Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ghost 6 on the loose…

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The 6th installment in the Ghost series has been out for a while, but this one’s a little different from the previous 5. The bad news is: you won’t be able to get your hands on a bottle. The good news is: your chances of trying it are much higher than any of the previous releases… How can that be? Well, bear with us. This is the story, in a nutshell.

We’ve been longtime fans of Ichiro’s Wine Wood Reserve, from back in the days when he produced this ‘leaf label’ release as a one-off for the liquor department in Takashimaya, Shinjuku (about 5 years ago). This was by far our favorite in the leaf series (the others being the “Mizunara Wood Reserve” and the “Double Distilleries”), and it’s highly regarded among whisky fans in Japan, but not so well known abroad. Due to the scarcity, very few bottles made it to retailers abroad. It did very well in blind tasting competitions in Japan, but never made it to the top (can’t blame the whisky when it’s up against the likes of Yamazaki 25 etc.). So, in the summer of last year, we approached Akuto-san with the request to do a special bottling of the WWR at vatting strength for the Ghost series. We were thrilled when he agreed, but he had just added some components to his WWR, and being a solera whisky (a rare example of one in Japan!), it needed a few more months in the vatting tank to marry properly. (That’s the egg-shaped vat in the picture below, the so-called OVUM – Latin for ‘egg’ – made by French coopers Taransaud.)
So, we waited patiently – enquiring from time to time if it was ready for bottling. Having – never by design, always by accident! – produced some ultra-limited editions before (22 bottles, 24 bottles, …), we wanted the 6th Ghost to be a ‘people’s Ghost’, i.e. something that could be enjoyed by as many people as possible. We aimed for a few hundred bottles… then, at the eleventh hour, misfortunate struck: the OVUM had started to crack and had to be sent back to France for repairs. We got word that there was only… 20 litres of the liquid left. So again, in spite of our intentions to produce something with a higher outturn, we were left with just a handful of bottles (28 to be precise).

Weary to do another lottery – like with Ghost 2 and 4, most of which ended up being sold at auctions for up to 50 (!) times the original price, and because of this perceived increase in value, unopened and just put away in closets – we realized there was a way to still make this a “drinker’s Ghost”. We decided – in agreement with our partners, Number One Drinks – to make this exclusively available to bars in Japan. Yours truly made a selection of bars all the way from Hokkaido to Kyushu, delivering each bottle in person… and ordering the first dram there and then, so that 1) the bottles would be open and ready to be enjoyed by people visiting the bars, and 2) no bottles could ever end up at auction. We figured that, being at bars throughout the country, about 700 people could try this phenomenal whisky, rather than 28 people worshipping and/or flipping their bottle.
“So, why only bars in Japan?” someone asked us. Well, as an experiment, we had to start at home (if only because it’s a bit hard to fly around the world, delivering bottles hand-to-hand, not to mention financially crippling). Sure, it limits the accessibility geographically, but with only 28 bottles available that was always going to be the case. For those living abroad: consider this an extra incentive to come and discover the amazing (whisky) bar scene in Japan. We’re not going to give you a list of bars – because that’s part of the idea of this Ghost, that it’s a bit elusive – but if you take a look at some of the shots above and below, of bartenders opening their Ghost, you may recognize some familiar faces. Some bars have already opened their bottle – and getting close to the bottom – but others have decided to put it away for a few months and bring it out then, so enjoy the hunt! Ask around, ask your friends… it's all good fun. And when you do find it, savour it because it’s a stunning piece of work. You won’t be disappointed.
We knew right away that the label would feature this particular print from Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of 36 Ghosts” because of the prominent vine leaves in the picture. We know that there are quite a few fans out there who enjoy reading about the stories behind these prints. So here we go. This one is called “The ever-reflecting water is frozen and covered with ice, it does not mirror the evening moon in the sky – Sogi” (brevity was clearly not a virtue in those days):
“Sogi was a seventeenth-century priest who spent much of his life traveling, preaching and teaching poetry. He would pay for lodging at the homes of people he met with his wit and literate conversation. Here, he has taken refuge for the night in an abandoned house. The weather is clear but extremely cold. He notices two ghosts muttering to each other in the shadows of the house. As in a traditional Japanese poetry contest, they are arguing about a poem; they have composed the first half but are having problems with the second. Sogi immediately completes the poem. Rather than thanking him, the ghosts are angry at being bested; they gesture threateningly at Sogi before disappearing, leaving him to a lonely and uncomfortable night.” (John Stevenson)
We like to think that, if there was a bottle of this particular whisky around, his night would have been much less lonely and much more comfortable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The ‘Nikka Shock’: Nikka Radically Restructures their Whisky Line-up

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Nikka has shocked whisky fans at home and abroad with their new whisky strategy. It has been in the news for a while now – even the mainstream media in Japan have reported on this (strangely enough always focusing on Yoichi, even though it applies to their other distillery, Miyagikyo, as well, and some of their blends, too) – but we got so many messages form readers asking for clarification, we'd better clarify the situation a bit. Here's a quick overview of what’s (been) happening.

Nikka is discontinuing their entire single-malt line-up, for both Yoichi and Miyagikyo. That means: no more 10yo, no more 12yo, no more 15yo, no more 20yo and no more NAS versions of these two as we know them. On September 1st, Nikka is replacing this entire line-up with two new NAS versions of Yoichi and Miyagikyo, which will differ slightly in profile (read: contain younger components) than the NAS versions hitherto available.

Nikka is also discontinuing their ‘White Label’ pure malt (i.e. vatted malt), and the following blended whiskies: Tsuru 17, G&G, Hakata, ‘The Blend’, Malt Club, Hi-Nikka (only available in 720ml bottles from now on, as opposed to the larger plastic bottles prevalent in supermarkets around the country – up to 4 litres in volume), All Malt (only available in 700ml bottles, no longer in the larger bottles), Black Nikka 8yo and Black Nikka SP (only available in 700ml bottles, no longer in the larger bottles).

So basically what remains – other than the aforementioned new Yoichi and Miyagikyo NAS that will come out in September – is: the Taketsuru line-up (NAS, 17, 21 and – soon to be released – a 25), the ‘Black’ and ‘Red Label’ pure malt, the Coffey Grain and Coffey Malt, The Nikka 12yo, From the Barrel, Super Nikka and the Rich Blend, Clear Blend and Deep Blend Black Nikka. The price of all these will be raised from September 1st – sometimes significantly so (Taketsuru 21 goes from about 10,000 yen to 15,000 yen… a 50% increase in price, to give but one example).

People have been bemoaning this new strategy from the day it leaked out on the net. Whisky fans in Japan started raiding stores immediately to the point where, already now, it is well nigh impossible to find any of the whiskies that will be discontinued from September onwards. An informal survey among whisky fans here revealed that most people who went out and bought all the Yoichi and Miyagikyo standard bottlings they could find, didn’t really buy any of those when they were readily available. We call this the ‘terminal aunt’ syndrome – you know, the aunt you never visit until she’s terminally ill.

The truth of the matter is, Nikka was forced to carry out this radical restructuring of their whisky portfolio because 15-20 years ago, people weren’t drinking much whisky in Japan, and there were years, at both Yoichi and Miyagikyo distillery, when the barrels laid down for maturation could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The ‘stock shortage’ is not an excuse or a PR stunt – it’s very real. Sources within Nikka have said that it is ‘likely’ that age-statement single malts will be brought back in 5 or 6 years’ time. No official statement to that effect has been made for the simple reason that doing so – in Japan – would be interpreted as a promise (which could come back to haunt them in 6 years’ time).

It will be interesting to see what happens over at Suntory. They haven’t officially discontinued their 12yo, 18yo, etc. single malts but ask anyone in Japan when was the last time they saw a bottle of Hakushu or Yamazaki with an age statement (or a Hibiki with an age statement, for that matter!) and you’ll know that things are headed in the same direction.

Smaller distillers are likely to benefit from the shortages of stock that the big dogs are struggling with, for the simple reason that – being small and ‘craft’ – people are willing to accept younger whiskies (we’re talking 3yo, 4yo, 5yo here) at higher price points (north of 10,000yen) more readily from producers like Mars and Chichibu than from Yoichi or Yamazaki. As we overheard someone say at a bar in Tokyo recently, the biggest selection of Japanese whiskies will soon be… the auction circuit. Time to apply for a new credit card … or find tasty alternatives elsewhere.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A new whisky bar in Hong Kong: Club Qing

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
We have good news for those of you who are based in or frequently travel to Hong Kong: a new whisky bar is opening its doors for the first time today. Big deal, you think... Well, yes, because this is no run-of-the-mill whisky bar. Aaron Chan, the driving force behind the project, is an aficionado of Japanese whiskies - and has been for the past 8 years - so the main attraction will be the selection of malts from the land of the rising sun. He will have 150 different bottles of Japanese whisky open at any given time. Even in Japan, there are few bars that can make such a claim, so reason for joy, indeed.
Club Qing used to be a multi-award winning restaurant serving a plethora of exquisite Chinese food. Earlier this year, owner Aaron Chan decided to take his love for Japanese whisky up a notch and turn his restaurant into an actual whisky bar. The new bar retains the name "Club Qing" and is situated on the 10th floor of a building in a very popular bar area of Hong Kong. (Google is your friend!)  Behind the heavy antique-style wooden front doors is a cozy and comfortable bar area with warm wood tones. The whisky selection at Club Qing is phenomenal, from regular bottlings of Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, Yoichi, Miyagikyo etc... to more exotic single casks of Karuizawa, Hanyu, Chichibu, Kagoshima, Mars, and Fuji Gotemba, to name just a few.  It also features a selection of Japanese bottles from yesteryear (e.g Karuizawa's from the Ocean era) and Scotch whiskies released from the 60's - 80's, making it - without a shadow of a doubt - the most interesting bar to visit in Hong Kong. Sure, there are a few other places, but they are either limited in terms of choice or exorbitantly expensive. Club Qing gives us the best of both worlds: a huge variety at prices that won't break the bank.
Long-time readers of Nonjatta will know that Aaron has been spreading the gospel of Japanese whisky for a long time, so there are very few people in the world better placed to run a Japanese whisky bar.
He has been drinking and collecting Japanese whiskies for more than eight years and is very knowledgeable. Some of the bottles at the bar are from his vast collection, so there are some truly rare gems to be found there. There will also be a corner at Club Qing for Aaron to showcase some of his collection - including various Karuizawa single casks and a full set (54 bottles) of the Hanyu Playing Card Series.
If you haven't thought of an excuse to visit Hong Kong this summer, well, you'd better start thinking! Nonjatta wishes Club Qing the very best - it's exciting news to have a place where people can actually drink Japanese whisky, as opposed to just watch it disappear (which is happening in Japan, with so many releases being discontinued) or go up in price on the secondary market!

Club Qing
Address: 10/F, Cosmos Building, 8-11 Lan Kwai Fong, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 9379-7628  (voice call & whatsapp)
Hours: 5:30pm - 12:00 midnight (closed on Sundays)
FB: clubqing

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

TIBS / Whisky Expo 2015 Highlights

Post & Photos by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Last weekend marked the first edition of the revamped Tokyo International Bar Show (that is to say, separate from Whisky Live Tokyo, which will be held in September this year). Reading reviews of festivals is a bit like listening to other people’s holiday stories, so we’ll keep things brief and focus on the Japanese whiskies at the show.
There were three official single cask festival bottlings: two Japanese whiskies (a Chichibu 2009/2015 and a Mars Komagatake 2011/2015) and a Martinique rum (Neisson 2003/2015). All three were excellent – and much sought-after – but the Mars seemed to be the crowd favorite. Seeing as this was the first single cask from the ‘new regime’ (i.e. distillate from after the two-decade hiatus in production), it seems to spell good things for the future. Prices keep going up, but that is a discussion we will keep for a rainy day!
The good folk from Mars had also brought a forthcoming release for sampling. Called ‘Cosmo’ (which refers to a mountain near the distillery), it is a blended malt (bottled at 43%) made up of in-house malt (again, distillate from the ‘new regime’) and Scotch malt whisky imported in bulk. It will be available from July onwards and will be a permanent addition to the Mars range. Judging from reactions at the show, it seems like this will be a big hit!

We spoke at length to the guys from Mars – for an in-depth update, check the forthcoming edition of the Malt Whisky Yearbook – and tried to find out if, among other things, they would be releasing a new single cask from their old stock (pre-1991) that is. While they couldn’t confirm anything officially, it did seem likely that they would be bottling a cask for a big Japanese retailer later this year. Watch this space!
Always one of the most popular booths at whisky festivals in Japan, the people from Chichibu certainly had their hands full. There were no new releases as such (although they had their recent 2015 Peated Chichibu available for tasting), but Akuto-san had brought 4 prototype bottles: a Mizunara, a Sherry Butt, a Bourbon Barrel and a Wine Cask offering. Of these four, the Mizunara and the Wine Cask were absolutely stellar. It is highly unlikely the Mizunara will be bottled any time soon. There are only about 10 mizunara puncheons containing Chichibu malt in the warehouses (although there are many other casks fitted with mizunara heads) and this being the first vintage (2008), it is quite special, indeed… and Akuto-san knows it! The Wine Cask prototype – matured in a cask that previously contained Pinot Noir from New Zealand – was very well received, too. One can only imagine what other marvels are slumbering in the Chichibu warehouses!
Of the three big dogs of the Japanese whisky industry (Suntory, Nikka and Kirin), Kirin made the biggest impression with their recently released small batch 25yo grain and 17yo malt whiskies. Although the price point places these outside the budget of most potential fans (at 30,000 and 20,000 yen resp.), the quality is top notch. The 25yo grain, in particular, was one of the most memorable drams of the festival.
Nikka had brought a forthcoming release (the follow-up to the ‘Rich Blend’ of two years ago). This one is called ‘Deep Blend’, bottled at a higher abv (45%) and with a smokier, more full-bodied profile. A good product, it was somewhat overshadowed by rumours (not unfounded) that Nikka is not only increasing prices for its products across the board (some by as much as 40%) but is also planning to pull out of the single malt market (only retaining their NAS products in that category) for a while. The focus will be on blends, their Taketsuru blended malt and NAS products until such time as their stocks are capable of meeting demand for age-statement products (incl. single malts) again – which may take a year or five. Again, we’ll dig further into this in a forthcoming post.

Suntory, you ask? The only Japanese product they had brought was their NAS Hibiki (‘Japanese Harmony’) – ‘nuff said…
On the Scotch front, the undisputed highlights were the 36yo Glenturret bottled by Silver Seal for The Auld Alliance and two Arran bottlings: the 18yo and a 7yo single cask (the first in a series bottled for the Japanese market to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the distillery).

All in all, there wasn’t as much whisky available at the festival as many had hoped, but we’ve got more festivals on the calendar this year, so hopefully that will be rectified in the fall. The cocktail and bartending side of the festival was great fun and there was certainly plenty to keep yourself happy on that front. Maybe, with so many good whisky festivals in the capital already, this is the direction TIBS should be taken in!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Modern Malt Market / Whisky Live Tokyo 2015

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
It is not often we ask you to get out your agendas and reschedule some things, dear friends, but this is one of those occasions. The date(s) for Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 have just been announced, so we won’t beat around the bush: it’s Saturday 19 September from 12 noon to 6pm at Akiba Square in Akihabara.

This year’s edition of Whisky Live Tokyo is completely revamped and it promises to be better than ever before. Whisky Magazine Japan has hooked up with Modern Malt Market (which used to be a trade-only event, but over the years, more and more ‘regular’ whisky fans found their way in) so now it is officially “Modern Malt Market produced by Whisky Magazine Japan”.  There are still some trade-only events in the week leading up to the big day (Modern Malt Market in Osaka on 15 September and Modern Malt Market in Tokyo on 18 September) but this time these events will be strictly trade-only.

If one day is not enough – and let’s face, enough is never enough when it comes to good whisky – there’s also a “Whisky Live Party” at the Park Hotel in Shiodome on Friday 18 September (7:30-9:30pm).

Dave Broom will be making a long overdue visit to Japan for the event and the people at Whisky Magazine Japan are working out a program of tastings and seminars with him. They’re also working very closely with whisky producers and importers to ensure there is a plethora of interesting whiskies to try. Many industry folks from abroad will be attending, and hopefully, there will be some commemorative bottlings again – which would be good news after last year’s disappointment in that department.

In a way, this is a return to the roots of Whisky Live but taken to a whole new level – with much more interesting whiskies available (not just for the novice or the casual whisky drinker but also for the whisky anorak) than has generally be the case the last couple of years at festivals (Whisky Live and other) here in Japan. Please note that, from this year, the Tokyo International Bar Show (revamped as TIBS +Whisky Expo, held in May) is a separate event, unrelated to Whisky Live.

We will bring you further details about Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 as and when they become available. In the meantime, block that date and make sure you are in Tokyo on 19 September. Needless to say, we’ll be there, too, so come and say hello.