British whisky identifies with barley, American with corn, and Western European whisky, once rye. In Asia, rice is a primary cereal for local grain spirits and the manufacture of rice whisky.
When whisky exports to Asia began, there arose local competition by domestic distillers making Eastern rice whisky. In the West, rice whisky was a foreign notion. In 1857, the British publication The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics designated rice whisky or rice arrack from China and Japan as ‘Spiritus Oryzae’. Identifying rice, Oryza sativa and the ‘liquor fungus’ Aspergillus Oryzae, called Qu in China and koji in Japan. This fungus is the millennia-old Asian alternative method to malting. Microbes and enzymes break down rice starches into sugars, allowing the yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol in a continuous process. The fungus’s metabolic pathway produces glutamate, creating the savoury taste of umami – one of the five gustatory sensations alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter – giving rice whisky a subtle sensory difference.
Across Asia, many cultures and countries distilled ‘koji’ spirits in wooden, earthenware or metallic stills using fermented rice, millet, sorghum and barley. From the 14th century, Han China developed a thriving grain-distilling industry. The oldest operating distillery in the world is Luzhou Laojiao Distillery in Sichuan, which has manufactured flavoursome baijiu since 1573. Baijiu (meaning ‘white spirit’) has rice as an integral ingredient and, like British whisky, was flavoured with herbs and spices to make it palatable into the 18th century.
In the late 19th century, to meet the new demand for spirits, some Japanese sake breweries converted to the distilling of shochu, a vodka-like spirit; others made a local Osaka rice whisky. One of Kyushu’s oldest sake breweries, the Kukano Distillery, began distilling rice whisky in 1823. Mongolia made a millet whisky called Koa Eang. Its rye-like character was alleged, in 1894, to resemble bourbon whiskey or rye-korn brantrim, Danish whisky.
In 19th-century Britain, there was limited demand for imported rice. However, in 1889, Britain imported 244,000 tonnes of rice, of which 3,000 tonnes of damaged rice was sold to four patent grain distilleries to be mashed and distilled for blended Scotch. Malt distillers described rice spirit as coarse and hard. Many were prejudiced against the alien ‘rice corn’, refusing to recognise rice as a cereal. Unquestionably, rice is a cereal grain, a member of the Poaceae botanical family, and classified for whisky production. The prejudice was probably due to its relatively bland and soft taste, as well as its higher cost per bushel and lower yield in proof gallons. The alcoholic yield from mashed rice is half that of corn and barley; when made by koji fungus, the yield doubles. Mashed rice whisky has a mild taste; however, the koji process lends it a complex flavour.
Whether koji or mashed, rice is finding a place in the whisky pantheon in Asian and Western distilleries. Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam replaced rye with rice in their mash bills two decades ago. A handful of artisanal distilleries in America are also experimenting with pure rice whisky and the koji method. In Asia, koji and rice whisky are rallying, notably in Japan. Ex-sake distilleries and start-ups are manufacturing rice whisky, exporting brands such as Kukano, Kikori and Ohishi. In 2016, the Shinozaki Distillery in Asaka released Takamine koji-barley whisky, appropriating the name of a Japanese chemist who gained a US patent in 1894 for employing a radically new process to saccharify corn using koji fungus. Even Japan’s liquor leviathan released Essence of Suntory Rice Whisky in 2020. Diageo India launched Epitome Reserve, a 100 per cent mashed rice whisky, this year.
Rice, the world’s third most cultivated grain indigenous to China and Asia, is poised as a new flavour vector for whisky. The British century of Scotch whisky was led by barley’s maltiness, America’s bourbon century was led by sweet corn, and the Asian century may well become famed for umami koji whisky.