Bowmore goes Japanese... sort of

The word "Japanese" seems to be the most popular catchphrase in the whisky world these days.

Everywhere you turn, people are talking about Japanese whiskies, so it's no surprise that some Scotch makers have also jumped on the bandwagon.

One way they can do this is by finishing their whiskies in barrels made with Japanese mizunara oak wood, rather than the usual American or European oak.

Unfortunately, those are pretty hard to come by, and according to Beam Suntory international whisky ambassador John Cashman, mizunara casks are not easy to work with.

"Mizunara casks have an almost magical, mythical quality, because there are so few casks in existence and they are used almost exclusively for the Japanese whisky industry," he said.

"Mizunara oak is a very difficult oak wood to work with. It has a high amount of vanillins, and very, very low amount of tyloses, which is the sticky matter that keeps the wood together. So as a result, a large number of Mizunara casks actually leak, so they are not very good for long term maturation."

Even in Japan, the majority of mizunara casks are used for finishing though some distilleries do have exclusive mizunara bottlings, he explained.

Yamazaki, for instance, has a Mizunara barrel bottling that is usually released only for its distillery edition.

The difficulty of obtaining and finishing the whisky is why the recently released Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish is so unique.

Of course, Bowmore has the advantage of actually being owned by a Japanese company - Beam Suntory, to be exact.

Suntory, of course, are the producers of the famous Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts that have taken the world by storm.

"A few years ago, we decided to see if we could get some mizunara casks to finish our whisky in.

"Fortunately, through our association with Suntory, we were able to get three butts, or 500 litre barrels," said Cashman.

"They were shipped to Scotland, and we took some of our liquid that had been distilled in the 1990s, matured in a combination of mostly bourbon and some sherry, vatted it, and then put it into the mizunara casks."

Those three casks were then put into Bow-more's No. 1 Vault, the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland.

"We wanted to see the reaction with mizunara. The idea was to put it there, let it sleep, see how it reacts.

"After three years we were happy with the flavours we were getting so we decided to bottle it," said Cashman.

Limited to only 2000 bottles worldwide (of which only 30 were allocated to Malaysia), the Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength (53.9% ABV).

According to Cash-man, the flavour profile one gets from a mizunara-finished whisky is very different from what you would get from an American oak or European oak.

"Suntory actually did a blind tasting to gauge what people got from it. Many seemed to get a lot of coconut, plus sandalwood and pine wood. I personally think there is a floral petal note," he said.

True enough, on the nose, the Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish has a very soft, floral scent, with a touch of spiciness and tobacco.

A drop or two of water releases some sandalwood and lemongrass hints as well.

"Underneath all that, you can get the distinct Bowmore DNA - the smokiness is there, the touch of saltiness is there, and a bit of vanilla fudge in the background, all typical Bowmore flavours," said Cashman.

On the palate, the whisky is quite spicy, which Cashman says is a typical flavour from the mizunara.

"It's cask strength, so you can still get a bit of alcohol, but after the initial shock, it is quite soft - you get that floral note, a touch of lemongrass, and a nice warm peppery finish with a touch of ginger."

"If we had left it longer, the mizunara would have taken over and it would have been a lot spicier," said Cashman.

"One thing we always emphasise at Bowmore is balance - we don't like one particular flavour taking over the rest.

"I often describe it as an orchestra; if you're watching an orchestra and the violin is too loud it ruins the whole thing.

"We need everything to be working in harmony to have this one amazing sound."