The current fascination with Japanese whisky is seemingly stronger than ever in the land of Oz. When the world’s supply of the good stuff started to dry up a few years ago, prices sky-rocketed and drinking a Japanese single malt became a special occasion, if not for the price then for the sheer lack of ability to find anybody who actually had a bottle. Entry-level malts started to cost the same as their premium older brothers used to. The premium older brothers (read: the special editions that couldn’t go a single season without winning a flurry of awards) just disappeared from the shelves altogether, only to be found online in collections that would only part with them for thousands of dollars.
One such special release that’s only just seen the light of day is Yamazaki’s “Mizunara”. Mizunara is the name of a tree that became one of the happiest accidents in the Japanese spirit world.
“We discovered the Mizunara timber for whisky maturation by accident. We had World War II, unfortunately, so we couldn’t source the bourbon cask or sherry cask from abroad, so in order to continue the whisky production, we have to source timber somewhere in Japan”, says Mike Miyamoto, the Global Brand Ambassador for whisky giant Suntory, and one of the most revered characters in the liquor industry.
“We searched through Japan and we tried out many different timbers [to see] which of them can be suitable for whiskey maturation. Then we came across Mizunara Japanese timber, but it’s not ideal for whiskey maturation at all. Mizunara timber grows twisted. It’s not going to grow straightforward; just twisting.
“Also, [it has] many, many, branches. If you cut out; flatten out Mizunara timber, Mizunara flat timber has got a lot of knots and also twisted grain, which is not ideal for cask-making at all. It is hard to bend, it’s easy to break.”
In true Japanese fashion, persistence proved to be the way forward for Suntory’s barrel-builders in the early ’60s, who were determined to turn this elusive timber into casks that could be a sustainable choice for Japanese whisky maturation.
“Japanese coopers didn’t do anything with the Mizunara oak at all, but we requested them. We pushed them to work on Mizunara casks; to make casks out of it. That’s how we came across our Mizunara cask. That was about 50 or 60 years ago.”
Despite the casks finally being created, the experimenting wasn’t over yet, as the slow-growth wood casks showed little interest in enhancing the new make spirit with which they were filled. At least not in any hurry.
“We made Mizunara timber into a cask and put the whiskey in it, but it doesn’t show up any sign of maturation after two or three years. Even after four or five years. Then there was some [signs of maturation present]. It [eventually] matured and matured flavours remained, but by that time, the war had ended, so we restarted importing Bourbon casks and Spanish casks again. Then we just ignored the Mizunara casks for the time being.
“Then, later on, after maybe 30, 40 years later, we needed it. We had to have a very special whiskey to make Hibiki, which was launched in 1989. We wanted to find something different, so we went out to the warehouses [to see] if there are any whiskies, any casks, that we haven’t touched yet. Then we rediscovered Mizunara, and it was about 40-year-old then and showing very, very, nice, wonderful bouquet. That’s how we started using Mizunara whiskey.”
Some of the best stories in the world of liquor arise from accidents, and this is no exception. The resulting whisky from these old barrels was like nothing Miyamoto had ever tried before, and it was instantly evident that this is something that needed to be honed to perfection. Mizunara whisky has been used in the much-celebrated Hibiki blended whisky since those barrels were originally cracked all those years ago. Now, it’s finally been bottled as an individual entity, on its own merit.
This whisky displays bold aromas of banana, sandalwood, forest floor and surprisingly pleasant hints of acetone on the nose; notes that are prevalent in many whiskies, but especially notable here; the slow ageing process of the mizunara hasn’t softened them as much as oak might. The palate leads with a lovely oily viscosity and follows with fruit and spice, with a dry, lengthy mid-palate and exceptionally long, slightly sweet finish.
If you can get your hands on one of the 5000 bottles that Beam Suntory has released globally, it won’t come cheap, but you do get the choice between drinking a unique whisky that won’t come around again for a very long time, or stashing it away for a few years (or until it inevitably wins a few awards), then turning a profit. When prodded to reveal Suntory’s next move in the special editions department, Mike is honest, but doesn’t reveal much good news for fans of his delicious spirits.
“We can’t keep up with the specials launching every year. It’s very difficult to do so. For the time being, I think this will be the last time. We have no plans to do so next year yet.”