Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Fujisanroku 50° Non-Chillfiltered

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The new one (left) and a mini of the old one (right).
For the past couple of years, the new Japanese whiskies we’ve written about were either gone before we had the chance to post about them or out of reach for most of us in terms of pricing… well, lately, both actually. So, what a thrill it is to introduce a great whisky that a) is 100% made in-house at an actual distillery in Japan (as opposed to containing malt and/or grain sourced ‘elsewhere’); b) is presented without chill-filtration; c) does not take advantage of the craze for Japanese whisky by bumping up the price (it is priced at less than 1,500¥ (13USD/12EUR)) and d) you can get any day of the week anywhere in Japan… so no mad scramble for crumbs, no split-second online ordering, no secondary market frustration. Too good to be true? Well, pinch yourself because it is true.

On 22 March, Kirin launched the renewed ‘Fujisanroku Tarujuku 50°’. But they didn’t just slap a new label on the bottles. In fact, they changed the bottles themselves too. Whereas the old one used to come in 600ml bottles, the new 50°NC – as we will call it, for the sake of convenience – comes in standard 700ml. The recipe has been changed somewhat, too; not to the extent that fans of the old 50° wouldn’t recognize it, but tasted side-by-side, the difference is obvious. The 50°NC is richer and has more depth and complexity to it.

At Fuji Gotemba, in addition to malt whisky, three different types of grain whisky are produced: light (distilled in a column still, as is usual), batch-light (i.e. medium, distilled in a beer column->kettle->rectifying column configuration) and heavy (i.e. bourbon-type, distilled in a beer column and then in a doubler). With the batch-light type picking up some serious awards internationally (‘Blender’s Choice Grain’ was awarded ‘Best Japanese Grain Whisky’ at the WWA2015; ‘Small Batch 25yo’ was named ‘World’s Best Grain Whisky’ a month ago at the WWA2016), the decision was made to feature more of the medium and heavy-type grain whisky, whilst at the same time toning down the peated malt component. Kudos to chief blender Jota Tanaka for the ‘renewal’ of the recipe – it works a treat!

Then, they went a step further and decided to present it un-chillfiltered. It is bottled at 50%abv and this is actually very close to vatting strength. Filling strength (the abv at which new spirit is filled into casks) is unusually low at Fuji Gotemba – 50.5% for malt, 55.5% for heavy-grain and 62.5% for medium- and light-type grain – so when the components are vatted, the strength isn’t far off the 50% mark. Because there is very little dilution involved and because it is bottled higher than most standard whiskies in that price range, the risk of clouding when water or ice is added to a dram (which is the main reason why whiskies are chill-filtered) is very low. Producers who chill-filter their products maintain there is little or no difference. The folks at Kirin ran tests and found that there was a noticeable difference. Maybe in a smoky bar late at night one wouldn’t notice, but in peace and quiet, one would. In the chill-filtered version, the sweet top notes weren’t as bright and it had less body, as well. We applaud the folks at Kirin for pioneering non-chillfiltration at this level and hope that some of the other big boys in the industry will follow suit. Of course, there have been NC releases from other Japanese distillers before, but these were one-offs or special editions. The new ‘Fujisanroku 50°C’ is the first generally and permanently available, entry-level NC Japanese blended whisky that is not chill-filtered. A bold move but one that, we are sure, will pay off. It sure does for us drinkers… the first sip you take, you know!

Now for the bad news… bad for most of our readers who reside abroad. This, like all other Kirin whiskies, is only available in Japan. However, every cloud has a silver lining. We get mail all the time from readers asking us where they can find such-and-such special whiskies to buy and take home… For the past few years, our replies have been along the lines of “mmm, you can’t…” Now we can say, forget about chasing unicorns when you are in Japan… instead, head on over to the nearest supermarket or a liquor store and pick up a few bottles of this. It’s cheap, it’s great, it’s not available back home… and with the time and money you save, there’s plenty of other things you can do. A win-win for everybody.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Chichibu 2011/2016 for Chichibu Whisky Matsuri

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The third edition of the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri saw a record number of 3,300 people flocking to the area. It’s fast becoming one of the most popular whisky festivals in Japan, and every year there’s a special single cask bottling (Chichibu, of course) for the festival, which is obviously an extra motivating factor. With 10 times as many people as bottles available, it’s organized as a lottery, which is fair… In the current Japanese whisky climate, those are still pretty good odds, 1 out of 10.

Last year’s release was one of our favourite Chichibu single casks to date (2011/2015, #3292, matured in an Imperial stout barrel). Let’s see what this year’s release is like.

Chichibu 2011/2016 (#1431, mizunara heads hogshead, 61%, 282btls.)

On the nose, the initial impressions are: sour apples, lemon meringue pie, kocha (tea) umeshu and baklava. It’s slightly mineral – even a bit maritime – and there are subtle hints of wood smoke, as well.

On the palate, it’s quite fiery. You get the same round sour notes hinted at by the nose – this time more akin to underripe plums and grapefruit sorbet –, together with a gentle sweetness (yoghurt candy, pancakes with honey), grape seeds and some white pepper. After a while, and with a few drops of water, there’s a suggestion of dried apple mango.

The finish is long on rhubarb jam and fukinoto (butterbur sprout) tempura. Something amazing happens if you take a sip of water afterwards: in the retro-olfaction you then get chocolate mousse with espresso jelly!

This year’s bottle is more austere – less “sexy”, if you like – than last year’s Chichibu Whisky Matsuri bottle and it requires patience and a bit of imagination, but it’s a fascinating dram. Great selection by the matsuri folks. It can still be tried by the glass at many bars in Tokyo, so don’t pass it up if you have the chance!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Karuizawa “Five Decades”

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Update: we have confirmed the outturn with Number One Drinks and there are 200 bottles in total (100 for Japan, 100 for abroad). Rumours circulating that there were only 42 bottles are INCORRECT. Maybe these rumours were started by people looking to flip this bottle who want to make it look like it's more rare than it is.

Last month, a very interesting new Karuizawa was launched at department store Isetan in Shinjuku. It’s a vatting of malt spanning almost the entire history of production at Karuizawa distillery (disregarding a few years at the end of the 50s, a period of trial-and-error anyway) that was married in an ex-Karuizawa cask for a few years and bottled at the end of 2015 in a beautifully engraved decanter. A few cases were made available to customers of Isetan; the remainder will be on the shelves of duty free stores in Japan soon… It’s not cheap, of course, but moaning about Karuizawa prices is becoming a bit old hat, so we’re not going to go there. Let’s focus on the liquid instead!

Karuizawa “Five Decades 1960-2000” (61.4%)

Nose: dried fruits, pecan pie and, initially, hints of wood smoke, vintage leather and prosciutto; after a while, raspberry coulis, sour plums, kumquats and lemon-drizzled baked apples;
Palate: a powerful attack with fresh citrus and spice (shichimi, cloves), then gooseberries, candied ginger, mince pies, chutney and a hint of umeboshi;
Finish: long and intense on candied grapefruit peel, fresh lime, macadamia nut butter and, towards the end, ripe prunes and soba yu.
Fresh, but with incredible depth and complexity, this marks the end of an era: the legendary Karuizawa distillery’s swan song – everything it was condensed into an emotional liquid adieu.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Karuizawa 1980 for Harbour City Hong Kong

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The time when Karuizawa single cask bottlings were coming at you faster than your paychecks is definitely over. That doesn’t mean it’s easier to get hold of a bottle when one does come by, of course. In fact, since everybody’s starved and waiting, it usually turns into a mad scramble for crumbs. So what a thrill it is to be able to spotlight a very recent 35yo Karuizawa single cask, bottled for Harbour City in Hong Kong. It’s from 1980, which is a pretty rare vintage. In fact, you can count the specimens from that vintage on the fingers of both hands. We’ve been able to try a few 1980s over the years and they were are all superb, without exception, so the expectations are high…

Karuizawa 1980 / 2015 (35yo) for Harbour City (HK), sherry butt #4376, 60.1%abv, 212btls.

Big and robust, this is not for the faint of heart. This is the whisky equivalent of Henry Rollins (and we’re huge fans of Mr. Rollins, so that’s saying something!) It’s very intense, that’s for sure. The nose needs a bit of taming with water in order to reveal its complexities – don’t even try without. It also needs time… loads of time. Then, little by little, you catch some glimpses of its aromatic universe: yakibuta, rock pools in summer, unagi sauce, porcini soup, permanent markers (don’t pretend you’ve never sniffed one!), bacon-wrapped dates, blue cheese and walnut toast, dried cantaloupes, tent odors (but nothing unpleasant!), wood creosote, rooibos tea, pomegranate molasses… It’s a combination of aromas that doesn’t conjure up any plausible “natural settings” (unless you’ve got a very unusual and adventurous daily life), but it works.

On the palate, it’s so thick it needs to be chewed – literally! Here, you get deer jerky, eggplant chutney, fennel, berry lime compote, dried persimmons (hoshigaki) and a tiny bit of lemongrass, but the wood is quite loud, so if you don’t like oak in your whisky, this could be a bit of a challenge. Since you can’t take out the water once you’ve added it, it would actually be better to start with the palate undiluted, and then add water and enjoy the nose, which is an atypical progression, of course, but you’ll notice it makes sense in this context. The finish is long and drying, but you get a really beautiful crossfade from bitter, peppery and minty notes to subtle hints of coffee, salt caramel and candied lime peel.

This is definitely not a whisky for beginners, but it’s incredibly rewarding if you’re willing to put in the work… No kiddy gloves here, but what a joy to be able to grapple with a whisky of this caliber – not many specimens like this around in this day and age of inoffensive, easy, superficially sexy whisky that seeks to please anyone and everyone.

Now for the bad news – it’s a bit expensive (what did you expect?). We’ve heard prices in the area of 80,000HKD. That is a lot of money – true – but life is short (and even shorter if your liver gets fed up) and I can tell you, you won’t have the chance to turn down a whisky like this for much longer anymore, since the Karuizawa stock is almost gone… You’re paying for a lot of things here – including the presentation featuring a wood block print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi which is stunning – but, as always, one has to weigh quality and quantity against the limits of one’s budget. That’s something we can’t help you with. As far as the liquid’s concerned, though, you’re in for a wild ride, so you’ve got nothing to worry about there!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Akashi 8yo for Germany

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Something special for our readers in Germany, or those who live close enough to make the trek to Nurnberg. The European distributor for Eigashima (White Oak Distillery), Les Whiskies du Monde, will be making its entire allocation of a recent Akashi single cask available exclusively to visitors to The Village Whisk(e)y-Messe Nurnberg (27-28 February 2016).
It’s an 8yo – which is the oldest stock available in the warehouses there – drawn from an “old sherry butt” (#5184), bottled non-coloured and non-chillfiltered at 50%abv. It was released in Japan towards the end of last year and the 120 bottles (of the total outturn of 900) destined for Europe are all going to the Whisk(e)-Messe in Nurnberg. Still a few weeks to plan a little weekend trip…