Monday, January 9, 2017

The year that was…

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Best wishes for the new year, folks. It’s an understatement to say that last year has been a quiet year here on Nonjatta, but that doesn’t mean we were sleeping on the job. Far from it.

The main reason for the lack of activity was the fact I was working on my book. Research, traveling and writing literally took up any free time I had for the first half of the year, and then the second half was taken up by the production side of things. That’s behind me now and what a relief it is! The book will be out in March. It’s called “Whisky Rising” and is available for pre-order from the usual suspects (apologies for the shameless plug). In truth, I could have posted some things in the margin of my work on the book, but then I happen to know a few people are working on a book on Japanese whisky so I had to keep some of my powder dry.
The other half of the story – the reason for the lack of posts last year – is that I’ve been doing much more writing for various whisky publications around the world since the beginning of 2016 (mostly for Whisky Magazine in the UK – that’s in English – and for Whisky Magazine Japan – in Japanese). This is payed writing so, obviously, that takes priority. As most of the long-time Nonjatta fans will have noticed by now, Japanese whisky is becoming increasingly hard-to-find and/or expensive. That means writing about it is much more costly, in terms of expenses incurred along the way. Gone are the days when you could pick up rare and interesting bottles any day of the week at ‘normal’ prices. Gone are the days when you could visit a bar and have half a dozen interesting Japanese whiskies for the price of an average dinner. Prices in retail are up. The competition is lethal – every man and his dog now wants a Chichibu single cask when one is released (which is not all that often). Prices on the secondary market are batshit mental. So it’s only natural that prices at bars are higher than what they used to be, too. Collecting Rolex watches is nothing compared with the credit card stress the Japanese whisky hobbyist has to endure, if he wants to stay “in the game”. From a writer’s point of view things aren’t any easier. Japanese whisky producers don’t send samples – they didn’t when there wasn’t much interest in the category of Japanese whisky, at home and abroad, and they don’t need to now that there is more demand than they can satisfy – so pro bono writing (which is what Nonjatta has always been!) is harder on the wallet of the person doing the writing. That’s just the way things are nowadays.

Nonjatta has always been about spreading enthusiasm for Japanese whisky, informing people and helping them find their way to (and into) the liquid. Now that everyone is crazy about Japanese whisky – not only about the liquid, sadly, but also as an “alternative investment”, as it’s usually phrased – it is harder to pursue those lofty ideals. Reviewing whisky with the idea of helping the reader make up their mind whether it is likely to appeal to them so that they can then go out and buy a bottle for their private enjoyment or track one down at a bar is… well, let’s face it, not going to happen anymore. When a single cask bottling or a limited release comes out, it is a mad scramble for crumbs and with a few hundred bottles available it is gone faster than you can say “oh, look there it is at auction for 5 times the retail price”. The result is that, even when you DO manage to get hold of a bottle, this situation leads people to fetishize their bottle. Even those who genuinely buy to drink can’t shake off the feeling that the bottle they were lucky to score is now worth the equivalent of a week’s holiday in Hawaii.
In any case, none of this is news… so we won’t linger on it too much. Asked to single out some highlights of the past year, here are our picks of “best” – whatever that means, we won’t get into that! – Japanese whiskies of 2016:

Best Blended Whisky: Kirin Fuji-sanroku 50° Non-Chillfiltered
Best Single Malt Whisky: Mars “Komagatake” Tsunuki Aging
Best Single Grain Whisky: Fuji Gotemba Small Batch 25yo Single Grain
Best Single Cask Whisky: Chichibu Malt Dream Cask for Bar Kitchen

With the exception of the grain whisky – which is an anomaly, really – these are all young whiskies. The reality is that, for a very long time, we will be drinking very young whisky coming out of Japan. Six new distilleries started producing last year. It will obviously take a while before anything ‘mature’ will come out of the warehouses of those distilleries. Other smaller distilleries – Chichibu, Mars Shinshu and Eigashima – have relatively young stock and can’t splash their older stock about the place too much. They need it for the future and they know that the future lasts a long time. The only ones able to offer a bit more variety in terms of aged stock are the big boys but whether they will remains to be seen. There has been very little coming out of Suntory and Nikka in terms of new, special or limited releases recently. They’ve been replenishing their warehouses for almost a decade now – producing around the clock. It may be that we will reap the fruits of that labour in the years to come. Then again, it may just be that all the stock that has been laid down since the highball boom is needed to satisfy mass demand for their entry-level products – i.e. that there is no space, real or mental, to release small-batch / single cask / limited edition products aimed at whisky enthusiasts.

This is turning into a long post, so we’ll let you get back to whatever it was you were doing, dear reader. We’ll just leave you with a promise to try and return to the level of activity pre-2016 on Nonjatta. The angles may be somewhat different, and posts may be a bit more brief, but we’ll do our best! Here’s to a year filled with better whiskies at better prices! Kanpai!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fuji Gotemba Distiller’s Select 2016

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

It’s been a pretty bleak few months in Japanese whisky land. There have been a few single cask and limited editions from the Venture Whisky stable but that’s been pretty much it. It’s hard to report on those because they sell out in a split second…

What a thrill it is then to be able to signal a limited release that you can get your hands on and that’s 1) reasonably priced and 2) of superb quality. That said, you will have to make an effort and travel to the distillery. Nothing comes easy these days – not as far as Japanese whisky is concerned.
The release we’re talking about is “Fuji Gotemba Distiller’s Select” and it’s actually a dual release, as so often with the good folk at the distillery there: a single malt and a single grain. The concept behind this release is a very interesting one. At the big companies in Japan, specialized blenders put releases together. That’s their job. At Kirin, there’s a very good team, led by chief blender Jota Tanaka, but for the “Distiller’s Select”, the idea was to have the people who actually make the liquid at the distillery put something together. Several key people on the team created a vatting of their own, which was then tasted blind by the people there, tweaked when necessary and then the “best” one was picked and prepared for bottling.

On a recent visit to the distillery, I had the chance to try the Distiller’s Select bottlings and they’re really beautiful whiskies at a price that can’t be beat at the moment. (They come in two sizes, 500ml and 200ml.) According to the staff, the single grain is the first release to come out of Fuji Gotemba distillery that uses all 3 types of grain whisky made there. It’s made up of 50% light-type grain (column distilled), 49% medium-type grain (made in batches, using the beer column and the kettle) and 1% heavy-type grain (made, like bourbon, using the beer column and the doubler). The average age of the vatting is 6yo, with the oldest component 8yo. Wonderfully lush – with a nice maple syrup note – it’s a real treat. The team settled on a bottling strength of 48%. The original vatting came in at about 60% abv but the team felt it was best presented at 48%. They are very thorough so they tried various strengths and that was the conclusion they came to.

The ‘winning’ malt vatting was composed by stillman Masao Nakamura. Nakamura is a fan of peated whiskies (Islay in particular) so he put a generous dose (a little over 1/3) of peated (5ppm) malt in his creation. It’s just the right amount to give it a beautiful smoky halo without obliterating the other notes. The “Distiller’s Select Malt” was bottled at vatting strength (49%).

The team at the distillery are very proud of this pair and understandably so. The plan is to continue this project with annual follow-ups. As chief distiller Yuichiro Mese pointed out, “this project is not just about selling a new product, it’s also about improving our skills”. If this isn’t the perfect excuse to pay a visit to Fuji Gotemba distillery, I don’t know what is. And even if you’ve been there in the past, the visitor center has undergone an upgrade recently and the tour is better than ever before. Perfect time for a weekend trip.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ghost 8 & Arran 19yo ‘Spirits for Small Change’ On Sale

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The two bottlings for the bi-annual charity event “Spirits for Small Change” are available now from Malt City. Keep reading, because there is some ‘fine print’, as they say.
The first event bottling was the 8th release in the ‘Ghost series’, a special vatting of Hanyu and Chichibu, created by Ichiro Akuto and bottled at cask strength. This was limited to 26 bottles. Two bottles were drunk at the charity event (held on July 3rd), one bottle was raffled off, and three were auctioned off live at the event. The price per bottle at the event came to 370,000 yen. The remaining 20 bottles are sold at the same price on Malt City. To avoid people hijacking this release, they are offered guerilla style. In the course of the next seven days, at random moments, the Malt City staff will make one bottle available. This will be done until all 20 bottles are gone. It’s a lot of money but all of the proceeds of the sale of this bottle goes to children’s charities in Japan.
The second event bottling was meant to be more affordable. It’s a 19yo Arran single cask (sherry butt #1579, 1996/2016, 45.2% abv, 175 bottles). Most of the outturn was sold at the event. In fact, people went wild for it. Some even bought a full case! The few remaining cases are offered now, with a limit of 2 bottles per person (price is 15,000 yen per bottle). Part of the proceeds of the sale of this bottle goes to charity.

Ghost 8 is available here and the Arran single cask can be purchased here.

Please do not make enquires to MaltCity about stock condition, release timing, reservation etc.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Oldest Japanese Whisky Released: Saburomaru 1960

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Today, the oldest Japanese whisky to date is officially released: ‘Saburomaru 1960’, a 55yo single malt whisky.
You may be excused for scratching your head and saying “Saburo-what?” Saburomaru is the name of the whisky distillery owned by Wakatsuru Shuzo in Toyama prefecture. They’ve been making whisky since 1952, but only for a few months a year. All the malt they distill is heavily peated. You’ll be able to read much more about this overlooked distillery in my forthcoming book (I apologize but I have to keep some of my powder dry). Wakatsuru Shuzo used to market its whiskies under the ‘Sunshine’ brand. The ‘Saburomaru’ line will be reserved for single malts expressions from now on.

As said, ‘Saburomaru 1960’ is the oldest single malt Japanese whisky ever bottled. It was distilled in May 1960 in an old ‘allospas’ still, imported from France. This is a continuous still, so in Scotland, this would not be a single malt technically, since single malts have to be distilled in pot stills. (In Japan, this doesn’t matter.) It is a vatting of a few casks. All the casks used were ex-red wine casks from Yamanashi from the days when Wakatsuru Shuzo dabbled in ‘port wine’. It’s bottled at vatting strength (47%) and limited to 155 bottles.

The retail price will be 550,000 yen plus tax - which, from a purely objective point of view, is quite reasonable. But don’t get too excited: the company is organizing this as a lottery. For more information (in Japanese!), head on over here.

On a recent visit to the distillery, I had the chance to try this historic whisky... - but that’s for another post!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Spirits for Small Change" 2nd Edition, July 3rd BrewDog Roppongi

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

日本語は以下に続きます (Japanese follows English)
Today, we’re thrilled to be able to announce details of the second edition of the charity event "Spirits for Small Change". The first edition was held in 2014 and raised over 6.5 million yen. All proceeds from the event are donated to charity. This time our partner is "Bridge for Smile" which supports children living in institutional care and helps them live independently after leaving children's homes. We are very happy to be able to support their efforts in a small way with this, the second “Spirits for Small Change” fundraiser.
The event will take place at BrewDog Roppongi in Tokyo on Sunday, July 3rd from 1 to 3pm. In addition to a welcome beer from the BrewDog range and a plate of craft food, participation includes 5 whiskies and/or other spirits, one of which is a special ultra-limited bottling provided by Ichiro Akuto of Venture Whisky. The other four drams can be chosen freely from a wide range of whiskies and other spirits donated by distillers, retailers, bars and collectors worldwide. There will also be a special bottling for 'Spirits for Small Change' (a 19yo Arran single cask) which can be tried and bought at the event. Participation is 5,000 yen and advance registration will include a raffle ticket, giving you the chance to win some really interesting bottles. A few rare collectables will be auctioned off live at the event as well. Space is limited so we strongly recommend you book your ticket in advance. Our friends over at Malt City are taking care of this for us, so head on over to their site!
Structural support for ""Spirits for Small Change"" is provided by: BrewDog Japan, Whisk-e and Number One Drinks Co.

Detailed Information:
Date / 3rd July 2016 13:00 - 15:00
Venue / BrewDog Roppongi
Entry Fee / 5,000 Yen (includes 1 BrewDog beer, a plate of BrewDog food & 5 whiskies)
*Advance entry also includes a raffle ticket, giving you the chance to win some interesting bottles.
Event enquiry : Nonjatta
Ticket enquiry : MaltCity (enquiries@whisk-e.co.jp)

2014年に行われたNonjattaのチャリティイベントがこの度、第2回’Spirits for Small Change’として、再び開催する運びとなりました。
皆様から650万円を超す寄付金が集まりました前回のイベントですが、今回のチャリティパートナーは、児童擁護施設から社会に巣立つ子供達の自立支援を行なっている団体’Bridge for Smile’です。今回のイベントが、少しでも子供達の’Bridge for Smile’への力となれれば幸いです。
今回のイベントは、7月3日の午後1時から3時に、ブリュードッグ六本木で開催いたします。ウエルカムビールや美味しい料理を提供させていただきますとともに、5杯のウイスキーもしくはスピリッツをお楽しみいただけます。その内の1杯は、Venture Whiskyの肥土さまより提供していただきました、特別な限定ボトルからとなっております。さらに、’Spirits for Small Change’の特別ボトル(アランのシングルカスク19年)も用意しております。こちらのボトルは本イベントで購入することも可能です。蒸溜所、リテーラー、バー、世界中のコレクターの皆様から寄付されましたボトルも試飲できます。参加費用は5000円になりますが、前売り券をご購入いただきますと、素敵な賞品の当たる抽選券をお渡しいたします。更にイベント当日には、何本かのコレクタブルなボトルをオークション形式で出品いたします。経費を除く全ての収益金が’Bridge for Smile’へ寄付されます。今回のイベントが開催されます場所には収容人数に限りがございますので、ぜひお早めに前売り券をお買い求め下さい。Malt City様のご協力により、今回のイベントは開催されます。
Spirits for Small Changeは BrewDog Japan, Whisk-e そして Number One Drinks Co.のお力添えにより実現させる事ができました。

イベント情報:
日時 / 2016年7月3日(日)13:00 - 15:00
参加費 / 5,000円 (ブリュードッグのビール1杯、ブリュードッグ六本木特製フードにウイスキー5杯のテイスティングチケットが含まれます)
※当サイトで前売り券をご購入いただきますと、当日素敵な賞品が当たる抽選券をお渡しいたします。
イベントに関するお問い合わせ : Nonjatta
チケット販売に関するお問い合わせ:MaltCity (enquiries@whisk-e.co.jp)