10 Year Release (2020)
MASH BILL – 100% rice, combining malted and un-malted
PROOF – 80.4
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Fukano Distillery
PRICE – $91 (most commonly ~$100)
WORTH BUYING? – Yes
Fukano is one of those whisky brands I’ve seen on shelves over the years but not given much attention. Japanese whisky is famously pricy, and often actually scotch—though that’s changing since the 2021 standards established by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association. Prior to those standards, Fukano was already 100% Japanese—though not always whisky! (I’ll get to that below.)
Fukano Distillery was founded in 1823 on the island of Kyushu, in the modest city of Hitoyoshi. It is a mountainous region that leans more natural than urban. The distillery is currently run by members of the sixth and seventh generations of the Fukano family. Everything they produce is distilled, aged, and bottled in Japan. Mash bills combining malted and un-malted rice are fermented with koji, a local mold that adds meaty aromas and flavors. The mash is then distilled in a pot still. Fukano whisky releases are exceptionally limited, almost all of them one-offs never to be repeated.
The 10 Year bottling is considered a core release, yet each batch is bottled at its own specific ABV rather than a predetermined standard. One size does not fit all barrels, and Fukano responds to the specificity of their whiskies. Blends are often made from a very small batch of barrels—like the ABV, never a predetermined number—and single barrels are released with some regularity.
Another peculiarity is that Fukano is only available in the United States. This is because in Japan it would not be considered whisky. The spirit was originally intended to be shochu, a traditional Japanese liquor distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, or other similar sources. Shochu is typically bottled around 25% ABV. Some excess Fukano stock was put into oak barrels for storage, with no intention to make whisky. But over time the oak altered the color and clarity of the spirit such that it no longer complied with official Japanese shochu standards. The ABV in the barrels had also risen to 40% and more. Fukano’s shochu was now unsalable in Japan.
But when the people at ImpEx Beverages in California tried it, they thought they could sell it as whisky, for in fact by American law that’s exactly what it had become. Shochu fermentation takes 3 weeks, whereas whisky might typically take some small number of days. This slower process yields a creamier texture, something prized in whisky. Aged in used oak casks, from ex-bourbon to sherry to brandy, Fukano’s rice distillate takes on qualities associated with bourbons and scotch whiskies, yet with a distinct flavor from the rice grain and koji mold. It doesn’t taste like sake, nor shochu. It’s definitely whisky. But we’re clearly not in Kentucky or Islay anymore.
A great 2020 Forbes article by Akiko Katayama goes into great detail about the Fukano story, and I encourage you to read it. Meanwhile, I’m ready to pour a glass!
When I first cracked open the bottle, the nose was immediately unique, like a thick dry butterscotch cake with an almost savory fruit icing, as well as something like a vanilla paste with interesting subtle spices. The taste was very like the nose, with everything amped up a notch. The finish was subtle but lingering, eventually tilting into a soft bitterness with a faint sparkling warmth. It made me think of some artisanal Japanese pastry dessert, made of ingredients I’m not familiar with. Very interesting.
A few nights later I tried it with some sushi. No surprise, a perfect match. The easiest way to succeed in pairing whiskies with food is to match regions.
Now it’s been three weeks since I cracked the bottle, and I’m five pours in. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – honey ambers, yellows and oranges
NOSE – an herbed vanilla-caramel, real cream, wild thistly grasses, dried lemon peel, dried moss on oak bark, smooth wet stone, a light dusting of toasted cinnamon, brown sugar, all together unique
TASTE – a very creamy mouthfeel, light caramel custard, that unique array of herbs, a dash of pepper, some syrupy sweet fruit like an overripe persimmon that’s been baked…?
FINISH – warm, the baked fruit, gentle oak tannins
OVERALL – Among the most unique whiskies I’ve had, and good!
Is it the rice? Is it the koji mold? Is it the three-week fermentation process? The Hitoyoshi water? Yes, to all of that. There is a unique, herbal earthiness to this whisky. Combined with its uncommonly creamy texture and faintly bourbon-like qualities from a decade in oak, it offers an unexpectedly pleasing flavor profile.
I’ve already said, it pairs well with sushi. It’s lovely on its own, too, especially on this warm and sunny Spring afternoon when I’m tasting it. In its gentle way it commands attention, so I wouldn’t call it a background sipper. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve had, I can’t help but pay attention to it with every sip. Even its subdued finish is nevertheless long and lingering, like a curious ponderance that just won’t fade away.
This is one of those interesting whiskies that I enjoy, and understand why someone else might not. The earthy herbal notes are particular, like a rough patch on a smooth surface. That’s what I enjoy about them. They add interest to the sensual pleasures of the whisky.
But there is a reason the descriptor “interesting” is often used as an indirect dismissal. If something—a painting, a performance, a whisky—is “interesting,” this often means it’s not entirely pleasing, perhaps a bit confusing, maybe merely unexpected, yet somehow not quite dismissible. One can’t say it’s simply bad, yet one hesitates to simply say it’s good. So, it’s “interesting.”
I could go off on a tangent about how “interest” is devalued in our intellect-fearing culture that favors uncomplicated pleasure. But I’ll save that for the pub…