Whiskey Review: Bainbridge Yama Whiskey

Bainbridge Yama WhiskeyEditor’s Note: This whiskey was provided to us as a free sample to review by the party behind it. The Whiskey Wash, while appreciative of this, did keep full independent editorial control over this article.

Earlier this year, Bainbridge Organic Distillers out of Washington State released a very limited edition whiskey called Bainbridge Yama American Single Grain Barley Whiskey, a spirit they claim is the first non-Japanese whiskey to be aged in virgin Mizunara oak casks.

This special whiskey project is a nod to the long relationship between the Pacific Northwest and Japan, and a tribute to the Japanese community of Yama on Bainbridge Island, a company town home to hundreds of Japanese workers that vanished after the mill employing them closed after World War I. Today, the town is an archeological site, overgrown with ivy and stinging nettles.

Mizunara oak, or Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica), is a barrel material long associated with Japanese whisky. Gardner Dunn, senior Japanese whiskey ambassador for Beam Suntory, says it imparts heady flavors of “sandalwood, oriental incense, a spicy almost rye characteristic, coconut, and vanilla.” Yet Mizunara wood is brittle and porous, making it notoriously hard to cooper. These days, it’s relatively rare to see whiskey aged in Miznuara casks even in Japan.

Sourcing Mizunara barrels was no easy task. Keith Barnes, owner of Bainbridge Organic Distillers, tried to import it for years, to no avail. It wasn’t until a friend contacted their family in Japan that the wheels were set in motion, and eventually he secured a supply of seasoned Mizunara staves made from wood harvested on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s major islands.

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After the staves arrived on Bainbridge Island, they were sent to a family-owned barrel cooperage to be transformed into 10- and 15-gallon barrels, shipped back to Bainbridge Organic Distillers, and finally filled with new-make distillate made entirely from organic, unmalted barley grown in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “It’s been a long process,” says Barnes, “and one that we didn’t know if it would eventually be successful.”

The bulk of the profits from the sale of the Bainbridge Yama Whiskey will go to support “ongoing efforts to document and preserve the unique Japanese and American history and heritage of the Yama village site for future generations.”

Tasting Notes:

Vital Stats: 90 proof, un-chill filtered, no age statement. Retail price $450 for a 750ml bottle, with proceeds going to charity.

Nose: Coconut, vanilla custard, clove, nutmeg, and a heavy note of spiced banana bread with a gooey center and dark crus. It’s a bit vaporous for its relatively low proof, but extremely inviting. With water, the spirit releases an intense aroma of honeydew, melon rind, and sweet flowers.

Palate: Lots of oak character here balanced with a deep, dusty graininess inflected with notes of cherries and mango. At first it seems lean and a bit tart, less inviting than the nose suggests. But with water, considerable lushness emerges: aromatic fruits, spicy incense, lychee, salty butter on banana bread. More melon, but it’s perfumed rather than sweet, something like that hard hotel buffet cantaloupe. The finish is nice and long, with a mysterious savory note that reminds me of a nutty farmhouse cheese.

Suntory, having released last year Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish, describes the influence of Mizunara wood as imparting “a distinctively mellow bouquet,” and there is an inherent softness and mellowness to this whiskey. I was surprised by how much water improved the experience; without, the palate felt a bit disjointed, but water seemed to fill in those gaps beautifully. Strange and delicious.

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