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Spirits

Japan’s Forgotten Whisky

June 10, 2021

Story: Susannah Skiver Barton

art: Nick Hensley

Spirits

Japan’s Forgotten Whisky

June 10, 2021

Story: Susannah Skiver Barton

art: Nick Hensley

Koji whisky is one of the country’s most distinctive, and overlooked, products. Can it break through in the modern era?

When the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA) unveiled standards of identity for “Japanese whisky” in February, the move was greeted with international celebration. After years of ambiguity, when spirits labeled as Japanese whisky might only be bottled there, the guidelines offered an important step toward transparency. But within these rules, there’s a gaping hole, an oversight of what is arguably the most uniquely Japanese whisky of all: koji whisky.

This spirit actually starts off as shochu, made by combining polished rice or pearled barley with koji, a mold used in the production of sake, miso, soy sauce and other food and drink. The koji helps saccharify the grains, or convert their starches to sugar (a process performed by malted barley or enzymes in the production of other whiskies) and works in tandem with yeast during fermentation. Following distillation—usually a single pass through a stainless-steel pot still at low pressure—the spirit is filled into casks and matured. That’s where things get blurry.

In Japan, cask-matured koji spirits must be stripped of nearly all color—and thus much of their flavor—or blended with unaged spirit until they’re light enough to be sold as shochu. (The standard is registering at 0.08 or lower on a light spectrometer.) But in the United States, the unaltered spirits meet all the usual standards for whisky—made from grain, aged in a barrel, bottled at a minimum 40 percent ABV—and so several rice-based koji whiskies (Ohishi, Fukano, Kikori and Shibui) and a barley-based koji whisky called Takamine have hit American shores in the last few years.

Though still a fledgling category, these brands have been well-received by U.S. consumers. “When we launched [in 2015] I was hand-selling,” says Ann Soh Woods, founder of Kikori. “Almost immediately, people were gravitating to this style,” she adds, noting that demand is currently outstripping supply.

Because of their cask maturation, koji whiskies share many common hallmarks of other whisky styles, but also offer a compelling umami character and certain distinctive flavors. “The way the koji interacts with the rice and the way the rice ferments and distills, it leaves it with a very soft, elegant, textured base distillate,” says Chris Uhde, master blender for Fukano and importer, via ImpEx Beverages, of both Fukano and Ohishi. “Because it goes in at a lower proof, and it’s so easily malleable by the cask, it pulls out really nice flavors—more sugars, and more of the nuances of the cask—more quickly.”

These koji whiskies occupy a unique position not just because of their flavor and production, but because of their distinctly Japanese heritage. The koji process has been used in food and alcohol production in Japan for thousands of years; koji is the national fungus of Japan, celebrated on October 12, which makes it all the more curious that koji whisky is not simply ignored in the JSLMA’s new guidelines, but is explicitly prohibited from using the title of “Japanese whisky.” One of the guidelines’ requirements is the use of malted grains, a common saccharification practice in Scotch, Irish and other whisky styles, but one that is laughably superfluous to the native koji process, which is far more efficient.

“I don’t think that [shutting out the koji process] is a great position to be in,” says Christopher Pellegrini, founder of Honkaku Spirits, which imports Takamine koji whisky. “I don’t think that’s a slope you want to set sliding down. Don’t make koji the bad guy.” He notes that while malt-based whisky-making is well established in Japan, its life span is dwarfed by the long legacy of koji distillation—and that focusing on malt could be detrimental to the country’s spirits industry overall. “To say that you can’t make a whisky with grains that have had koji propagated onto them is very myopic,” he adds. “It’s a missed opportunity for Japan as a whole.”

Although there are just a handful of koji whisky brands currently available in the U.S., Japan is home to hundreds of small, often family-owned distilleries using the koji process to make spirits; the potential for category growth is enormous. Achieving recognition of the style would likely spur producers and importers to launch new offerings—not just in the U.S., which is one of the few global markets to adopt these spirits as whisky—but around the world. “It would provide an extra revenue outlet for these companies that might be suffering because of a barrier of vocabulary,” says Uhde, grimly noting that the number of koji distillers has dropped by 15 percent in the last decade, from over 1,000 to 852. “By establishing a separate category that carries vocabulary that Westerners are more familiar with [i.e. whisky], it’s going to help to bring them in, to get them engaged with it.”

Plus, he says, it’ll broaden the landscape of Japanese whisky tremendously. “[Japanese distillers have] nailed single malt; you see it in multiple examples. This is going to be their opportunity to expand that pie and to really bring a rainbow set of flavors—a more expanded palette of color—to the whisky flavor profiles of the world.”

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Tagged: Japanese whisky

Susannah Skiver Barton writes about whisky and spirits from across the globe. She spent several years leading Whisky Advocate and Market Watch as a senior editor and won the Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer Award in 2020. More at susannahskiverbarton.com.