Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A unicorn: Karuizawa 1960... the 'other' single cask

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Recently, we had the pleasure of visiting a private collection of wines and whiskies with mostly bottlings from previous decades. The whisky collection was heavily focused on older limited editions of Japanese whiskies, which is interesting because most collections of Japanese whiskies were started post-2005 (the year the first Ichiro's Hanyu bottlings were released, and a year or two later, the first Number One Drinks releases). The collection we visited gravitated towards old and limited Suntory and Nikka items, but in a tiny corner, we discovered a hitherto unknown release that would be the crown of anyone's Japanese whisky collection: the unknown, 'other' 1960 Karuizawa single cask. And there it was sitting, as an oddity, in a dark corner.

Everyone is familiar with the Number One Drinks Karuizawa 1960 (#5627), of course, but this particular bottle may be much rarer. It was bottled at the distillery. What the staff did in those days when they bottled single casks at the distillery (mostly for sale at the distillery shop) is: they would tap a cask and take as much liquid as they needed to have a good supply of a particular cask from a particular vintage on the shelves, and leave the rest to mature until a further date when they needed more. With younger vintages, bottles would sell out quite quickly (well, relatively speaking -  that would be at a snail's pace observed from today's Japanese whisky climate!). With older vintages, which were quite expensive for the time (now they'd be considered bargains, of course), that wouldn't be the case, so they would only bottle very few and they were usually on the shelves for months and years. We have no idea how many bottles were taken from cask #2435, but it's likely to be in the single digits. This particular bottle was filled on 25 July 2007 at 47yo (62.2%abv - much higher, incidentally, than the Number One Drinks 1960, which was bottled at 51.7%abv).

There are many mysteries surrounding this bottle - was it bottled for a specific customer as a one-off? what happened to the remaining liquid in the cask? - and we're in the process of analysing video footage taken at Karuizawa distillery (including the shop and the shelves with all available vintages) to see if any light can be shed on the existence of this bottle. (Don't hold your breath, though!) For obvious reasons (security, first and foremost), the location of this bottle cannot be disclosed, but if it is ever opened - as we hope it will be - we'll be sure to share the news with you and throw a wicked party to mark the occasion. We're trying to encourage this, but it may never happen... In that sense, Karuizawa has become a victim of its own success, and of the madness (in terms of prices on the secondary market) surrounding it. A few years ago, setting up a tasting of that bottle would have been a walk in the park. Now, it's a different world.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Chichibu 2011 Beer Barrel & Madeira Hogshead for LMdW

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Up until last year, if you missed out on a single cask Chichibu, you could just wait a few weeks and another one would come along (well, assuming you lived in Japan). Those days are gone – a familiar refrain on the Japanese whisky scene – as Akuto-san is holding on to his stock for higher-aged expressions in the future. If there is a special release for a liquor shop or a bar in Japan these days, it’s more likely to be a special blend (‘Ichiro’s Malt & Grain’).

Fortunately, thanks to the persistence of the people at La Maison du Whisky, we can always look forward to some real gems in the fall every year. This year, like last year, there are three releases coming out of Akuto-san’s warehouses – 2 Chichibus and a Hanyu (which is becoming rarer than hen’s teeth!) – and just like last year, the labels feature artworks by Singaporean artist Tay Bak Chiang. Today, we’ll spotlight the Chichibus, the details of which are as follows:
Chichibu 2011/2015 for LMdW, ‘Tay Bak Chiang II’ series, Beer Barrel #3303, 59/7%abv, 267 bottles

Chichibu 2011/2015 for LMdW, ‘Tay Bak Chiang II’ series, Madeira Hogshead #1371, 62%abv, 308 bottles

One of our all time favourite Chichibu single casks is the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri 2015 release. It was fiendishly hard to get your hands on a bottle of that, because a) you had to go to the festival, and b) you had to win a lottery there and then. Most people I knew came back empty-handed, and bottles of that Chichibu now routinely change hands on auction sites for well over 1,000 euros. Anyway, that was a 2011 Chichibu, matured in an imperial stout barrel (#3292), so image our delight upon learning that LMdW was bottling a sister cask of that. There are no details about the type of beer that was in the cask before Akuto-san refilled it (‘refilled’ because these are barrels that originally contained Chichibu whisky, were then ‘lent’ to craft beer producers in Japan, and then returned to the distillery after the beer was bottled), but from the first nose, I would say it was the exact same type of cask as the Matsuri bottling.

You have to be fan of artisanal honey, but if you are, you will love this. A nose unlike any other whisky you’ve ever had (well, unless you’ve had that sister cask release): tons of manuka honey and baklava, but there’s more going on… assorted pastries (apricot Danish, almond-and-marzipan roulade), yuanxiao, grapefruit jelly, ‘hitotsubu no muscat’ (sugar-coated muscat grapes), yuzu peel, bergamot tea and a tiny hint of duck-a-l’orange. A sweet tooth’s wet dream…

There are no precedents for the Madeira hogshead. Akuto-san has done a few Madeira-hogshead finished Hanyus in the past (some for his Card series), but this must the first Chichibu release of its kind. It’s a very different affair. No honey, but blackberries and blueberries galore. Jams and preserves in an English garden – this would be great with some scones (what a shame we didn’t have any lying around the Nonjatta HQ). There are also hints of turkey meatballs (with blueberry chutney), pomelo, dates, foie gras with dried apricots and a slight whiff of raw mackerel (saba). After a bit of time, the nose is eerily reminiscent of some old Karuizawas – that is to say, not old vintages, but old standard official bottlings.

Back to the ex-beer barrel – on the palate, there’s still plenty of sweetness, but there’s a light savoury dimension that is most welcome: steamed endives, pear ginger chutney, cider-glazed turnips and apples with a bit of sage, … The mouthfeel is incredibly creamy, suggestive of crème d’anjou, white chocolate mousse and oatmeal. Citrus (candied grapefruit peel, Seville oranges, sudachi) takes over the palate after a few seconds and leads the dance all the way through the (very long!) finish with a touch of rosewater in the afterglow. Water dials up the honey on the nose, which isn’t really necessary (there’s plenty of that without water). It also pushes away the citrus on the palate, which you do want, so it’s best to keep the water on the side, in our humble opinion.
On to the Madeira hogshead: believe it or not, but this is slightly Mortlach-esque on the palate. Pâté de campagne, pork rillettes, beef stock, katsuobushi… but the assorted berries – fresh and stewed – are there too. There’s a distinct gooseberry note, too, which is really nice (if you are a fan of that forgotten delicacy). There are some nice floral touches, as well (but we’re no experts in that field – no pun intended – so we’ll leave it to someone else to pick out the particular varieties). On the finish some new elements are introduced, which tends to be an added bonus and it certainly is here as you get some lovely assorted praliné, rum-soaked cherries, ginger preserve, Indian spices, kaki (Japanese persimmon) and some subtle (second-hand) cigar smoke. The finish goes on and on – to the point where it’s almost more complex than the palate proper. This one is a good swimmer, so there’s hours of fun to be had in tweaking the harmony with some water and a spoon.

It’s clear that Akuto-san is doing some incredible things in his warehouses. We spent some time at the distillery with him talking about wood management and maturation techniques last month, and caught a glimpse of some of the amazing things that he’s been up to there on that front. (For those who read Japanese, our conversation will be published in Whisky Magazine Japan shortly – unfortunately, it’s just way too long [read: too costly] to be translated in English.) It’s still magic at the end of the day, but Akuto-san is digging deep, creatively speaking, to create the optimal conditions for that magic to happen.

Stay tuned for our review of the third release in this LMdW ‘Tai Bak Chiang II’ trilogy, a 2000 Hanyu.

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 whisky.auction 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.