Thursday, October 1, 2015

Karuizawa 1983/2015 ‘Nepal Earthquake Appeal’

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
It’s been a busy time at Nonjatta HQ for reasons that will become clear over the next few weeks. There are so many exciting things in the pipeline that we almost forgot to make time for the ‘Nepal Earthquake Appeal’ Karuizawa 1983 bottled for The Whisky Exchange. Shame on us. Forty-five lucky people will get to taste this single cask on Saturday, October 3rd, and take home a bottle afterwards. Two more bottles will be auctioned off later on and Bonhams Hong Kong, with all proceeds going to five charities that help support the victims of the Nepal earthquake.
Karuizawa 1983/2015, #3557, 59%abv, 50 bottles

On the nose, the initial impressions are venison with balsamic prune sauce, honey-bourbon glazed barbecued ribs, mango chutney, old leather, old cigar boxes (the boxes themselves, not so much the cigars!) but it’s also got a bit of a Sicilian side to it, with cartocci siciliani, buccellati and mpanatigghi on the table. There’s also a bit of rosemary, thyme and some caraway lying about. When you spend more time with it, you may pick up hints of shiso leaf and strawberry-and-fennel compote. After a good 15 minutes, there are distinct notes of mimolette, porcini risotto and a teeny tiny (but oh so, delightful) trace of ruby grapefruit. Tasting notes are always partial – not only in the sense of revealing but a fraction of ‘what’s there’ (assuming there is such a thing), but also in the sense of revealing what the taster is partial to – but with these sort of Golden Age (i.e. early 80s) Karuizawas, you really could go on forever… The thing is: there’s a thousand things going on but there is no excess whatsoever in this case – which you can’t always say about 30+yo Karuizawas.

In the mouth, it’s the liquid equivalent of “The Odyssey” – what a journey! It starts with an intense citrus attack – not quite the sudachi that’s a signature note of old (and I mean pre-80s) Karuizawas, but something between lime and sudachi. Then, you get grapefruit peel, beef jerky, blueberry barbecue pulled pork, smoked kinmedai and burdock, ume plum jam, mole sauce, but there’s more… smoked chocolate chips, a fig log, espresso liqueur… the list goes on and on. This is like a whole week of fine dining rolled into a single dram. In that sense, Karuizawa is not all that expensive, come to think of it. You can just slowly work your way through a bottle of this, and feel like you’ve been eating in the world’s most fabulous restaurants for months on end.

The finish is long and fairly drying but pleasantly so… with the strawberry-and-fennel coming back, some bramble cinnamon crumble and a bit of shichimi.

Water tames the nose somewhat and makes it more approachable… but it fades out some of the aromatic ‘partials’ (to use an analogy from sonology) that give the nose that gritty wildness that’s so beguiling … well, personally speaking. On the palate, water dials up the citrus (Seville oranges, which you often get in early 80s Karuizawas at some point during the journey from glass to memory) and stewed fruits. It also brings out more of the wood. On the finish, with water, you get some hojicha, golden raisins, white pepper and a sliver of fresh mint.

What can we say? It’s up there with the best early-80s Karuizawas… but there’s only 50 bottles. Life can be a cruel…

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Innovation and Experimentation in Whisky: a chat with Dr Bill Lumsden

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A couple of weeks ago, Dr Bill Lumsden did a whirlwind mini-tour of Japan. We caught him at the end of a busy day at the MHD headquarters in Tokyo and started by asking him what the first whisky was he remembered having…
Dr Bill Lumsden
The first whisky I tried was Glenmorangie 10yo in 1984. I had tried blended Scotch in my youth, which was illegal of course because I was a teenager at the time, but the first proper whisky I had was a Glenmorangie at a party in Edinburgh, and that turned me on to the world of single malt Scotch. So there’s a sense of destiny that I’m now doing what I’m doing.

How did you end up in the whisky industry – was that a serendipitous thing or were you intent on working in the whisky industry? 

I wouldn’t say it was serendipitous because it was basically as a result of becoming a malt whisky lover and studying for my PhD at Heriot-Watt University. That kind of led me into the whisky industry. But it was because I was a lover of malt that I wanted to work in the whisky industry and happily it has sort of worked out for me.

People tend to see innovation in whisky as the province of the so-called ‘new world distilleries’, but there is a great deal of experimentation and innovation going on in Scotland. You have been at the forefront of this for two decades. Let’s start by focusing on your work in the field of maturation. In your experience, are there finishes that don’t really work well with whisky in general? Or can any sort of finish be made to work given the right circumstances?

I would say no and there are some utterly appalling examples out there of things that have completely dominated over the house character of the whisky. There’s ones where people have finished for clearly a few weeks and a few months so why bother with that? And there’s other things – other spirits, other barrels – which, in my opinion, kind of fight against the flavour of the Scotch so it’s certainly not the case that you can make everything work.

Could you give some specific examples of such clashes?

I have one very specific example but because we are owned by Moet-Hennessy, I’d rather not say…

Vice versa, are there cask types that lend themselves more to finishes, rather than full maturations?

I think the fortified wines lend themselves to finishing and personally I think that full maturation in a sherry butt, for example, in most cases will ruin the whisky. But, you know, I may be expressing a bit of personal preference here. Also, if you’re using French wine oak barriques, a full maturation will generally be a disaster because there’s far too much tannins in French oak. I know some people have done it, but in my opinion, they’ve churned out products which I wouldn’t drink!

With Ardbeg, the experimentation in terms of maturation is not focused on finishes at all, so what shape does experimentation take there?

What we tend to do is: fully mature the spirit and then blend it with classic Ardbeg from bourbon barrels. Finishing just doesn’t work so well with a whisky of that style, in my view.

Word on the street is that 1) there is a cask shortage and 2) wood isn’t what it used to be (in terms of quality)? What are your thoughts on those two ‘rumours’?

I agree with both points. There is a cask shortage. We [at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg] don’t have a cask shortage because we’ve got long-term relations with our main suppliers, but you know, if someone wanted to go out today and buy an extra 50,000 bourbon barrels, they would just get laughed at. There is not a chance they would get them. I think that will ease over the next few years as more bourbon barrels are getting emptied again, but certainly I am watching very carefully what’s happening out there and I know some distilleries have actually scaled back production because they couldn’t get wood to fill into.
And in terms of barrels not being what they used to be, I think there’s definitely something in there. I’m hearing stories – and you know, they might be anecdotal – that it’s taking barely 8 weeks from the tree first being cut to it first being filled with spirit in some parts of the US. You know, that will have an impact on American whiskey, and then it will have a knock-on impact on Scotch whisky. But again, in the Glenmorangie company, we’ve got a program to combat against that for our ‘designer casks’ which are not being made into barrels until the wood is at least two years old, after it’s been cut.

People tend to focus on wood as the prime area of experimentation, but that doesn’t mean you don’t focus on other aspects of the whisky making process, for instance, the barley… We’d like to start by asking you about Signet. Can you give us some insight into what inspired that expression and the specifics of the way in which you went about creating it?

The inspiration for that – believe or not! – was born out of a dissatisfaction with coffee, in the first instance, because I was always intrigued by the fact that if you go into a coffee place or if you boil coffee up yourself, the beguiling aroma is absolutely fantastic and I found that the taste seldom lived up to that. So I was always a little bit disappointed. So it led to me, in my student days, mucking about, trying different types of roast, trying different types of beans and the one that I really, really liked – and still do, to this day – is Jamaica Blue Mountain with a medium roast. And it was that roasting process, coupled with my new-found love of malt whisky – a merging together of the two – that made me think: gosh, wouldn’t that be fun, instead of drying it over a peat fire, (to use a technical term) to ‘roast the fuck out of it’. And then, I thought, practically that will be difficult, so I then used my knowledge of craft beer and my love of craft beer and thought: ah, stouts and porters… high-roast chocolate malt! It’s there! So then, I started making secret batches of Glenmorangie spirit using the high-roast chocolate malt and then, took it from there. So that’s where the original inspiration came from, but it took a long time to finalize a recipe that I was happy with, because the whisky from the high-roast chocolate malt on its own was just brutal, frankly. So that’s the reason why it is this horribly complicated ‘assemblage’ of about 7 or 8 Glenmorangies.
How often do you put Signet together and how difficult is it to maintain consistency across batches?

In terms of the recipe, it gets put together once or twice a year and it is very difficult. And you know, it is not a consistent product, I will admit that. There’s just so many things going on there, how could it be?
Turning to a more recent example of experimentation with barley, let’s talk about Tusail a bit. For that, you used a different variety of barley…

That came about from my early days as Glenmorangie Distillery Manager. I had a very good relationship with one of my malt suppliers, Pauls Malt and a gentleman called Iain McLean. And Iain and I always talked about trying something different so I tried some parcels of winter barley, just to see if there was any difference, but I didn’t do 100% winter barley. It was like a 50-50 blend with spring barley, or 75 spring / 25 winter, and I felt there was possibly a difference there, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So I thought: right, once and for all, I’m going to do this experiment properly. So that’s when I had Maris Otter grown for me and had it floor-malted, and the end results I was delighted with. You know, it’s not a black-and-white difference if you compare it to Glenmorangie Original. I’m always wanting to try things like that and see what happens.

Then, there’s yeast, generally a neglected area of experimentation. 

I have been working on many experiments with yeast over the past few years but it might well be another few years before I am ready to release the results of that. All I’ll say is: I found some really exciting things out and I’ve got one project in particular which I am just tickled pink with. I called it ‘Project Godisgoode’ because ‘godisgoode’ is what the Ancient Egyptians called yeast. Well, they didn’t know it was yeast that turned cereal juice into alcohol so they said ‘god-is-good’. Obviously, I’m being a little bit evasive – I like to keep my powder dry.

Since it’s in the nature of an experiment that the outcome cannot be foreseen, can you give an example of an experiment that didn’t work out?

To be honest, my success rate is very, very high in these things. The one that spectacularly did not work, I would not be allowed to release anyway (the SWA [Scotch Whisky Association] made that very plain to me)… all I can say is: Brazilian cherry wood is not a good type of wood to use for whisky barrels.

Most expressions of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie that you have developed don’t carry an age-statement. Some people make a big deal of that. What would you say to those who are suspicious of whiskies that don’t carry an age statement?

It’s going to be an ongoing fierce debate and it sometimes makes me a little bit annoyed to see somebody mouthing off saying “that’s obviously 3 or 4yo whisky in there”. None of my NAS whiskies have ever been that young apart from ones I’ve deliberately done that with… By that I mean, ‘Ardbeg Very Young’ which was 6 or 7 years old and the ‘Ardbeg Oogling’, which was 4 years old but the ‘Oogling’ was just a joke, really. It wasn’t serious. But what I would say to people is: it’s not about the age as far as I’m concerned. There are more important factors in giving taste to whisky and any of the NAS products I have put out, always have to be of a high standard before I would allow them to carry the brand name. But you know, you’re always going to get ‘doubting Thomases’ criticizing that.
Let’s talk about Perpetuum a bit, which was released in May 2015 to mark the 200th anniversary of the distillery.

For Perpetuum, rather than doing what I wanted to do myself in terms of an experiment or create a different taste profile, it was all about the 200th anniversary, so I thought: I could do something boring, like vat 200 casks together – and marketing actually suggested that at once stage, to which I said “get the fuck out of my office – it’s my job to decide this”. So I thought, over the last 200 years, lots of things have happened to Ardbeg Distillery and over our 10 years, I’ve tried lots of things. I just happened to have a habit of holding back a few barrels of most of the things I’ve done. So I thought, why don’t I just try and create a whisky where it has a little bit of everything in there. So that’s the idea behind that.

What do you think are the challenges lying ahead for the brands that you’re responsible for?

The challenges I see ahead for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are that there is an almost insatiable demand and appetite for new products, and you know, there’s only so many things you can do. That’s always a bit of a challenge. Keeping up with demand will be a challenge. For example, if India finally did dramatically reduce their importation tariffs, the Scotch whisky industry doesn’t produce enough whisky to satisfy India alone! And, you know, we wouldn’t just suddenly start selling everything to India, but I am just saying that demand may well go up. Once the Latin American countries get a taste for single malt Scotch whisky, that’ll put pressure on it, as well.

What sort of inspirational figures – industry or non-industry, past and present – feature in the ‘Dr Bill universe’?

The late, great Michael Jackson would be there – that’s the singer… oh, and the whisky writer, too. Prince inspires me because he is just so unbelievably talented. On most of his albums, it says “written, composed, arranged, performed and produced by Prince”. He does everything! I find some fashion designers inspirational, in terms of the things they produce. And the other side of the coin is I find some of them just ridiculous and I think “who the fuck would wear that?” I find some of the great chefs of the world very inspirational, in that for anyone to actually be able to work like that, in a hot, sweaty kitchen and continue to generate fabulous food, that’s pretty inspirational. Some of the endurance athletes are pretty inspirational... Lance Armstrong. The New Zealand All Blacks inspire me – more so than the Scottish rugby team - … to name but a few.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau) site seems to indicate that - in spite of reported shortages - Suntory is continuing its 'Sherry Cask' limited edition series. The label for the 2016 edition has been approved as can be seen here. One has to keep in mind, though, that this is not a guarantee that such a product will be released. It just indicates that the producer is planning on doing so. It'll be interesting to see what this will be priced at.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

New Mars Release: 'The Lucky Cat'

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Tomorrow, Hombo Shuzo is releasing a new Mars expression. It's a blended whisky finished in port and madeira casks, and comes bottled at 39% - somewhat nostalgically (since this harkens back to the days when whiskies bottled at 39% were in a lower tax bracket). The price tag is definitely of this day and age, though: 4,320 yen. Limited to 1,200 bottles, it'll be interesting to see if this is received as warmly as the Wine Cask Finished Iwai Tradition released a few years ago (at a third of the price of this Lucky Cat bottling). We'll see if we can get our mitts on a bottle, and get back to you on that as soon as we can.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 (2): The Lowdown

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few more weeks, and Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 is upon us. For those who were living on a different planet the past few months: it’s Saturday, 19 September at Akiba Square in Akihabara, Tokyo from 12 noon to 6pm.
It promises to be an incredible show, and since it’s only one day this year rather than two, it’s a bit of a risk to wait too long to book your tickets. Hold on… one day? Isn’t it two? Well, no, not really. There’s been a little confusion about the event to do with the fact that it’s being organized in conjunction with Modern Malt Market. To be clear: Modern Malt Market is the trade-only event, held the day before at the same venue. It is strictly limited to customers of Sanyo Bussan, so even if you are professionally involved with whisky but live abroad (and therefore are likely not to be a Sanyo Bussan customer), you would be going to Whisky Live on Saturday! Although the organizational framework is the same, it is best to think of them as separate things… the Friday doesn’t concern us. It’s all about the big party on Saturday!
In addition to the one and only Dave Broom (do read our recent interview with him!), many industry folks from Scotland, Japan and elsewhere will be attending Whisky Live Tokyo 2015: Mark Watt (Cadenhead’s), Douglas Cook (Glendronach), David Allen (Springbank), Andy Hogan (Duncan Taylor), Peter Wills (Kilchoman), Stewart Harvey (Pulteney), Antonio Bleve (Samaroli), etc. There won’t be any ‘masterclasses’ but there’s a fabulous stage program throughout the day. At 12:30, Dave Broom will be hosting a panel discussion with Akuto-san (Venture Whisky), Sakuma-san (Nikka chief blender), Fukuyo-san (Suntory chief blender), Tanaka-san (Kirin chief blender) about the “future prospects of Japanese whisky”.  Fukuyo-san and Sakuma-san will be speaking solo a little later in the day, about the potential of grain whisky (at 14:15) and the characteristics of blended malt (at 16:00) respectively. The last stage event is a blending “Battle Royal” in which 3 participants from the audience will take part... together with Mark Watt. Guaranteed to be hilarious!

There will be a plethora of whiskies available for tasting at the Whisk-e/Whisky Magazine Japan boot: the likes of Ardbeg 1994 from Duncan Taylor, Glenlivet 1972 from Cadenhead’s, 3 Teeling single casks, 2 new ‘School of Malt’ bottlings (Mortlach 1989 and Linkwood 1989, Fettercairn 1995 for Whisky Magazine…) the list just goes on and on. A few of these will come at an extra charge, but the organizers are keen to offer as much as possible included in the ticket price. The last couple of years, there’s been a trend at whisky festivals in Japan to charge for anything that’s even a teeny tiny bit special (i.e. anything other than entry-level whiskies). People were getting a bit tired of having to bring wads of cash just to try new whiskies. Whisky Live Tokyo 2015 should offer some welcome relief for the wallet in that sense, which is to be applauded! There are obviously limits to what can be offered for free sampling, but the organizers are trying hard to keep as much as possible within those limits.

Of all the booths, we predict the Whisky Magazine Japan booth will attract the most customers (giving Akuto-san, who usually attracts the biggest crowds, a little break maybe). Why is that? Well, if you ‘like’ the Whisky Magazine Japan FB page, you get access to some incredible Japanese whiskies… 1988 Yoichi and 2001 Miyagikyo single casks, 1998 Hakushu and Yamazaki single casks (courtesy of Whisky Shop W.), two 6yo grain whisky cask samples and a 15-18yo malt cask sample from Fuji Gotemba and a line-up of Chichibu prototype bottles. But hold on, it gets better. You don’t just get 1 dram from this line-up, you can try everything… as long as stocks last. So our advice would be: click ‘like’ right away and don’t wait too long to pay our friends at the Whisky Magazine Japan booth a visit… but leave some for us, pretty please!
People are always keen to get their hands on some of the festival bottlings. There are some very interesting festival bottlings this time round, too, but unlike previous years, these will not be available for purchase (or advance registration). Rather than have people go hysteric and think just “get, get, get”, the organizers want people to try them at the event and worry about purchases after the event (going through the usual liquor retail channels). At the event, it’s all about experiencing the liquid rather than elbowing one’s way to a bottle to take home. One of the Whisky Live bottlings is already available: a stunning 1995 Springbank (refill sherry butt). You can find it at bars around the country and some retailers may still have a bottle or two. That will not be available at the show, because it’s already out there for you to try and buy. Two others will be unveiled at the show: a 2009 Kilchoman (from a sherry butt) and a 2003 Glendronach (Oloroso sherry). In addition, three special bottlings for Modern Malt Market will also be available for tasting at the event: a 1995 Glendronach (PX sherry puncheon), a 1997 Pulteney and … possibly but not 100% confirmed yet, a young Japanese single cask. Again, these will only be available for purchase after the event.

Well, folks, that’s about it. There’s plenty more we could tell you, but we don’t want to spoil the fun of discovering all the surprises lying in wait for you at Whisky Live Tokyo 2015. Book your tickets here and we’ll see you there!