The Best Whiskies You're Not Drinking
October 12, 2021 –––––– Jonny McCormick
The most popular whisky types—scotch, bourbon, rye, and others—dominate the discussion. But there's a world of overlooked whisky styles out there, just waiting to be discovered. They're made with unusual mashbills, barrel finishes, and even creative flavorings. So break out of your comfort zone, and explore the far side of whisky appreciation. Here's our guide for whisky lovers who choose to travel off the beaten path.
Drink Me: Rice Whisky From Japan
Japanese rice whisky is actually barrel-aged rice shochu—as opposed to unaged shochu that enjoys huge mainstream popularity in Japan—and is mostly produced in the country's southernmost main island of Kyushu. These esoteric whiskies present a fascinating style, not least because their production method is so unusual. “The foundation of rice whisky is the ko-ji kin,” explains Shigeruriku Fukano-san, fifth-generation distiller at Fukano Distillery, a family-run operation in the city of Hitoyoshi on Kyushu Island. The ko-ji kin are spores of an Aspergillus mold that convert the rice's starches into sugar prior to fermentation—a process similar to malting barley in Scotland. There's a 500-year history of its use in this area of Japan. Shochu makers select their rice based on grain size conformity, firmness, and starch content. “Once the rice is steamed, you add the ko-ji kin to it, and then you need skill to help it spread,” advises Fukano-san. Fermentation requires two to three weeks—far longer than in Scotland, where it usually takes two to five days. Shochu is single-distilled, and Fukano uses steam-heated stainless steel stills to produce shochu at 43% to 44% alcohol. “The shape of the stills varies from distiller to distiller,” says Fukano-san. “Everyone has their own philosophy.” The maturation period, along with an alcohol by volume (ABV) of at least 40%, is where these products come to meet the definition of whisky. The spirit takes on new flavor characteristics and color as it matures in casks that are typically sherry, French wine, and virgin Japanese oak. Aging is more rapid in the early years of the process, though Fukano-san believes the spirit never reaches peak maturation—even after 15 or 20 years. “The process of maturation is still taking place, just at a slower speed,” he says.
Rice whisky has a long tradition of production in Japan and offers drinkers a whole new style of whisky.
A short drive from Fukano is Ohishi Distillery, a rice whisky producer near the village of Mizukami, where sixth-generation master distiller Kazunori Oishi touts the delicate notes achieved by the liquid in maturation. “Rice whisky has Japanese character in both its flavor and aroma—it's subtle, like whisky from mizunara barrels,” he says. “Some people might think it lacks a strong punch, but I think its delicate flavors are graceful compared to spirits such as bourbon.” The distillery plants gohyakumanishi rice to meet around 30% of its production needs, grown organically, with koi swimming in the channels to stop weeds from growing. “Our own rice is better quality than other rice, so we're able to create better umami and flavors in the shochu,” says Oishi-san. “By using water from the Kuma River and growing our own rice, we create shochu that expresses the region.” This is Japanese terroir, captured in a grain of rice. Walking into the stillhouse, Oishi-san explains how creating the first moromi (the fermenting mixture) takes five days, and the second takes 12 days. He removes his shoes before entering this spotlessly clean space, which is dominated by a hulking five-ton still—a stainless steel colossus that seems at odds with the delicacy of this spirit. The still employs indirect steam heating for vacuum distillation, and produces a lighter shochu with aromas of bananas and apples—ideal for drawing out flavors once it's in the cask. Inside Ohishi's insulated warehouse, aging takes place mostly in sherry and brandy casks from Spain, along with some mizunara and sakura (cherrywood) casks from Japan. Oishi-san shows off his pride and joy: a magnificent 75 year old sherry cask filled with 27 year old rice whisky. With the new-make spirit starting the aging process at 45% ABV, maturation occurs differently than in Scotland, where barrels are typically filled at 63.5%. “Because of that, aging takes place more slowly, which I think is more balanced,” Oishi-san explains. He also notes that the spirit doesn't get particularly woody over time. “If you leave it for 6 months or a year, it develops color, but no umami or sweetness,” he says. “Over the next 3 to 5 years you start to see more aging characteristics, and after 8 to 10 years you get more umami and flavor.” I confess my admiration for the Ohishi Sakura Cask expression, a rice whisky aged in sherry casks for 5 years, then finished for 2 years in casks made from locally harvested sakura. Oishi-san likens its aromas and flavors to sakura mochi cake—a rice cake wrapped in a salt-marinated sakura leaf. Sakura casks are unique to Japan, just like the flavors of these elegant whiskies. Japanese Whiskies to Try Ohishi Sakura Cask—93 points, $90 Cherry lozenge, strawberry, and white pepper Fukano 12 year old Single Cask (No. 55)—90 points, $120 Spice, blueberry muffin, cola candy, rich fruit Kikori—90 points, $48 Lychee, pea shoots, piquant spice
Give Grain a Go
Grain whisky, typically made from wheat or corn, is primarily used to create blended whiskies in Scotland, Ireland, and Japan, but it also has remarkable flavor potential on its own. Having reviewed more than 1,000 whiskies for the Buying Guide, grain whiskies constantly surprise me. They're produced in large-scale industrial distilleries that lack the romance of their more rural single malt counterparts. While the big companies have launched grain expressions like Haig Club, Chita, and Girvan Patent Still, smaller players like Compass Box and independent bottlers have also played a vital role in making grain whiskies visible. Robin Tucek, managing director of Blackadder International, a family-run independent bottler, has recently released two 32 year old single grain whiskies from Cambus and Invergordon. “It doesn't matter whether it's a malt or grain cask,” Tucek argues. “If it's really good and jumps out at you, it's good to bottle.”
Typically used for blends, grain whiskies are a must try for curious whisky drinkers.
To heighten the sense of adventure, the Blackadder Raw Cask releases have cask sediment at the bottom of each bottle—they're the snow globes of whisky. “When opening a bottle, tip it upside down and tap it a couple of times and then let it settle for a minute before pouring,” Tucek recommends. Bars in Japan will even ask customers if they want a tea strainer for the sediment when they get to the end of the bottle. Tucek devised Raw Cask to present whisky in its purest form, and he argues that his methods go beyond those of most producers, who include the non-chill filtered designation on the label. “The whole point is to retain the maximum possible flavor from the cask,” he says. “The more you filter a whisky, the more you remove the oils and the fats, and thereby the flavors, from the spirit.” If you've never sampled grain whisky, you might be unsure about what to expect. “There's a certain type of sweetness in grain whisky that's worth discovering,” explains Tucek. “Our recent Invergordon has earthy, sweet charred oak and malty caramel on the nose, but the taste is soft and rich. The char, natural caramel, and fruit are delicate but full, before a finish of soft tannins, delicate woodiness, and fruit.” Grain Whisky to Try Blackadder Raw Cask 32 year old 1988 (Distilled at Invergordon)—94 points, $250 Fruit syrup, lush sweet caramel, baked apricot Teeling Single Grain—91 points, $50 Rhubarb, Brazil nut, licorice, star anise Compass Box Hedonism—88 points, $120 Vanilla essence, baked apple, spicy finish
Whisky connoisseurs tend to eschew expressions with any sort of flavored taste profile. But don't dismiss them entirely—some warrant consideration, and even respect. At FEW Spirits, founder and self-confessed coffee lover Paul Hletko had long been working on combining coffee and whiskey in different ways. His first attempt, FEW Chameleon, was a bourbon finished in a barrel that was seasoned with cold-brew coffee. It had discernible coffee flavors that Hletko loved, but he was less enamored with the contrivance and authenticity of the coffee-cask seasoning. Next, he brought a barrel-aged gin down to proof with cold-brew coffee: “It was really cool, but it didn't drink like gin; it drank like an amaro, and nobody understood what to do with it.” Hletko decided to try the same trick with whiskey, and FEW Cold Cut bourbon was born.
Flavored whiskeys don't have to be sweet and artificial. Some combine flavors to create something similar to a bottled cocktail.
It's a drink to enjoy neat, over ice, or as the heart of a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Boulevardier, where the bitterness from the Campari and sweetness from the vermouth go well with the coffee. Does that make it a flavored whiskey? “It is and it isn't,” Hletko shrugs. “Think about it more like a bottled cocktail. People really like it, but there are a large number who say they can't possibly drink flavored whiskey. I'm sorry you feel that way, but you're kind of missing out.” Hletko next took the same approach with tea. On FEW Immortal rye, the herbaceous notes of the cold-extracted 8 Immortals oolong tea complement the rye spiciness. “One of the main tasting notes of FEW rye is the jammy stone fruit, along with plums, pears, and cherries,” Hletko explains. “With the tea, we get tropical fruits on top of that: mango, papaya, and dragon fruit, as well as some tannin.” Unlike cold-brew coffee, cold-extracted tea is not commercially available, so FEW Spirits steeps the tea for 24 hours, strains it, then proofs the whiskey with it—full integration takes four to eight weeks. This maximizes fruitiness, with a moderately tannic backbone, while controlling astringency. While drinkers make up their minds, Hletko already has his favorite, “I love FEW Cold Cut bourbon, but as a drinker, I think Immortal rye might dust it. So judge it on its own merits, without any preconceived notions of what flavored whiskey is.” Flavored Whiskeys to Try Jameson Cold Brew—90 points, $25 Nutty coffee beans, dark fruits, praline FEW Immortal Rye—87 points, $45 Grapes, cocoa powder, licorice tea Basil Hayden's Dark Rye—84 points, $40 Vanilla essence, baked apple, spicy finish
Finishing is the process of transferring mature whisky to a secondary cask to enhance its flavor profile. The technique was pioneered by Balvenie and Glenmorangie using wine and sherry casks. But we're now seeing a second wave in finishing—one that's producing a more eclectic range of whiskies by employing barrels made from chestnut and cherrywood to casks that previously held tequila, mezcal, vermouth, calvados, and more. “We're lucky with the regulations here in Ireland,” says Midleton Distillery's master blender Billy Leighton. Since the Irish Whiskey Act simply requires maturation in wooden casks, though not exclusively oak, it's leading to exciting developments. Midleton set out to procure casks from cooperages willing to supply barrels raised from alternative woods. Its vanguard range, Method & Madness, promotes next-gen finishing and includes a French chestnut-finished single pot still Irish whiskey, a must-try for the intrepid tippler in search of new flavor experiences. “I love the effect that the chestnut imparts on the whiskey,” remarks Leighton, who finds the wood and pot-still style complement each other well. The properties of the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) casks favor faster maturation: The air-seasoned wood has a lower density and higher porosity than oak. With its higher levels of vanillin and furfural, chestnut wood imparts more chocolate, caramel, and sweetness than American oak, though blenders have learned to use it judiciously to strike a fine balance with the distillate's character.
While cask finishing has been around for decades, whisky makers are getting more creative and exploring a range of possibilities.
“It was probably the first time anyone had used something other than oak,” says Leighton, who feared some people might grumble that it wasn't in the spirit of the regulations. “We did expect a bit of pushback on it, but it was within regulations, and once we put it out there people loved it.” Now, distilleries around the world are experimenting with a greater diversity of cask-finishing than ever before: Get ready for more. Next-Gen Finishing to Try Yoichi Apple Brandy Barrel-Finished—93 points, $250 Apples in sugar, iced chocolate cake, smoke Method & Madness French Chestnut-Finished Single Pot Still—92 points, $90 Toasted cedar, spruce, spice, pecans, bright lemon Dewar's 8 year old Ilegal Smooth Mezcal Cask-Finished—87 points, $22 Zested limes, herbal notes, chile flakes