Thursday, March 19, 2009
Proof of concept: whisky/shochu blends
One of the dirty secrets of the Japanese whisky industry is that for many years some companies put non-whisky alcohols into their whisky blends. I am sure there are a few rogue operations still out there (discussion of ji-whisky at the end of this post) but the big players, such as Nikka and Suntory, are now extremely committed to keeping in line with the Scottish conventions.*
This is why I think it will take a while for one of the big players to do what I just did in my kitchen: blending malt whisky and shochu. The idea occurred to me after reading a load of articles from the Scotsman newspaper (c. 1800-1900). I have been going back to the source material because there is such a lot of romantic claptrap talked about the development of whisky in the home countries.
One thing that came across to me from the debates about blended whisky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United Kingdom was that they were often not at all precious about what exactly constituted the grain component of the whisky. According to one side of the debate, all of the grain was a foreign substance.
So, why not go for something completely foreign? Inspired by Serge Valentin's blending, by my knowledge of Japanese whisky dim and dusky past, and by my research into shochu and awamori for my book, I decided to do a "proof of concept" with the ultimate easy drinking blend: 4 parts Miyagikyou no age statement whisky (mainly made up of 5-8 year old whiskies) and one part Iichiko, which is a very popular barley "honkaku shochu".
"Honkaku shochus" are not continuously distilled in column stills like grain whisky but are made in pot stills like malt whiskies. My rather shallow thought process was that, although there are very significant differences in the processes of making shochu and whisky, the Iichiko is, as a pot distilled and barley based spirit, less "foreign" than the grain whiskies the malt whisky is habitually married with.
Iichiko is known as "Shitamachi no Napoleon" over here, which roughly translates as "Cockney's Cognac". It became very popular in the 1980s and is still prominent on supermarket shelves. As the nickname makes clear, Iichiko is nowhere near the premium end of the honkaku shochu market, retailing for about 900 yen a bottle compared to a still very reasonable c.1,800 yen for the Miyagkyou (no age statement). It is a very smooth drink. Indeed, it is soft to a fault and makes the already extremely easy going Miyagikyou very light indeed (and under strength. See the note below).
Let`s be honest, a Miyagikyou/Iichiko combination is a bit of a half-assed sort of a blend but I think I will be able to take this experiment a lot further. It at least proved to me that there is nothing in the nature of whiskies and shochus to preclude such mixtures. But what about a bit more oomph in the malt? And a lot more power in the shochu? We could leave the barley shochu shores and stick in a shlick of lengthily aged rice-based awamori? Or a heavily peated malt with a drop of stinking potato shochu. Nice! Or maybe not?
*There is at least one difference. The Japanese companies still bottle their cheapest whiskies (such as Torys and Nikka Black) at below 40 per cent alcohol, which any Scot would tell you is not a whisky. The Japanese tax laws still seem to protect the shochu market by taxing higher alcohol distilled drinks at a higher rate. This does nobody any favours, not least of all the quality shochu makers, but this anachronism will take a while to be reformed.