Most drinks fans are familiar with Kirin, whether through their Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer (Kirin Ichiban outside Japan) or through Four Roses Bourbon, which they own.
But outside Japan, not many know that Kirin is the number 3 whisky producer in Japan, behind Suntory and Nikka.
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. (Japan) [50%], JE Seagram and Sons [45%] and Chivas Brothers [5%].
Fuji Gotemba Distillery
It’s in Gotemba in Shizuoka Prefecture – 155,000 square metres in size and sits at the height of 620 m above sea level, 12 km from the base of Mount Fuji, surrounded by forest, with an average annual temperature of 13°C. They make malt and grain whisky, and fermentation, distillation, ageing, blending, and bottling are performed on-site.
Their 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. 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.
From there, they began leaning into their Mount Fuji connections and releasing their first single malt in 2004. They built momentum with each release, and they started gaining international attention and winning awards. However, 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. Whisky is a crucial part of this strategy, and they’ve invested ¥8 bn ($80m) in adding four new stills, four new mash tuns, a storehouse that will expand ageing capacity by 20%.
They’ve had new product launches, which began on 21 April 2020 with the launch of Fuji Single Grain.
Fuji was initially a bar only release, but from 26 February 2021, it became available for regular tipplers in Japan. From October 2020, they began exporting to France, and on 20 August 2021, Kirin began exporting Fuji Single Grain to the US with a sales target of 740 cases – it’s the first Kirin whisky to get a US export. They want Fuji to be available in 12 states, eventually in around 900 liquor stores and high-end bars and restaurants, with the rollout beginning on the West Coast and moving Eastwards.
It’s a smart move: the US accounts for about 35% of premium whisk(e)y sales worldwide, but Japanese whisky is only 3% of that. 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 unless they grow that 740 cases pretty aggressively.
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 about 67€, 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.
Interestingly, it’s 46 % ABV – interestingly, they write 92 Proof on the bottle, which is another clue this is geared at international markets.
Now, onto the juice inside.
Fuji Single Grain
Kirin’s whisky is the brainchild of Jota Tanaka, the 2017 Icons of Whisky Master Distiller/Master Blender of the Year.
It’s made with water from Mt Fuji – some of the softest water in Japan.
Fuji is referred to as Whiskey – with e, which is how it is spelt in Ireland and the US. However, Japanese whisky typically follows the Scotch tradition, so whisky is almost always written here without an e. This tells us something about the liquid and its production methods.
It’s a blend of three types of grain whiskey. The backbone of the blend is a Canadian-style medium-type grain with a rich flavour, made with a batch distillation similar to a malt pot still called a kettle distiller. It takes more time than continuous distillation, but it produces a fruity distillate with a soft mouthfeel. The only kettle distiller outside the US is at Mt Fuji Distillery.
This backbone is supported by a Bourbon-style heavy-type grain distillate using a Doubler. The only Doubler outside the US is at Mt Fuji Distillery.
The third is a Scotch-style light-type grain with a gentle flavour using a continuous distillation machine multi-column. This enhances the characters of the other components and adds to the harmony and depth.
As part of Kirin’s desire to help you enjoy whisky more freely, they suggest drinking this in a Sauvignon Blanc glass. Master Blender Jota Tanaka believes it will enhance the experience.
Auburn, tawny with a hint of orange.
Very inviting nose. Apple, banana, pears, baked fruits, cinnamon, liquorice. Bold and confident but not overpowering, somewhere between Rye and Brandy.
Soft mouthfeel. Orange, sweet, subtle spices, cinnamon, rye bread, bitter chocolate. There’s this estery, ripe fruit note, which I get with a number of the distilleries 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 is their proprietary yeasts.
Medium. It starts sweet and then moves towards woodiness, incense and finally a homely rye bread feeling.
This is fantastic. This is an excellent whisky at the Japanese RRP one to pick up on your next trip to Japan. At the US and European RRPs, you will be paying a premium for the Japanese whisky flex, but this is one to consider adding to the shelf.
You can also watch KanpaiPlanet’s YouTube review of Fuji Gotemba Single Grain Whiskey on his channel right here.