Most drinks fans are familiar with Kirin through their Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer (Kirin Ichiban outside Japan). Outside Japan, not many know that Kirin is the country’s number three whisky producer, behind Suntory and Nikka. In fact, this is the first review of a Kirin Whisky on Malt Review. Perhaps that’s because Fuji Single Grain is the first Kirin Whisky to be exported to the US.
In November 1973, the Fuji Gotemba distillery began production. It was built by Kirin-Seagram, a joint venture established in August 1972 between Kirin Brewery Co., Ltd. (50%), JE Seagram and Sons (45%) and Chivas Brothers (5%). It’s in Gotemba in Shizuoka prefecture. The distillery is 155,000 square metres in size, at an elevation of 620m above sea level, 12 km from the base of Mount Fuji, surrounded by forest, with an average annual temperature of 13C. They make both malt and grain whisky; fermentation, distillation, aging, blending, and bottling are performed on-site.
Kirin’s first whisky, a blend called Robert Brown, was released in February 1974 and is still on sale today. A new release followed every few years, some of which played into the insane/crazy/fun/ridiculous marketing of Japanese whisky in the 80s. In July 2002, in the wake of the Seagram breakup, the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Kirin Holdings, and its name changed to the Kirin Distillery. This was when they began leaning into their Mount Fuji connections and they released their first single malt in 2004. Despite some of these bottles gaining international attention and winning awards, their focus remained on the domestic market.
Recently, Kirin Holdings have been under pressure from some of their activist investors to ramp up their beverage business and expand overseas. The whisky side of this has resulted in ¥8bn ($80m) investment to add four new stills, four new mash tuns and a storehouse that will expand aging capacity by 20%. Most importantly for us consumers, they released new products, the first of which was Fuji Single Grain.
Fuji was initially a bar only release, but from February 26, 2021, it became available for regular tipplers in Japan. From October 2020, Kirin began exporting to France, and on August 21, 2021, Kirin began exporting Fuji Single Grain to the US. As mentioned, it’s the first Kirin whisky to get a US export.
The US accounts for about 35% of premium whisk(e)y sales worldwide, but Japanese whisky is only 3% of that. However, Kirin has a tough time ahead of them if they want to put a dent in Suntory’s 50% market share of Japan’s whisky exports.
The bottom of Fuji’s Single Grain’s bottles rises inwards in the shape of Mount Fuji. This is something Kirin have used in their premium single malts before, so it’s nice to see this design feature in a more accessible bottle. In fact, almost every part of the bottle and label has some hidden meaning – down to some of the fonts used. I go into that in some detail in this video.
Fuji is referred to as Whiskey with an “e.” Japanese whisky typically follows the Scotch tradition, so whisky is almost always written here without an e. The reason for this is because this whiskey leans into some American whiskey production methods and styles.
This is a blend of three types of grain whiskey. The backbone of the blend is a Canadian style medium-type grain, made with a batch distillation similar to a malt pot still called a kettle distiller. This backbone is supported by a Bourbon-style heavy-type grain distillate using a Doubler. The only Kettle and Doubler outside the U.S. is at Mt. Fuji Distillery. The third is a Scotch-style light-type grain made using a continuous multi-column still.
The exact mash bill is undisclosed, however for the light and medium type distillate it’s a mix of corn and some malted barley. Some rye is added to the mix for the heavy type. These are aged mainly in American Oak Barrels, but we don’t know anything about the average age of the whiskey. They use water from Mt Fuji – some of the softest water in Japan. All this leads to a 46% ABV, which interestingly, they also write as 92 Proof on the bottle, very rarely done in Japan. That’s another clue that this was always geared at international markets.
Fuji Single Grain Whiskey – Review
Colour: Auburn, tawny with a hint of orange.
On the nose: Fuji has a very inviting nose. It’s bold and confident but not overpowering, somewhere between a Rye and Brandy. You’ll get notes of apple, banana, pears joined with baked fruits, cinnamon and liquorice.
In the mouth: The whiskey has a soft mouthfeel. There is more orange on the palate. The sweetness is joined by subtle spices, cinnamon, bitter chocolate, and some rye bread. There are estery, ripe fruit notes which I get with a number of the distillery’s whiskies. They attribute it to two factors – the 180-litre barrels they use, akin to the bourbon industry, to increase the contact area of the distillate with the wood. Inefficient and costly in space, but they believe it is worth it. The second reason is their proprietary yeasts. I suspect there has been some influence from the sake industry and the types of yeast used for Daiginjo Sake. The finish is medium. It starts sweet and then moves towards woodiness, incense and finally a homey rye bread feeling.
This is a very good grain whiskey. There’s a surprising breadth of notes, accompanied by interesting flavour development. It’s one I’ve suggested to Bourbon drinkers who are looking for a reasonably affordable Japanese whisky to have at home, and the feedback has been on the whole positive.
This qualifies as real Japanese whisky under Japan’s new whisky standards announced in February 2021 by the Japan Spirits and Liqueur Makers Association, meaning it has been fermented, distilled and bottled in Japan.
Fuji sells in Japan on Kirin’s DRINX website for ¥6600 including tax, around $60. You can often find it about ¥1000-2000 cheaper than that. However, in France, it is around 65 EUR, and in the US, it’s around $95, so about 50% more than Kirin’s suggested selling price, and twice what you could get it for in Japan.
Compared to other Japanese grain whiskies, it outclasses Nikka Coffey Grain, which retails for ¥6600, and you won’t find the Nikka discounted. However, Nikka’s far superior Coffey Malt, which is classified as a grain whisky as it is produced using a column still, just edges out Fuji for complexity and depth of notes.
Fuji is a more refined dram than Suntory’s Chita, which comes in at ¥4200. If we were comparing RRPs then Chita may well take it on value for money, but if you can find Fuji below ¥5000 in Japan then it’s the clear winner, beating out Chita’s youth and some of its unrefined notes.
At the US and European RRPs, you will be paying a premium for the Japanese whisky flex, but it’s one to consider adding to the shelf.
Ahhhh Fuji Gotemba (not to be confused with Fujisan whisky which is from Nirasaki Distillery), a highly under-rated Japanese distillery.
The last time I travelled overseas was in December 2019 and I was in Japan with a couple of friends. They were not whisky drinkers, often gagging from the alcohol heat from 40%ABV whiskies, but to my surprise, they loved the Fuji Gotemba Sanroku, it was their favorite whisky for the trip, despite trying whiskies like Yamazaki and Hakusu 18 and Hibiki 21.
By then, it was already discontinued but due to its large production volume, I was able to find it at a standalone store that only sell alcohol. The MSRP for this bottle was around $20 plus, I bought it for around $35 which was still cheap compared to what it would cost me in my home country.
Despite it being at 50%ABV, it’s highly drinkable with no heat, and yet still flavorful and not bland.
Very interesting Mac.
Loads of detail and I appreciate the comparisons for benchmarking.