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