We're Going On A Hike Through Mount Fuji And You're Coming: 5 Fuji Whisky Reviews
Fuji Whisky has been making big moves in the quiet but now seem to be on a full steam ahead global rollout.
What started as a focus on just blended whiskies has turned into a full single grain, single malt and more interestingly single blend operation.
For some context, Fuji Whisky belongs to Kirin, the major food and beverage group behind the eponymous beer brand that's in almost every supermarket and convenience store. That's obviously not all, they also handle a substantial portion of Coca-Cola's distribution in Japan (also Budweiser and Heineken while we're at it), they own stakes in the popular Four Roses Bourbon brand amongst other things.
Kirin owns one of the most popular Japanese lagers - the Kirin Ichiban. (Image Source: Kirin PH)
Now you might be wondering why it is that you might not have heard about Fuji Whisky if they're owned by such a big beverage business at Kirin. And that's because the reality is that Suntory and Nikka (belonging to Asahi), which rounds up the three biggest beverage companies in Japan, were early to the game, with Kirin only joining the fray decades later.
And there's a real good story behind that, which while costing them some lead time to the whisky category, is also the reason why their whiskies are fairly unique.
Fuji Whisky started out as the Fuji Gotemba Distillery in the early 1970s, as a joint venture between Kirin, Seagram and Chivas. That was a pretty formidable trio at the time, and one of the things it gave the distillery, whose location is really at the base of Mt Fuji and uses water (amongst the softest) from the mountain for its whiskies, is an insane aptitude at making grain whiskies. This explains why Fuji Whisky's portfolio has largely focused on grain whiskies made using corn as a key component.
Fuji Distillery has amongst the most sophisticated grain whisky production capabilities outside of the US. (Image Source: Fuji Whisky)
The proof is in the pudding - the distillery has three types of distillation stills, two of which (called a Kettle and a Doubler, if we're being specific) can only be found in Fuji Distillery outside of the US, highlighting the distillery's historic ties to American whiskey. Consequently, the whisky community in Japan often likens Fuji whiskies to Bourbon. Fuji even spells whisky as "whiskey" on its Single Grain expression's label which is yet another nod to its American ties.
These pot stills have multiple settings, allowing the distillery to produce the widest spectrum of grain whisky styles from light to medium and heavy. It is in particular the heavy type that tends to be likened to an American Bourbon style whiskey. As mentioned, the Kettle and Doubler are unique to Fuji Distillery, being the only in existence outside of the US, and they produce the Medium and Heavy Type grain whiskies which forms the backbone of Fuji's grain whiskies, again underscoring that their grain abilities are really a whole other level.
Yet, as the old saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth, and so, the distillery whilst maintaining a fairly comprehensive distribution of its somewhat popular Fuji Sanroku blended whisky, never really got anywhere.
Fuji distillery sits below Mt Fuji and uses the famed mountain as its water source, yet its historic ties to American whiskey has made Fuji Whisky become known for its almost Bourbon like flavors. (Image Source: Time Out)
Eventually Seagram and Chivas pulled out from the venture, clearing the way for Kirin to start putting in serious money into Fuji Whisky, which meant three major changes:
1. Big investments in expanding its all-encompassing distillery which produces grain and malt whisky, and also covers all steps in the whiskymaking, aging and packaging process,
2. A total rebranding from Fuji Gotemba to Fuji Whisky,
3. The production and release of single grain and single malt whisky expressions.
These changes have been working and that's why you're starting to see buzz around Fuji Whisky, with the rollout of more products under the new moniker. Don't just take my word for it - the World Whiskies Awards has even given Fuji's grain whiskey the title of "World's Best Grain Whisky" in 2020.
One of the little things that also resulted from the rebranding is that all new bottles feature a relief of Mt Fuji in the glass base of the bottle, which is pretty nifty.
In any case, the recent rebranding, global rollout and expansion of expressions has brought to fore quite a number of expressions:
- Fuji Single Grain Whiskey NAS
- Fuji Single Grain Whisky 25 Year Old
- Fuji Single Grain Whisky 30 Year Old
- Fuji Single Malt Whisky 17 Year Old
- Fuji Single Blended 2022 Masterpiece
We're going to give them a try today.
Fuji Single Grain Whiskey, 46% ABV - Review
First up, we have the single grain whiskey which is Kirin's entry expression. It is a blend of 3 styles of grain whiskies as mentioned earlier, ranging from light type to medium and heavy type which are produced using different configurations of the distillery's unique grain distillation stills.
Digging into the specifics because who has time for vague marketing puff statements - the three whisky styles used corresponds as such:
- Heavy Type (Bourbon Type): Heavier, Rich, Floral, Fruity Style
- Medium Type (Canadian Type): Medium, Luscious, Delicately Fruity Style
- Light Type (Scotch Type): Lighter, Soft*
*Kirin also adds that it is "compelling", which I'm going to leave out because it's difficult for me to understand what a "compelling" taste is.
Ultimately, the goal here is a "delicately fruity, mellow and multi-layered profile" as Kirin mentions, and they make use of corn, malted barley and rye for their various distillations, aged primarily in American Oak barrels.
(Image Source: Fuji Whisky)
Aroma: Surprisingly fruity to start with - poached pears, apple cider, muscat grapes, quince jam, sultanas and raisins. With a side of hay and straw, vanilla, icing sugar, cinnamon spiced honey, quite confectionary but yet what is quite delightful here is the thick buttery texture of the aromas. There's also a strong note of baked tarts and filo pastry - think quince pies, croissants, kouign amann. It's full of orchard fruits - cooked or baked, sweet, buttery and aromatically spiced.
Despite it's richness it somehow maintains a fairly bright and uplifting profile, not veering towards being cloying.
Taste: The first thing noticeable here is how simultaneously hefty and silky this is - almost cordial-like in texture, with sweet and fruity notes of corn syrup, banana and pear puree, more on quince jam, and apple pie stuffing, and light cooked berries, the sort you find in pies.
There's a nice tingle of Szechuan peppercorns and a nice fresh soft woodiness that really adds to the taste.
Finish: Long, with quite a soft, mellow vanillic sweetness and woodiness - very aromatic cedar. There's an enjoyable rustic quality about the finish, which recedes in its confectionary flavors.
A grain that pulls ahead of the pack! This one's complex, hefty and full of fruity flavors served straight to you. Solid stuff!
This was incredibly complex and flavorful as compared to most grain whiskies, with a much heftier body as well, which altogether made it very enjoyable. The distinct fruitiness came in the form of a concentrated puree which was served straight to you, no beating about the bushes here, which is something I believe most would appreciate - no "hints of" or "gentle notes" here. The only thing to take note of here is that this tends towards a sweeter profile.
You can understand why some might consider this to be Japan's Bourbon - it really does fashion its taste very much like it albeit fruitier. It's quite good value as well.
Fuji Single Grain 25 Year Old, 46% ABV - Review
This is a really well-aged grain whisky by Japanese whisky standards. While Japanese whiskies seem to be all around, you're rarely going to find that many 25 year old whiskies that are truly Japanese - that is to say actually produced in Japan. These tend to reside only in the portfolios of the major Japanese beverage giants since only they've remained active and kicking for so long, or in independent bottlers who've gotten their hands on whiskies from ghost distilleries (although those can often be of questionable sourcing and aging, and/or tend to be incredibly expensive)
This has a heavier focus on the Medium Type grain whisky made using the Kettle distillation still, and was aged in ex-Sauternes casks. That should already give some sort of indication that this is going to be a more fruit-forward creamier whisky.
(Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)
Color: Deep Amber
Aroma: Wow! This is quite unexpectedly dense and fruity - lots of fruit jams, cooked fruit - apricots, namely. This is alongside heavy notes of honey, butterscotch, caramel sauce, icing sugar, vanilla cream, hay, with the usual baking spices. There's alittle bit of salinity and minerality here as well, very gently coastal, and with a touch of bitterness of sarsaparilla.
Taste: Double wow! If I didn't know what this was, I'd say this was a Jamaican rum! Loads of banana notes - flambe, puree, dense and estery. There's more caramel sea salt brownies here, as well as cooked fruits, poached apples, apricot jam. A tad confectionary - marzipan, ginger candy, with a slightly vegetal note of cane juice.
Finish: Stops short, and still quite confectionary - butterscotch and Laffy Taffy, slight salinity.
This blew my mind, I had to do a double take if I had mistakenly poured some Jamaican rum with its concentrated banana puree notes. If you're into Jamaican rums as I am, you are absolutely gonna find this a smashing hit.
This one is divisive stuff! It is so unlike any other grain whisky I've tasted, in fact it is so similar to a Jamaican rum with the strong concentrated banana notes, except minus the brine and diesel note that typically comes with it. It even has sugar cane juice notes across the palate and finish, which is quite peculiar.
But that said, as a fan of Jamaican rums, this went right down my alley. Although personal preferences aside, while it is quite a flavor bomb, if you're not into Jamaican rums, this might be a miss for you. Though we can all admit, this was a wildly interesting and intensely flavored whisky. Incredibly distinctive!
Fuji Single Grain 30 Year Old, 46% ABV - Review
Finally, we reach the top of Fuji - the 30 Year Old Single Grain, which is the oldest expression the distillery has available.
This label focuses on the Canadian style grain whiskies, or more straightforwardly known as the Medium Type. Fuji says that inside is even some grain whiskies aged up to 40 years, with the earliest distillate coming from 1988.
(Image Source: Fuji Whisky)
Color: Deep Mahogany
Aroma: This is quite mellow, a refined sort of honey and maple syrup scent slowly emerges, with trail mix - dried fruits and nuts, and then vanilla cream, apricots, apple pie, fresher as it opens up. A good sprinkle of cracked black pepper.
Taste: Again, quite mellow, it is syrupy in texture with quite a lush mouthfeel and notes of honey, butter, maple syrup. Light touches of milk chocolate.
Finish: Medium-length, vanilla, oak and more butterscotch and black pepper, with a more apparent woody astringency.
Wake up! Where's the fruits! I think it's overslept... The age on this one shows - the mellowness, the richness and the wood, but the fruits have gone missing!
This was a mellow, more refined and rich grain, that clearly expresses the woody notes its picked up on the palate. The age is really shows. That said, the result of which is a fairly simple whisky that does not express much else. It would have been lovely if more of that characteristic fruitiness stayed and deepened. Perhaps more time is needed for it to blossom...
Fuji Single Malt 17 Year Old, 46% ABV - Review
While Fuji Distillery has always uniquely possessed the ability to produce both malt and grain whiskies at the same compound (probably the only distillery to be able to do so in Japan, and one of only a very small handful worldwide), its grain whiskies have always taken center stage, punching way above its weight.
More recently, the distillery has made a bigger push to produce malt whiskies as its new fully Kirin-owned status has cleared the way for the distillery to go full steam into making a name for its whiskies.
Yet this 17 Year Old label is certainly not from the recent ramp up in malt whisky production - for obvious reasons, it's 17 years old! That makes this rare expression (apparently only retailed at the distillery) one from the cellars, and a real treat. It's primarily matured in ex-Bourbon barrels and like the other expressions, bottled at 46% ABV.
(Image Source: Fuji Whisky)
Color: Maple Syrup
Aroma: Off the bat, the cereal notes are at the fore - barley, with more on honey, butterscotch, caramel candy, and then more cooked fruits, poached apples, peaches and cream, apricot jam.
Taste: A continuation of its aromas - honey, butterscotch, cooked fruits, apricots, namely. A light umami note that is reminiscent of burnt ends from a barbeque or burnt brown butter.
Finish: Medium, light estery notes of sugared fruit gummies, alongside some woodiness and vanilla.
🍭I'll take you the candy shop, show you what I've got... this one's well-rounded, easy on the palate, and should be a real crowd pleaser.
This is noticeably heftier than the grain whiskies, save for the 30 Year Old Single Grain, and has a more obvious cereal note to it, as well as more on sugared fruit gummies. While fairly pleasant, I find that for a malt whisky this tends too closely to being sweet and could use more balance and contrast to bring out the various dimensions. That said, this was very well-rounded, easy to drink and should go down as quite the crowd pleaser.
Fuji Single Blended 2022 Masterpiece, 50% ABV - Review
Eagle-eyed readers will notice the peculiarity of the term "Single Blended" here. You're not alone, the JSLMA (Japan's whisky council) was intrigued as well. In fact, Fuji Distillery takes the cake here for appealing to the JSLMA to include the term.
"Single Blended" is defined as a blended whisky of malt and grain produced at the same distillery. If you're thinking of Suntory's Hibiki, I'll save you the trouble, it's not single blended as its components come from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries. The ability to produce both malt and grain whiskies puts Fuji Distillery in rarefied air as the only such distillery in Japan, and only a handful worldwide.
A world's first - the first single blended of malt and grain under one house. A true reflection of the distillery's character. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
This matters because a single blended whisky gives you the ability to fully appreciate the distillery's singular house-style and DNA, all in one. This gives drinkers a real sense of what Fuji Distillery defines itself as, and captures comprehensively what the distillery offers - its terroir, craft and aging climate.
That's pretty cool when you think about it.
So key to note here is that this one's a blend of both malt and grain whiskies, and more importantly, made completely in Japan! It's pretty much one and only at this point - and I mean worldwide. This contains some amount of 30 year old whiskies, as well as components that were aged in ex-beer and red wine barrels.
(Image Source: Fuji Whisky)
Color: Maple Syrup
Aroma: Rich, dense, decadent butterscotch and a hint of sea salt. A familiar note of White Rabbit milk candy and caramel custard pudding. Cooked fruits as you would expect - poached pears, stewed apples, raisins, baking spices, almost a mulled wine scent. An aromatic cedar woody note as well.
Taste: Consistent with its aromas, more honey, custard, vanilla cream, baking spices, as well as cooked fruits, berry jams, mulled wine - a sort of deeper, richer sweetness. It's body is fairly meaty as well, with a silky texture.
Finish: As it recedes, the oaky astringency becomes more apparent, cutting through the buttery notes upfront. A pretty long finish.
This is as unmovable as a mountain - it's sturdy, hefty and well-defined. Quiet and loud both as the same time with a distilled sense of the distillery's DNA.
The tradeoff of which is the youthful spritely brightness that we got in some of the younger grains.
This holds most similarly to a mix of the 30 Year Old Single Grain and the 17 Year Old Single Malt in my opinion. It has a great meaty body which gives a great textural experience as well as flavors that are rich and well-defined, with great depth. It appears that the distillery's DNA is really that of butterscotch, custard and orchard/stone fruits - buttery and fruity.
In this case, its age has mellowed it out to become alot more well-rounded and with more depth. It's nice to see that the oaky astringency is controlled here, but that said it would have been lovely if the distillery managed to retain the bright, fresh, fruity notes. Conversely, this is of course, more hefty and refined. That said, while the red wine barrels did show itself somewhat, the beer cask seems to have gone MIA - ultimately, the age is probably the most prominent flavor.
Fuji's Master Blender Jota Tanaka was just inducted into the whiskymaker's hall of fame - but you best believe he's just getting started. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
Going through a full flight of five expressions from Fuji Distillery is one way to quickly get a handle on what the distillery's house style is - a rich custardy, butterscotch, poached orchard and stone fruit grain and malt.
It's abundantly clear that the distillery's grains punch way above their weight class and are in a league of their own, grabbing the spotlight and shining on what they can do. This isn't some fluff the distillery is laying claim to - the proof is there, their grain capabilities are bar none and completely unique. You owe it to yourself to give their grains a try and trust me when I say it'll throw you right off your seat.
Prepare for a whole lot more developments in the malt category. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
Their malt whiskies still have some way to go as they begin to take a greater emphasis on a staple of the whisky world, although it is heartening that it remains cohesive to the classic Fuji profile.
Their single blended is perhaps the most interesting - exceptionally singular, and certainly a real piece of history. It so clearly highlights what Fuji is all about cut right to its core.
But perhaps the looming question you might have is how I would rank them, and given that I eschew numerical scores as these are quite arbitrary, I'll give it a shot in my own way.
1. Fuji Single Grain 25 Year Old - Most impressive, but pricey! Definite pick at a bar.
2. Fuji Single Grain NAS - Buy this any given day, must add to the home bar.
3. Fuji Masterpiece 2022 Single Blended - Distinctive, a real collectible.
4. Fuji Single Malt 17 Year Old - A work in progress, but worth trying.
5. Fuji Single Grain 30 Year Old - The age is more apparent here, but it could be more expressive.
Fuji Distillery is doing some great things, so you'd best keep a look out for them!
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