By: David Othenin-Girard
K&L Staff Member
It's not often that we come across a new Japanese whisky. Yes there are new brands being developed and launched all the time, but this little whisky from the wonderful Helios distillery on Okinawa arrived as a total surprise. What's unique about the excellent new whisky from southern Japan are a couple of little words that separate it from a number of other pure malts on the market, "Distilled By". Pure malt is whisky terminology the Japanese continue to use which has been banned in Scotland for a number of reasons. It is the legal equivalent of saying, "a blend of single malts," but in Japan it is also used to refer to single malt as well. Even more confusing is the fact that Japanese Whisky must be aged in Japan but not necessarily distilled there. We're very skeptical of many new brands because they're legally allowed to import blended malt, age it in Japan and call it Japanese Whisky. That doesn't mean that the whiskies are bad, just that they don't deserve a premium over scotch in any sense. But, this technique is not only used by little upstart brands, but also the large producers. While there's been some grumbling about clarifying the rules, the potential downside for the popular blends in Japan is significant, hence the strong resistance to change. The reason they haven't been able to replicate the process for products labeled "single malt" is that Scotland prohibits the export of single malt in bulk - it must be bottled in Scotland to be considered such. So many of new brands bring in Scotch (or Canadian Malt) and sell it as Japanese Whisky thanks to the lax regulations of the Pure Malt designation. But the Helios Distillery is doing something very different. According to their importer they're not just distilling malt whisky on their old pot stills, they're using malt dried with Hokkaido peat. This is blended with an unpeated malt whisky from the distillery and aged in used American oak. This is not Rice Whisky like so many of the southern Japanese distilleries produce but made from 100% malted barley. There is a long tradition of distilling and aging rice in the south, but Helios is actually most famous for their rum internationally. They produce a coveted 21 year old Japanese Rum and finish this whisky in those exceptional barrels. The result is one of the most unique and appealing peated whisky in the shop. The nose is a mingling of dried stone fruits and round maritime smoke. The roundness continues on the palate and the sweetness of the rum casks offers opulence, but not to cloyingly so. It's gentle but interesting. Despite the peat it's seems somehow refreshing. It's hard to compare this to anything else on the market, but if you can imagine dumping some Hakushu 12 year into one of the Nikka Malts you might get close. Needless to say, I purchased every bottle the importer had in stock and plan to continue to do so for as long as they'll let me.