The next iteration of Suntory's "The Essence of Suntory Whisky" has shown up a couple places online over the weekend. Volume 4 consists of two bottles, highlighting Suntory's work with sakura casks and rice whisky.You read that right, Suntory works with sakura wood and rice whisky. We've seen plenty other Japanese whisky distilleries release sakura-cask aged whiskies and (fake) rice whiskies in the past, but both are a first for Suntory. Let's take a look.
The Essence of Suntory Whisky Chita Distillery Sakura Cask Finish Blend
This is a blend of clean-type Chita grain whiskies distilled in 2000, then aged in white oak casks for at least 15 years. Afterwards, they were aged for at least 3 years in Sakura wood casks. Suntory says we should expect a Sakura mochi-like aroma and palate. 500ml, 50% abv.
The Essence of Suntory Whisky Rice Whisky
No official description of this one is available at press time. But it's 500ml, 56% abv.
So at this point we don't know the maturity, or where it's from. Hakushu, Chita, hell, if it's pot stilled, maybe even Yamazaki. But the box/label art definitely reminds me of column stills and Chita's industrial vibe.
The wildcard is that it's from none of the above, and instead it comes from somewhere entirely different in Suntory Spirits' supply chain. Haku vodka, for example, is distilled in Osaka using pot stills to distill a rice mash that was fermented with koji in Kagoshima. Remember how I said Suntory-owned Osumi is licensed to make whisky? Does even Suntory call koji-based rice spirits "rice whisky?"
To my knowledge, this is Suntory's first ever rice whisky to be released to the public. It turns out Chita--the region, not the whisky--calls rice its local specialty.
Rice whisky is sometimes a term that's abused when it comes to Japanese whisky. We often see aged shochu marketed as rice whisky when it's sold in the US. Since if you label the bottle what it actually is--aged rice shochu--people don't know WTF. But if you instead label it as "Japanese rice whisky," well, you can build an entire brand around it.
Based on what I can make out from the low-resolution label of this The Essence bottle, it appears Suntory is giving us actual rice-based whisky rather than shochu. Hopefully I'll find the official description soon and we can close the case. Rice whisky made in Japan wouldn't be unprecedented, since Kirin-Seagram released one out of Fuji Gotemba.
Update 6:38PM: There's now an official description available, and it confirms a) Suntory made this at Osumi, and b) it is NOT made using koji. While the English description of the bottle doesn't mention koji at all, the Japanese description says that it uses only malt for saccharification and fermentation.
Suntory hasn't yet updated the website for The Essence releases. Given the situation surrounding coronavirus and since many bars are closed, it could be some time before there's anything from them.
Update 4/28/2020 1:25PM JST: Suntory has now updated the official site for The Essence of Suntory Whisky. The official release date is today.
Big shout out to @whisky.nerd for the tip!