Helios is not exactly a familiar name in Japanese whisky making. Indeed, they were originally known as a rum distiller (yes, you read that correctly). Based in Okinawa, this region remained under the administrative control of the US into the 1960s, when Helios was founded. I guess rum production for US pacific regions was all the rage in the early days of this distillery.
Beyond the initial rum staple, Helios eventually branched out into various liqueurs, awamori (a distinctive Okinawa beverage made from distilled rice), and the standard Japanese distilled spirits shochu and umeshu. The distillery prides itself on using local materials for its production.
Helios started making whisky during the early phase of rising Japanese domestic whisky popularity in the 1980s. Apparently that popularity didn’t last for Helios, as they seemed to have gotten out of the whisky making game by early 2000s. Indeed, the last age-stated whisky I’ve seen from Helios (under the Reki label) was a 15 year old expression released in 2016.
In recent years, Helios has been cashing in on the modern whisky boom by sourcing Scottish whisky to sell under their Kura whisky brand. See my recent Japan travelogue for an introduction into so-called “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. I believe they have also attempted to brand some of their barrel-aged, rice-distilled awamori and schochu products as whisky (see another example in my Ohishi Sherry Cask review).
All that said, the Reki brand name has been retained by Helios for actual Japanese whisky, as far as I know. See for example this helpful infographic and searchable table at nomunication.jp. But the fact that this is described as a “Pure Malt” (i.e., a vatted malt or blended malt) indicates that this whisky comes from more than one distillery.
This particular Reki Pure Malt whisky was released by Helios in 2017 for a whisky exhibition, in distinctive 180 mL bottles made of Cobalt blue glass (a classy touch). My bottle was given to me as a gift by colleagues on a trip to Japan in early 2019. Bottled at 40% ABV. The label simply says “Produced by Helios Distillery Co. Ltd, Okinawa, Japan”.
There are too few reviews of this whisky to make it into my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to date, but please see some preliminary comments at the end of the review (and continue to check the database for updates).
Let’s see what I find in the glass:
Colour: Very pale yellow gold, straw.
Nose: Very briny, with lots of minerality (flint, gunpowder). Rubber. Very earthy and herbaceous (dry herbs). Apples and pear. Lemon curd. Reminds me a lot of Ledaig 10yo, but not as overtly smokey. Me likes!
Palate: Light caramel sweetness, but with a malty core. Orange/tangerine show up now. Reminds me of an orange-infused sponge cake with lemon frosting – a real “light” dessert whisky. Relatively thin mouthfeel, even for 40% ABV. Ashy taste on the swallow, but still not exactly smokey. I’ve had some very youthful Bowmores that similarly seem both peated and non-peated at the same time.
Finish: Medium. Honey shows up now, adding to that lingering frosting sweetness. The ashyness persists as well, but it is faint. No off notes, very pleasant on the way out.
It is a very pleasant sipper, but it has a definite “smoke but no fire” character – the nose promises a peated experience, but the palate and finish remain surprisingly gentle (and very “cakey”). My main impression is that the core spirit of this blended malt is quite youthful – but without the harshness that mars many young spirits. I would guess whomever made this knows how to run a still! I would be very keen to try aged spirits from this distillery.
There is something very Japanese about this whisky – it is well constructed, and gives no offense at any point in its development. That being said, I was hoping for more character in the mouth, given the promise of that mineral/rubbery nose. Bottling at a higher ABV would also certainly have helped.
In terms of a score, I would give it a slightly below average rating, maybe ~8.3-8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. Serge of Whisky Fun gave it a slightly more positive score, by his personal rating system. While I enjoyed it, the thin mouthfeel and soft character on the palate contribute to my giving this a lower overall rating. A pleasant surprise, but still a ways to go.