Editor’s Note: This whisky was provided to us as a review sample by the party behind it. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link in this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
At the heart of Japanese culinary tradition, you’ll find koji-kin. Japan’s “national fungus” is a mold which grows on grains and breaks starches into sugar. It’s what gives the distinctive umami flavor to miso, soy sauce, natto, mirin and other iconic Japanese foods. If you’re in a Japanese restaurant and pick up on that familiar brothy, yeasty smell, it’s the koji making it so recognizable.
Koji cultivation also creates shochu. Shochu is a clear, distilled spirit made from a starch fermented with koji. It’s a popular drink in Japan, but has a relatively small presence globally. When it ages in oak, though, it can become a type of whisky that is prevalent, but underappreciated.
Distilling whisky from shochu is a long tradition, but it doesn’t always square easily with modern classification schemes. Whisky and shochu are both subject to regulation and licensing under Japanese tax law. This has major implications for Hikari Distillery’s Hakata Whisky.
Hikari distills Hakata Whisky from shochu, which they make using barley sourced from Kyushu and fermented with Koji. While they source ingredients, ferment, distill, age, and bottle this whisky in Japan, they can’t sell it in Japan as such. Having taken on color from being aged in sherry oak casks, it is too dark to qualify as shochu. At the same time, Japanese tax law only allows the sale of shochu whisky at 90 proof or higher. At 84 proof they can’t sell it domestically as shochu whisky.
So, this whisky from Japan skipped the domestic market and came directly to America. In the US, shochu whisky doesn’t face the same hurdles. “Koji whisky dates all the way back to 1891 in the USA,” said Chris Uhde, vice president at distributor ImpEx Beverages, to me recently over email, “and since there are now numerous brands that are made using koji, the classification is locked in stone.”
Given the low availability of some Japanese expressions, this could be a boon for American whisky drinkers. By coming directly to the American market, Hakata bypasses competition from Japanese buyers. “Could you imagine if [Hikari] could sell it domestically?!” Udhe enthused, “The Hakata 18 year would either be unobtainable or cost $1000 per bottle instead of a recommended retail of $189.” If the quality is right, this could be the perfect opportunity to pick up a high-end whisky from Japan.
This first, youngest expression, aged for 10 years in sherry casks. With the least aging, it would have the least cask influence and, I expect, the strongest remaining feel of the shochu. It will be an interesting introduction to the line, and should be my best chance to identify the umami quality.
We review Hakata Whisky Aged 10 Years, a Japanese whisky made using barley sourced from Kyushu and fermented with Koji before being aged in sherry casks. (image via Impex Beverages)
Nose: It opens with aromatic wood scents, rich in spices. There’s a deeper creaminess within the spice, reminiscent of baked vanilla.
Palate: There’s a sharp initial feel, hitting you with that brothy umami quality. It has hints of miso soup, and an overall brothyness to the taste. There are strong woody tastes of coffee and clove, with a savory quality to the spicyness. The finish is a long, pleasant vanilla fade.
Whisky Review: Hakata Whisky Aged 10 Years
The youngest of the Hakata Whiskies has the most recognizable presence of shochu. The umami quality and flavor of koji are the most present, and provide a freshness and contrast to the woodier notes of whisky. The savory spiciness provides significant nuance to the familiar flavors of oak and vanilla. It’s a solid sipping whisky with a distinctive twist.
Taylor is a writer, researcher, and whiskey enthusiast. He came to Portland in pursuit of higher education, and found himself staying to pursue the Pacific Northwest's wide range of olfactory offerings. He's a fan of craft beer, farm to table food, indie perfume, and, most of all, whiskey. While he...