Two years ago, the most popular toy on the shelf was a bottle of Yamazaki 12 year. It moved fast, and there was plenty to be had. And if you were a fan of Japanese whiskey before the articles and reviews and ratings that made it highly sought after -- dare I say trendy! -- I wish I had some good news for you. Japanese single malts are an endangered species, and not just in whiskey thirsty markets like the Bay Area; stock is dry everywhere. For those of you late to the party, you’ve heard countless times, after asking for age statement bottles, “that’s no longer available.” Even the non age statement whiskeys are slowly disappearing. But some good has come from this; you just need to be up for a bit of adventure.
The good news: there’s a ton of interesting Japanese whiskey for you to try that wouldn’t be on the shelves if not for the popularity of those single malts such as Nikka, Yamazaki and Hibiki. I’m talking about whiskey made from rice. While technically considered a whiskey by US standards, you could certainly make the case for describing it as a barrel aged shochu. Whatever you choose to call it, these rice whiskeys are unique and quite tasty. Flavor profiles can vary vastly depending on what sort of barrel it was aged in, so you won’t get bored any time soon.
Here are a few we recommend you try:
Kikori -- They’re making a great entry level rice whiskey that will appeal to many palates. It’s aged for about three years, primarily in New American with some time in Oloroso and Limousin barrels. It’s very light, a bit fruity, and extremely food friendly. I would recommend sipping this neat with sushi, or making a highball that’s perfect as an aperitif or alongside your meal.
Fukano -- This malted rice distillate is aged in new charred oak, so it gets dark and toasty. As far as flavor profile, this lands more along the lines of a traditional whiskey, nutty and rich, but also quite elegant. Due to Japanese labeling laws currently having no category for this spirit, these are only available outside of Japan.
Ohishi -- Founded in 1872, they are primarily known for sake and shochu production, sourcing all of their rice from the region and even growing a percentage of it themselves. My favorite fun fact about their estate grown rice: they use koi fish as a natural “weed killer,” as they love to snack on the weeds that pop up in the rice paddies. They produce both brandy- and sherry- barrel aged whiskeys, unfiltered.