Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shop info: Shinanoya, Roppongi

Update 6.5.2011: Please see the comments. This branch may have moved.

A word in your shell like ... the Shinanoya store in Roppongi had a few bottles of Plum Liqueur Cask Finish when I looked in there last week. I had heard it was supposed to be distributed only to bars. Perhaps that was just the initial release? Anyway, the price is just short of 10,000 yen. Personally, I think it is a steal but I can't afford it.

The store has a limited but quite interesting Japanese whisky selection. The Shinanoya stores in general are worth popping into if you are looking for the good stuff. Here is a map of their locations. This is the page for the Roppongi store. Here is the Shinanoya website and here is their Rakuten online shop.

I have put the Roppongi store on my map of whisky outlets in Japan and will try to add the others when I have a moment.

Address in Japanese
TEL:03-6439-4708 FAX:03-6439-4707

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another world beater?

On a visit to the Nikka Blender's Bar last week, I was given a sneak preview of the Yoichi 1988, which will be officially released the day after tomorrow (not a pretaste, I hasten to add, before readers start battering me for impressions.)

The 1988 is the successor to the World`s Best Whisky award winning Yoichi 1987, so demand is sure to be hotter than a plastic car seat in August. As with all the others in this series, which is always released at this time of the year, it is a 20-year-old whisky (the age people are considered to come of age in Japan and, perhaps more relevantly, the drinking age).

It is composed of five different types of malt whiskies distilled at Yoichi and combined under the supervision of the newly installed and increasingly renowned Nikka Chief Blender, Tetsuji Hisamitsu. New cask, refilled cask, Bourbon barrel and sherry butt matured whiskies have been used. Alcohol content is 55 per cent.

Nikka describes its smell as having a honeyed richness, with blackcurrant, apricot, plum and pear notes and a strong peaty bassline. The taste is described as having a matured richness, with a burly peaty "bitter" character complicated by seaside flavours. The peatiness is still there at the finish with the sweet dried fruits flavours detected on the nose now emerging. Sounds a treat!

There will only be 3,500 bottles available, with the majority destined for the domestic market. Alexandre Vingtier of Nikka`s European agent La Maison du Whisky, says he hopes to get at least 200 bottles for Europe. Just to get a measure of the the success of this series, the 3,500 figure is 1,500 more than last year`s initial offering which was in turn four times more than the first release of the 1986 version.

It is being sold here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Nowhere else do people know, or think they know, so much about whisky"

The Växjö Malt Whisky Society tasting

Hasse Nilsson, chairman of the Växjö Malt Whisky Society, agreed to contribute an account of a very well attended tasting hosted by his club on November 11. I found it a fascinating read. Not only does he give us some bang up-to-date impressions of the "Newborn" bottlings from the Chichibu distillery but he also offers some interesting insights into the thriving whisky scene in Sweden. The observations about Sweden`s likely status as the world`s most knowledgeable whisky drinking population are, by the way, entirely backed up by my own site`s visitor stats.

By Hasse Nilsson

In an odd way, Sweden is one of the world`s leading whisky nations. I am not thinking of Mackmyra or the handful of other Swedish distilleries, but of the extent of interest in whisky in the country. Nowhere else is this interest so widely spread. Nowhere else do people know, or think they know, so much about whisky. When Ichiro Akuto recently visited Sweden to lead a tasting in the small town of Växjö, about 200 people joined the flight.

Sweden is a country of whisky clubs. There are more than 1,000 clubs, from frozen enthusiasts in the far North to Malmö`s fans in the balmy South. One of the most active clubs is the Växjö Malt Whisky Society. We arrange tastings at least once a month and the 200 members are really devoted whisky buffs (or nerds, as we like to refer to themselves).

When we heard that Ichiro Akuto was in Oslo at the whisky festival there, we asked the Swedish agent if they could take a day to do a session in Växjö. We knew that our members were really into Japanese whiskies. We always taste our drams blind and, when we've had Japanese malts in the line up, there have often been plenty of arms up in the air voting for the Japanese dram. Almost all of the 200 members came to listen to Ichiro Akuto and to seize the opportunity to try some new "Card" bottlings. Of course, there was also the major draw of the newborns from Chichibu.

I don't know if there's been a bigger Japanese tasting anywhere in the world. Ther probably has but definitely not in Sweden. We are proud to have been the hosts.

Ichiro Akuto guided the audience through the tasting and talked about the history of his distilleries, as well as the art involved in making Hanyu and Chichibu whiskies. Marcin Miller from Number One Drinks Company [1] also took a leading role. The tasting session started with Chichibu Newborn, a quite extraordinary dram, so rich and so soft at such a young age! What will the future bring? Next in line were the last bottles in Europe of the Mizunara Wood, a vatting from a number of Japanese distilleries. Finally, the cards where dealt: the Five of Hearts, the Eight of Spades, the Jack of Diamonds and the Queen of Clubs.

All of them were very interesting. Especially the newborn. To me, the Eight of Diamonds was too extreme and overly cherried, but my tasting neighbors loved it. The Jack and Queen face cards were of outstanding quality. I would judge them both 90+ whiskies. Both of these whiskies achieved the top prices at the auction afterwards.

Ichiro Akuto (right) addresses the society and Växjö's map location

The images of the meeting were taken by Roger Melander
. The map is taken from NordNordWest's contribution to Wikipedia and is subject to this Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What does Japanese Oak do to whisky?

I am always being asked whether Japanese whisky has any defining characteristics that set it apart from its very close relative, Scotch whisky. I am usually sceptical of efforts to draw stark distinctions because the Japanese distillers are so loyal to the Scotch whisky making tradition that they have been imbibing since 1923. There have been some recent developments that suggest greater freedom in the future and there are some drinking customs, such as the Japanese habit of eating while drinking and mixing whisky in mizuwaris and oyuwaris, that undoubtedly influence some sectors of the Japanese whisky market. Overall, though, Japanese whisky is firmly within the Scottish tradition and it is not possible to reliably distinguish Scottish and Japanese drams by taste.

However, one major difference that is already well established is the widespread use of Mizunara (Japanese Oak) barrels for maturing whisky by many of the major Japanese distillers. This is by no means a universal practice but it is an additional option not presently available to the Scottish.

Do Mizunara barrels give a distintive flavour to their whisky? Most people agree they do. This special taste/aroma has been variously described as evoking "sandalwood", a type of oriental incence called "kara" etc.. However, more recently, scientific research has focused on a distinctive coconut aroma associated with Mizunara barrels. A paper delivered by Yushi Noguchi at the Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference 2008 in September tried to pin down this characteristic and makes fascinating reading.

The researchers, supported by Suntory, The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, asked a panel of testers to score how much coconut smell they detected in two types of whisky: one matured in Mizunara and the other matured in White Oak barrels.

As you can see, the Mizunara matured whisky appears to have had a much more definite coconut aroma.

But why? Whisky lactone (3-methyl-4-octanolide) has long been known to have definite coconut aromas. It is found in all types of oak. The researchers then tested three types of whisky for lactone content.

The Mizunara matured whisky had slightly more lactones (parts per million) than the European and White Oak matured versions, but the surprising thing about the research was the preponderance of "trans-oak" lactones in the Mizunara whisky. This was surprising because "cis-oak" lactones are thought to have much stronger smell than "trans-oak" lactones. About 10 times stronger smell, in fact!

The researchers therefore went back to their panel of testers with one more experiment. They 1ppm cis-oak lactone in 20 per cent ethanol solution and compared it with a similarly prepared trans-oak lactone. They also did the same comparison in whisky rather than the ethanol solution. The conclusion was that, though the trans-oak lactones do have a weaker smell, their smell works better with the whisky's own aromas/tastes and this creates the impression of a stronger coconut presence.

The graphs and report are from Suntory Information Release No. 10235. The graphs are the property of the researchers and their supporting institutions. My translations into English are provided for readers' information and are not sanctioned by the researchers. The photograph of the mizunara tree was taken by autan and is subject to this Creative Commons license. The original tip-off about the Suntory report of the research came from Katotomo`s brilliant website .