Friday, February 27, 2009

Japanese heats of the 2009 World Whisky Awards

Is Nikka`s Miyagikyou distillery on the rise?

Last year saw a Japanese single malt and a Japanese blended whisky sweeping all before them at the World Whisky Awards in Glasgow so it was with some anticipation that we learned of this year's raiding party at Whisky Magazine Live Tokyo.

The most striking thing about the 2009 heat winners is the prominence of Nikka's Miyagikyou distillery (see below). Miyagikyou has often been overshadowed by its elder brother at Yoichi in these sorts of awards, so its success here has gladdened some hearts in Sendai. "Naturally there is some friendly rivalry with Yoichi," Minoru Miake, manager of the production section at Miyagikyou, admitted. "Yoichi has done so brilliantly in these competitions. We are proud that we will be well represented at the awards."

The full list of the Japanese World Whisky Award heats, 2009:

Best Single Malt (no age statement): Nikka Miyagikyou
Best Single Malt (12 yrs and under): Nikka Miyagikyou 12 yo
Best Single Malt (13-20 yrs): Suntory The Cask of Yamazaki 1993 (Heavily Peated)
Best Single Malt (21 yrs and over): Suntory Hakushu Single Malt 25 yo
Best Blended Whisky (no age): Nikka Whisky ‘From-the-barrel’
Best Blended Whisky (13-20 yrs): Suntory Hibiki 17 years old (yo)
Best Blended Whisky (21 yrs and over): Suntory Hibiki 21yo
Best Blended Malt (no age): Ichiro’s Malt ‘Double Distilleries’
Best Blended Malt (with age statement): Nikka Taketsuru 21yo Pure Malt
Best Grain Whisky: Suntory Single Grain Whisky “Chita”

These whiskies will now go through to a tasting in London this weekend, prior to Whisky Magazine Live! London on February 27th/28th. The winners of that round will be considered for the global prizes, to be announced at the World Whiskies Conference in London on April 21st.

There was a special overall prize announced on Sunday for the best Japanese whisky across all categories. It went to the Hibiki 21 yo. There is no analogue for that category in the global awards, so the Hibiki will go through to round 2 as the winner of its sub-category (Best Blended Whisky 21 years and over).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Whisky Live and The Punk Piper

I had forgotten how big Whisky Live Tokyo actually is: thousands of visitors and far more whisky than one man could drink. There were a few fellows who looked as though they had tried, though.

For me, the star of the event was the Yamazaki 1984, which Taylor Smisson and Davin de Kergommeaux both insisted I had to try. Boy, was I glad they did! I will post my comments on that beauty separately.

The other show stealer was "The Punk Piper", aka. Tomohiro Onuki (I have his details if anyone wants to book him), who put on a rousing set with didgeridooist Hashimo Kikimaru and drummer Konishi Hiroto. The entertainment at Whisky Live Tokyo always seems to pull something special out of the bag. Last year it was a whisky themed Noh play! This is part of the reason why Whisky Live Tokyo is much more than just a free booze session. I didn`t get to any of the excellent seminars this year but I heard lots of gossip among the 4,000-odd people milling around the main hall. For instance, the distinct possibility of a proper supply of Japanese single malts to the terribly neglected US market! I will keep you updated if that is firmed up.

A note of caution (March 7, 2009) : Checked out the US distribution rumour with the US end of the deal that was whispered to me. They flat out denied it. Some day, someone is going to pick this ball up and run with it! But perhaps not as soon as I had hoped.

Drummer (Konishi Hiroto) and "The Punk Piper" (Tomohiro Onuki)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Super Nikka "Genshu"

"Super Nikka" is one of Nikka's main blended whisky brands and has been around since 1962, which was just when Japan's great post-war whisky boom was getting its fuse lit.

This is a pure malt (sometimes called "vatted malt") as opposed to the normal blended "Super Nikkas" . It is subtitled "Genshu", which is a term in common and tightly defined use in the sake world. "Genshu" is sake which has not been diluted after the fermentation process. It has a similar meaning to "cask strength" in whisky parlance. I don't know whether the usage of "genshu" here is as tightly defined as would be if it was used on sake, but 55.5 per cent alcohol is fairly strong.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Super Nikka Whisky (55.5%, OB, pure malt, +/-2007)
Colour: Deep gold.
Nose: More power, more oak, more vanilla and more grassy notes than in its ‘colleagues’, but that may come from the higher strength. More Bourbon-ish for sure and a tad plankish, but I’m sure water will help mucho. With water: ah yes, this one swims like a champ. More phenols, whiffs of hashish, camphor and tiger balm… And then it gets very dry and grassy, in a pleasant way. Very good spiciness (nutmeg). Mouth (neat): Good stuff but both the alcohol and the oak sort of block any other flavours that may, or may not be there. A little viscous. With water: once again, that worked, even if it does get a little ‘regular’ in style this time. Good oak, good vanilla, good green bananas and good hints of coconut liqueur (no brands!) It’s only after a good ten minutes that it starts to develop more towards ‘funny’ herbal notes. Sorrel? ;-)
Finish: Long, ‘modern’, ‘normal’. Sweet vanilla and soft tannins.
Comments: An interesting whisky that goes through unusual notes but ends up being rather, err, ‘regular’. That is to say ‘modern’. Oh well, I’m sure you see what I mean.
SGP:551 – 84 points.
" (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Taketsuru 21 year old

Update 2010: Won "World's Best Blended Malt Whisky" at the 2010 World Whisky Awards.
Update: This one won the 2009 International Spirits Challenge whisky trophy and the "World's best blended malt" prize at the 2009 World Whisky Awards.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Taketsuru 21 yo (43%, OB, Pure Malt, +/-2007)
Colour: Gold.
Nose: We’re in the same family as the Pure Malt Red and the Taketsuru 12, but this is obviously more complex and, I must say, quite superb. Once again, we’re in Balvenie territories, with very round notes of quince pie, orange blossom water and apricot jam, the whole then getting even ‘jammier’, with notes of dried longans, figs, dates and a lot of acacia honey. Buttercream, hot brioche. Very round, very soft and very luscious. Reminds me of a Pinot Gris Vendanges Tardives from a good maker. Mouth: Once again, this is very creamy, sweet, rounded and fruity but never ‘lumpish’. Notes of mango pie, Mirabelle jam, Earl Grey tea, bitter oranges marmalade… And then a rather superb spiciness, very mellow but firm. Excellent backbone.
Finish: Longer than the Taketsuru 12 and Red; less sweet, spicier and even a tad peaty/peppery.
Comments: Very excellent, maybe one of the best vatted malts I have had. Masterfully composed. SGP:642 - 90 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Price (February 2009): about 10,000 yen for 700 ml.

Pure Malt Red, Product of Nikka

This is one of three pure malts marketed by Nikka under one word colour titles - Red, Black and White. The "Red" is mainly based on whisky from Miyagikyou distillery. The "Black" is mainly based on whisky from Yoichi and the "White" is founded on whisky from Islay in Scotland. Since these are designated "pure malts", I believe they have more than one distillery`s whisky in them (that is the normal reason for using that term as apposed to "single malt" from one distillery) and I think "Red" has some Scottish whisky in it. This is what they call a "haafu" over here, like my son.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

Nikka Pure malt 'Red' (43%, OB, +/-2002)
Colour: Gold.
Nose: There’s more peat than in the Taketsuru 12, but we wouldn’t say this is peaty whisky. Rather grassy but not too much, malty but not too much, fruity (oranges, marmalade, quinces) but not too much… We’re getting closer to the Taketsuru after a while, with delicate floral notes (yellow flowers) but… Not too much. Keyword: balance.
Mouth: Once again, this is bigger whisky than the Taketsuru, but also less smooth and less immediately drinkable. The attack is rather punchy, all on cooked fruits and cornflakes, but it drops a bit after that. Mead and something perfumy. Baklavas? Then gets quite dry.
Finish: Medium-long, maltier and more caramelly, and then maybe a tad soapy in the aftertaste. Again, a little salt.
Comments: Good balance but I think I liked both the ‘Black’ and the ‘White’ versions better. This ‘Red’ lacks oomph on the palate, in my opinion, but it’s still good, flawless malt whisky. SGP:432 – 78 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

For further information about the colour pure malt range, refer to Nikka`s Japanese language page here.

Price (Feb 2009): About 2,000 yen for 500 ml bottle.

Taketsuru 12

At last I can bump down my intemperate review of Taketsuru 12 with the impressions of someone who really knows their whisky inside out. I have always been uncomfortable with my write up of this Nikka pure malt (appended below Serge's review), which I wrote within the first few months of starting this site and in the midst of my first forays into Japanese whisky. It is a bit over the top, I feel. However, the fact remains that I did not really go for the stuff and so have never bought another bottle, making it impossible to nuance my coverage. As usual, Serge has come to the rescue.

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

Nikka Taketsuru 12 yo (40%, OB, pure malt, +/-2008)
A pure malt named in honour of Nikka's founder. I already tried the 17 (80) and the 21, that I liked quite a lot (85 points, see below).
Colour: Gold.
Nose: This is very floral and fruity and really reminds me of the Balvenie 10yo. Apple pie, plum jam, dandelions, nectar, vanilla crème and cappuccino. Very good presence and a very clean profile, with very soft tannins in the background.
Mouth: Very, very sweet attack on, well, sweetened apple juice and nutmeg, with more malty notes and cereals after that. Gets then more on roasted nuts and butterscotch, with an amusing salty touch. Not really big nor complex but highly sippable.
Finish: Medium-long, all on vanilla cookies and apple pie topped with a few grains of salt.
Comments: Warning, this is good and highly drinkable. Remember, no refills! SGP:621 – 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

My old review dating from July 4 2007 (remember take notice of this at your own peril):
The first and last impression is of licking a fat covered frying pan. Some of the older Taketsuru pure malts have got good reviews, so I will reserve judgement on the whole line. The 12-year-old had caramel and toffee on the nose. It was very buttery when it first hit the mouth. Fatty. There was a continuation of the buttery flavour - a rounded mellow creaminess with a taste of burnt orange developing - that some people might love. There was a hint of soap and aniseed at a rather uninspiring finish. If you want to buy a pure malt in this price range, I personally would go for Suntory's Hokuto.

Abv 40 per cent
Price (April 2007)
660 ml - 2,566 yen
180 ml - 890 yen