Kaiyo Single Cask Strength B&B Barrel #5212 Japanese Whisky
Both Nikka and Suntory had been making whisky for the domestic market in Japan for the better part of the 20th century, but really made an international splash in the 2000's with some of their single malt releases that stood toe to toe with the Scottish greats, and put their own stamp on the category with a depth of character and a keen sense of balance. That sense of balance isn't just western romanticizing of Japanese aesthetics and ideals, but rather a result of the meticulous blending of different kinds of casks, different levels of peated and unpeated malt, and carefully managed maturation. These elements come together to create a kind of whisky that is subtle but full of character, with no one flavor in the lead, but rather an orchestral sensibility wherein each voice works together to form a greater whole.
So naturally, as not just a store, but as curators of spirits, when we look for Japanese whisky to sell alongside the beloved Suntory and Nikka bottlings (and often in fact, in their place), we are looking not just for something that has pretty Japanese calligraphy on it, but something that approaches these same qualities. We've tried many, and so many are unfortunately either not the same kind of spirit at all, or just fall too far short, and we could find better executions at a better value from Scotland or elsewhere. But one brand has consistently stayed on our shelves and in our whisky loving hearts, and that is Kaiyo.
Part of Kaiyo's success and consistent quality is the base distillate itself, which actually comes from Nikka. Nikka distills the whisky and then "teaspoons" it, meaning they add a minuscule amount of non-Nikka distillate to it, preventing it from being called Single Malt or bearing their name, though the quality remains unaffected. Kaiyo then matures this in Japanese Mizunara oak, a notoriously expensive and difficult to work with wood that is responsible for many of Nikka and Suntory's most lauded special releases throughout the years. After an initial period of aging, the barrels take a several months-long journey at sea on cargo ships, where the constant jostling and influence of maritime air further adds levels of complexity to the whisky before it returns to Japan for final maturation. Generally, it is then blended to achieve the desired profile, but recently they have begun setting aside some of the more characterful barrels to be sold as single cask selections. Do you see where we are going with this?
We were lucky enough to choose a barrel in the inaugural launch of this new private barrel program, and what a treat it was tasting their whisky in its "pure" form after falling in love with their regular lineup the last few years. Like their standard bottling, the barrel we selected was aged entirely in Mizunara oak, first for three years in Japan, then for three months at sea, then an additional six years back in Japan for a total of over nine years. It is bottled at a near cask strength of 56% abv (their highest yet proof), without chill-filtration. How this remains so affordable is slightly baffling, but we'll take it.
On the nose, it opens musty and malty, like a dark beer brewing, but then there is bright citrus, even a distinct wisp of bergamot orange, and hints of florals. On the palate, the woodsiness continues, but like so many mizunara aged whiskies, it never overwhelms despite its omnipresence. This allows notes of black tea, a tingling spice, and a subtle creamy sweetness to play alongside the oak, with a backdrop of vanilla extract and incense-like spice. The heat from the proof is present enough to be bracing on the first sip, but never gets in the way of the subtle balance of flavor and brings out the spice elements. With a little bit of water it's quite tamed, and the tea and florals come through even more, particularly on the lingering finish. If you've ever been curious about Mizunara oak matured whiskies, Kaiyo should be on your radar, and this barrel, in particular, is one of the most excellent expressions of their signature Mizunara character we've yet come across.