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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Karuizawas for LMdW 2014: The Sherry Sessions

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Last week, we spent some quality time with 4 Karuizawas from the late 70s/early 80s matured in ex-bourbon wood. Today, we’re continuing with the two remaining Karuizawa single casks released by LMdW in 2014, matured – as is more habitual for this distillery – in ex-sherry wood: 1981/2014 (#152, 54.5%, Vintage Label) and 1981/2014 (#136, 55.3%, Artifices-series).
On the nose, the initial impression is that the #136 is more fruity, whereas the #152 is more vegetal. With the #136, when you start off, you get dried fruits (dates, figs), rum-raisin butter cookies and a hint of porcini. All very elegant and quite restrained (for a Karuizawa, that is). But give it some time, and then it develops in other directions, too: herbs (rosemary, thyme), old wardrobes, a drawing room the morning after, archives (old paper – nothing musty, just pleasantly old), wood veneer… The drawing room becomes the centre of activity after about half an hour and a few drops of water bring out the smoke even more. On the palate, it opens with a lovely savoury attack, but quickly moves into more citrusy territory (grapefruit, mikan). After that, you get the dried fruits hinted at by the nose accompanied by some Nutella on slightly-burnt toast (a common occurrence at my house - the slighly-burnt toast, that is, not the Nutella). The finish is long and quite ‘dirty’ (think potato peel, root vegetables) with hints of oregano, rosemary, thyme and steamed endives. Towards the end, there is a lovely citrusy afterglow (kabosu).

On to #152, then. As said, you get more veggies here, right from the get-go. On the nose, it opens with lotus root, burdock and turnip. But there’s much more coming at you: candied orange peel, herbs (thyme again), humidor notes (again, yes) and, after a while, you find yourself smack in the middle of a Chinese medicine/dried goods shop. There’s also a lovely touch of freshly crushed berries in there (brambles, strawberries, blueberries), and a mushroom risotto cooking in the background. This one really benefits from time in the glass: time pushes the sliders on the ‘mixing console’, but it’s not just a case of elements gaining in strength – everything becomes beautifully integrated after about 15-20 minutes. And if you give it even longer and add a few drops of water, you’ll get some fantastic old mimolette cheese. What a treat. On the palate, you get tons of flavour but everything in just the right doses (there is no excess, here – which you can’t say about most Karuizawas): spinach cake, herbs muffins, orange-drizzled grated carrots, truffle shavings, and so much more… With water and time, you get more blood orange jam and some rhubarb tart. Who needs more reason to be patient? The finish is slightly tannic and quite drying. Here the wood really dominates but there are hints of cumin, After Eights and yuzu jam, as well, which is nice. With water it becomes exceedingly drying, so – while it doesn’t affect the palate so much – the finish really suffers, so it’s best to keep the water where it is.

Two stellar Karuizawas from the Golden Age… but before we go, we’ll revisit an even older glory, bottled for LMdW in 2010. If that seems like an eternity ago, it certainly is in ‘Karuizawa years’. So much has changed since then… not for the better as far as availability is concerned, but I guess that’s the price of success (no pun intended). Five years ago this 1968 single cask (#6955, 61%) could have been yours for a few hundred euros. Now, you’d have to sell an arm and a leg for something similar. Anyway, let’s put those depressing thoughts aside for an hour or two and focus on the liquid at hand.

What an experience… On the nose, you get cola cubes (that’s somewhat unusual for Karuizawa!) and then a whole kitchen pantry: chutneys, preserves, fresh fruit as well (mangoes, overripe pineapple, honeydew melon), prosciutto, rillettes, pretzels, old rye whiskey… there is no end to the marvels waiting to be discovered here. On the palate, it is the most amazingly smooth cross-fade from sweet (jams, sweets of all kinds, baked goods, …) to sour (freshly squeezed citrus fruits from all corners of the world) with various tertiary notes floating by (any mention of these would be hopelessly partial anyway, so we won’t even go there). The finish integrates the two dimensions (the sweet and the sour) whilst adding precious oils, aspects of old wood and a touch of spice. The stuff that dreams are made of… and we’ll just leave it at that (so we can go back and have some more of this – carpe diem!).

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Karuizawas for LMdW 2014: The Bourbon Sessions

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

This is the first of two posts in which we take a (long overdue – apologies!) look at a selection of Karuizawas bottled for and released by La Maison du Whisky last year. Today, we’ll focus on a quartet from the late 70s-early 80s, matured in bourbon wood: 1978 (#8383, 63%abv), 1979 (#8187, 58.8%abv), 1980 (Artifices series, #6476, 63%abv) and 1984 (#8173, 58.5%abv). We’ll make this a comparative tasting, and we’ll start – where else? – with the nose…
On the nose, the 1978 opens with a variety of pastries (rum baba, pear tart, apricot Danish) accompanied by old rum and armagnac. There’s quite a bit of wood smoke, too (cherry wood) and lots of tiny tertiary notes (earthy, leafy, antiquarian), and – after a while – a hint of eucalyptus. The nose on this is a bit like Hanyu on speed, for want of a better image. The 1979 is markedly lighter on the nose and rather hermetic. There are suggestions of ripe orchard fruits (apple salad drizzled with lemon, Japanese pears), honey-glazed doughnuts and – after half an hour or so – marzipan. Again, it’s quite closed and resistant to analysis. The 1980 is completely different. Here, you’ve got bales of hay, overripe Yubari melon, vanilla pudding, light spices (cardamom, nutmeg), assorted herbs (rosemary, most prominently), root vegetables (burdock) and after about 10 minutes, a waft of a doused bonfire. This is like a midsummer night’s dream! The 1984 is the most lush of the quartet. Sweet and syrupy, it’s instantly seductive: orange-infused maple syrup, blood orange jam, peach melba, maraschino cherries, … and, in the background, suggestions of a humidor, wood polish and porcini. Who can resist this!

We don’t usually go for rankings, but in this case – with the palate and finish, to follow – it’s an interesting little exercise (and one that illustrates why we don’t score whiskies here). So, on the nose, our preference would be:

1)   a tie between the 1978 and 1984
2)   the 1980
3)   the 1979

Moving on to the palate and the finish… The attack on the 1978 is an incredible explosion of fruits (you name them!) with a good dose of white pepper added. It evolves along citrusy and spicy lines, with rhubarb jam forming a bridge to a glorious sudachi note (that signature note of Karuizawa from the 60s and 70s). The finish is long on menthol and selected Moroccan spices, and it’s here that the smoke hinted at by the nose makes a comeback. It’s slightly drying (but not too much) and the retro-olfaction hints at a lovely savoury dimension (a bit like coming home and being greeted by your neighbour’s cooking – in this case, spare ribs with balsamic sauce – which you won’t get to eat, of course)… A fabulous old-school Karuizawa. With water, the nose becomes more aromatic – like having all of the above but in a diva’s dressing room. On the palate, however, it loses its balance, so keep the water where it is.

The 1979 is very creamy – almost chewy – on the palate. We’ve got rhubarb jam, again, but accompanied by manju, kashiwa mochi and assorted berries. It’s slightly tannic (a few more years in wood would have ruined this precarious balance) but the real attraction here is the finish, which is – we’ll just come out and say it – stupendously long and intense. It’s here that this whisky – so hermetic on the nose - reveals itself in its full glory: a myriad of spices, all kinds of pepper, liquorice allsorts, cuberdons, essential oils, preserves, chutneys… what a wild ride. An experience that certainly proves one shouldn’t judge a whisky by its nose (alone).
On to the 1980, then. This one has a really lovely attack, perfectly poised between the sour (yuzu) and the bitter (goya). As it moves across the palate, it touches sweeter regions, but it also brings out – and this is something I love in a whisky, albeit in moderation – some great vegetal notes (roasted burdock, grilled bell peppers, lotus root), sprinkled with a bit of white pepper. The finish is quite heavy on wood smoke (hints of bacon and smoked mackerel) with some candied orange peel, roasted almonds and macadamias on the side.

The 1984 is an avalanche of fruits (both fresh and stewed) on the palate: blood oranges leading the proceedings again, but there are also hints of mango, passion fruit, mandarin oranges and candied grapefruit peel. With time – give it half an hour or so – it becomes more citric on the palate, which is nice. You may also pick up a bit of blood sausage. The finish is slightly drying and extends the circus of flavours on the palate. Towards the end, you get that porcini note again (as well as something ever so slightly cardboard-y). Water doesn’t really help – and the same applies to the 1979 and the 1980 – so, again, I would keep it away from the whisky.

For the palate, the ranking would be:

1)   the 1978
2)   the 1980
3)   a tie between the 1979 and the 1984

For the finish:

1)   the 1979, no doubt about it
2)   a tie between the 1978 and the 1980
3)   the 1984
They are all fabulous drams, but our little exercise in ranking the nose, the palate and the finish separately illustrates why scores don’t really tell the whole story. These would all be whiskies that would get 91, 92 or 93 points – depending on who’s doing the scoring and what is valued about them – but they have different strengths and shine in different ways.

In the second part of our review of Karuizawas released by La Maison du Whisky in 2014, we’ll return to more familiar territory (for Karuizawa, that is): whiskies matured in sherry wood. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Suntory ‘Wa-Kyo’ Blended Whisky for Shinanoya

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Towards the end of last year, we unveiled that the good folk at Shinanoya were about to release an extraordinary blended whisky crafted by Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. It’s been 6 years since Shinanoya last released a Suntory exclusive bottling, so it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is an eagerly anticipated release. The blend is composed around malt matured in mizunara casks and it’s called “Wa-Kyo” (which roughly translates as ‘Japanese harmony/resonance’).
“Wa-Kyo” will officially go on sale this weekend, and is expected to sell out instantly. This partly has to do with a fact that a large part of the outturn (which is 530 bottles, bottled at 43%abv) has been reserved by pre-orders. (People attending the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri last weekend had the chance to sign up in advance for a bottle… and since 1,400 people flocked to the festival, it’s easy to understand why there would be very few bottles left.) It’s priced at 36,900 yen plus tax. As is the case with Japanese releases lately, the price won’t be an obstacle. The competition of fellow Japanese-whisky aficionados will be!