Japanese whiskey can be a difficult segment of the liquor market for an American consumer to survey and approach for the first time. The brands and their reputations are unfamiliar. The styles (and numerous distinctions between “malt,” “grain” and blended whiskeys) are likewise unfamiliar. The price points tend to be on the higher side, at least in comparison with American bourbon and rye. Almost everything about Japanese whiskey implies a segment of the market where American consumers will be on the hesitant side to shell out for a bottle they’re not sure they’ll enjoy—and who can blame them? Such adoptions take time, and education.
That education is now seemingly underway, as a wider range of Japanese spirits appear on the shelves of cocktail and whiskey bars. I must confess that this is an area I am still experimenting with as a novice myself—my familiarity with Japanese whiskey makers and brands is far less developed than my passion for American bourbon and rye. But as time goes by, it’s become more and more clear that there’s a Japanese whiskey niche in America, and that niche is growing. Ask a bartender at an upscale, whiskey-centric bar and they’ll tell you that these eastern hemisphere bottles are an increasingly hip pick as well.
The thing about “Japanese whiskey,” though, is that simply saying those words doesn’t do much to imply what exactly it is you’re drinking. Many of the malt whiskeys produced in the country are what one would describe as “scotch-style,” 100% malted barley mash bills that are aged in used American whiskey barrels. But there are also styles being produced that are closer to American whiskey, in newly charred oak barrels, and then there are complete oddballs that are blending sourced whiskey in interesting ways. And that brings us to Ichiro’s.
Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is a flagship product of Chichibu Distillery, from the Saitama Prefecture of Japan. It’s a complex blended whiskey, described thusly:
In Ichiro’s words “An all world whisky” the key malt is Ichiro’s Malt, with his selection of Scotch, Irish, Canadian and American Whiskey aged in country 3-5 years and aged on sight in Chichibu an additional 1-3 years. Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is blended to balance a heart of Japanese whisky complimented by the major whiskies of the world.
That means the final product is a blend of at least four different sourced whiskeys that are 3-5 years old, from four different whiskey-producing regions, which are then further aged and blended in Japan at Chichibu. That makes for a pretty weird, Frankensteinian-type result. I can’t say I’ve ever sampled a bottle that was blended from American, Canadian, Scotch and Irish whiskey before.
So, how did they do?
On the nose, Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is fairly light and approachable, with characteristics that remind me of young-ish, lower proof bourbon. Corny, grainy sweetness is present, along with vanilla, rye bread, dill and green apple fruitiness. There’s a whiff of viniferous quality that reminds me of sherry/white grape, but not much booze harshness on the nose at all—this stuff is 46.5% ABV (93) proof, but it seems less booze-forward on the nose than any number of 80 proof whiskeys. All in all, pretty inviting.
On the palate, this blended whiskey is light and slightly thin, presenting fairly prominent fruity flavors of apples and pear. There’s a spice quality throughout that reminds me a bit of grains of paradise, along with rye bread and a bit of nutty toffee. It’s pretty dry from start to finish, with an overall profile that seems a bit more influenced by American/Canadian whiskey than Scotch/Irish, although there is a thread of nicely subtle, spicy smoke that weaves in and out throughout—nothing too smoky, so if you’re not typically a scotch drinker, I certainly don’t think it would turn you off. It’s both approachable and still complex enough to be interesting, which is a nice little feat to pull off—a success of synthesis more than big flavors. You could say that it’s a bit more than the sum of its parts; not quite a revelation, but quite pleasant for neat drinking.
Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is an easy to enjoy dram with more complexity than might appear at first glance. I’ll be happy to revisit this one in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident booze guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink content.