I don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese whisky, at least that I remember. When I traveled there, my Japanese hosts were always very social and invited me to nights that were longer than I’m used to! I do remember a glass (with too much ice) in a Kabuki-cho club where we all sang karaoke, but whisky was not the usual tipple. My colleagues were more likely to go to abar than a whisky bar. But whisky is very popular in Japan.
In my experience, the Japanese are meticulous in execution when they take on a task. Shibui is a reflection of that. The packaging is elegant: completely original, and conveys a modern Eastern esthetic blended with traditional calligraphy. Their website has just enough information–how they constructed the spirit and tasting notes–and is also well-presented. Note that in Japan, there is no law regarding how much time a whisky has to be in cask to be called whisky, and with no age statement on this whisky we can only guess at its age
What’s in the bottle? The back label is informative:the whisky is blended from ex-bourbon and sherry casks, then finished in Japanese Mizunara (‘water oak’ directly translated) casks, which should give it a unique flavor. Note that this is ‘pure malt’ not a single malt, which basically means this is a vatted malt. In other words, all barley malt-based, pot-stilled spirit but not necessarily from the same distillery. In fact, in this whisky, the component malts aren’t even from the same country. This vatted malt has a blend of Japanese and Scottish lowland spirit that has been aged in Japan. Time to open the screw top (no cork here) and see what it’s got.
The color is just a tad darker than straw, as you can see, an indication they have been light on the sherry influence.
The aroma is light and fresh: drying hay, spice, and a touch of malt syrup. The spice is unique, similar to true cinnamon (not the stuff we are used to) and that’s probably from the mizunara casks. The sherry influence is quite subtle–just a backing note to the light malt and spice. Nosing this is like waking up in a field in some exotic place. There are no rough edges as you might expect from a young whisky. However long this has been aged, it is enough.
On the palate, this spirit is quite smooth but not at all boring. Mellow malt syrup, vanilla, the aforementioned spice and an odd woodiness I’ve never tasted before: a little swampy, dark coffee, definitely a roasted-something vibe. The finish is sweet, nicely balanced with a hint of bitters and that unique roasted-coffee/roasted spice-wood thing going on. Though very drinkable, Shibui Pure Malt’s complexity rewards slow, small sips.
Shibui Pure Malt Whisky, 43% ABV
Nose: Drying hay, (true) cinnamon spice, light malt syrup, subtle sherry.
Palate: Smooth, malt, vanilla, spice, slightly swampy dark coffee and roasted exotic wood.
Finish: Fairly long. Malt sweetness that is well-balanced with just enough tannin, more of the roasted coffee-and-wood aroma.
Bottom Line: At about $70 in neighboring Washington, Shibui is not exactly a daily drinker, but comparable in price to a Glenkinchie or Auchentoshan 12-year expression. As something to switch up the palate from the usual range of Scotch flavors, I think Shibui is a great addition to any whisky cabinet. It would also be an excellent choice for someone who is not a Scotch drinker and perhaps is intimidated by the reputation of Scotch to begin their foray into malt whisky.