In the world of whisky, Japan is finally starting to see some competition. As much as I love Suntory and Nikka, it’s been a delight to see whiskies from the likes of Ohishi make it to the U.S. Now another new player has entered the game: Kaiyo, which has a story as interesting as any distillery I’ve heard of. Kaiyo launched in limited release in September 2018 and is now rolling out nationally (and internationally).
The brianchild of master blender Jeff Karlovitch, a veteran of the parent company of Bunnahabhain and the blender behind Lost Distillery‘s whisky recreations, the goal with Kaiyo was to take Japanese whisky into an entirely new direction. I spoke to Karlovitch about the project in conjunction with this review.
For starters: Kaiyo is double-distilled, 100% malt whisky, but it’s not single malt. Colloquially known as “teaspooned malt,” it is called such because it is largely from a single distillery in Japan, with a (theoretically) small amount of whisky coming from another producer. (“I don’t even think they really teaspoon it, but that’s what they say on the paperwork,” says Karlovitch.) Teaspooning is done to prevent the purchaser of a barrel from claiming it is 100% from a certain source — and thus unable to put said source’s name on their label — and it’s a practice that isn’t unique to Japan. (It is potentially one reason why Costco’s Kirkland can’t put the name of the distillery on some of its Scotch labels.) That said, these whiskies are purchased as white spirits directly from the distiller and are then aged to maturity by Karlovitch and Kaiyo.
However, Kaiyo doesn’t even claim to be Japanese whisky, per se, mainly because it is not entirely aged in Japan. While all of the three bottlings we are reviewing today have no age statement, we do know that they spend time in barrel at sea: The casks are shipped from Osaka to, well, to wherever a container ship will take them, for up to three months. (Makes sense: kaiyo means ocean in Japanese.) The sloshing, temperature changes, and air pressure changes endemic to a sea voyage are all well-known to spirits and wine producers. Jefferson’s Ocean bourbon is even named in honor of just such a voyage. Take the barrel out of the country, before it hits the bottle, and it’s no longer entirely “Japanese.” Sort of, anyway — Karlovitch says that the current law allows Kaiyo to call the product Japanese whisky, but he’s expecting that law to change in the next couple of years.
The sea voyage makes all the difference, says Karlovitch. “I thought this was a marketing gimmick, but after trying it I was completely blown away by what happened to the whisky,” he says.
What is decidedly Japanese here is the wood: mizunara oak is the It Wood for barrel construction these days, and it’s a) incredibly expensive and b) reportedly incredibly difficult to work with. Mizunara oak can imbue a spirit with flavors otherwise unknown to the spirit world, and the ultimate impact is always decidedly Asian in the way it comes across on the palate. All of Kaiyo’s whiskies are aged in mizunara, with which Karlovitch has a love/hate relationship. “I don’t think I have a mizunara barrel that doesn’t leak.” He says his barrels — twice as thick as a standard oak barrel — lose double the rate of whisky each year to the angel’s share, and that’s not just through evaporation. Karlovitch also experiments with a range of barrel toasts and char levels; ultimately these experiments are used as touch points for blending when it’s time to bottle.
So that’s the story. We received Kaiyo’s three primary bottlings (there are two special editions, both with age statements, coming out soon, and more on the way) for review. Thoughts on each expression follow.
Kaiyo Whisky – The standard-bearer (with black label) carries no formal name other than Kaiyo Whisky. As noted, it is NAS spirit, aged in mizunara oak, non-chill filtered. The nose is immediately heavy with apples, settling down as the initial rush of fruit blows off to show some youth on the nose — slightly gummy, with a slightly dusty, lingering sandalwood note. The palate is more expressive and quite interesting, a bit fruity at first before layering in notes of green olive, beef jerky, and vanilla all on top of one another. The finish is chewy, sweeter than it would let on, and with a slightly vegetal undertone, reminiscent of Japanese pickles, and lots of black tea flavors. Really interesting stuff — a youthful counterpart to some of Japan’s more mainstream products. 86 proof. B / $55 [BUY IT NOW FROM TOTAL WINE]
Kaiyo Peated Whisky – Orange label Kaiyo is made with peated malt, though there’s no real information about where the barley is from, who peated it, or how. It is aged in Madeira casks for two years, and then goes into new mizunara oak barrels — for longer than two years, says Karlovitch. It starts out with very heavy peat, but that gets tempered. “It’s almost as peated as Ardbeg, but the Madeira cuts it in half,” he says. I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered the combination of peated whisky and mizunara oak barrel aging before, and it’s quite an intriguing experience. The nose sees only moderate smoke, but ample iodine, some notes of dried berries, and hints again of that sandalwood savoriness. The palate is rather delightful, a melange of wood, peat, and fruit that requires some time to unpack. There are notes of almonds here, plenty of tea leaf, and toasty grains, all of which is filtered through a sort of soy-like savoriness that pours on umami and wood notes (though there’s no vanilla character in the mix). Think of it as an Islay Scotch, but with a big twist in the mix. Fun stuff. Reviewed: First Edition. 92 proof. A- / $100 [BUY IT NOW FROM TOTAL WINE]
Kaiyo Whisky Cask Strength – The original (black label, unpeated) whisky reviewed above, but bottled at full proof (53% abv). White label. Again the nose comes across as youthful and slightly sweet — sandalwood, tea leaf, and notes of marshmallow cream. The palate cuts a similar character to the black label, but the extra alcohol gives it significantly more punch. Nutty with notes of banana and vanilla, it layers in wood and meaty character after the initial sweetness fades, lingering on a slight vegetal/umami note on the back end. Surprisingly approachable without any added water. 106 proof. B+ / $90 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS] [BUY IT NOW FROM TOTAL WINE]