Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky

This is an example of something I expect we will see more of: blended world whiskies.

Actually, this has been going on for a long time – but rarely disclosed previously. There are often significant loopholes in various country labeling laws that allow makers to import whiskies from other countries and either bottle it as a local brand without modification, further age it and bottle it, or even blend it with their own distillate and then sell it as if it were their own product.

For example, American producers have long been known to acquire quality Canadian rye whisky on contract, and then brand under their own name (e.g. Masterson’s and Whistlepig both use Alberta rye, etc.). And a lot of cheap Canadian corn whisky finds its way into low cost blends in a number of countries. This might help to explain how Canada is ranked as the world’s third largest whisky producer after Scotland and the USA, despite its much smaller global bottle brand footprint.

With the increasing global conglomeration of drinks producers, we are seeing more and more cases where multiple distillers are now actually owned by the same parent company. This is facilitating the overt blending of expertise, materials, and actual whisky across the world. I’ve begun to notice a definite trend with how often Canadian whisky is now increasingly coming up acknowledged in world blends.

Getting back to the actual whisky at hand, Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky is not actually a new release – and it has always been a “world blended” whisky (although that aspect has become more explicitly pronounced on the label in recent years). For those of you who are interested, I will cover the labeling history of this whisky in an addendum at the end of this review.

This whisky is from one of the leading independent Japanese distillers, Ichiro Akuto, founder and master distiller of Chichibu (and heir to the Hanyu family of distillers). He has been making malt whiskies at his Chichibu distillery for a number of years now, sometimes blended with older Hanyu stock. This Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky has been around for the better part of a decade, and has always included malt whisky from Chichibu (and potentially Hanyu originally, but not any longer), blended with whiskies from unidentified distilleries in the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland.

Note that that there are other variants of this whisky out there – including various Limited Editions, single cask-strength bottlings, and premium Japanese-only blends. But it is the standard “white label” Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky that is being reviewed here. Again, see my addendum below for how the label and title has changed over time. Online, Ichiro describes this blend rather poetically as consisting of the “heart of Japanese whisky complimented by the major whiskies of the world.”

According to my searches, the foreign whiskies are reportedly aged in casks in their home countries for 3-5 years, and then the whisky is shipped to Japan and aged for another 1-3 years at Chichibu distillery. The proportion of malt to grain in the final blend is unknown, as are the relative country contributions. The final blend is commonly bottled in 700mL bottles at 46% ABV – although some bottles have reported 46.5% ABV, especially the 750mL ones (again, see the addendum below). It is never been chill-filtered, nor coloured.

The current average world-wide price is ~$105-$110 USD per bottle, according to several online sites (which seems rather high for a blended NAS whisky of unidentified distilleries). I was fortunate enough to find this bottle in a little whisky shop in Kyoto for ~$50 CAD earlier this year. It has recently showed up at the LCBO for $115 CAD – which seems very reasonable, by global price standards.

Here is how it compares to other whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Compass Box Delilah’s: 8.45 ± 0.30 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Hedonism: 8.50 ± 0.60 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.54 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.47 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kirin 50% Blend (Fuji Gotemba): 8.42 ± 0.42 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.75 ± 0.87 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.53 ± 0.17 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.07 ± 0.37 on 13 reviews ($$$)

Now for what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity, with peaches, bananas, apples and pears. Also a bit of lemon. Vanilla and a light caramel note. Cereal grain. Also has a spirity mineral quality that I sometime find on grain blends. Touch of acetone at the end. Pleasant enough. Water brings up the fruit and adds rye spices, so I recommend a touch.

Palate: Vanilla and tropical fruits similar to the nose. Light rye spices (cinammon and nutmeg) and caramel come up quickly. Hazelnut and chocolate. Candied ginger (gingerbread?) with some chili powder and black pepper. Tobacco leaf. An aromatic spirity note comes up again, but hard to place. Quite nice, except it is a bit hotter in the mouth than I expected. The graininess shows up in the swallow, as it spreads thinly across the tongue. Water enhances the caramel considerably, without affecting the burn.

Finish: Medium long. Honeyed sweetness at first, but with cinnamon and cayenne pepper building over time. Banana, hazelnut and ginger linger the longest. Puckering astringency on the finish, with lemon pith returning.

More interesting on the palate than the nose suggested, with some hidden depth (I really dig those nutty chocolate and candied ginger notes). It’s a bit like a Nutella-banana sandwich! Spicier than I expected as well, with definite heat.

While the sweetness will appeal to standard blend drinkers, the spiciness here is more in keeping with certain distinctive malt blends. A touch of water enhances the sweetness, but it really doesn’t need much – and water won’t help for the spiciness/heat. I expect the Canadian contribution to this blend was a flavouring rye, as opposed to a weak corn whisky!

This is not exactly an easy-drinking, relaxed blend. While it does have some typical sweetness to it, you have to like your whiskies spicy to really appreciate it.

I would give this an overall average score, which is maybe a point higher than the current Meta-Critic average shown above. That is quite good for a blend, even one in this price range (as you can tell from the other scores above). It has a surprising array of flavour notes on the palate, although it is still a bit spirity. Definitely a good buy for what I paid for it in Japan.

Among reviewers, the highest scores I’ve seen come from Thomas of Whisky Saga and Aaron of Whiskey Wash, who both rated it quite highly. My own average score is about comparable to Susannah of Whisky Advocate. Similar but slightly less positive are TOModera and zSolaris of Reddit. Devoz of Reddit and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review give this white label version lower scores.

Addendum for whisky geeks:

How the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain “white label” has changed over time

I am not sure when this whisky was first released, but I have found images of an early 750mL bottle that had the following label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Whisky
This whisky is matured by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his product
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
750mL                                                                      46.5% ALC by VOL

I don’t have copies of the back label, but later versions certainly indicated Canada, America, Scotland, Ireland and Japan as the source of the “worldwide” whisky.

By 2012, I have several examples of a new revised label for 700mL bottles that show a few differences, highlighted in bold below (my highlights):

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

You can see the words “blend” and “blended” now feature prominently throughout, replacing less clear terms. This is largely semantic however, since any whisky including both malt and grain whiskies is by definition a blend. Note the lower ABV of 46%.

Within a few years (I don’t know the exact date), a subtle change is added to the title:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

This is quickly followed by a more substantial change:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu
World Blended Whisky

This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

As you can see, the “Blended Whisky” title is moved to the a new line, and “World” is added before it. The label also drops any reference to Hanyu single malt, and now refers only to Chichibu single malt. This is hardly surprising, as I can’t imagine much (if any) of the highly-prized Hanyu barrels ever being used for this blend. Finally, the phase “worldwide blended whisky” has now become “World Blended Whisky”

I don’t have an exact date for the changes above, but I know by October 2017 you start seeing the current label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

The only different here is that the “Chichibu” line in the title has been dropped, and this is now simply “World Blended Whisky.” The label is otherwise unchanged. Note that the label above is still exactly what is presented on my February 2019 bottle from Kyoto, and on the recent October 2019 release at the LCBO.

Before I close, I have noticed one unusual variant out there, on the version launched in Norway in November 2018:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46.5%vol

The “46.5%vol” was actually a sticker with red text placed over the original “46%vol”. Whether this was done by Chichibu or by Vinmonopolet (the Norway state liquor board) I don’t know. The LCBO here in Ontario does extensive testing of all products before it releases them (including measuring actual alcoholic strength), and I have seen signs of ad hoc label changes here for this reason. So it is possible Vinmonopolet assessed the strength as higher than what Chichibu reported, and forced the add-on sticker change.

Does that mean all versions of this whisky are actually 46.5%, but simply rounded-down and labelled as “46%” ever since the early label change in 2012?  Or was the Norway release atypical in some way, similar to earlier batches?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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