Despite the current fashionability of Japanese whiskey, early online reactions to Kikori, a new one, were dubious. “Not whiskey,” some commenters said. One even suggested that Kikori’s producers had somehow duped whiskey regulators into letting them use the term on its label. The source of the offense? Kikori is made from rice.
Most whiskey is made from barley, corn, wheat or rye; and Japanese whiskey follows in the Scottish tradition by using malted barley. Some early skeptics concluded that Kikori is merely a shochu masquerading as whiskey. And there are similarities: Shochu, Japan’s most popular spirit, is usually made from rice, though it can also use starches like barley, buckwheat and sweet potatoes. Often, it comes from places that are too warm to make great sake, like Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu, where Kikori is made. And both begin life as milled rice fermented with a koji mold.
That’s where the similarities end, however. Most shochu is bottled unaged at around 25 percent alcohol by volume. Wood-aged shochus at 40 to 45 percent (whiskey strength) are rare, and Japanese regulations prohibit shochus from showing too much wood influence. These regulations center around color—it’s somewhat vague, but shochu must be 90 percent lighter in color than whiskey.
Kikori’s creator, Ann Soh Woods, was focused on flavor, and not color, when she set out to make Japanese whiskey from rice five years ago. “I love traditional Japanese whiskey,” Woods explains, “but wanted something lighter that I could drink every night.” To differentiate Kikori from standard Japanese malt whiskies, she deliberately spells it “whiskey” (with an “e”) on her label. Her process begins in the same way as with shochu, but then she ages the spirit for at least three years in used casks (American oak, Sherry and brandy), giving Kikori a pale golden color.
Two other new entries—Fukano and Ohishi—started out as barrel-aged shochu until whiskey expert Christopher Uhde of JVS Imports discovered the casks at the distilleries. “Barrels that have aged too long will get stripped of most of their color and flavor with filtration,” he explains. “Whiskey, at its essence, is a barrelaged spirit, and if you have access to really good barrels, it’s a shame to take all the color and flavor out, so I asked them if I could try selling it as whiskey.” Apparently, Woods and Uhde were pursuing these goals simultaneously and in fairly close proximity, without any idea of each other. And thus a category was born.
But does the use of rice disqualify them as whiskey? In Japan, it does; in the USA, it doesn’t, which is what matters, as these whiskies are for export only. “I’d love for there to be a specific category for rice whiskey,” Woods tells me, “but the TTB [which regulates alcohol sales in the US] doesn’t have one. It simply has a larger category of whiskey which mandates only that it be made from grain.” Rice, of course, is a grain. And these are whiskies, just a different kind than we know—lighter and less viscous than single malts, with a clean, light and diaphanous texture that elegantly delivers nuances from the oak barrels.
Kikori is the lightest, designed to be an aperitif whiskey and an agile mixer in cocktails. (Woods’s current favorite is the “shishito sour,” a blend of Kikori muddled with shishito peppers and lemon.) It is very pale and the wood influence reads in faint notes of vanilla and caramel and a delicate sensation of ginger. Fukano and Ohishi are darker in color and have more of the smack of classic whiskey, the richer Ohishi offering toffee and honey sweetness from its aging in Sherry and brandy casks.
These are familiar flavors to any whiskey lover, but they are rendered in an airy, gossamer way that creates an entirely unique whiskey experience. In fact, with such an unusual texture and structure, you could argue that these rice whiskies are in some ways more authentically Japanese than traditional Japanese whiskey, modeled on Scotch and almost exclusively made from imported barley.
This article first appeared in W&S December 2016.