Sunday, December 30, 2007

Golden Horse Chichibu 8 years

I find it interesting that my impressions of this whisky should be so different from Daniel Mick's (below). There can be no mistake, we were definitely drinking the same liquid because he was kind enough to send me a sample bottle.

Whereas Daniel found it harsh and gritty, I was struck by its lightness of touch. I suppose the most important thing is we both liked it in our different ways. For me, it smelled of the inside of an empty (week old) milk carton with fairly unobtrusive perfumed soap and guacamole. The taste was light and rounded, dominated by sweet caramel but with hints of aniseed and a subtle smokiness developing.

This was a comfy drink, a description that is not intended to damn with faint praise. What do we buy this stuff for? We're not climbing Everest. We are supposed to be enjoying it.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Daniel

Score: 91. (He has his own scoring system, which is explained on his bio page.)
"General Comments: I was expecting a safe attempt at a woody Speyside, an offering to round out their lineup, put out quickly at 8 years. Heck, it comes in a screw top wine bottle! But this is some fantabulous whisky. And at 3500yen, it’s a steal.
Appearance/Colour: amber (0.7 using the Whisky Magazine color bar).
: Fetid marsh on opening. Vegetative. Hot sand and linen. Shoe polish. Red pencil eraser. Peat reek after diluting.
Palate: Biting and industrial. Electric cable. Diesel. Kelp and seaweed.
Finish: Long and complex. Back to the vegetative. Heavy malt and smoke. Leather. Cigar boxes. Hints of seashells and tobacco. Vinyl at the finish. I want to dive back in for the next.
: This would be a fantastic Islay expression. Harsh and gritty and kind of wonderful."

Reviews by othersMichael Jackson, Whisky Magazine, 26,16/10/2002. 7.5/10. Jackson found it elegant. He said it had a "sweet, vegetal" nose, a silky, scenty, "pistachio ice cream" palate.
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, 26,16/10/2002. 6.75/10. Broom was slightly less impressed. He said the whisky was torn between "firm wood" flavours and a light crispness. The nose had bran flakes, nuts and sour cream. The palate started cleanly but developed unimpressively.

Description from the company selling itThis description is quoted on the Toa website, quoting "whisky connoisseur John Raymond". "Nose: Quite dark & nutty, medium-bodied and dry with hints of toffee & honey, unctuously smooth. Palate: Dry, quite big-bodied, dark & nutty with quite solid tannins and a good green peatiness. Finish: Quite long and tangy with a big belt of smoke on the tail. Sweetness: 4, Peatiness: 7."

43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 3,500 yen

Monday, December 17, 2007

How to make an oyuwari

The oyuwari is the third part of the Japanese diluted whisky trinity. The other two are the mizuwari, with which we had such fun in warmer months, and "on za roku", which I think you all know how to make (just say it out).The famous naturalist poet Bokusui Wakayama (1885-1928) wrote a short tanka poem about a whisky oyuwari. I won't try to render it into an English poetic form, but an almost literal translation would go something like this:
"Pouring the hot water into whisky,
The fragrance suddenly rises
In the light of a cold white morning."

Oyuwaris and mizuwaris come directly from shochu drinking culture.
"Mizuwari" means "mixed with cold water" and "oyuwari" means "mixed with hot water". As the names suggest, both are exceedingly simple drinks to make. I've seen various whisky oyuwari recipes, ranging from Suntory's 1:3 whisky and hot water ratio to the 3:2 split more usual with shochu, but, as always with these things, it comes down to taste. This is how I make my, slightly stronger than the norm, whisky oyuwari:

Put two parts of freshly boiled water in a cold glass (the ideal temperature is supposed to be 80-85 degrees, which could be roughly achieved by warming the glass in this way and then transferring to a second cold vessel before returning to the glass. I find that method gets luke warm too soon and prefer a hotter starting point.)
Add one part of whisky.
I'll be honest. I didn't expect to like my whisky oyuwari. I expected it to be a poor substitute for a toddy but, in fact, it went down very well. It preserves more of the whisky flavour than a toddy. Perhaps I'll do an Oyuwari Death Match for the winter months, leaving the Mizuwari Death Match for warmer days?

In case you want to search for oyuwari in Japanese: お湯割 (oyuwari), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Karuizawa 1981 Vintage

Gold medalist and the overall winner of the Japanese category at the Malt Maniacs Awards 2007. A classy whisky. But then what do you expect from a town where the current Japanese Emperor met his lady?

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Karuizawa 'Vintage' 1981/2007 (58.1%, OB, cask #103)
This one was selected by Marcin at Number One Drinks Company and it did extremely well at the Malt Maniacs Awards.
Colour: Amber.
Nose: Truly powerful, starting on an immense, but truly enjoyable woodiness. Big varnishy notes, almonds and marzipan, green tea and hints of horseradish (or wasabi – Japanese indeed). Then it's the wilderness that speaks out, with notes of humus, moss, pine needles, roots, wet dead leaves... And finally a big mint and a big eucalyptus. Oh, and our beloved dried mushrooms. It's not really subtle whisky but the boldness and compactness are very, very enjoyable. With water: now it's fully on
dried mushrooms (boletus and those huge black Chinese ones) and Havana tobacco. Hyper-concentrated.
Mouth (neat): Huge, fat, punchy, heavily concentrated. 'Good' oak infusion, walnut skin, curry, mustard and bread crust. Goes on with cough syrup and green bananas. It's amazing that all this oakiness remains good – I mean, excellent.
With water: it's the spices that really go out now. Pepper first, then cloves and cinnamon, then nutmeg... How big this is!
Very long – more of the same. One of the most muscular whiskies I had these months, no doubt. SGP:586 - 91 points." (Serge`s 100 point scoring system is explained on this page and the more precise SGP is explained here)

58.1 per cent (abv)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Japanese whisky and war (I)

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

"The last moments of Admiral Yamaguchi" by Kita Renzo
Whisky has become part of Japanese culture, just as it has been imported and then incorporated into American and English culture. It has stood for many things through its more than century long dalliance with the country, transforming itself from a profoundly alien and exotic import in the early years of Japan's modernisation to a sophisticated symbol of an internationalist new order in the whisky boom that coincided with Japan's extraordinary growth from the 1960s onwards.

I am not sure if has quite found its new meaning in 21st century Japan. Will it be a slightly fusty throwback to the boom years, or a cheap monstrously plastic-bottled reminder of the recession of the 90s and early naughties, or a highly differentiated product for a well informed new generation? Maybe it will be all these things. There is one part of Japanese whisky's cultural history that is missing from the story, however. It is not usually explored very deeply, for understandable reasons: the link with WWII militarism.

A Japanese naval officer's whisky glass from the 1930/40s

The Imperial Japanese armed forces drank whisky in massive quantities in the 1930s and 40s. In the Imperial Navy, it had a place similar to that of rum in the British Navy. As conflict removed any possibility of importing the drink, Japanese whisky producers were tasked with slaking this thirst. They were given military supplier status and therefore priority access to fuel, barley and other necessities. Indeed, the Yoichi distillery was designated by the Imperial Navy as a naval installation. I don't know to what extent the distilleries were used for other purposes such as fuel alcohol production, but whisky was produced and it is fair to say that whisky and the armed forces were pretty much synonymous in this period.

This observation is not intended as a slight to Japanese whisky companies. Almost all businesses that survived World War II, on either side of the conflict, were in some way bound up with total war. I was talking with the whisky writer Dave Broom last night about this and he observed that Scottish distilleries were harnessed to the British war effort.

So why am I bringing it up? Simply because the Japanese whisky industry would probably not exist on the same scale as it does now without its military link. To understand the significance of getting "priority access to fuel, barley and other necessities", you need to know that in the latter part of WWII Japanese people were eating weeds. There is no way a luxury item like whisky would have been permitted to keep going without its military patronage.

The second largest producer, Nikka, was in a particularly vulnerable situation as the drums of war began beating. Their Yoichi plant had only started distilling in the mid 1930s and, almost immediately, Japan got itself embroiled in war. Whisky enterprises are always vulnerable in their first few years, as they seek to establish markets and age their product. Take a look at these profit and loss figures for Nikka:

1934 8,970 yen loss
1935 51,305 yen loss
1936 37,138 yen loss
1937 58,500 yen loss
1938 19,694 yen loss
1939 198, 514 yen profit after tax
1940 66,662 yen profit after tax
1941 63,744 yen profit after tax
1942 43,541 yen profit after tax
1943 67,905 yen profit after tax
1944 78,072 yen profit after tax
1945 103,106 yen profit after tax

The Pacific War with the Allies started in 1941 but Japan's war really began in 1937, when fighting started in earnest with China. What would have happened to Nikka if the Japanese military had been drinking shochu or schnapps? We are in the realms of alternative history here. No war at all, of course, and Taketsuru's company might have experienced sales like those in 1950, when they made 10,000,000 yen after tax, but, all else being equal, we can hazard that Nikka's total sales would not have quadrupled in value between 1940 and 1945 without all those officers' toasts. I don't have the figures for Suntory but their main Kakubin brand was also initially founded on military demand, which of course makes it particularly fitting that a Taiwanese company is copying it with a brand called War.

1943 Suntory label
with naval markings

"Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi" comes from this website. Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi ordered the crew of the stricken Hiryu to abandon ship during the Battle of Midway but stayed on board with its captain Tomeo Kaku. Before their shipmates left them, there was a toast to the strength of the Japanese Navy (in this case in water, I believe) and then Yamaguchi is reported to have turned to Kaku and said: "There is such a beautiful moon tonight. Shall we watch it as we sink?"
The whisky glass, marked with pre-war Imperial Navy insignia, was recently auctioned. It is believed to date from the early Showa period and sold for about £100.
The Suntory label is from this website.
The statement that Yoichi was a naval installation is from Masataka Takesuru's autobiography "Whisky to Watashi" (1972) and the profit and loss figures are based on "Dai Nihon Kaju", Statement of Profit and Loss, 1934-88.
I used Olive Checkland's "Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend" as a source for this post, although she does not make this argument. Other material was from "The Rising Sun - The decline and fall of the Japanese Empire 1936 -1945" by John Toland (Penguin, 2001)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gongs galore!

The advance of Japan`s whisky continues. Its single malts have been winning awards. Lots of them. In fact, I have ignored quite a few of these honours recently just because I don`t want this blog to become a long list of prize winners, like the announcements at some agricultural show.

However, the Malt Maniacs Awards are special. For a start, they are a product of whisky`s thriving internet culture and they also bring together a genuinely multinational community behind their decisions. In this year`s awards, announced at the start of the month, Japanese whisky did exceedingly well.

The overall award went to a Laphroaig 27 year old, but, in the "Ultra Premium" awards, Nikka Yoichi 18 yo 1987/2006 (55,2%, SMWS C#116.9) snatched the "Supreme Warped Cask Award" (Best whisky matured or finished in 'special' casks). The Japanese must be pretty warped because they took the same "Supreme Warped Cask Award" in the "Daily Drams" divisionn: Hanyu 1988/2007 (55.6%, Number One Drinks Company, Cask #9501, finished in Japanese oak). However, the Yamazaki 15 yo (56%, OB, Bottled +/- 2007, 600ml) won the "Gentle Giant Award" in the same division (best unpeated, unsherried and unfinished whisky), proving that the Japanese are not just cask finish geeks.

The overall top Japanese whisky for 2007 was the Karuizawa 'Vintage' 1981/2007 (58.1%, OB, C#103). The Silver and Bronze medal sections were stacked full of Japanese whiskies which, in the interests of avoiding agricultural showishness, I will leave to the Maniacs page.