Review: Shibui Will Make You Rethink Japanese Whisky (In a Good Way)

Surprisingly bold expressions showcasing local grains and unique barrel maturations

March 1, 2023 8:59 am
A bottle of Shibui Pure Malt 10 Years old
A multi-cask matured bottle of Shibui Pure Malt 10

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What we’re drinking: Six expressions from the relatively new Japanese whisky brand Shibui

Where they’re from: Shibui (roughly, “simplified perfection”) launched in late 2020 with nine expressions aged up to 30 years. Part of IND Beverages (founded by sisters Lauren and Rachel Simmons), the company also includes Co-Owner and Head of Global Whisky Nicholas Pollacchi, who previously headed up global PR for The Macallan, Highland Park and The Glenrothes.

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Why we’re drinking these: “There’s a lot going in the world of Japanese whisky probably, and a lot of repeated half stories,” says Pollachi, a Scotsman who isn’t short on whisky opinions during our hour-long drink session. “First, the number one ingredient in their whisky, malted barley, is still coming from Europe. And people are deliberately not being told that. The local grains are what define the category for every whisky in the world except in Japan, where you have 2,000 years of rice alcohol production, 600 years of rice distilling and then one guy called Masataka Taketsuru who goes to Scotland, learns to make Scotch whisky and reshapes the Japenese market by basically taking something out of Scotland.”

While a fan of the market, Pollachi thinks Japanese whisky overall needs to tell its story and stop being about a domestic battle between drinks bigwigs Nikka and Suntory (“Otherwise, it’s two big guys with distilleries that are fucking enormous, pretending that what they’re making is super rare, and they’re running the conversation. For me, I’m like, there’s a lot more to this. And I say this as someone who loves their whiskies.”)

So transparency and storytelling are big with Shibui. The whiskies here are crafted by multiple distilleries from two different regions of Japan; the art of blending and multi-cask maturation is showcased in expressions from Niigatta, while Okinawa’s releases feature distillates from local grains (mainly, long-grain rice).

In less than three years, Shibui has racked up multiple spirits competition gold medals and 90+ scores from major whisky publications; the company also claims to be the third-largest whisky company operating in Japan. Plus, Pollachi claims that “in the 20 years of me drinking whisky professionally, I’ve never had like these flavor profiles.” 

A bold claim. Let’s test them out.

Co-Owner and Head of Global Whisky Nicholas Pollacchi; a bottle of Single Grain Whisky 10 Years Old
Shibui Co-Owner and Head of Global Whisky Nicholas Pollacchi; a bottle of Single Grain Whisky 10 Years Old

How they taste: All six expressions we tried come in at 43% ABV.

  • Grain Select: A world blend from Scotland and matured in Japan, this is a 95% wheat, 5% malted barley mashbill, matured in ex-bourbon, Oloroso sherry and Japanese mizunara oak. A very light golden straw color, you’ll find plenty of cereal and dark fruit notes, plus a wonderful viscosity. There’s a lot more muscle here than you’d find in most Japanese whiskies, a thread that runs throughout Shibui’s portfolio.
  • Pure Malt: Multi-cask-matured, here you’ll find notes of roasted coffee beans, a fair amount of cocoa, and plenty of creme brulee and fruit on the finish.
  • Shibui Pure Malt 10: A lot of wood smoke here (it’s not peated, though some peated expressions are on the way) balanced by dark fruit and creme brulee notes.
  • Single Grain Whisky 10 Years Old: A rich whisky matured in ex-bourbon casks, there’s an earthiness on the nose (credit the single stainless steel distillation) and flavors that range from umami to tropical fruit salad.  
  • Single Grain Whisky 10 Years Old (Virgin White Oak): The earthiness is gone here, but the tropical notes remain. It’s sweet and floral, featuring a fair amount of salinity; it’s a favorite and almost like a dessert. 
  • Single Grain Sherry Cask Aged 15 Years: The salinity remains and the dark fruits are amplified in this sherry-forward release, which was matured in ex-Fino and Manzanilla Sherry Oak.

Fun fact: In 2014 Pollacchi was honored as a Keeper of the Quaich, an exclusive, international community of members recognized for their outstanding commitment to Scotch whisky. You can read more about this semi-secret society here.

Where to buy: Starting at about $50 and going up to $169, Shibui’s whiskies are pretty affordable and easy to find online. “There’s a false economy around scarcity in Japanese whisky, probably because less than 15% of what the big distilleries make comes to the U.S. market,” suggests Pollacchi.  


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