Review: Kaiyo Cask Strength

Me and Japanese whisky. Japanese whisky and me. It’s a strained relationship these days to say the least. We used to get along fine back in the day. I enjoyed a pour of Yamazaki 12 every once in a while and greatly appreciate Hanyu and Karuizawa but never went out of my way to pick up a huge Japanese whisky collection.

Fast forward to 2018 and Japanese whisky is all the rage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed people coming into trendy whisk(e)y bars to order a Toki like they’re in on the world’s best kept secret. Japanese whisky has two main forces to thank for the success it currently enjoys. The first is the incredible market boom of this decade that has the masses flocking to brown spirits like never before. The second is a man by the name of Jim Murray. When Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 took home his Whisky of the Year distinction, it propelled Japanese whisky right into the spotlight like never before. Major websites were reporting that a Japanese whisky stole the honor from Scotland. For shame, Scots! Either way, Japanese whisky was exposed to a global audience and there was no turning back.

The award winning Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 is really good. Here’s the problem: that’s not what most Japanese whisky tastes like. A lighter flavor profile along with some very clean cuts makes for a newcomer’s dream whisky. Japanese whisky is so easy to get into that it’s pretty easy to see how we got here.

A big part of my gripe with Japanese whisky these days is that I typically don’t find it to be much better than Scotch yet it sells out immediately everywhere for insane prices relative to it’s Scottish counterparts. Someone buying their whisky based on a Buzzfeed top 10 list really irks me. That’s why I continue to speak out to newcomers not about how Japanese whisky is bad but more about the immense variety out there.

I think Japanese whisky has it’s place and every once in a while, I’m in the mood for it.

Enter Kaiyo Cask Strength. An independently bottled Japanese whisky with a remarkable story hit the shelves late last year and it took some digging (mostly on the part of K&L Wine’s Dave Driscoll) to figure out what was going on inside this bottle. Here’s what we know:

  • Despite not saying “Japanese whisky” on the label, this was distilled and aged in Japan.
  • This is a teaspooned malt, distilled at a single distillery but with a very small amount of malt from another distillery added to the final product. This prevents this whisky from being called a single malt and allows the brand of the whisky to be hidden, similar to a lot independent “Balvenie” and “Glenfiddich” teaspooned malts. In this case, it was purchased as teaspooned new make.
  • This whisky was aged in Japanese Mizunara oak barrels from Ariake. Even in Japan, Mizunara aged whisky is uncommon due to the limited availability of the wood and extremely high cost of the barrels.
  • The final period of maturation took place on a boat in the open ocean off the coast of Japan. This is part of the reason why “Japanese whisky” is omitted from the label as it was technically not fully aged “in Japan”. The bottler was trying to avoid a potential slap on the wrist.

What really piqued my interest was that this was essentially a Japanese single malt aged in Mizunara oak and bottled at cask strength selling for just under $100. The combination of circumstances and price is absolutely unheard of in today’s market. I knew I needed to get in on this if for no other reason that to wrap my head around a true Mizunara aged release. This release along with the non-cask strength version were released with little fanfare. A Japanese whisky with no hype? That’s something I can get behind.

Cask strength Japanese “single malt” with a 2-figure price tag. Color me intrigued.
Kaiyo Cask Strength - 53% ABV
Category Notes
Appearance Golden Amber
Nose Floral, white wine, sawdust, fresh peaches, hint of maple syrup, pears, perfumy, coconut, bakery aromas.
Taste Juicy pear, nutmeg, vanilla, a sweet and salty vibe, hints of oak in the back, jazz apples, tropical notes emerge over time.
Finish More orchard fruits, minty, some delicate oak, but not as much as expected, a slight earthiness, sea air, clove, honey.
Overall Thoughts My curiosity of Mizunara oak’s impact on the final product (floral, woody, coconut) has been satisfied with this whisky. To put it in perspective, this tastes like a amped up Glenlivet 12 year to me with a little coastal flair thrown in to boot. It’s enjoyable and I look forward to having more as this price point. As I often say with other teaspooned malts, I don't really care what you call it as long as it tastes good.
Total Score 88/100