We’re entering the sometimes shady world of Japanese whiskies today. A realm that I rarely venture into nowadays and one that many view with a touch of well-founded suspicion. The rules around Japanese whisky aren’t as set in stone as say, in Scotland. Meaning theoretically, it is possible to import whiskies from outside of Japan and bottle it as Japanese.

When we used to do travel retail and hopefully 2020 is just a blip on the airtraffic controller radar. You would see an assortment of lavishly decorated whiskies proclaiming to be Japanese, but for the canny investigator, or someone with an internet signal, the reality was somewhat different. And that’s always the danger when buying Japanese outside of an established name. You could be purchasing little more than Ben Nevis (which is no bad thing, honestly), but at a considerable markup. Not exactly the template for a sound long-term consumer relationship. However, it is easy to see how folk are lulled into making such purchases in these environments; the bottles look very Japanese with historical artwork and come armed with very robustly sounding Japanese names. They also have the added attraction of seemingly appearing affordable compared to releases from Suntory and Nikka.

So, when Yoshino Spirits Co., the makers of Umiki, reached out to me, I thought ey up lad, this is like selling coals to Newcastle; sending Ben Nevis back home. In theory, this could be the nearest I get to a holiday in 2021; by taking my palate on a trip to the other side of the world. And given my decades of enduring Jura and such like, we have become a fairly useful early warning system here at Malt… so why not have a new whisky discovery or at least liquid for thought?

The name itself can be chopped in two, as Umi translates as the ocean, leaving Ki which means tree. Those of an international disposition will know that we’ve seen the ocean used in all manner of whiskies to bring out a unique aspect. The most well-known would be Jefferson’s Ocean, which was strapped to a boat and given a grand tour of Top Gear proportions before being bottled. Talisker loves to play nautical games although most of its No Age Statement concepts are destined for Davy Jones’ Locker, or the bottom of the sea if you don’t know Davy.

Fortunately, the blenders have been reasonably upfront about the origins of this release, being comprised of local ocean-side malt whiskies with grain whiskies from across the world. No, I don’t know what local ocean-side is either, but that’s your Japanese component. The whisky is cut with pure filtered desalinated ocean water making this the world’s first whisky to use only sustainable water for blending¹. I know many are dismissive of water in the whole process, but I’m a believer that everything that goes into the liquid will have an effect on a sliding scale. You do have to wonder how much processing the water requires? Not every coastline is as picturesque as Osaka or littered with pine forests – which brings the whole concept together.

This release hasn’t reached the UK shores as of yet although it is incoming. You can pick it up Stateside via SharedPour for $44.99 and if that translates into a similar price for the UK, then on paper that’s an attractive price point.

Umiki Japanese Whisky – review

Colour: caramel.

On the nose: from the offset there’s a distinctive fresh pinewood characteristic, it takes a little patience to get beyond this. When you do, there’s caramel, vanilla and a touch of grain whisky. A light honey combines with a floral aspect, jelly sweeties and red apples. A touch of coastal sea spray as well and beneath it all some gorse. Let’s add some Scottish water to the equation… barley, more sugary sweetness, lime juice and white pepper.

In the mouth: thankfully no harsh alcohol or youthful burn. Sure, it is young as there isn’t much development but there is caramel, red apples, vanilla, hazelnut and a touch of chocolate. Water I felt wasn’t really beneficial here, just unlocking more of the woody aspect and that bitterness vibe.

Conclusions

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but this isn’t as bad as I envisaged. The harness of youth and the profit margin of grain whisky has been kept in check. The use of pine casks injects of a layer of freshness and vitality also some jelly sweeties. Some bitterness from the wood (which I enjoy) languishes into the finish with more caramel and peppercorns.

On a personal level, can I just add that I don’t like the cork that comes with this bottle? It looks like a real cork but it wrapped in plastic, which means it is a rigid inflexible stopper and snappy. Ok, I’m a bit fussy when it comes to such things – what’s wrong with appreciating the traditional touches? Best of Portugal and all that, besides, a good cork doesn’t cost that much more. However, if you know your corks, then you’ll appreciate that a minimum unit order is often in the tens of thousands and you need a temperate controlled environment to store them in. Meaning, additional costs on top of something that is solved by a plastic or fake cork instead. I get it, I really do, but I miss the real thing.

So, returning to the whisky. I’m not sure what this says about Japan as such? The pine aspect works, yet beyond this, you have a fairly solid blended world whisky. As our scoring guide underlines; there’s nothing wrong with being solid whatsoever.

Score: 5/10

Whisky and photograph provided by Yoshino Spirits Co. There is also a commission link within this review if you wish to explore the outer limits yourself.

¹ Umiki advised us shortly after publication that ‘Umiki is the first whisky brand registered as using ocean water, according to the global records of Trade Mark Registries. This does not rule out the fact that other distilleries might have used it in their whiskies.’

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  1. Surfs says:

    Thanks for the article and the skepticism. Once, a store manager talked me into buying an ‘amazing’ Japanese whiskey. Once I got it home I looked it up and found out it was Scottish made and bottled in Japan. I returned it (pre-covid) and picked up something else. The ‘Product Of Japan’ is pretty insidious. Hopefully their label laws get changed, as I understand there is some movement to do so!

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Surfs

      Yes, you’re right, there is a drive to tidy up their rules and regulations. Surprising it hasn’t been done previously but can only be for the benefit of us all. All these newer Japanese distilleries coming online soon, will help cover any shortcomings in stock.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Apple W says:

    The claim that the desalinated water used in the whisky-making process is “sustainable” is made on the Umiki website and has been repeated in more than one review as one of the positive aspects of this whisky: “Umiki is a sustainable whisky where we use only pure ocean water for blending.” (Although a legalistic reading might suggest that there is no explicit causality stated in that sentence.)

    But I am a bit mystified why desalinated water is considered a sustainable process since it requires a fair amount of energy investment. Unless the distillery is located in a desert where freshwater is not readily available it seems to me that this claim should be questioned. It is hard to believe that the carbon footprint of using desalinated water in Japan would be lower than using freshwater from natural sources.

    1. Taylor says:

      This is a good point; desalination requires energy, presumably from electricity. According to the EIA, “Fossil fuels accounted for an estimated 661 TWh of Japan’s net electricity generation in 2019, which represented about 70% of the total generation.” If you’re burning fossil fuel to generate electricity to power water desalination, I don’t see how that could be considered “sustainable” in any meaningful way.

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