Kaiyō Whisky – The Sheri Second Edition

KAIYŌ WHISKY
The Sheri Second Edition (2020)

MASH BILL – unstated

PROOF – 92

AGE – NAS (about 10 years 6 months)

DISTILLERY – Kaiyō

PRICE – $122 (normally $150 or so)

WORTH BUYING? – As a special purchase, yes.

In early 2021, Japanese whisky finally came around to something close to a definition. Unlike with American bourbon and rye, this isn’t a legal definition. It’s more a set of principles and factors to which certain Japanese whisky producers have agreed to adhere. As reported in Wine Enthusiast, to label a product as “Japanese whisky,” the following requirements must now be met:

  • Distillers must always use malted grains but may also include other cereal grains.

  • Water used to make whisky must be extracted in Japan.

  • Saccharification (conversion of starches into sugars, or mashing), fermentation and distillation must take place at a Japanese distillery.

  • Whisky must be matured in wooden casks stored in Japan for at least three years.

  • Bottling must take place only in Japan, with a minimum strength of 40% abv.

  • Plain caramel coloring may be used.

  • Whiskies that don’t meet the above requirements may not use the names of geographical locations in Japan, the Japanese flag, or the names of people that evoke the country in their labeling.

Suddenly, sought after “Japanese” favorites like Nikka From The Barrel were revealed to be what many expected: scotch whisky imported to Japan for blending and/or further aging. Nikka, which supports the new agreements, was up front about embracing them and will alter their labels accordingly going forward.

I love Nikka From The Barrel just as it is. I took a bottle to a crab dinner once and it was almost gone before the crabs themselves. I certainly hope Nikka does not alter its formula. But a more accurate and transparent label is welcomed. I personally have no issue with sourcing whatsoever, so long as the producer is transparent about it.

And that’s key. The transparency. Whisky is by nature a very authentic product, very natural. There is something about the attempts to obscure origins—and even, to my mind, adding caramel coloring—that goes against the natural grain of whisky. And though whisky fans debate quite a lot amongst themselves, there does seem to be at least a loose consensus that the truth matters when it comes to knowing what we’re buying and drinking. Especially when we’re paying a premium, which is often the case for Japanese whisky.

So I’m glad the Japanese whisky industry is coming around in this regard. I’ll still bring Nikka From The Barrel to crab feeds with great enthusiasm. But now I have a bit more detail to share when I present the bottle to my fellow guests.

This particular Kaiyō Whisky was bottled and shipped out prior to the publication of the new agreements. So its label is as sparse as one comes to expect from Japanese whiskies. But with a bit of a Google, some details are always to be found:

First of all, regarding the question of how Japanese a given bottle of Japanese whisky actually is, one glance at the staff page of the Kaiyō website reveals that, despite an Osaka address, most of the team are White, European, and American. Even the master blender, Jeffrey Karlovitch, hails from New Jersey. Karlovitch is highly accomplished and respected in the field. I have no doubt he is an expert at what he does. I’ve now tasted the evidence! But his central position in the predominantly White team gathered around him raises interesting questions about what makes a whisky a regional whisky.

In the United States, an immigrant nation, such a question has its own complexities. So many Kentucky distilleries were founded by immigrant Germans, for example, and these family origins are often celebrated—though not during WW1 and WW2, when German origins were often downplayed. Heritage has an evolving political dynamic. What do these dynamics mean to the identity of a distillery in a non-immigrant nation like Japan? And what is my American perception of that issue as compared to a native Japanese person’s perspective?

Kaiyō website staff publicity photo

These matters certainly could and should fill their own blog post. (This has been done somewhat here—a good read covering a lot of ground very concisely.)

Returning directly to the bottle on the table…

This second of two releases of The Sheri is comprised of only 500 cases distributed worldwide. That’s about 3000 bottles. They came out in 2020. The first edition had yielded 400 cases and was released in 2019. Kaiyō doesn’t have exactly the same immediate name recognition that Hakushu or Yamazaki do, for example, so bottles can still be found if one hunts about.

A marketing “sell sheet” I came across states the whisky is “from Japan,” which suggests it is distilled in Japan without unequivocally confirming so. So, we don’t know. But we do know the distillate spends its first 8 years in Oloroso sherry casks, followed by 2 years in Mizunara casks, and a final 6 months in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, for a total of 10 years 6 months of aging. Not bad. It also spends some amount of time aging at sea as the whisky is transported by ship around the coast of Japan. Finally, it’s bottled without chill filtration and watered down to 92 proof. While other Kaiyō whiskies are given tasting notes by the distillery, for The Sheri they state only this:

This whisky does not require tasting notes per our master blender. It is said to be our master blender’s finest work in his career. This is a once in a lifetime whisky to be shared and savored on your whisky journey. His dream is to share this whisky with his daughters at their wedding.

That certainly raises expectations. It’s actually what sold me on picking up this Kaiyō offering over the others. I uncorked it right away when I brought it home. Admiring it in the late night lamp light, I was immediately struck by the rich cherrywood color. Tasting it I got notes of plums, honey, vanilla, caramel, melted dark chocolate, and lemon zest. It was a dessert pour, for sure—creamy and syrupy and decadent, yet restrained and balanced.

The next day I brought it to a friend’s house for an afternoon in their backyard. We used it to make some simple high ball cocktails—a shot of Kaiyō, some Schweppes tonic water, ice, and a lime wedge dropped in unsqueezed. A perfectly refreshing afternoon cocktail. The Kaiyō pushed its sweet plumb and honey notes right through the ice and tonic water, even after sitting in the glass for some time. The lime drew a subtle but crisp outline around everything.

Now it’s later that same evening and I’m sitting down for this tasting. So the bottle has been open less than 24 hours at this point, and I’m now already tasting it halfway in. I poured a shot into a traditional Glencairn and let it air out quite a bit before taking these brief notes.

COLOR – vibrant persimmon orange with buttery highlights

NOSE – vibrant dark red plumbs, both raw and toasted honeys, thin dry wood planks, a very faint note akin to cabbage

TASTE – rich syrupy texture, the red plumbs now garnished with meaty tangerine peel, an extremely fine peppery tingle, an underlying vanilla caramel note

FINISH – that vanilla caramel lingers among the plumbs and tangerines and the faintest warmth from that peppery tingle, now a very light spiced green tea note adding dryness to the fruit notes, everything lingering long but gently…

OVERALL – an unusual, very sweet, very balanced whisky

Now of course, it’s been open for barely 24 hours. But this whisky is very consistent. I’ll be curious to set it aside and return to it in a few weeks. That said…

I really enjoy this. It has a kind of decadent fun about it. Dark and bright aspects play in perfect balance with one another, from the color on into the tasting experience. There is that odd cabbage note in the nose, which is jarring against the rest. If I’m drinking and not tasting, it comes and goes less noticeably. It’s perhaps the one flaw for me in this otherwise enjoyably refined dessert of a whisky.

I am not (yet!) experienced enough with the range of impact Mizunara oak can have on a whisky, so I can’t speak to what the 2 years spent in Mizunara barrels contributed to what I’m experiencing. My understanding—from reading only—is that Mizunara oak has a particularly high level of vanilla compounds, as well as certain oak lactones that give off aromas and flavors reminiscent of sandalwood and of a particular incense called kara, which I’m not consciously familiar with. It’s only a guess that the note I’m picking up from sense memory as some variant of green tea might be the result of the Mizunara. Same for that very unusual vanilla caramel note—not exactly the note I get from American whiskeys aged in white oak barrels. Here the vanilla caramel seems bound up with the wood and spices.

The 8 years in Oloroso sherry casks is very evident, dominating the experience from the nose through the finish with its sweet dark plumb and citrus notes. What the additional 6 months in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks then does specifically to add to the mix I can’t say. The blending here is so finely tuned I actually find it difficult to pick the different aromas and flavors out from the whole. Sitting with the finish as I write this paragraph, for example, I only now start to get wisps of baked mango, that melted dark chocolate I got at uncorking, and now also something like an azuki red bean tea I used to enjoy when I lived in Japan. Now, that latter note may very well be merely associative, given I know this is a Japanese whisky. But that’s the memory my senses are reaching for.

As I said, I enjoy Nikka From The Barrel. I enjoyed Hakushu 12 Year fine, but not at its FOMO-fueled price. My fluency with Japanese whisky remains rudimentary given its typical price point, and that one still doesn’t always know whether it’s actually scotch or not. Hopefully that starts to change with the new agreements. But it may take quite some time for me to get up to speed with this corner of the whisky world.

This Kaiyō earns its price for me much more than the Hakushu. Still it’s a celebratory purchase—worthy of weddings, as master blender Jeffrey Karlovitch suggests. Heavily sherried whisky isn’t central to my personal flavor profile, so for that reason plus price I won’t buy this again. But I am certainly going to enjoy the rest of this bottle.

For science, I’ll leave it alone for a few weeks and come back to it.

Until then, kanpai!

Addendum

Just over two weeks after the tasting above, on a foggy early evening, I tried it again. Now I’m toward the final quarter of the bottle. The nose shows red plums in caramel, a light wood spice, and bright dripping honey around a darker core of thick juicy prunes. On the taste I get plum syrup, baked rhubarb, and hazelnuts in melted milk chocolate. The finish then leaves me with meaty red grapefruit peel, juicy dried prunes, some kind of black tea leaf and a nice faint edge of oak tannins outlining the lingering flavors.

Looking back at my notes from a couple weeks ago, they are similar. This whisky has indeed been consistent, sloshing around within the confines of its flavor profile. It’s still too $$$ to be a regular purchase. But future editions of Kaiyō The Sheri will certainly be tempting!

Once again, kanpai!

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