At first only the biggest whiskey nerds knew about whisk(e)y from countries other than Scotland, Ireland, and America, such as Japan. But now? Japanese whisky is as mainstream as Scotch, and that new-found fame is both a blessing and a curse.

Ever since Japanese whisky entered the limelight its prices have skyrocketed, and the availability of bottles from the “mainstream brands” has plummeted. Fortunately, folks like Chris Uhde are here to come to the rescue! Uhde is the VIce President at ImpEx Beverages, which imports some amazing spirits including Japanese whiskies. Their portfolio includes Fukano, Oishi, and today’s star: Hakata, “The Taste of Umami & Oak,” from Fukuoka, Japan.

Why do I say Japanese whisky is hard to get when you can go to your local supermarket (in most cities) and buy it, you may be asking” You’ve surely seen bottles that look like Samurai armour from Japan’s feudal period, or the more plain label that has a “Japanese look” to it. And if you’ve not seen those, then for sure you’ve seen bottles with Japanese writing on them.

Buyer beware! Some of those bottles do not conform to the new rules and regulations being put in place by the Japanese Spirits and Liqueur Maker’s association, a trade body that is comprised of brand owners both big and small.

But what are the rules that are being set into place? How will they affect the industry and availability of “real” Japanese whisky? Well, first of all: as a Westerner I do not feel I have the right to outright say what is and is not real. I do, however, feel it’s my role in life to educate on categories such as this.

So on that note I’m going to quote Nomunication’s (considered by some the source for reliable information on Japanese whisky) breakdown of the JSLMA’s rules:

“Raw ingredients: Raw ingredients must be limited to malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always be used.

Production: Saccharification, fermentation, and distillation must be carried out at a distillery in Japan. Alcohol content at the time of distillation must be less than 95%

Ageing: The distilled product must be poured into wooden casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters and matured in Japan for a period of at least 3 years thereafter.

Bottling: Bottling must take place only in Japan, with alcoholic strength of at least 40% as of such time.

Other: Plain caramel coloring can be used.

Article 6 of the standard also attempts to head off attempts to label Japanese whisky using phrases like “Nihon whisky” or “Japan whisky.” Or, evoke Japanese images by using names, places, and so forth.”

I have two major takeaways from the above set of rules.

  1. The use of koji: the JSLMA has not disallowed the malting of barley/other grains with koji.
  1. The use of rice: This is a big one to me! For the longest period of time, “rice whisky” wasn’t considered whisky in Japan, as they had not allowed for its use as a whisky grain; while America on the other hand has. America to my knowledge is the only country that recognises rice as a whisky grain on a federal level.

Hakata whiskies are made with 100% malted barley, of which a portion is fermented with koji, a type of mould that helps convert the starches in the grain so the yeast can digest the fermentable sugars more easily.

The Hakata range includes four whiskies all matured in Sherry casks: a 10-year, a 12-year, a 16-year, and an 18-year.

But what does “the taste of Umami & Oak” mean? Well, according to their press release, the umami flavours come from the koji fermentation. “Known as the source of Umami, Koji is also used for production of Soy Sauce, Sake, and Miso.”

Hakata 10 Year Old – Review

$80 from Binny’s.

Colour: The Hakata 10-year is dark with beautiful ruby hues.

On the nose: The sherry is extremely prominent on this release. The nose is very raisin forward, with subtle hints of vanilla, and a touch of oak.

In the mouth: The palate is far from anything I’ve ever had before with hints of spearmint blending perfectly with the sherry, and the taste of soy sauce that melds perfectly with a very mellow twinge of vanilla following on the back end. Very approachable, and flavourful dram.

Score: 6/10

Hakata 12 Year Old – Review

$140 from Binny’s.

Colour: In the glass it appears lighter in colour compared to the 10 year. Much more pale, and less inviting.

On the nose: The aroma is not as enticing. The sherry is less pronounced here, which normally wouldn’t be a bad thing but I honestly don’t pick up much on the aromatics.

In the mouth: I assume that all Hakata whiskies start out with the same base spirit, so it’s not at all bizarre that the 10 and 12 taste very similar. What I do find bizarre however is that the 12 year tastes like a more sour version of the 10. I don’t personally like that it’s funkier, and more pungent.

Conclusions:

I found the Hakata 12 to be less inviting than the 10 year old. The flavour and aroma were much less interesting.

Score: 5/10

Hakata 16 Year Old – Review

Colour: This is closest to the 10-year in terms of colour, it’s a happy medium in colour between the 10 and the 12.

On the nose: This reminds me of “dusty” bourbon! It has a sweet and sour “funk” that I feel is best described as old leather.

In the mouth: It’s got that same old leather Bourbon funk on the palate that it did on the nose, but that doesn’t stop it from being delicious. There is a hint of soy, with sherry, vanilla, and oak tanning. There’s also a nice beefiness.

Score: 5/10

Hakata 18 Year Old – Review

$140 from Binny’s.

Colour: This whisky has a really eye-catching amber colour with hints of burnt orange.

On the nose: I find the nose on the 18 to be quite muted. It does carry some of those vanillas, apples, and toffees but they’re very hard to pick up.

In the mouth: The 18 is a very salic whisky, it’s also slightly acidic. The sherry is less prominent here, and you definitely do get more of the whisky characteristics. Lots of vanilla and butterscotch.

Score: 5/10

Overall Conclusions:

The 18 year and the 16 remind me of the DIY sauces at the Chinese Hot Pot my friends and I like to go to! While they were all absolutely delicious, my favourite, hands down, is the Hakata 10-year-old.

Thank you to Hakata, ImpEx Beverages, and their PR agency for these samples in exchange for my honest opinion. Images courtesy of Hakata.

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Sam Knash Green

Sam Green is an Executive Bourbon Steward and a second-degree Whiskey sommelier based in Los Angeles, California. His journey into the realm of whiskey and spirits started at the age of 22, and since then he has quickly taken his love of whiskey to new heights. His rapid ascent can be traced back to the same reason why he entered the spirits industry in the first place: a passion for and a bottomless curiosity about whiskey. He hosts private tasting all throughout the world and brings his boundless desire to learn and share whiskey with him wherever he goes.

In July of 2022, at the young age of 29, Green was honoured with a commission as a Kentucky Colonel, the highest honour able to be bestowed upon someone by the sitting Governor of Kentucky. Since becoming a Kentucky Colonel, Green has been working to merge his passion for Whiskey with the philanthropic nature of the Honourable Order of the Kentucky Colonels.

In addition to authoring The Beginner's Guide to Whiskey, Green shares his passion for spirits on his website, social media, and YouTube via reviews and photos as well as being a guest contributor for other publications.

  1. Jacques says:

    As hinted in the article, this sounded suspiciously like aged shochu being sold as “Japanese whisky” for the westerners… And after looking into the distiller, it looks like that is what they are selling on the distillers Japanese language web shop.

    That of course does not mean these are terrible spirits (as we can see, Sam’s tasting notes are on the positive side), but this is just dishonest practice*. Especially when you consider the prices they are asking for this; Granted, they may not be exactly the same product, but the 38% strength 10yo sherry cask matured spirit seems to cost around $30 in Japan, while here this “hakata whisky” is going for $80. Buyers beware.

    * Why not do like Hamada Syuzou (whose Daiyame shochu is excellent), and embark on a journey to make schochu popular outside of Japan?

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