INTERNATIONAL - Established in 1823, fifth-generation, family-run Fukano Distillery in Hitoyoshi City, Japan, is producing some of the most uniquely superlative spirits currently being exported to the U.S. Its distillate is fermented entirely from rice—the primary local crop—which makes it similar to shochu, a Japanese beverage distilled with anything from rice to potatoes.
The big difference, though, is that this version is barrel-aged, giving it more in common with whisky, which is generally distilled from barley, rye, and/or wheat. “Why would you make distillate from barley when you have a great selection of locally grown rice to choose from?” says Chris Uhde, vice president of GRC Imports, whose portfolio includes Fukano. “Rice produces a softer, subtler style of distillate that is a better reflection of the cuisine and culture of the region.”
Longtime shochu producers themselves, Fukano have distilled a locally-sold shochu with more than 30 vegetables in its recipe, and they’ll even do contract-distilling on a tiny scale for local farmers to enjoy their own bespoke versions. The Fukano expertise has been passed down for as long as it has, thanks to the family’s constant craftiness. “They have survived by always producing high-quality distillate,” says Uhde, “and by recognizing and utilizing the strengths of succeeding family members so that they are able to adapt to the current marketplace.”
Fukano was the first distillery in the Kumamoto region to mature its shochu in barrels, a novel practice spearheaded by Chizuru Fukano, the mother of current distillery president Seiichi Fukano. (She is now retired.) It’s this post-distillation wood aging that turns the fresh shochu into something more accurately classified as whisky. “A mutual friend of [the Fukano family] and mine was given a cask sample, and he brought it to dinner where I was able to try it,” says Uhde. “I thought it was brilliant.”
Uhde discovered that the only way to bottle Fukano’s rice whisky for sale in Japan was to heavily filter it and remove its natural color. (In Japan, shochu is limited in how dark the distillate can be.) It was mutually agreed that the brilliant spirit needed to be made available in its natural form as whisky, so he asked permission from Fukano to blend and bottle casks for export to the U.S. so that the aged distillate could be kept in its untampered state. A deal was struck, and Fukano whisky is available for export market only—not to be found in Japan.
“I will not lie. A lot of education was needed for whisky enthusiasts to get fully on board,” admits Uhde. “But slowly, as people tried the whisky, they realized that it was great—and a welcome expansion of the delicious pie of whisky.” After starting off bottling and selling a few well-received single casks in the U.S., some limited releases started being released, such as a 12-year, age-stated whisky and a sherry-matured whisky.
The now-annual blend, Fukano Whisky, is a great place to start. It changes quite a bit each year, a good example of what different barrel treatments can do to rice distillate. The vatting this year comes from eight oak casks and three sherry casks, yielding a whisky that’s big and creamy, with notes of vanilla and butterscotch.
Three More Superlative Examples of Rice Whiskies:
Kikori was the first fully rice-based Japanese whisky exported to the U.S. Designed to feel lighter than other Japanese whiskies, it’s manufactured on Kyushu island, with local Hino Hikari rice and groundwater from the island’s mountains. Aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years, most Kikori blends offer a terrific, sake-like sweetness, backed by a vanilla-forward oak underpinning.
Now, here’s a different one. As part of the Experimental Collection line from American whiskey masters Buffalo Trace, a version of the distiller’s Mash #1 bourbon recipe was made from rice instead of rye, though the remainder is corn and malt—making this a partial rice whiskey. Aged for nine years in newly charred oak barrels, this one is quite unlike anything else: spice-forward marmalade aroma, a floral and caramel-y palate, with a smoothly sweet mouth-feel.
Also represented by GRC Imports,Ohishi (established in 1872) is the distillery nearest to Japan’s Kuma River, known for its pristine water. For this whisky, 30 percent of the rice is grown organically in the company’s own fields; the remainder is mochi rice from Kumamoto Prefecture. Post-distillation maturation takes place in approximately 1,200 oak barrels. (Ohishi was the second distillery in the Kumamoto region, after Fukano, to barrel-mature shochu.) The Sherry cask releases are particularly good, with flavors of dark fruit, toffee, and nuts. New future releases of Ohishi whisky will be matured in Sakura barrels, port casks, Islay casks, and new oak.