current offerings. So how is it?

From a fresh bottle, the raw green oak and biting spirit make it almost painful to nose. A few pours (and some time) in, the rawness subsides enough to let some apricot and sourdough through. The palate is more complex and successful, reflecting the mashbill’s relatively rare blend of four grains. I get burnt apple pie, clove, and pine.

It’s easy to see why Hudson whiskies sell: they look great, draw the curious, and seem like a perfect gift. And I like this one more than the other Hudsons I’ve tried. But for $100 for 750ml of whiskey, there aren’t just a dozen big boys I’d pick over this, there are quite a few microdistillers too. – BO

(Addendum: Haven’t seen them on the shelf in CA yet, but I’ve heard that 750ml bottles of the Hudson Baby Bourbon are showing up in stores with a price tag of $60 — definitely more appropriate.)

Buy Hudson whiskey online at Mash + Grape

Willett 2-Year-Old Rye Review

Distiller: Willett. 110.8% ABV. Age: 2 years. Mashbill: undisclosed. Price: $40.

Willett’s 2-year-old rye got a lot of folks excited when it was first released in summer 2014 — and with good reason. The Willett family has a 150-year history in the whiskey business, though in recent years it’s been sourcing, blending, and bottling other distilleries’ stocks under the moniker Kentucky Bourbon Distillers — including  the excellent Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Corner Creek, and Willett Pot Still Reserve, among others — rather than distilling itself.

Correction: while resuming distilling itself. The 2-year-old rye marks Willett’s first home-distilled release in 30 years. And it’s one hell of an attention-grabber.

Why release something so young when you’ve got so much high quality sourced whiskey on the market? Because you already know you’ve got something to get excited about.

Willett’s 2-year-old rye is wild and fiery as a barnstorming teenage preacher.

Hot, brash, fiery nose, with rye bread, anise, candied citrus, and maraschino — not the sickly sweet cherries, but the beguiling Italian liqueur that packs herbs and bark and bitters into an elixir that transforms cocktails with a single drop.

But don’t get your Manhattan glass out yet. This one’s a sipper. There is a touch of white dog on the palate, but there’s so much more going on, all supercharged by the youth without being out of control. Fresh-cut flowers, prickly spice, and sweet citrus again. Give it a little water. It’ll expand, but it won’t slow down. Long, complex finish.

Willett’s older sourced ryes have garnered much praise, but between this and, say, their 8-year-old MGP/LDI rye, I’ll take this one any day of the week.

Great things to come here. Great things are here already. – BO



Talisker 10 Review

Distiller: Talisker. 45.8% ABV. Age: 10 years. Region: Islands. Price: $50-55.

One of the great standard-issues out there. The softer side of the islands, but so well balanced that even its delicacy is just robust enough. Honeyed malt, mild peat, and brine in perfect harmony, with a dash of white pepper on top. Medium finish.

In an age of peat monsters and sherry bombs that don’t always live up to their concepts–not to mention the growing ranks of no-age-statement releases–Talisker 10 is a modestly priced modern classic that knows just what it wants to be.

Sláinte! – BO

Buy Talisker online at Mash + Grape

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