This is a new Japanese whisky that I debated purchasing. Not because of the likely intrinsic quality of the whisky itself, but because of the history of the producer.
As I’ve discussed in some of my travelogues (most recently my Whisky in Japan – a 2014-2019 Perspective), the rising popularity of Japanese whisky has led to a proliferation of “faux” or fake Japanese whisky. They can certainly look a lot like the bottles from established whisky-makers Yamazaki and Nikka – and the brand names may indeed be recognizable as established spirit producers in Japan – but the bottles don’t actually contain any Japanese whisky.
The problem is loose labeling laws that allow Japanese distilleries to import whisky from other countries and re-package it for sale in Japan. If you are looking for a way to separate out true Japanese whisky from the fakes, here’s a useful infographic chart and table courtesy of nomunication.jp.
As an aside, there is an understandable historical basis for these labeling laws, as the raw materials for whisky production (e.g. barley, oak casks) are often imported from Scotland. In some cases, established whisky makers also import distillate from Scottish distilleries to blend into their own production (e.g., Nikka owns Ben Nevis distillery, in part for this reason). But the bottling of pure out-sourced whisky for domestic sale in Japan – in highly misleading age-stated packaging, and at steep prices – seems designed to purposefully gouge ill-informed consumers (and tourists on local shopping sprees).
High on the list of worst offenders is Matsui Shuzo, owner of the Kurayoshi “whisky” brand. Kurayoshi is a well-established schochu distiller in Tottori, Japan (in operation since 1910). The problem is that for many years now, they have been selling aged-stated single malts in Japan, despite only starting to distill whisky in 2017. This has given “Kurayoshi single malts” a well-deserved black-eye among Japanese whisky enthusiasts.
Of course, we have now reached the point where many of the relatively new entrants to whisky-making in Japan have barrel-aged their own distilled spirit sufficiently long enough to sell it (domestically and internationally) as true Japanese whisky. In this case, Matsui Shuzo has begun selling blended Japanese and Scottish malt whiskies under the Tottori label, and pure Japanese malt whisky under the Matsui label. Given the negative association with Kurayoshi “malt whisky”, I can understand this labeling change. Of note, the malt is apparently still largely sourced from Scotland – but that is true for many Japanese whiskies.
And thus my personal dilemma; I am loathe to support someone who has engaged in such misleading business practices. Personally, I find the whole Kurayoshi age-stated single malt whisky scam an affront to both the Japanese character and the quality of their whisky. But is also true that many of the world’s established whisky makers started out with less than squeaky-clean reputations (i.e., the history of bootleggers, moonshiners and tax-dodgers in North America and Europe, and the early producers in Japan). At the end the of the day, I thought I would give this bottling a chance, to see how Matsui’s true distilled-in-Japan product fares.
One feature common among new whisky-makers the world over is experimentation with different casks types, to try and introduce additional character into their youthful spirits. Matsui is following a standard path with this bottling by the use of Japanese Mizunara oak casks (Quercus mongolica). I previously reviewed Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve, which attempted a similar approach to distinctive aging/finishing.
I recently bought my bottle of Matsui Single Malt Mizunara Cask through the LCBO in Ontario for $130 CAD. It is bottled at 48% ABV, and the label states no artificial coloring is added, and it is un-chillfiltered. It also states distilled in Japan (finally!).
As an aside, I note the bottle design is very similar to the higher-end Suntory bottles, something of a hybrid between the simple-but-elegant Yamazaki/Hakushu bottles and the fancy decanter-style Hibiki bottles (although with a screw cap here – see the pic below). The labels and box are very distinctive, with classic Japanese iconography throughout. They certainly have a classy look to them.
Here is how the whisky compares to some other entry-level Japanese single malts in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – and other Mizunara cask finished whiskies:
Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish: 8.84 ± 0.45 on 3 reviews ($$$$$+)
Chivas Regal Mizunara: 8.09 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.48 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.25 ± 0.67 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve: 8.33 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Kanosuke New Born 2018 8mo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Mizunara Cask: 8.86 ± 0.20 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Matsui Sakura Cask: 8.55 ± 0.46 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.47 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.40 ± 0.47 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS: 8.57 ± 0.30 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Mizunara: 8.95 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki NAS: 8.45 ± 0.23 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Let’s see what I find in the glass:
Colour: Pale straw. Remarkably light, reminds me of Timorous Beastie. The promotional picture above is more accurate in colour balance than my cell phone pic below.
Nose: Very candied fruit nose, with pear, kiwi, green apple, honeydew melons and banana – also lychee. Reminds me of the Meiji gummy versions of most of the above flavours. Honey and a bit of vanilla. Almonds. Faintly fusil (gunpowder). The Mizunara is also coming through as a light wood spice and a very faint funky, sour smell (like old sweatsocks or baby vomit). Believe it or not, it works well with the candied spice, seems elegant. I am quite pleasantly surprised.
Palate: A quick hit of caramelized apples and banana candies to start, followed by starfruit and grapefruit bitterness. Tons of pepper (wow, it is a hot one!). It is very sharp in the mouth, definitely feeling the burn from the extra ABV. Sandalwood and oriental incense notes. Dry paper on the swallow. Not particularly woody, but you can feel the subtle Mizunara wood spice notes – and the overwhelming pepper.
Finish: Fairly quick on the way out, with a simple lingering sweetness. Not cloying, reminiscent of caramelized apple and pear mixed with just a touch of grapefruit citrus (but definitely more sweet than bitter). Not overly woody, which helps keep the bitterness in check. While not complex, most people should find it quite pleasant.
On the nose, there is something here reminiscent of the older-style, lightly-peated Highland malt whiskies, like Ben Nevis 10yo or the older peated Glen Gariochs (e.g., 1995 vintage). It really is a lovely nose, but it then starts to show its youthful age by the burn on the palate and relatively quick finish. It reminds me a bit of Hakushu NAS in the mouth, although there is a lot more pepper here. Finish is fairly simple, but elegant and pleasant enough.
The Mizunara effect is also rather understated (which I personally like), except for the strong peppery spice. I’ve never been a big fan of strong Mizunara wood notes (e.g., Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve), so this level is just about right for me. It feels like a good balance. They are definitely on the right track, it just needs more maturity and character in the mouth. In comparison, the Kanosuke New Born had remarkable character at a younger age, although with some similar heat issues.
I would give this Matsui Mizunara Cask a slightly above average score, ~8.5-8.6. It has less character in the mouth than I would like, but it does have a refined elegance (and a great nose). Good balance of Mizunara spice.