Ohishi Sherry Cask
I always appreciate the opportunity to try something different – and Ohishi is about as different as you can get in the whisky world and still be called “whisky.” Well, in some jurisdictions at least – I’ll get to that in a moment.
The recent boom in Japanese whisky has meant that a lot of Japanese sake and shochu producers have begun to start making Scotch-style whisky. Unfortunately, many of these at the moment are actually examples of “fake” Japanese whisky. While waiting for their whisky stocks to mature, these producers have begun by importing whisky from outside Japan, and then bottling and labeling it as Japanese whisky for resale in Japan. This highly deceptive practice is discussed on my recent Whisky in Japan perspective post.
Ohishi has taken a different approach. Rather than get into the malted barley game, they have stuck with what they know – distilling fermented rice grain, which is the basis of the sake and shochu they have been making for generations. But they have taken to aging this rice-distilled spirit in old world casks, predominantly Sherry, Brandy and whisky casks. In essence, they are making a single grain whisky – but with a very distinctive grain, rice.
However, it gets a little more complicated than that, since the rice starch needs to be broken down into sugar using a mold known as aspergillus oryzae, also called koji, before fermentation by yeast for sake or shochu production. This filamentous fungus has a long tradition of use in Asia (e.g., it is also used in the fermentation of soybeans for miso, etc.). For reasons I am not entirely clear on, Ohishi is not allowed to sell their barrel-aged, rice grain koji-saccharifying fermentation product as a “whisky” in Japan.
However, Japan does allow it to be exported as “Japanese whisky.” As country-level designations typically dominate for all named products of origin (due to reciprocity clauses in trade agreements), this means other countries will recognize it as “Japanese whisky” precisely because Japan allows it to be labelled as such for export. Ohishi is thus serving the export market exclusively with these products (i.e., you can’t buy these in Japan).
So, is it a whisky? That really depends on your point of view. It certainly meets many of the classic requirements – except for the koji and rice grain. On that front, the Ohishi mash bill is is 30% estate-grown rice grain (various varieties), with the remaining 70% Mochi rice coming from the surrounding Kumamoto prefecture.
Another distinctive feature is that distillation occurs in a pot still made from stainless steel (instead of copper, used almost everywhere else).
I picked this bottle up on sale in Calgary, Alberta last year for $89 CAD. Bottled at 40.8% ABV. Note again that this is the generic “Sherry cask” version – not one of the more expensive single cask editions (that are often bottled at slightly higher strength).
I don’t have any other rice whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database, but here is how Ohishi compares to some other grain/blended Japanese Whiskies:
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Brandy Cask: 8.27 ± 0.19 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Cask: 8.42 ± 0.45 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Single Cask: 8.61 ± 0.46 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.58 ± 0.73 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Also for comparison, here are some Canadian grain whiskies that I find similar:
Canadian Rockies 17yo: 8.30 ± 0.53 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (40%): 8.70 ± 0.09 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (46%, old label): 9.12 ± 0.28 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (all editions): 8.98 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Centennial 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.44 on 6 reviews ($)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.05 ± 0.95 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 7.93 ± 0.80 on 8 reviews ($)
As always, the proof is in the pudding – let’s see what I find in the glass:
Colour: Very golden, with only the slightest hint of Sherry cask influence (see below). Based on colour alone, I would think this was a refill Sherry cask.
Nose: Very perfumy, with heather and honeysuckle notes. Slightly under-ripe earth cherries (gooseberries) and green bananas. Salty rice crackers and soy sauce. Anise (black licorice) and dried ginger. There is a very noticeably strong acetone smell, which detracts for me personally (and overwhelms the initial impression upon pouring a glass).
Palate: Very sweet and syrupy, with fresh fruit cocktail flavours. Reminds me of a generic cough syrup, with that acetone note from the nose turning into saccharine artificial sweetness. But there is also a delicate sake-like sweetness underneath that is more floral in nature (which I like). The classic Sherry nutty notes assert themselves on the swallow, along with some faint anise and a dry earthiness. Cinnamon builds over time with repeated sips, along with some earthy bitterness.
Finish: Artificial sweetener, but it reminds me more of bubble gum now. Rice Krispies. Dried fruits, but with just a hint of that fresh fruit cocktail again at the end (green grapes in particular).
This is a strange one for me – my initial impression on both the nose and the palate are not favourable (with acetone and saccharine leading off, respectively). But it grows on me over time, as the more subtle notes emerge on successive sips. Indeed, this is one you have to spend time with, to coax out the underlying distinctiveness – likely coming from the rice and/or the koji-saccharification (with those rice cracker/Rice Krispies notes). I also recommend some time in the glass to let it open up first.
The closest thing in my experience would be some of the single grain/corn whiskies coming out of the Canadian west (e.g., the various Highwood releases listed above, Canadian Rockies). Perhaps not coincidentally, I also get acetone notes from many of those. I wonder if the stainless steel pot stills may something to do with it, as I know these are in use in some distilleries in Canada (but I don’t know if Highwood is one of them). As an aside, I gave a sample of this to the_muskox of Reddit to review “blind”, and he thought it was a medium-aged Canadian corn whisky.
This is a hard one to score. The off-notes are significant enough for me that I would normally give something like this a below average score. But there are a lot of interesting subtleties under the surface, which make be happy to finish my glass over an extended period of time. As such, I think the current average Meta-Critic score of ~8.4 is reasonable. Definitely worth trying out for the distinctiveness, but you would want to sample it first before investing in a whole bottle.
For other reviews, the most positive I’ve seen for this generic Sherry cask version comes from Jason of In Search of Elegance (which is actually based on a sample from my bottle), and Josh the Whiskey Jug. More in keeping with my average score is Jonny of Whisky Advocate and the_muskox of Reddit (the latter also being a sample from my bottle, but as a blind “mystery” review). A very low score comes from Thomas of Whisky Saga. Note that the individual Single Sherry Cask editions tend to score higher, across all reviewers.