Monday, June 18, 2007

Dr. Whisky and the mizuwari challenge

This is exciting! It's like being in there at the start of Association Football: actually sitting there in the rooms of N.C. Malden when they wrote the first unified footy rules!

Dr Whisky, one of my favourite whisky bloggers, says he was amused enough by the Mizuwari Death Match Challenge to try Johnnie Walker Black in a mizuwari and quite liked it. But this is the bit that got me excited:
"After my recent discovery of just how tasty Johnnie Walker Black is on ice, I hope to be able to do this with the real bottom-end blends. Can you imagine High Commissioner VS The Claymore? I look forward to it..."

Bring it on, Dr Whisky! I look forward to reading the latest news from the Scottish cup. The Claymore sounds a formidable foe.

Mizuwari drinking as an international sport! Who would have dreamed it? And then, eventually, we can have an international cyber cup between the current Scottish champion and the Japanese mizuwari king (the judges simultaneously drinking their mizuwaris either side of the world). And we can have all kinds of nit-picking arguments about the international code, about what is and what is not a mizuwari. And then all we need is some Frenchman to name the trophy after and mizuwari-ing will have made the big time. Actually, a Frenchman springs to mind. How does the "Serge Valentin Trophy" sound? Not sure the inestimable Serge over at would dirty his hands with the cheap blends that must go into a mizuwari, but we can dream.

By the way, sorry about the photograph. Couldn't find any more relevant photos of Scotsmen winning the World Cup or even getting beyond the first round. The Japanese have done a bit better but no cups, unfortunately. Casting around desperately for other whisky nations: the Irish? Erm, better than the Scots and the Japanese but, alas, no trophies. The Americans? Canadians? Their cupboards are bare too! So, as an Englishman, I had to go for old Bobby, I'm afraid. Maybe whisky is bad for the footy brain?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Richard Paterson and the whisky manga

You learn something new every day. Yesterday, for example, I had no idea that Richard Paterson, master blender of Whyte and Mackay, was a manga hero.

He is a significant character in "Oishimbo #70", a manga (Japanese cartoon book) story about whisky. Oishimbo is a hugely popular series devoted to food and drink connoisseurship.

And I mean hugely popular: well over 100,000,000 copies of the nearly 100 book series have been sold (no, I have not typed too many zeros). Oishimbo has reached a still wider audience through serialisation in manga magazines, television anime, a feature film and even a computer game. Making a back of the envelope calculation just based on the book sales figure, more than a million copies featuring Paterson's manga alter ego are probably in circulation. How many whisky guides have ever sold in that kind of number?

To understand Oishimbo you really need to know that the manga books people sometimes tease middle aged Japanese salarymen for reading are often less like comics and more like text books. Oishimbo has made a kind of a crusade of informing its readers about a wide range of foods and drinks since it was first published in 1983 and has been credited with revolutionising attitudes to food labeling, organic produce, and just good eating in general. There is now a whole genre of food manga, mainly aimed at men (I don't know why it is a male genre), with entire series devoted to the minutiae of specific topics like curry or train station takeaway lunch boxes.

Anyway, "Oishimbo #70" is about whisky. It starts with one of the characters, a middle aged office worker who is bit of a berk, getting really depressed because Scotch blends that were once prohibitively expensive and highly prestigious (Johnnie Walker, Ballantine's, Chivas Regal, J and B) are now accessible to his younger subordinates. The hero Yamaoka and his friends embark on a 125 page exploration of why Scotch is not only distinguished by its price, featuring a foray into the legal definitions of whisky in Japan and Scotland, a quest to find a whisky that would work before a French meal, a visit to Scotland with tours of lots of distilleries, a detailed explanation of the whisky making process, an assault on Suntory's labeling of "pure malts" (I think it was first published in 1999 and Suntory have since mended their ways), a telling of the Masataka Taketsuru story and, at the climax, the appearance of the "Richard Paterson" character to teach the true whisky way.

Incidentally, at one stage there is a tasting in which the characters are asked to write down their impressions of eight whiskies. Some of them come off more glamorously than others:

Laphroaig 15: bare chested working men...

Whyte and Mackay 30: young sexy ladies...

Ballantine's 30: old ladies...

The photograph of Richard Paterson is reproduced, with permission, from the Loch Fyne Whiskies Scotch Whisky Review website. The poor quality of the manga imagery is down to my scanning machine.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Kagoshima is the distillery most often left off Japanese single malt lists. There is good reason for this. The last time whisky was produced here was in 1984, back when Yuri Andropov was running the USSR and Michel Platini was winning football medals.

Kagoshima now produces only shochu spirit, the original speciality of its parent company Hombo, but although the distiller has moved its whisky HQ to the main island at Shinshu they are still selling Kagoshima single malt whisky.

The idea of it somehow appeals to me. This outpost at the bottom of the southern island of Kyushu is by far the furthest south Japanese single malt making has ever got. All the other distilleries have been on the main island of Honshu or on the northern island of Hokkaido. It was a bit of a cheeky incursion: Kyushu is normally seen as the the impregnable stronghold of shochu.

Kagoshima is yet another example of a Japanese single malt whisky distillery in the shadow of an active volcano (see also Karuizawa and Fuji Gotemba). Kagoshima has been called the "Naples of the East" because of the huge stratovolcano, Sakurajima, towering above it. There are thousands of small eruptions every year and the city is still waiting for a repeat of the big blow of 1914. Incidentally, Kagoshima is also famous for being bombarded by the British navy in 1863, nine years before Hombo was founded.

Identifying Kagoshima single malt

As far as I know there is only one single malt still available out of Kagoshima. It is labeled "Triple Cask Malt Whisky Vintage Satsuma".

And in computer text, in case you want to search for Kagoshima on the Japanese internet: ヴィンテージ薩摩1984 (Vintage Satsuma 1984 ), 薩摩 (Satsuma) マルス (Mars) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The Distillery

The Kagoshima shochu distillery temporarily closed to visitors in 2007. I believe it will be reopened in 2008.

LocationView location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
3-27 Minami Hae
Kagoshima City
Telephone: 099-268-5279
Address in Japanese:

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fuji Gotemba

As iconic locations go, it is hard to beat a distillery hidden in forest at the foot of Mount Fuji. A note of caution though: you may not see the mountain if you visit. It is only a few miles away but the trees get in the way and, anyway, Fuji isn't one of those gals who just takes her clothes off for anyone. More often than not, she is shrouded in clouds. The photograph at the top is a publicity shot taken from the air.

Identifying Fuji Gotemba single malts
Fuji Gotemba single malt whisky is marketed under two names : Fuji Gotemba and Fujisanroku (the latter meaning "At the feet of Fuji").

At the moment, both brands are marketed as 18 year old malts (there is also a 15 year old single grain Fuji Gotemba). This can lead to confusion between the two but they are priced very differently: Fuji Sanroku 18 is 15,742 yen, while Fuji Gotemba 18 is 8,392 yen. How can the same distillery produce two such differently priced but similarly aged malts? The answer I was given on my visit was that Fuji Gotemba contains only 18 year old malt, while Sanroku also contains a 24 year old malt produced at Gotemba. (Malts are always aged by their youngest component.)
There is a non-single malt version of Fujisanroku, so make sure you look for "single malt" spelled out in Roman characters on the bottle. The non-single malt version has its alcohol content of 50 per cent displayed prominently. The label below shows Fujisanroku in Japanese characters:

The Gotemba labels seem to be spelled out in Roman characters on the bottles I have seen but would comprise of these characters if they appeared on a label:

This is the current Fuji Gotemba single malt bottle:

In addition to the main Fuji Gotemba and Fujisanroku single malt brands, there are 500ml bottles of 10-year-old single cask Gotemba whisky being sold at the distillery and through its online shop for 4,200 yen. There are several different styles. I have not seen this stuff being marketed more generally:

In case you want to search for these whiskies on the Japanese internet, here are their names in computer text: 富士御殿場 (Fuji Gotemba), 富士山麓 (Fujisanroku), シングルカスクウイスキー富士御殿場10年 (Single Cask Whisky Fuji Gotemba 10 years), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The distillery

At over 2,000 feet above sea level, Fuji Gotemba's elevation means it is cooler than the great Kanto plain stretching to its east. Down in the flatlands is it is extremely hot and humid in summer but the distillery's temperatures range only a few degrees higher than the Scottish distilleries.

Fuji Gotemba's water is originally rain and melted snow from the top of Mount Fuji. It is drawn up from streams running down between the relatively porous rock of "New Fuji", formed a mere 10,000 years ago, and the non porous "Old Fuji" base layer, which spewed out of the ground about 90,000 years before that.

The distillery was opened in 1973 by the Kirin conglomerate. A huge 1.7 million square feet facility, it includes a bottling plant as well as the distillery. It is just off a busy main road heading into Gotemba city.

Visiting Fuji Gotemba

Fuji Gotemba is open to the public between 9am and 3.30pm but is closed every Wednesday and over the New Year period. There is a warning on the Japanese website that they sometimes close on other days and asking people to telephone before their visit. When I visited there was a woman with reasonable English working on the reception, so this may not be too arduous for non-Japanese speakers. Parties of more than 10 people need to book ahead anyway.

There is a free tour which involves walking around a set course on your own, with views through glass of the various processes. There are posters explaining what is going on in each room and some translation into English. Kirin says this walking course takes 50 minutes. It took my wife, my two year old son and I 20 minutes, and that was with a lot of running after my over excited son up and down the corridors (in general, the distillery seemed quite child friendly. No disapproving glances). If you telephone ahead of your visit, I think you can book a guided tour. There is no single malt whisky being offered as part of the tour. The single malts are there but you have to pay: 500 yen for the Fuji Gotemba, and 1000 yen for the Fujisanroku.

Drink drivingKirin have flags declaring their opposition to drink driving all over the entrance to the distillery and have a highly effective way of stopping it. The designated driver has to wear a badge saying so throughout the tour. They are given a small miniature of blended whisky/Bourbon in lieu of their tasting and can drink fruit juices and water while their passengers sample the nectar of the Gods.

LocationView location on my Google map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D! Scroll to the bottom of the page for more on this.)
Address: Shibanuta 970,
Twenty minutes by taxi from JR Gotemba station.
Address in Japanese:
〒412-0003 静岡県御殿場市柴怒田970番地
The Fuji Gotemba website in Japanese
Online distillery shop in Japanese

Friday, June 8, 2007


Update 13.12.2010: Shinshu to reopen in February

Update 14.7.2010: Kawaida san at Hombo's head office has just confirmed to me that the company is refurbishing its stills and planned to start distillation again in 2011.

Update 12.2.2010: It seems Mars may be slipping into Japanese whisky history. One of the pot stills is dangerous and cannot be used, according to the people at the factory.

Although the Shinshu site is still producing alcohol, I don't believe it has produced whisky for up to a decade. Shinshu whisky is, however, still on the market. Hopefully, with all this fuss about Japanese whisky, someone will see the light and get those stills working again.

At an altitude of 2,600 feet above sea level, this was the highest distillery in Japan. Its neighbour Hakushu, which is itself well over twice as elevated as any Scottish distillery, is 400 feet lower. Sitting in Miyata village at the feet of the Kiso mountains, its water was taken from underground streams running off granite under the range. Granite is considered a good basis because this hard rock allows the rain and melt water to retain its natural softness, with a minimum of minerals being picked up.

Identifying Shinshu single malts
Vintage Komagatake 10 years (left) and Single Cask Komagatake 1986 (right):

And in computer text, in case you want to search for Shinshu on the Japanese internet: 駒ヶ岳 (Komagatake), 信州 (Shinshu), マルス (Mars) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The distillery

Shinshu is a multipurpose site. It is owned by Hombo Spirits, who are most famous for their Japanese shochu and plum wines. They also sell wine and brandy, sometimes using the same "Mars" brand that they use on much of their whisky and some of these operations are carried out at the Shinshu site. I believe that there is beer being brewed at Shinshu, although I don't know the connection between that Minami Shinshu brewing company and Hombo Spirits.

The Shinshu plant was opened in 1985. Its main brand of single malt is called "Komagatake" ("pony mountain"). If that name rings a bell, "Kai-komagatake" is the name of the mountain which the Suntory distillery Hakushu draws its water from. However, their are loads of pony mountains across Japan, and the "Komagatake" referred to here is a different peak in the Kiso mountains. Prior to 1985, Hombo's whisky operations had been at Kagoshima on the Southern Island of Kyushu, where it had originally begun its whisky line in 1953. The company is still selling a "Satsuma" single malt from that distillery. Incidentally, Hombo have their own version of the Masataka Taketsuru creation myth stressing the role of Kiichiro Iwai (岩井喜一郎), who had a role in sending Masataka to Scotland and received his report when he returned. Iwai helped set up Hombo's whisky operation, which was originally based at the Kagoshima distillery which, although its single malts are still on the market, now produces only shochu.
There has been no whisky distilling at Shinshu since 1992 but Kawaida san at Hombo's head office confirmed to me in July 2010 that the company was refurbishing its still room and planned to start distillation again in 2011 . There are two stills (one of which, according to Katatomo-san, was unsafe in early 2010). The whisky is matured in sherry, brandy and bourbon casks. Mogi says there were about 500 casks in the warehouse in 2008.

LocationView location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
The factory is open to the public between 9am to 4pm, although I am not sure whether there are guided tours. It may just be a static exhibit. It has a shop, a brewery pub, a herb garden and a restaurant.


4752-31 Miyata-mura ,
Nagano prefecture 399-4301
Tel: 0265 85 4633
Nearest JR station is Komagane.
Address in Japanese: 〒399-4301長野県上伊那郡宮田村4752番地31
Website in Japanese
Products page in Japanese

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

One Hundred Years of Solitude

A bit of a digression today. The wonderfully named "Hyakunen no Kodoku" ("One Hundred Years of Solitude") is not a whisky but a shochu. It is however a cousin of our whiskies.

Shochu is Japan's indigenous distilled spirit, made from all sorts of ingredients and not to be confused with sake. I don't want to weigh this site down with too much shochu talk so I have created a little side blog to give a few more technical details. Many shochus have no more in common with whisky than I do with the Pope, but there are shochus that are pretty close relatives. A lot closer in fact than the Indian molasses based "whiskies" about which The Scotch Blog has written incisively.

"Hyakunen no Kodoku" is a distilled spirit made from unmalted barley and using a barley koji. It is aged in wood barrels and, at 40 per cent alcohol, is comparable to whisky strength (many shochus are only about 25 per cent). It is clearly influenced by Japan's tradition of whisky making and many who have tasted it say it has a whiskyish taste. This is what it says on the label:

"Pure Barley Shochu Stored in Barrels of Wood
Hyakunen no Kodoku is a pure and exquisite shochu made by aging barley shochu in wood barrels over a long period of time.
The barley shochu which is aged in wood barrels is made by a 100-year-old traditional method handed down since the 18th year of Meiji. The shochu, which is made entirely by hand, together with only the choicest barley are distilled in a "one-off" process in pot stills. The resultant shochu is matured in wood barrels to produce a mellower and tastier shochu. This is really a masterpiece of shochu.
The amber color of Hyakunen no Kodoku come from long aging in wood barrels. Excess coloring is carefully filtered out without any loss in flavor to produce a completly natural, refreshing and clear amber color.
The exquisite taste of Hyakunen no Kodoko is best enjoyed straight, on the rocks, or mixed half and half with water."

From which we can conclude that it is chill filtered, or some such process. The actual age of the spirit is not made clear. It is certainly not 100 years old. That is the age of the shochu making method (actually, it is now 121 years old). I think the aging is a relatively new innovation. Labeling of such things in the shochu world is sometimes obscure.

Anyway, I am still saving up up my pennies to have my own taste (it costs 14,000 yen a bottle, about 70 pounds). I have to I admit I am sceptical of the whisky comparisons. I have heard them before and, in my very limited experience, barley shochu is quite different. It is a much more mellow and almost sakeish drink.

After a taste of solitude, I can move on a potato based shochu aged for ten years in sherry casks.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Flotsam and jetsam

After Ando Hiroshige`s ukiyoe print Whirlpool and Waves at Naruto (1855)

It seems these Japanese whisky bottles are bobbing all over the Pacific.

Following my shaggy dog story about the Suntory Old Whisky bottle in the Marshall Islands, I found another Pacific islander, Miss Laura, commenting on Island Life`s original photo:
"Hey! I have one of those Suntory bottles too! But I think mine is a more recent version... Sometimes they wash up on the beach over here along with lots of other junk. It must be very popular in Japan!"

Two Japanese whisky bottles in far flung parts might be dismissed as a coincidence, but in "Into a Desert Place: a 3000 mile walk around the coast of Baja California" Graham Mackintosh describes piles of flotsam washed up at Malarrimo:
"The scene was incredible. It was as if some terrible and destructive battle had taken place off the coast. The shore was littered with planks, buckets, tree trunks, helmets, hatch covers, bits and pieces of boats and planes and call kinds of military and medical equipment."

He finds everything from nerve gas antidote to a "missile with wires hanging from the back" and lots and lots of alcohol, but Mackintosh's beachcombing yarn reaches a climax after he finds a message in a bottle with a religious message and catches a fish:
"While searching for a campsite, I stubbed my toe against a bottle of very old, very excellent Japanese whisky. A reward for my faith! The mullet was delicious, the sunset and the stars seemed even more beautiful, and I was more than ever convinced that someone up there was watching over my little walk around Baja." (p.219)

And then there is Dean Littlepage's "Steller`s Island: Adventures of a pioneer naturalist in Alaska". The author describes an expedition to the remote Kayak Island off Alaska where he finds an amazing collection of flotsam on the shore:
"We spot colors not found in in nature - the fluorescent green of a plastic bottle, the baby-blue of a chunk of styrofoam - and a scattering of ship bumpers and buoys, sheets of plywood and insulation, and plastic laundry baskets. More exotic are a blue plastic case with red Korean characters, empty Japanese whiskey bottles and a striking red log with a delicious, musty scent lying back in the jumble of tree trunks on the storm berm. The log, a western red cedar, grows nowhere near here, the closest source is a good 500 miles to the South. Out toward the water, a computer monitor sits upright on the reef, the screen slightly scratched from its time in the surf but otherwise intact, as if you could sit down in front of it and log on." (p.34)

I don't know why so many people are happening on these Japanese whisky bottles. Perhaps they are just more charismatic than the boring old Bacardis and Bourbons. Or maybe Japanese drunks, tired of life, have a habit of hurling their empty whisky bottles on Japan's storm tossed Pacific shores. My own favourite theory is that Suntory has a secret high-tech installation up on Hokkaido pumping out these bottles to spread the word about their drink. Nice of them to send Mackintosh a full bottle, completely free.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Yoichi 15 - "congenial"

Fourteen reviewers on the website gave a 2006 bottling an average rating of 87/100 ("highly recommendable").
Serge Valentin, Whisky Fun, December 28, 2006. On a 2006 bottling. 87/100 ("highly recommendable"). Serge said it was very Japanese but "beautiful". He found the nose elegant. In the mouth it was "creamy but nervous", with a powerful smoky start and developing flavours of walnut liqueur, gingerbread, sugar and a touch of mint, cloves and ginger. It had a lengthy finish with a "faint cardboardiness, lots of spices, bitter chocolate, a little salt and various nuts."
Michael Jackson, Whisky Magazine, 13,16/12/2000. 8.5/10. Jackson preferred the peatier 10 year old to this c. 2000 bottling of Yoichi 15, which he described as having "lots of malt, chewy, creamy, oily."
Jim Murray, Whisky Magazine, 13,16/12/2000. 9.25/10. Murray went for the c. 2000 bottling in a big way: "sheer brilliance". He found vanilla predominated in the mouth, with a "fresh, fruity, mouth-watering quality. The finish was long and unctuous, with a little smoke.

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

45 per cent
Price (May 2007)
700 ml - 10,493 yen