Kaiyō Whisky – Cask Strength Store Pick!

KAIYŌ WHISKY
Cask #543 selected by K&L (2020)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 112

AGE – 7 years 6 months in Mizunara Oak casks, then 1 year in a ruby port pipe.

DISTILLERY – Kaiyō

PRICE – $109

WORTH BUYING? – Yes, for the sake of the Japanese leg of my whisky journey (a particularly complicated leg of the journey…)

I had eyed this K&L store pick when it was first released back in March 2020. Kaiyō does not have the same FOMO-fueled following as Hakushu or Yamazaki or the like, so it didn’t fly off the shelf. As I post this, two bottles remain on the K&L website.

In any case, I didn’t go for it. I’ve been hesitant to explore Japanese whisky given the cost, and that much of it is actually scotch shipped to Japan for blending and/or further aging. The lack of legal rules around whisky in Japan has meant one often can’t know exactly what one is paying for. A February 2021 agreement drafted by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association, outlining new labeling standards to reflect greater transparency and authenticity, may soon change that.

But recently I came across a good deal on a bottle of Kaiyō The Sheri Second Edition. I loved it. Remembering the K&L pick, I hopped online and was happy to see a few bottles remaining. And so here we are.

Kaiyō means ocean in Japanese. Kaiyō whiskies are aged at sea. The rocking motion, humidity, and proximity to the salty sea air is thought to impact the interaction between the whisky and the Mizunara Oak casks used for aging. Kaiyō whiskies are typically bottled young, so this 7.5 year single barrel is an uncommon event. After its voyage, this cask was transferred into a used ruby port pipe for an additional year.

On paper at least, these stats all made it a close cousin of the Sheri Second Edition I’d so enjoyed, itself finished in both Olorosa and Pedro Ximénez sherry casks for a grand total of 10 years 6 months of aging. Vibrant with dark red plum, multiple honeys, unusual wood spice notes and a rich syrupy texture, and bottled at 92 proof, the Sheri Second Edition is way too easy to drink. It left me very curious what a similar, cask strength Kaiyō outing might have to offer.

These brief notes were taken one week after uncorking and three pours into the bottle, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – honey, butter, and burnt sienna yellows, soaking up and reflecting everything around them

NOSE – an edge of ethanol making a thin crisp outline around tropical fruits like mango and grilled pineapple, black pepper on a fluffy egg custard, metal like new copper, some faint cream, very unusual

TASTE – there’s the caramel, and tart like gooey caramel-dipped just-ripe apricots, with those tropical fruit notes in the background, the black pepper and ethanol edge, and an undercurrent of the cream…

FINISH – warm and tingly with just a bit of bite to it, the caramels soften and melt toward butter, with the cream and apricot lingering as well…

OVERALL – zingy, bright, and sweet, nicked only by that slight and persistent ethanol edge.

I’m going to pour a bit of the Kaiyō Sheri Second Edition momentarily. But from memory, this cask strength single cask, aged primarily in Mizunara with just a bit of time in the ruby port pipe, is a spikier variant on similar themes. The colors conjured here—by the flavors themselves—are more yellow fruits than red fruits. Apricot is as red as we get with this Cask #543.

That ethanol edge would spoil the party if it were more insistent. It holds back just enough to make its presence known without grabbing the wheel. I do find it a distraction. But I do also appreciate a certain amount of the definition it contributes. The whisky tastes contained, by which I don’t mean reserved but rather that its parameters are defined. There isn’t a sense of rolling movement here so much as moving within a closed circle of flavor notes.

Like the Sheri Second Edition, I imagine this too would do well in a high ball cocktail. The dilution might take that edge off and free up the fruit, caramel and custard flavors a bit. It is pleasant on the whole. But as I continue to sit with it that edge fences in the experience a bit more than I’d ultimately prefer. It gives me a feeling of not being able to fully sit back and relax, like having to sit up straight when you’d rather not.

I poured a bit of the Sheri. Immediately the difference is clear. Though the Sheri is lower in proof by a full 20 degrees, its aromas come over with much more immediate strength. The sherry influences are very up front, and here the edges come more from a note of toasted honey than ethanol. Tasting it, the lower proof definitely yields a thinner mouthfeel and the intensity of flavor is more dissipated. But the flavors are nevertheless also more complex, rich and round. There is a darker sense of depth at work, balancing the bright aspects. Going back to Cask #543, it’s evident how the proof’s efforts to lift the flavor are doing some heavy lifting, and that at 92 proof it might taste quite average compared with the Sheri.

So I plopped a dollop of water into the Cask #543 to bring the proof oomph down. The nose now emphasized that shiny new copper penny note, seconded by the black pepper. On the taste, though the ethanol edge had indeed dissipated, the flavors were now quite watery. This wasn’t a high ball, of course. But the added water does suggest the Sheri would also win out in that context as well.

After some time had passed, I poured another ounce or so and added just a small few drops of water. Okay. Now we’re talkin’. Just a small amount of dilution takes the ethanol off the edge but leaves the edge. Nice. And now the caramel, fruit, and custard notes all feel just a bit more balanced, still retaining the crisp outline but without its former unpleasant aspect. So Cask #543 with a drop of water, not a dollop, is the way to go. (Very scientific. 🔬)

Now, while there is something interesting in comparing these two Kaiyō outings, in a way there’s also no reason—unless one happens to find oneself in the unlikely position to be faced with the choice of purchasing a bottle of this K&L store pick or the Sheri Second Edition. I was not in that position. My having these two bottles is the result of a series of circumstances, not a consumer debate.

I’ve been doing a number of comparisons lately, and have found myself questioning their purpose. What I do get out of them, beyond information to help me determine any future purchases, is an opportunity to explore my palate within the theme of a given brand or genre of whisky. What comparisons do most is help me practice the task of discerning flavor notes. Second to that, I’m then able to recognize what I prefer and why. And with those discoveries in mind, then, yes, I can make more informed purchases in the future. But the primary gain for me personally is the expanded fluency with my senses. I’m so conditioned, however, by our American capitalist culture to approach comparisons as a question of consumerism, I must sometimes remind myself there are other values to be gained from exploring one’s senses.

So all that said, if I ever go for a Kaiyō whisky again, I’m guessing it will either be a peated offering, to try something quite different from either of these two, or else something with stats more akin to the Sheri Second Edition. More likely the latter. Once we’re at the three-digit price range, I do tend to feel a bit more conservative about adventuring beyond my known flavor profile. Then again the adventurer in me is insatiable. It’s a problem for my wallet!

Another factor in my future buying is the cultural issue I only touched on in my post on the Sheri, having to do with Kaiyō being an essentially White owned and operated “Japanese” distillery, based in Japan. The recent agreements assembled by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association do not broach the subject of who is doing what in a given joint. Delving into that would necessitate an extensive post beyond the intended scope of the present one. So, for now, as I did in my other post, I refer you to this article at Nomunication, a blog run by “Whiskey Richard” specializing in all things drinking in Japan.

So much more to discuss. But for today…

Kanpai!

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