This is really the first time I’ve written on this site about Mizunara, so we might as well buckle up for something of an interesting lesson in geopolitics and historical circumstance.
While Japan had been developing as a place of whisky production since the 1920s, World War II happened and made getting barrels something of an issue, considering the sources of American and European oak were, well, Americans and Europeans. They may as well have sent a telegram that read, “Hey, guys, sorry about that Pearl Harbor thing and siding with that Hitler guy, but can you send us some wood for our booze?”
Consequently, Japan experimented for a bit with aging their whiskey in Mizunara, or Japanese oak. Early results were not encouraging. The wood did not grow straight and was more porous than its American or European counterparts, which meant casks had a tendency to leak. Also, it initially imparted a sharp woodiness that obliterated any subtler flavors. For the most part, Japanese whiskymakers were all too eager to get back to business as usual by war’s end and eighty-six the crappy domestic oak they’d been forced to make do with.
Only through decades of trial-and-error did Japanese producers eventually find that good whisky could be made from Mizunara if you were a glutton for punishment and had 18 to 20 years on your hands to get to a “sweet spot” of aging. Now, if you want to taste the best that Mizunara has to offer—allegedly, distinct and characterful notes of coconut, banana, and sandalwood—then be prepared to part with at least a thousand bucks to taste a representative example.
So: Chivas Regal Mizunara. It cost me $30 after being marked down. I hate to be cynical here, but is it at all reasonable to expect a budget-label blended scotch to show us what makes Mizunara special? Alternately, if Chivas could deliver a passable facsimile of that same taste for $50, would people be willing to pay $1,000+ for the real deal? As we say here in LA, “Yeah—no.”
Of course, had I fully trusted that kind of cynicism, I would have saved myself the purchase of a bottle. Having blown through the whole thing, I can confirm my initial suspicions that this is far more Chivas than it is Mizunara. Chivas 12 has the distinction of being perhaps one of the most boring scotches ever. It’s a blend that I’ve often described as being formulated to be as indistinctive and unoffensive as possible. It’s like the Crown Vic of scotches: other cars might be faster, more exciting, more luxurious, or offer better value, but Crown Vic owners know they can always find parts for their creaky shitbucket.
When tasting the Mizunara variety of Chivas, I still had to try to arrive at tasting notes. Everything arrives in something of a flavor “wash” that makes it difficult to pick out individual bits and pieces. The nose suggests a meaty, rich showing of sherry that doesn’t actually ever show up in the glass. Instead, there’s mostly a vague kind of fruit, cream, and floral sensation followed by a lot of oak tannins and a little wisp of peat. I’ve sussed it out in the quick notes below a little more concretely, but in general this Chivas brand extension reminded me of a Tweet I loved a few weeks back, where the author said that the taste of La Croix sparking water is almost like if you were drinking club soda “and someone screamed out loud the name of a specific fruit in the other room” (thanks, Mr. Tran).
Is it bad? No. I poured a lot of this over ice and forgot about it, as sitting down with it neat proved to be a mixed bag. If it were worth $20 or $25 I think it’d be a fair enough bargain, but it certainly isn’t worth $50. At that price point and branding, I think it willdisappoint anyone wanting some kind of gateway into the mysterious and expensive world of Mizunara Oak aging. File under “gimmick” unless you’re profoundly curious to take the ride for yourself. I still can’t say I really know what Mizunara aging tastes like, but I can think of a lot better ways to spend a grand.
Also, not to crap on Chivas completely: take the money you’d spend on exploring the gimmick and upgrade to the 18-year, which I think is quite distinct and enjoyable.