Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Suntory ‘Wa-Kyo’ Blended Whisky for Shinanoya

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Towards the end of last year, we unveiled that the good folk at Shinanoya were about to release an extraordinary blended whisky crafted by Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. It’s been 6 years since Shinanoya last released a Suntory exclusive bottling, so it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is an eagerly anticipated release. The blend is composed around malt matured in mizunara casks and it’s called “Wa-Kyo” (which roughly translates as ‘Japanese harmony/resonance’).
“Wa-Kyo” will officially go on sale this weekend, and is expected to sell out instantly. This partly has to do with a fact that a large part of the outturn (which is 530 bottles, bottled at 43%abv) has been reserved by pre-orders. (People attending the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri last weekend had the chance to sign up in advance for a bottle… and since 1,400 people flocked to the festival, it’s easy to understand why there would be very few bottles left.) It’s priced at 36,900 yen plus tax. As is the case with Japanese releases lately, the price won’t be an obstacle. The competition of fellow Japanese-whisky aficionados will be!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Japanese Toddlers Galore at Whisky Festivals in Chichibu & Kyoto

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
There’s no shortage of whisky shows in Japan, but it’s probably the first time two festivals as big as the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri and the Whisky Festival in Kyoto have coincided. That’s what happened yesterday, though, so it kind of divided the country. People in Kanto went to the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri, whereas whisky fans in Kansai flocked to the inaugural Whisky Festival there (organized by Tsuchiya-san and his team at the Scotch Whisky Research Centre).

On the Japanese whisky front, the most noteworthy thing is an avalanche of very young single cask bottlings (either just released or in preparation). The Chichibu Whisky Matsuri had its own festival bottling: a 3yo (2011/2015, 261 bottles, 57.6%, #3292) matured in an Imperial Stout Barrel. Since there were many more people coming to the festival than there were bottles (outturn 261), it was allocated by lottery… and, at the time of writing, going for 20 times the original price at local auctions. That seems to be the way the cookie crumbles these days.

Two exhibitors at the Chichibu Whisky Matsuri had brought their own forthcoming Chichibu bottling. Blackadder is releasing a 4 or 5yo (depending on when it will actually be bottled; the whisky was distilled in March 2010) matured in an ex-cognac cask (#745), and Japanese retailer e-Power (importer of, among others, Silver Seal and Maltbarn) is releasing a “double cask”, i.e. a vatting of a cask fitted with mizunara heads (#1490, filled in December 2011) and a heavily charred new barrel (#1683, filled in February 2012), bottled at vatting strength (60.3%, outturn 580 bottles).

At the Whisky Festival in Kyoto, the organizers of Whisky Talk Fukuoka unveiled their new festival bottling: the first Mars single cask from the new regime. This will be a 3yo (2012/2015), drawn from ex-Bourbon cask #1490, with a striking new design (a departure from their ‘endangered species’ series).

We hope to feature these bottlings in forthcoming reviews. One thing is clear, however: there is very little old Japanese whisky (Hanyu, pre-1992 Mars, Karuizawa, etc.) left in the warehouses, and producers are trying to capture the imagination of whisky fans here (and abroad, soon, too) and effectuate a smooth transition towards younger, recently distilled whiskies with these single cask bottlings.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fuji Gotemba Small Batch Releases: 17yo Malt & 25yo Grain

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Fuji Gotemba Distillery seems to have shifted gears as far as new releases is concerned. Fresh on the heels of its Blender’s Choice pair – the grain release of which was awarded Best Japanese Grain Whisky in the World Whiskies Awards 2015 – they are releasing another malt/grain pair. The new release comes in the usual 700ml bottles, but it is significantly more ‘premium’, at least in price. The 17yo Small Batch Malt is priced at 20,000 yen (plus tax); the 25yo Small Batch Grain will go for 30,000 (plus tax).

Bottled at 46% (not vatting strength, unfortunately), this continues the recent allergy to single cask releases among Japanese whisky producers. Whereas, as recently as two years ago, you could purchase a single cask Japanese whisky any day of the week pretty much anywhere in the country, the big boys (Suntory, Nikka and Kirin) seem to have made up their mind that single casks are not worth the hassle and that the smallest they will do is a ‘small batch’ release (vague as that descriptor is). The immediate reaction today of whisky fans in Japan was that both of these Small Batch releases are priced way too high. FB was buzzing with complaints that it is no longer feasible for the average Japanese whisky fan to buy Japanese whiskies.

We’ll evaluate these new whiskies shortly. Here’s hoping the contents merit the hefty price tags!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Mars 606 & 615, or: Why One Rarely Comes Across Old Japanese Bottles at Bars in Japan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

There are two things foreign whisky fans visiting Japan never fail to remark on: the difficulty in buying interesting Japanese whiskies (i.e. anything other than the standards) in Japan, and the incredible whisky bar scene – the latter offering more than enough consolation for the pain suffered when discovering the former. Those who sample a few of the specialist whisky bars in Japan quickly notice a third thing: that, while there are old and rare bottlings of Scotch (and bourbon, grappa, calvados, cognac, vintage liqueurs, etc.) to be found aplenty, one hardly ever comes across old bottlings of Japanese whisky in Japan! Obscure Scotch whisky bottled for the Italian market? Loads. Pre-WWII Calvados? Any day of the week. Rye whiskies older than your grandmother? Not a problem. Japanese whisky bottled in, say, the 1990s? Mmm, that’s tricky…
A little diversion: a few weeks ago, a friend of mine who loves scouring mom-and-pop stores in and around Tokyo for old / rare / ‘interesting’ whisky sends me a message. He’s just bought two single cask Mars bottlings, released in 1999, and can’t find any information anywhere about these bottles. Quite a find, it seems. Both aged for 10 years – #606 matured in a Spanish oak ex-Oloroso sherry cask, #615 in a virgin American white oak cask – they look promising, a chance to find out what younger Mars single casks tasted like.

The enthusiasm quickly spreads and, before long, half a dozen mutual friends have caught wind of the find, and ask if there is a way to get a share of the liquid. The enthusiasm is short-lived, however. Both bottles are utterly disappointing: the #606 irremediably flawed, wrecked by sulphur and other off-notes; the #615 suffering badly from being diluted to 43%, any charm that may have been there totally drowned. As I am writing this, a friend has poured his share of the #606 in his breadmaker. Here’s hoping it works better in dough than in a glass.

Obviously, it would be a logical fallacy to use these two particular bottlings as explanations for the lack of ‘old’ Japanese bottlings at bars in Japan. Truth be told, I could have used a dozen other examples (from other distilleries/producers) by scanning the camera roll from the past few months on my iPhone. As a Japanese whisky fan, one can’t help clinging to the promise of a truly stellar old bottle gathering dust somewhere in a bar or small liquor shop, waiting to be discovered and catapulted to whisky stardom by aficionados. Until such time, specimens occasionally found left and right go some way to explaining the absence of old Japanese bottles at specialist whisky bars in Japan.

Friday, February 6, 2015

11 Samurai: SMWS Japanese Releases Launch Event

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

At the end of November 2014, we were thrilled to announce the imminent release of 10 new Japanese SMWS single casks. In the meantime, some of these have been available from Society chapters around the world. Fans back home have had to wait a little longer for these bottles to be shipped back and made available in Japan, but the wait is almost over. The “11 Samurai” have made their way back and to celebrate the occasion, the good folk at the SMWS in Japan are organizing a special event.
You read that right: 11, not 10, Samurai! In addition to the 10 releases previously detailed here, there is an 11th one. And what a stunner this promises to be: 116.19 (Yoichi), “Tobacconist by a sweetie shop”, 20yo, virgin oak puncheon. This release, as well as the 119.14 (Yamazaki) will be available to members in Japan from February 25th (noon) – with the 119.14 being limited to one bottle per member. The remaining nine will go on sale on March 10th (noon), and – to give as many members as possible a chance to get their hands on a bottle –  people will only be able to buy 1 bottle from these 9 releases (until March 13th). This should also make it next to impossible for speculators to instantly flip these highly sought-after bottles on the secondary market.
Back to the event, now. This will be held at the lounge of the Park Hotel in Tokyo on Friday, March 6th from 19:30 to 21:30. All 11 Japanese releases will be available for tasting (making this the perfect platform to figure out which one to try and buy a few days later), and the people at the Society here are planning to bring around 100 other recent bottlings. Shinji Fukuyo and Sakuma Tadashi – chief blenders at Suntory and Nikka, respectively – will be there to offer some comments on the bottlings from their respective stables. The event is limited to 120 people; participation cost is 5,000 yen for members and 6,000 yen for non-members. This will not be nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) style, however. Instead, people attending will receive a welcome drink and 20 vouchers that they can exchange (at varying rates, from 1 to 8) against drams that tickle their fancy. (Extra vouchers will be available for purchase at the venue on the day.) Interested parties can sign up for the event here.

It’s probably best not to wait too long. There is no doubt the “11 Samurai” launch event will be one of the highlights of the year for Japanese whisky fans. Nonjatta will be there, and we’ll report back… after we’ve recovered from all the marvels at the event.