Whisky Reviews: Shibui Grain Select & Single Grain Whiskies

By Talia Gragg / January 26, 2021

Editor’s Note: These whiskies were provided to us as review samples by Shibui. This in no way, per our editorial policiesinfluenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy links in this article our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.

If whisky is music to your ears, you’d probably get along with Nicholas Pollachi, Vice President of Shibui Japanese Whisky. He considers what his company does as a sort of symphony, with blending conducting the show. Their motto is  “We don’t distill – we discover.” 

The Japanese have a long history with blending. Legally, they’re within their rights to call anything whisky if it is made from cereal grain and aged in a barrel. They’re not required to disclose any details on it, and the product doesn’t even have to originate in Japan. The combination of this historical precedent and the world-wide Japanese whisky boom has led many distillers today to source material globally. 

Pollachi explains that a major reason for the world-wide selection process is essentially sibling rivalry. Individualistic and competitive, the Japanese distilleries don’t share their products or their technology with each other. Without having a domestic range to blend with, the Japanese had to look outward. They tend to favor scotch, with its historical connection and similar flavor profile. However, nothing is off limits. 

The caveat to this is the secrecy of what’s actually in the bottle. The distilleries don’t want to let it out that they’re sourcing non-domestic product, and even less so exactly what that product is. The spirits industry has taken notice and applied some pressure on distilleries to reveal what’s actually in the bottle, leading to a few steps toward clarity. However, they’re far from transparency.

This is where Shibui is different. They’re making no secret of being a bottler, and where they source product. They work with four distilleries in Japan, three of which they name, with the fourth requesting to not be named, continuing that Japanese secrecy. They source some of their whiskey globally as well. Shibui discusses openly what grains are going into the blends and their cask finishes.

The two single grains I’m reviewing today are guaranteed by the distillery to be completely distilled and aged in Okinawa. These could be sourced from any of the three distilleries in Okinawa that Shibui works with: Shinzato, Masahiro, or Kumesen. Instead of taking the classic whiskey routes, Shibui is giving these to us as rice whiskies, and being very clear about that.

The 18-year Single Grain has spent its entire life in sherry barrels – specifically fino and manzanilla. The lightness of rice whiskey takes particularly well to the more delicate and nuanced flavors of sherry, and 18 years is a good long time to take on that profile. The 10-year Single Grain is more of a sweet treat, being aged exclusively in ex-bourbon. 

The Grain Select bottle today is a 100% wheat whiskey, and not entirely Japanese. The blending whiskey they’ve brought in for this one comes to us from the lowlands of Scotland. They’re up front about this, and the reason why: they just can’t acquire this profile from a Japanese producer. 

The Japanese whiskey that does go into this expression comes from Nigata prefecture, but that’s all we know about its origin. This is the distillery that has requested anonymity from Shibui. We do know that it is an award-winning distillery – my guess is that it’s Shinobu. This wheat whiskey is aged in bourbon, oloroso sherry and mizunara casks, though an age statement is not provided. 

Shibui range

The range of Shibui whiskies (image via Shibui)

Tasting Notes: Shibui Grain Select Whisky

Vital Stats:  86 Proof, 43% ABV, 100% wheat, Aged in ex-bourbon, oloroso sherry, and mizunara casks, 750ml, SRP $49.99 where available

Appearance: Very pale, translucent champagne color with a peachy tint. Legs start to form but have no motivation to go anywhere. 

Nose: Very fruity and lightly sweet, like cherry-forward fruit punch. A wisp of booziness at the end.  

Palate: That same artificial sweetness starts off again here, then richens. Sweet florals follow fairly briefly, cereal grains are firmly present throughout. Creamy, viscous texture. Sweetness lingers, light and not overwhelming, finishing with a burst of sparkling apple cider and a bit of heat.  

Score: 4/5

Tasting Notes: Shibui Single Grain 10-Year-Old Whisky

Vital Stats:  80 Proof, 40% ABV, Aged in ex-bourbon cask, 750ml, SRP $169.99 where available

Appearance: Fairly similar to the Grain Select, just as translucent but brighter, with a golden bent rather than a peachy one. Legs are a little more motivated to make progress, but certainly aren’t heading anywhere quickly. 

Nose: Cloying sweetness flows smoothly into musk, then sunscreen.

Palate: Remains highly sweet throughout, with a strong sweetened coconut flavor up front. The sweetness becomes a little more bearable as the flavor blends into heavy cream, then finishing with musky florals. A touch of umami finds its way to the back palate.

Score: 3/5

Tasting Notes: Shibui Single Grain 18-Year-Old Whisky

Vital Stats: 80 Proof, 40% ABV, Aged in manzanilla and fino sherry casks, 750ml, SRP $299 where available

Appearance: Brightest of the three, translucent and sunflower yellow. Just a few long legs. 

Nose: Has the same underlying sweetness of the other two, but more overtly savory notes. Turpentine and a goat cheese-like gaminess starts off, then sweetens into dried fruit and golden raisins.

Palate: Slightly acidic at the front, with a fortified wine quality and flavor. While it has a lighter texture than the previous bottles, it becomes creamier towards the back of the palate. That creaminess has a touch of candle wax to it, and more of the same umami quality as the 10-Year Single Grain.

Score: 3/5

Final Thoughts: My favorite here has to be the Grain Select. The light sweetness is just what a wheat whiskey promises, but the complexity of the flavor was excellent, and very reminiscent of Japanese whiskies. It held on to its cereal base, reminding you it was whiskey, without descending into bitterness. 

The single grains both had their strengths and weaknesses. The 10-Year Single Grain had defined, unique flavors, but overall brought too much cloying sweetness. The 18-Year Single Grain came across much more savory, which was very interesting, but could have used a little more balance. Both whiskies are unique and worthwhile, with profiles that could almost be more appropriate as perfumes rather than spirits. 

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