Friday, August 28, 2015

New Yoichi & Miyagikyo Expressions

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

September 1 marks the start of a new chapter in Nikka history. Two new NAS expressions will replace the entire range of Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts. There’s bound to be a bit of confusion because both distilleries already had a NAS expression and people will probably raise an eyebrow or two thinking Nikka just slapped a new label on the old bottles and raised the price. That is not the case. To reiterate, they are new expressions and they are in fact closer to the old 10yo Yoichi and Miyagikyo (in terms of flavor profile and composition) than to their resp. older NAS expressions – hence, the slightly higher price tag, although we are still talking entry-level.
We had the pleasure of trying the new expressions ahead of the official release and were very pleasantly surprised. No need for doom and gloom. With the Yoichi, you get a lovely barley sweetness, pencil shavings, over-ripe orchard fruits and soft smoke on the nose; oak and peat lead the dance on the palate with some candied orange peel thrown in; the finish is earthy and vegetal, with some tea on the side. The Miyagikyo offers apples and pears on the nose with grassy and light floral elements in the background; dried fruits, vanilla and anise on the palate, with a tiny bit of bitterness (grapefruit peel, grape skin) and some milk chocolate on the finish.
It’s clear that a great deal of thought and work has gone into these new expressions. An interesting side effect of the stock pressure that the big Japanese companies are experiencing is that it forces their blenders to up their game. It’s easy to create a fabulous whisky if you have a huge inventory to draw upon, but to do so with more limited means is a real challenge for the imagination. It’s a bit like writing a piano piece for three fingers. Chief blender Tadashi Sakuma is clearly in his element and up to the challenge.

A few months ago, I was offered a blind sample and asked to comment on it. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember it was one of the best whiskies I’d had this year (and it still is). Then came the shock: it wasn’t available and never would be. It was a whisky that Sakuma-san had recreated from Takeshi Taketsuru’s last recipe, but there was just no stock to make more than a bottle or two of it. A tragedy? For sure… but the same care and creativity is being applied to developing expressions like the new Yoichi and Miyagikyo NAS.
On September 1, two limited-edition NAS expressions will also be released: a “Heavily Peated Yoichi” and “Sherry Cask Miyagikyo” (3,000 bottles each). They’re as good as sold out even before they’re released, so it seems there’s more than just a few people out there interested in piano pieces for three fingers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 / Modern Malt Market (1): Dave Broom Comes Alive!

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photos © Julen Esteban-Pretel

In a few weeks’ time, Dave Broom will be back in Japan for Whisky Live Tokyo (September 19, noon-6pm, Akiba Square) – after being sorely missed for more than two years. He’ll also be hosting the pre-Whisky Live party at the Park Hotel the night before (so that’s, September 18, 7:30-9:30pm). Ahead of his return, we picked his brain about various developments on the whisky scene since the last time he was here… and there’s a funny road story, too, so do read all the way to the end.
It’s been a while since you’ve graced us with your presence in Japan – what have you been working on since “Whisky: The Manual”?

You make it sound like a royal visit! The only reason I sadly couldn’t make it last year was a clash of dates. I’m delighted to be coming back. What’s happened? I’ve been busy. A new edition of “The World Atlas of Whisky” has been written, as has “Gin: The Manual”. I’m currently working on the third in the series, on rum. I’ve started work on a new website www.scotchwhisky.com which is launching soon. I’ve been around the world a few times - including a couple of trips to Mexico to see agave spirit production.

These days, distilleries are popping up like mushrooms – not just in Scotland, but in other places around the world as well. It must be a nightmare to keep you “World Atlas of Whisky” updated! What are your thoughts on this development?

It’s fantastic news. It is certainly challenging to try and keep abreast of what is going on but that’s a nice problem to have. We’re currently working out what the 3rd edition will be like! The development is a positive one. New distillers will have new ideas and help stimulate interest in this thing called whisky. The best are asking that question: “what is whisky?” and how can I make one which reflects my place. By challenging the orthodoxies of whisky production they are refreshing the category.

Several new distillery projects – independently owned – are in the works in Japan, too. What would your advice be to the people in charge of these projects?

New distillers around the world will occasionally ask me this. My feeling is that they have to discover their individuality (in terms of the whisky or whiskies they are trying to make). It is pointless to try and compete with Suntory or Nikka. New distilleries need to learn from the established whisky makers but also be true to themselves. That means looking at their surroundings: what grows around them, what techniques are used for smoking food (you don’t have to use peat to make smoky whisky!), how does your place speak to you? Those new distilleries will all be smaller – they will be local – so that sense of place therefore has to be more heavily emphasized.

Also, don’t rush your whisky to the market. Release it when it is showing it has darted it journey through maturity.

My advice to these distillers around the world who ask me this question is “go to see Ichiro Akuto.” Learn from him but don’t try and copy his whisky. Go and make your own.
Another recent development is the proliferation of no-age statement whiskies and the exponential increase in cost for the consumer. Understandably, fans moan a lot about this twin trend. Do you think it’s likely that this ‘trend’ will be reversed, or do you think we’d better get used to this state of affairs?

They are two separate issues.

No Age [NAS] is an inevitable consequence of an unforeseen upturn in demand for whisky globally. Distillers around the world – be they in Scotland, America or Japan – could not have foreseen this 12, 15, 18 years ago. Consequently, there are not sufficient stocks. NAS is the result.
When well handled, there is nothing inherently wrong with a NAS whisky. Taking an age statement off the label allows the whisky maker to use younger and older whiskies to achieve a balanced and complex result.

You could argue that age statements gave the false impression that ‘older = better’. That’s not true. There is a difference between age and maturity. Age is a number, maturity is a character. That said, the NAS whiskies which are appearing should, in my mind, be as good if not better than the whiskies they are replacing, especially if they are more expensive. Many are. Some, sadly, are not.

Will the trend be reversed? I think we will see age statements creeping back as the stock situation eases but there have also been a lot of positive learnings from NAS so they won’t go away.

On price. The rise in the very top end is eyebrow-raising certainly. That said, looking at prices in the UK and other European markets over the past decade, you'll see that standard malts haven’t risen dramatically (apart from a couple of notable exceptions), and while premium has moved up a little more steeply in general, the whiskies are still fairly priced.  It is the top end which has gone ballistic. In other words, there is still value to be had.

You could argue that whisky was seriously underpriced for too long. The industry was giving away its finest whiskies and we all got used to the fact. It was great! Those days have gone. We have to get used to the fact that at the top end there will be bottles which we cannot afford. The prices aren’t coming down again.
As someone who’s been a close observer of the Japanese whisky scene for well over a decade, what do you feel has changed over the past few years, and what are the challenges facing the industry here?

The most obvious change has been the arrival of NAS. In more general terms, it has been the amazing rise in interest globally in Japanese whisky. Everyone wants it - which then puts more pressure, in the short to medium term, on stock. In some ways, it is a nice problem to have; in others, it is frustrating for producers because they want to be able to sell their whisky to as many people as possible. New capacity has gone in and the situation will ease. My concern is whether by the time stock is available once more, the market will have moved on. Japan may no longer be the hot new style - it could be Canada, or bourbon, or Ireland. Producers therefore need to achieve a very clever balancing act to maintain interest in Japanese whisky internationally during this difficult period of transition. One way could be through blends.

The other thing has been the way that Japan has been slower to embrace the new small distilling trend. Things are now changing but there still aren’t enough new whisky distilleries. It is hard to build a category when there are only two producers - that’s the situation Ireland faced for many years. Any industry needs to have choice, different approaches, different aromas and flavours, different philosophies. It will happen in Japan I am sure, but the start of this natural evolution has been slower than I anticipated. It still baffles me why Karuizawa was closed at a time of peak demand for Japanese whisky and why Gotemba isn’t seen internationally.

Just out of curiosity: what’s the last dram you’ve had that blew you away? What’s the first place you want to go to when you get back to Japan?

The new Octmore 7.1 from Bruichladdich. Still young but already complex. As a statement of intent, it is hugely impressive. I’m about to taste 12 new whiskies though so that answer may well change by midday.

In Tokyo: Star Bar, Bar Zoetrope and then Golden Gai. The next day, head to buy vinyl.

Do you have any funny ‘road stories’ from your travels in Japan over the years (you can change names, to protect the innocent, obviously)?

I think the time when - in a spirit of celebration - we unwittingly broke every rule of onsen behaviour. Thinking we would be the only people bathing at midnight, we took a bottle of cask strength whisky [Karuizawa, to be precise] to the sauna. Mistake No 1. There was a Japanese man having a quiet contemplative time as four huge, hairy... naked gaijin burst through the door. He politely declined our offer of drink and left. Speedily.

After that, we went to the baths themselves. The first was a large pool. The second, however, was a tiny black cube only accessed through a low, crooked passageway which stopped any light from penetrating. We silently groped our way in (still clutching the whisky) and felt for the ledge on which to sit. One of our party - a large man - then lowered himself down onto what he thought was the ledge but turned out to be the lap of the Japanese man who had fled from the sauna. There was considerable confusion.

In our next post about Whisky Live/Modern Malt Market 2015, we’ll talk about what visitors can expect from this edition… masterclasses, special bottlings, rare drams for tasting, … Watch this space!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Woodford Reserve arrives in Japan: a chat with Chris Morris

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo & Pictures provided by Brown-Forman

Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris was in Japan for a couple of days recently to mark the – long overdue! – launch of the brand in Japan. We sat down with him and started by asking him about the five sources of bourbon flavour that contribute to the profile of Woodford Reserve.
Chris Morris
What are the specifics of the grain recipe for the standard Woodford Reserve?

Most great whiskeys of the world have been around for generations. Woodford Reserve – we are very proud – is a very recent, a contemporary release of classic bourbon-style whiskey from Kentucky. Woodford Reserve never existed until we created it. We created it because the world was changing and the world was changing because of Jack Daniel’s. Jack Daniel’s had really opened up an international market for American whiskey. Of course, we know it’s Tennessee whiskey and Brown-Forman is our parent company. So Owsley Brown II, the chairman of the board of Brown-Forman, who led the development of Jack Daniel’s around the world, said: “now it’s time to have a bourbon follow Jack Daniel’s”. We’ve learned a lot from Jack Daniel’s, so we now know we need a bourbon that is going to have flavor properties beyond bourbon. There’s a world out there where people drink different spirits - wine, beer, cognac, and malt whiskies - and the secret to success is to have a flavor that people recognize in this whiskey, so we just can’t do it the old-fashioned way.
We started with the grain recipe, reducing the amount of the corn. Bourbon must have at least 51 percent of corn, but we increased the amount of rye and the malted barley to give us the spice, and of course the malt brings these wonderful malty, honey, shortbread notes and nutty characteristics.
At distilleries, a lot of importance is placed on the water source. How do the limestone soils of Kentucky shape the flavor of your whiskey?

We are able to extract the water from our deep-well system, and that means we don’t have to filter it, so it’s still natural mineral, rich water, and those minerals are micronutrients so they are going to develop floral notes. We actually learned a lot of this from Glenmorangie, where they use limestone water, so we felt, “let’s maintain the water in its natural state.”
The fermentation time is very long. In what way does that contribute to the flavor of Woodford Reserve?

So, we mash the grain and water together and we are a sour mash bourbon – every bourbon uses a sour mash process, it just doesn’t say that on our label – and we have reduced the amount of sour – at great risk – to no more than 6%, (where your typical bourbon has a 33 to 40 % sour level). We need a lot of fermentable sugar in our mash so we determined that long fermentation was the way to go. This was a set of experiments we actually did at the Brown-Forman Distillery in 1979. Your typical fermentation period is two-and-a-half to three days, for Scotch, Irish, Canadian, bourbon and Tennessee whiskies. But we did a series of five, seven and nine day fermentations and discovered that long fermentations develop esters, i.e. fruit character. And again, if you are trying to attract consumers around the world who are drinking beer, wine and spirits like cognac and port, they love fruit character. So we have very low sour, for loads of sugar so that we have enough fermentable resources for yeast to go long, and this also required us to develop a new strain of yeast, our own proprietary yeast, that does that, so now we have a six-day fermentation.
The distillation process is fairly unique. What motivated the decision to triple-distill in traditional copper pot stills?

We get spice and nutty, malty notes from the grain, floral character from the water, and fruit from the fermentation. How does this come to life? How do you not leave any of that behind? Pot stills! Got to go back to pot stills. Got to go to the Irish style, or the Auchentoshan style. So, we had stills designed for us, for our unique process, by Forsyths [in Scotland]. We are the only distillery to this day that triple distills whiskey in the United States. We triple distill, and the spirit is just incredible. It’s fruity, spicy, buttery, and nutty. It’s grain driven - not grainy, but grain-forward.
More than any other bourbon producer, you’ve really explored the nuances of the maturation process. Having your own cooperage probably facilitates that. What sort of barrels do you use for Woodford Reserve?

We own the Brown-Forman cooperage. We used to make wine barrels in California when we were in the wine business. We learned a lot from making wine barrels, and that of course is toasting. Toasting delivers those really neat, rich vanilla notes. So we created a new style of barrel, that is toasted like a wine barrel, and then charred like a bourbon barrel, to make the Woodford Reserve barrel different to all the other whiskey barrels. Because if you toast for a long period of time, you can set flavor deep in the wood. Now, when you char a barrel – the traditional charring - you will get “toast effect”, but it’s going to be very brief because if you burn that barrel for more than 60 seconds, it’s going to start burning up – it’s going to fall apart – so you’re only going to get so much toast. But if you toast by itself – heat in the middle of the barrel without igniting the barrel – if you want to toast for 40 minutes, you can toast for 40 minutes - that’s cool. You can really get these flavors deep in the wood. So we created the most heavily toasted, charred whiskey barrel in history. And then we decided to have a relatively low barrel entry proof, where your typical bourbon is 125 proof or 62.5% (there are some exceptions). But we went in low for two reasons. If we add a little bit of water to the spirit, then we have to fill more barrels, so we have increased our barrel usage by 14%, so that’s 14% more oak exposure per bottle than if it was preserved at 125 proof, bringing us more vanilla, caramel, chocolate, butterscotch, all these great sweet aromatic notes. And when we leave the barrel years later to bottle, we have to add less water to the spirit. So we get more flavor and dilute it less.

Whereas maintaining consistency is obviously very important to the standard expressions of Woodford Reserve, innovation is a huge part of what you do at the distillery. What’s the inspiration for the Master’s Collection?

I’m glad you ask that, because the Master’s Collection has been a lot of fun. And one: the Master’s Collection is not about me. We are honoring the masters of the past, their early innovations: coming up with the sour mash process, using new barrels etc. So this is our modern homage to masters of the past. You know, growing up in the industry, I always asked “why don’t we do it this way?” and the answers would be “because you can’t, this is the way we do it.” But who says? So finally, now that I’m in charge, I started thinking I’d like to kick the tires, be a myth buster. But I don’t want to go crazy. Crazy would be: let’s change the grain recipe, let’s change the yeast, let’s change the fermentation, let’s change the distillation… My approach is: let’s change one thing. Let’s change the grain recipe, but not change anything else, so we will know exactly what happened.
You’re also a keen historian of whiskey in/and Kentucky. Can you give some examples of the way in which this historical awareness informs your practice?

The history aspect has been a great inspiration for our new range of whiskies - the Master’s Collection and the Distilleries Series. Woodford Reserve is entirely based on flavor. To get those flavors we often look to the past. For example, making sweet mash. Why do we have to use sour mash? Well, that’s the way we do it. But, at some point in history, there was no sour mash; there was sweet mash. And I found a 1903 four-grain recipe in an old file cabinet in an old, abandoned distillery. I didn’t use the exact same grain ratio, but a four-rain recipe, that’s interesting. We’ve used different styles of corn, because in 1838, our distillery when it was the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery, they used a certain style of corn that we don't use today. “Oh, let’s see what that corn does.” It still exists – but it’s not prevalent, it’s very expensive and you can’t make a lot of whiskey with it, because there’s not much of it. And I’ve done low barrel proof entry - much lower than our 110. I’ve entered as low as 86 proof (43%) because I found someone who was doing that in the past, and I thought, “let’s just see what that’s all about.”
The Distilleries Series is a series of very experimental whiskeys. Since it’s in the nature of an ‘experiment’ that the outcome isn’t guaranteed – are there instances of experiments that didn’t work out?

First of all, we never bottle experiments. An experiment is an experiment. If it works out and it’s good enough to make, we’ll make it. So here’s an example of an experiment. Let’s get fully matured Woodford Reserve and let’s try it in some varietal wine barrels, which we did. Let’s get Chardonnay barrels, Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, Merlot barrels, … - get all these different wine barrels from different vineyards – and the experimentation now is: let’s find what works the best. So with the Chardonnay barrels, we’re going to fill some barrels half and some full, some at 110 proof, some lower… so we have variations within that variation. And we start tasting and keep a diary to track our experiment all way until it runs into the wall and is undrinkable. Then you have a history of timeline of the flavor formation. So you run your experiments to the wall and when you can’t drink them, then they are sold to an alcohol reclamation company who completely strips them into alcohol and sells it to a different customer as alcohol. So you never bottle an experiment and you never throw anything away, because it’s valuable. You sell it! And across the entire spectrum, some never work out or they don’t work out according to what I am looking for. For example, one is: we put Woodford Reserve in tequila barrels. I didn’t like it. Another example is our maple wood finish. I had the cooperage make barrels 100% out of maple trees, which was not an easy thing to do, and finished Woodford in those. We had this and another series of other woods - pecan, beech, birch, ash etc. - and that maple worked out, others not.
You have been working for over 10 years on crafting a new generation of Woodford Reserve whiskies for the global marketplace (as opposed to local release at the distillery or in Kentucky only). When will we be able to see the first results of this ongoing project?

The first one coming to the Japanese market will be Double Oaked, which is awesome. It’s doing so well back home. We launched it in 2012, and we’ve introduced it in France and UK, and it’s getting rave reviews. Double Oaked is a finished whiskey. We take Woodford Reserve and this is how we do it: we batch together 135 barrels. So our entry proof is 110, and our angels’s share… every barrel gains proof, so the abv goes up. As we empty the barrels, we put a gallon of limestone rinse water into every barrel that’s emptied and roll it around cause we’re going to reduce the bottle proof anyway. So now that batch of 135 barrels will range – with the rinse water – between 95 and 98 proof. So whatever that batch is, we just go right into a second barrel. And we know from our sensory experience research that a variation of 2 or 3% abv is not discernable to the palate. In essence, it’s all the same. So we enter the second barrel for finishing. The second barrel is made at our cooperage specifically for Double Oaked. It’s not a Woodford barrel. It’s a new barrel – it’s called the Double Oaked Barrel. This barrel is different – we designed a specific barrel for this finishing, again after years of experimentation. This barrel is toasted four times longer than the Woodford barrel, which was the most heavily toasted whiskey barrel in the world. Now we’ve exceeded that by four times and we char for the briefest period physically possible, a mere five seconds. We want that toast character to shine through. We fill the barrels with that batch of Woodford barrels and it will stay in the second barrel for approximately one year. We batch together for consistency, and we have an expression of Woodford Reserve that is noticeably (40%) darker. And it is just so sweet aromatic-forward, with caramel, vanilla, butterscotch. It’s like maple syrup, and it’s more textural and more heavily bodied but with the same abv. So what you’re getting is all these natural wood components, no artificial color or flavor added to it. It’s become a huge hit for us. It will be in Japan early next year.

Being at the forefront of innovation, how do you feel about voices in certain parts of the bourbon industry advocating a loosening of the definition of “bourbon”?

Even though Woodford Reserve is a contemporary expression of bourbon, everything we do rests in the past, honors the masters of the past. All of our processes for the Master’s Collection are historic whiskey processes. I can’t dictate what other people want to do, but for us the reason bourbon is popular today, and the reason Woodford Reserve is popular today, is because we are following the traditional historic ways of making bourbon. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do. Even if definitions change, we won’t change.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in the bourbon industry since you started?

When I joined Brown-Forman in 1976, it was the very beginning of bourbon’s long-term decline. Times were not great. There were no whiskey tours either in Scotland or in Kentucky. Now every distillery has a visitor center, and tens of thousands of people coming through the doors, wanting new expressions and experiences. We’ve become a destination and people are excited about our product. Also, we have seen the return of classic cocktails based on American whiskey. Cocktails tend to come and go in waves. Growing up, you didn’t see a lot of old-fashioneds and manhattans… and mint juleps were sort of laughed at. And now they’re the rage, they’re cool… so that’s a welcome new development – well, an old development that’s been reborn. That’s real exciting. And then there’s finishing, and again we’ve done a lot of pioneering here. We’ve finished in Chardonnay barrels, in Pinot Noir barrels, in maple wood barrels… We’ve made our “Four Wood”, which is the first and only whiskey that I’ve ever seen that’s touched four barrels: original oak, maple, oloroso sherry and ruby port barrels. So, there’s innovation going on out there, but within the old traditions of our industry.

What, in your view, are the challenges currently facing the bourbon industry at large, and Woodford Reserve specifically… besides making enough?

Again, maybe this new wave of people who want to change things… There are people joining the industry because we have made it great and now they want to change our standards. The challenge is to sustain this great new appreciation of our products. That means we will maintain the highest standards and highest quality, and at some levels, that might be a challenge for others… to take short cuts, or reduce quality because of inventory or volume demands. We don’t plan on doing that. That’s why we’re being very judicious. That's why we are just now approaching the Japanese market. Because, you know, back home for years Japan has had this image of bourbon heaven. So people were saying “you must be really doing good there!?” And well, we’re not even in Japan yet. Why? Because we want to make sure we have the proper inventory to supply high quality products or we’re just going to go slow, take our time and make sure we have a product for geographic expansion around the world. Next year is our twentieth anniversary of having Woodford Reserve in the marketplace, and we’re just getting into Japan!

Friday, August 21, 2015

New Release: Fujikai 10yo Single Malt

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

It seems to be raining new releases of Japanese whisky lately – even though August is traditionally a quiet month on the whisky front – and we’ve just received news of yet another limited release coming out of Japan: Fujikai 10yo Single Malt.
Produced by Monde Shuzo, in partnership with their European distributor Les Whiskies du Monde, it’s been matured in ex-bourbon casks for 10 years and bottled at 43%abv. It comes in a 50cl bottle and is limited to 8,808 bottles. “Fujikai” refers to Mt Fuji and “Kai-no-kuni” which is the old name for Yamanashi prefecture.

Monde Shuzo is a well-known wine producer, based in Fuefuki in Yamanashi. They occasionally make some whisky – though the hows and wheres are shrouded in mystery. It’s not clear whether this 10yo was produced a decade ago or whether it was older stock that was put in inert containers (as is sometimes the case with smaller producers in Japan, e.g. with the Mars 10yo – which is an anomaly since Mars didn’t produce whisky 10 years ago).

We will get back to you with tasting notes very soon, so stay tuned!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bowmore Mizunara

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

It seems like these days there's hardly any news about Japanese whisky that isn't - though initially inspiring - greeted with torrential criticism (usually related to either scarcity of availability or the stratospheric heights of the price tag attached - occasionally both...). The latest bit of news following that pattern is the newly unveiled (in Europe, that is!) Bowmore Mizunara.
A NAS whisky that spent the last 3 years in Mizunara casks, bottled at 53.9% abv and limited to 2,000 bottles, it got people all excited... until news spread that it would be priced at about 750GBP, which is pretty steep. For an interesting perspective on the issue of pricing, check Oliver Klimek's post here.

It was an open secret that there were mizunara casks at Bowmore distillery - Japanese whisky fans visiting the distillery had spotted them (and taken pictures - which we've seen on a number of occasions.) Incidentally, from the pictures it seems like they were not virgin mizunara casks, but ex-Yamazaki casks. Interestingly, Suntory blenders - in response to some 'mizunara finishes' released by other companies (you can imagine who) - have always maintained that "there is no such thing as a mizunara finish", because mizunara needs a long time to have the right sort of impact on the maturation process. It seems like they have either changed their mind or that the above doesn't apply to the warehouses at Bowmore.

We doubt we'll get to try it - even at a bar it would be prohibitively expensive - which is why we are inviting you, dear reader, to provide some notes on the actual liquid. Watch this space - or not...