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Barrell Craft Spirits Cask Finished Series: Mizunara Review

Barrell Craft Spirits Cask Finished Series: Mizunara Review

Barrell Craft Spirits is back at it again with the third release of their Cask Finished Series. The goal of this project is to showcase their cask-finishing skills using barrels that are new and exciting. Previous examples include an Amburana barrel finish and a hybrid Rum/Scotch cask finish. Mizunara Oak seems like it should fit right in.

What is Mizunara Oak?

I wrote an extensive article detailing what Mizunara Oak is and why it’s so hot right now, but I’ll cover some of that information here. For starters, the tree itself doesn’t look that similar to its American and European cousins. Its appearance is more scraggly and shorter. This creates issues for coopers because – comparatively – there is very little wood that is available to use from the trunk.

On top of that, Mizunara Oak takes – at minimum – 200 years to mature before it can be harvested. This is twice the time of American White Oak. The Japanese government has strict rules in place to prevent over-harvesting. All of these factors create a wood that is very scarce, very valuable and very expensive.

I guess it’s kind of mind-boggling to me that Mizunara is even an option for foreign producers to want to experiment with. If the average Mizunara barrel now runs $6,000 (for reference, a typical white oak barrel goes between $800 and $1800), then the cost is surely being passed on to the consumer. Will consumers want to pay more money for a slightly different experience?

One last interesting tidbit about this wood is that once you have Mizunara Oak trunks, you can’t just feed them through a machine that churns out planks/staves. In order to achieve the tightest barrels with the least likelihood off leaking, the trunks must be allowed to dry in the open air for about a year.

Following that, the trunk must be split with hand tools according to the direction of the twisty grain. Then those must be air-dried for 2 more years. This is because the wood is so porous that it retains much more water than other types of oak (which is why it’s literally called “Water Oak”). Only a few producers in the world understand the correct concept of making a barrel out of this wood. So not only is the wood valuable, but so are the craftsmen who make barrels out of it.

How did Barrell obtain Mizunara Casks?

I’m going to speculate on a lot of this stuff, but will gladly update this section as new information is gathered. Basically, what I’ve found out is that Barrell obtained many Mizunara staves in loose form. They had them shipped to a cooperage all the way over in Germany to be assembled into barrels. That cooperage made them into 53 gallon barrels which were given a toasting treatment before being shipped back to Louisville.

I was confused by this story for a number of reasons. Where did they get these staves? Why weren’t they already assembled into barrels? Who is this German cooperage and why were they the experts that Barrell trusted to assemble them? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be shipped to Japan to be assembled instead?

Understanding the bourbon inside

Barrell Craft Spirits has changed things up over the past couple of years. Rather than start each batch from scratch, they have consolidated barrels from certain sources into separate vats. For example, one vat may contain 4,000 gallons of 8-year-old bourbon from George Dickel. Another vat may contain 5-and-6-year-old barrels from MGP. When it’s time to blend, they simply pull out the amount of liquid they need and blend them together in one large vat. This is why so many of the components look so familiar on the back of their labels.

An example of one of the large vats Barrell uses to store or blend their bourbon in.

Barrell took the following components and blended them together to form the base of this Cask Finished Series release:

Indiana Bourbon: 6, 7, & 9 years old

Kentucky Bourbon: 8 years old

Tennessee Bourbon: 8 & 14 years old

From there, the bourbon was put into those toasted 53 gallon Mizunara Oak barrels. I do not know why they did not elect to have the staves charred as well.

According to Barrell, the liquid sat for an additional year and a half before achieving the desired flavor profile they were looking for. This seems to be slightly more than the typical length of time producers finish their whiskey for (when using Mizunara). However, cooperages and producers have typically said that Mizunara needs around 20 years to impart the full spectrum of its flavors into the whiskey. But I can count on one hand the number of whiskey makers that have actually done that.

So how did Barrell do with their interpretation? Did it pull out any interesting notes during its time in these special barrels? Let’s find out. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose starts off sweet with plenty of caramel and vanilla wafers. I can also sense this distinct mineral note – probably a result from the Tennessee Bourbon in the blend. Then the herbal notes begin to come out along with Mizunara’s telltale sandalwood fragrance. Loose tea leaves converge with spices like cinnamon and anise for a very pleasant scent. There are also plenty of fruit notes with cherries, orchard fruit and some citrus rind.

Palate: The first flavors I come across are caramel and honey sweetness and a nice layer of spices – ground cinnamon, clove and anise. Fruit notes are mostly dark and concentrate with raisin and plum being the two I taste the most. Then the sandalwood flavor begins to layer in with the rest. It’s really nice and dials down the intensity of the drink which is still pretty punchy. Finally, I get a note similar to camphor which could be from the high amount of rye in the derived mash bill.

Finish: I find more wood notes on the finish than I did on the nose and palate. Obviously there is still some sandalwood, but the oak from the bourbon is more present. Lingering notes of potpourri accompanies toasted orange zest. I’m also assuming the cinnamon and barrel char notes come from the bourbon, but it’s nice to find them at the end.

Score: 8/10

I really enjoyed my time with Barrell’s Mizunara cask finish. This is a finish that isn’t strong enough to cover up any of the bourbon flavors; it just layers in additional flavors. Barrell Vantage did a good job in this regard as well. Speaking of Barrell Vantage, you’ll probably read more than a few reviews comparing these two. I can definitely pick up on the similarities.

Ultimately Vantage is much more wood-forward than this bottle was. So if you’re pinching pennies but looking for the cheapest option to have your first Mizunara experience, go ahead and buy the Vantage over this one. Just be aware that the French Oak is going to be fighting for your attention in that bottle as well. But if $100 doesn’t scare you, then this is a great pickup if you come across it.

Final Thoughts

Barrell Mizunara is a solid addition to any bourbon collection in the fact that it’s unique without being so polarizing. Basically it’s the total opposite of their previous Cask Finish Series release: Amburana. In fact, I’d assume this was just a really good regular batch of Barrell Bourbon if I was given it blind. The extra perfume fragrance and soft sandalwood notes are a pleasant addition to Barrell’s routinely flavorful bourbon.

Some people may challenge my acceptance of Barrell Mizurana’s $100 price tag as being totally reasonable, but I’ll just say this much: I’ve been buying and drinking Barrell for a long time and I think they are worth the money they’re asking for. Very few blenders can achieve such a long and successful streak of great whiskies. And while I have questioned the value of some of their Gray and Gold label releases, their Cask Finished Series hits the perfect sweet spot of price, uniqueness and flavor. It’s an automatic buy for me.

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