The sun is rising to the right of the 747. Folks are gathering their belongings as Tokyo and respite from the long flight approaches. But I’m looking to the left, waiting for an old friend to amble into view; waiting for Fuji-san. Like the Gates of Imladris, Mount Fuji identifies the approaching land as a bastion of civilisation and culture. I smile as the volcano passes below. An odd combination of excitement and serenity overwhelms me; I’m back in Japan.
In any corner store in any town in Japan one can find several shelves well stocked with whisky and other spirits. It was in just such a store, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, that I first encountered Kirin Fuji Sanroku blended whisky (the original version) in 2014. Eighteen dollars for a nigh-on cask strength whisky? How bad could it be? As it turned out, not bad at all. It would have tasted even better had I bought it in Tokyo, where the street price was about ten bucks. A product of Kirin’s Fuji Gotemba Distillery, Fuji Sanroku is one of the most ubiquitous “supermarket whiskies” in Japan.
Four years on, the bottle has grown to 700ml (up from 600) and its label now prominently proclaims “Non Chill Filtered”. The recipe has changed but not beyond recognition. Fuji Gotemba chief blender Jota Tanaka has created a whisky that is more refined, better balanced and more flavourful than its predecessor. The distillery produces malt whisky and light, medium and heavy grains, to the tune of some 12 million litres a year. Yes, it’s huge. Reprising a tale of other Japanese distilleries, the location was allegedly chosen based on it’s Scotland-like climate. The town of Gotemba, at the feet of Mt Fuji, is 620 metres above sea level, with an average temperature of only 13 degrees, so I’m inclined to believe the story.
Originally a collaboration between Seagram’s, Chivas and Four Roses, the Gotemba distillery is now the sole province of Kirin, Japan. As malt is casked at only 50.5%ABV at Fuji Gotemba (grain is between 55 and 63%) this blend is pretty close to the cask filling strength there. In other words, your ten to eighteen bucks is paying for a lot of whisky and not much added water.
While Kirin Fuji Sanroku is not officially exported, one can find it in Australia but expect to pay $100 to $150...sigh. To be fair to the importers, much of that thousand percent markup is actually Australian government excise duty, which, apparently, is for our own good, doncha know...
Colour: Deep gold.
Nose: Stewed apples, Brandy Snaps, coconut, raspberry and black tea. A whiff of pine sap and a blast of ethanol.
Palate: Chotto mizu, yields a soft arrival despite its high ABV. Simple and sweet. Vanilla wafer biscuits, a touch of kiwi fruit and raspberry, which lingers a little before disappearing in a puff of tannin. It's all quite pleasant, if simple and two dimensional; like most of the people I meet. Fuji Sanroku is young and unsophisticated but inoffensive without being boring; unlike most of the people I meet.
While it’s predecessor could fairly be described as cheerful but a bit rough, this is somewhat more refined, if still young and volatile. The cold climate works against Fuji Sanroku here.
Mouthfeel is more substantial than the original but still unnoteworthy.
A short finish of black tea and bubblegum concludes with a dash of spice, a touch of oak and a sting of alcohol.
The remodelled Kirin Fuji Sanroku is a more substantial and more enjoyable whisky than its rough and ready progenitor. Decent, if unexceptional, it is still adorable in its own, low budget, way. I always seem to pick up a bottle of this when I’m in Japan as its just so hard to go past at 50% ABV, not chill-filtered, around fifteen bucks and quite quaffable. But I wouldn’t waste my duty free allowance bringing it home, let alone fork out $150 dollars for it when I get there...
Speaking of which, there is one thing I really hate about visiting Japan:
Kirin Fuji Sanroku.