Thursday, July 29, 2010


The Noh series, the brainchild of the Number One Drinks Company, has a wider significance than just offering some nicely packaged, tasty whiskies. It has, with one exception, featured single casks from Kirin Group's Karuizawa distillery in Nagano Prefecture. For years now, the news coming out of Karuizawa has been almost entirely negative. The last time I checked with the Kirin press office, they confirmed to me the distillery had been mothballed. The most recent official bottling was a 2007 12-year-old Karuizawa Wine Cask, to mark the 12th anniversary of the museum on the site of the distillery.

And yet, while Kirin appear to have left the distillery to slowly slip into oblivion, Europe has been all abuzz with Karuizawa. That is largely thanks to Number One Drinks. The Noh bottlings, which are only part of their Karuzawa offerings, have really added to the excitement. Here is a full list of the Noh series to date:
1. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 5004. 63 percent alcohol. 186 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask)
2. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 5007. 63 percent alcohol. 246 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask, exclusive to Taiwan)
3. Karuizawa 1977 (bottled 2008) Cask No. 7026. 62.8 percent alcohol. 528 bottles (exclusive to La Maison du Whisky)
4. Karuizawa 1995 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 5039. 59.4 percent alcohol. (reduced for Norway) 222 bottles (from a Japanese wine cask, exclusive to Norway)
5. Hanyu 1988 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 9306. 55.6 percent alcohol. 625 bottles
6. Karuizawa 1976 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 6719. 63 percent alcohol. 486 bottles
7. Karuizawa 1977 (bottled 2010) Cask No. 4592. 60.7 percent alcohol. 190 bottles
The next release is expected to be another 1977 Karuizawa and a 1994 bottling (Karuizawa 1994/2010. Cask No. 270. 62.7 per cent alcohol) is being done for La Maison du Whisky ready for Whisky Live Paris in September.

Marcin Miller at Number One explains the concept behind the series:
"We feel it is important when we bottle a whisky in the ‘official’ Vintage Series that it should be true to the distillery character. For example, the 1985 #7017 was, for me, archetypal Karuizawa; big, bold, uncompromising, complex and reminiscent of an autumnal forest walk (pine, mushroom, truffle) with plenty of sherry and mixed nuts. The same applies to classics like the Karuizawa 1967 and 1971.

"Occasionally we come across a cask that doesn’t fit in with the traditional Karuizawa flavour profile; for example, we unearthed a few Japanese wine casks, that is to say casks formerly used to mature Japanese red wine (classic Bordeaux blend in style). Obviously, the whisky from these casks was different to the majority of sherry butts we have bottled from that distillery. We felt they needed to be presented differently (and that is where the Noh series comes in).

"In terms of a ‘theme’ to the series, I am tempted to say they are unusual whiskies which deserve eye-catching presentation. Although the majority of bottlings have been from Karuizawa, the Noh Series is not limited to that distillery; we bottled a Hanyu cask last year and there may be releases from Chichibu and other distilleries in due course."
Miller explains that the striking labels come courtesy of an exclusive arrangement with the Kamiasobi Noh Troupe ( in Japan. They first made contact with Kamiasobi at Whisky Live! Japan 2008, where the troupe performed extracts from a play about the God of Whisky. Now, Number One pays a royalty to use images of the theatre group's masks and figures on its bottles .

"Noh is one of Japan’s oldest performing arts, dating back to the 14th century; we felt that association with classical culture and the opportunity to create some striking labels was worth pursuing," Miller says. "The utilitarian packaging of Karuizawa’s Vintage Series is perfect for our single cask selections. However, David Croll and I agreed that we could create a range that perhaps had greater impact, combining stunning whisky with arresting designs."

What with Ichiro Akuto's uber cool card series, Full Proof Europe's risque butt wiggling labels, innovative labeling is nothing new to the indy Japanese whisky makers. The Noh series is an interesting and classy addition to this scene and the whisky inside the bottles is, in my experience so far, very good indeed.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Noh whisky Karuizawa 1976 Cask No. 6719

(Imported to Europe by the Number One Drinks Company.)

Karuizawa 1976 (bottled 2009) Cask No. 6719. 63 percent alcohol. 486 bottles

Sniffed neat, this Karuizawa was not backwards in coming forwards: loads of sweet sherry, with a faint pine theme developing. With water, it opened out into freshly sawed wood, caramel, Brazil nuts and ginger.

It was actually quite drinkable without any water, despite the very strong spirits, with a bracing sweet maraschino cherry flavour. After a good splash of water, it remained fairly spirited and uncompromising but a delicious fruity jam flavour developed. I loved the tastes of prunes with very faint hints of wood.

The long finish, which continued the prune and wood themes and eventually developed mustier old wood and tobacco flavours, was where this Karuizawa really came into its own. I fell in love with the finish of the last Noh Karuizawa I tasted, and this one was nearly as beguiling. Very mellow and very satisfying indeed.

Thanks to the Number One Drinks Company for sending the sample. Nonjatta tries to live up to the Drink Blog Code when reviewing samples sent free.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More on Martian life

A shot by NASA`s Spirit Rover added to evidence of whisky drinking on Mars.
Apart from providing an excuse for silly headlines and pics, the news that Mars Whisky may be starting up their stills at Shinshu again is actually really significant for Japanese whisky. Whisky sales in Japan are showing their first sustained rise in 23 years and the fact that a medium sized maker like Hombo is reentering the fray is encouraging for those of us who want Japanese whisky to be about more than the two giants, Nikka and Suntory.

Makoto Kawaida at Hombo's HQ has given me a few more details on what is up at Shinshu. He said that the approach they will take to the whisky market is still under discussion but that producing single malts was definitely on the agenda. Both stills are going to be repaired, along with a complete overhaul of the other whisky making equipment. The aim is to start distilling again next year. The new operation will be able to produce 600 litres of 60 percent "genshu" (undiluted spirit) in a day.

Update 13.12.2010: Shinshu to reopen in February

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rumours of Mars's death have been greatly exaggerated

One of the two Shinshu stills

The Shinshu distillery in Nagano prefecture, owned by Hombo spirits and home of the "Mars Whisky" brand, has not distilled whisky since 1992. The last time Nonjatta reported on this rather sad story, the whole place seemed to be slipping into the history books, with one of the two stills too damaged to operate safely and stocks dwindling.

Well, I have just heard from Kawaida san at Hombo's HQ that they are repairing the stills and plan to start distillation again next year! I am trying to find out a bit more about this and exactly what sort of an operation they plan to run, but this is good news indeed!

Update 17.7.2010: More on Martian life
Update 13.12.2010: Shinshu to reopen in February

Ichiro's Malt "The Game" 9-year-old

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Ichiro's Malt The Game 9YO 2000. 61.2 per cent alcohol
Nose: A massive bowl of stone fruits mixed with oak, bran and malt. There is a bitter sweet element (with the emphasis on the sweet). Caramel/vanilla popcorn and some of the floral notes I often find in Ichiro's Malts. After a while, those floral notes become more prominent.
Palate: Gristy, fruity, oaky, malty, and spicy. Chocolate and marmalade. Water brings the spicy/tangyness to the fore. Just fantastic!
Finish: Long, warming, oaky, spicy, floral and fruity.
General comment: This is another fine young Ichiro's malt. It is complex, powerful and balanced. A firm favourite of mine: very moreish but, as it is not easy to find, I tipple sparingly. Great value from an independent whisky producer that is rising from the ashes at the new Chichibu distillery.

Suntory Whisky Royal aged 15 years

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Suntory Whisky Royal aged 15 years
Nose: Licorice covered oak with lemon and banana. Some macadamia nuttyness and wood stain. Sweet and creamy with soft grains of mainly bran and wheat. After about 10 minutes, apricot makes an appearance.
Palate: Very creamy but with that hint of lemon bitterness. Macadamia nut, licorice, banana, nutmeg and golden syrup. Smooth!
Finish: Smooth, soft grain, creamy nuts, licorice, lemon and some salty zing on the tongue.
General Comment: This whisky wears it's 'blendedness' on this it's sleeve with the grains definitely dominating. If you are looking for a malty blend then this one is probably not for you. If, however, you like a smooth Bourbon-esque style then step in line.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Map: Charting the Ocean tradition

Intro: The delightfully lewd world of Ocean whisky // Map: Charting the Ocean tradition // The early years (Part I) // The early years (Part II) // Sanraku Ocean // Death and the afterlife

In the few days since I posted my introduction to the delightfully lewd world of Ocean Whisky, I have been wrestling with how best to present the large amount of detailed material I have on this tradition. My tentative understanding is that there are at least three, maybe four, completely forgotten malt whisky distilleries mixed up in this story.

The problem is there is so much information and the relationships between the companies and brands so labyrinthine that, without some sort of a map to guide us through, we are going to get lost pretty quickly. The diagram above should hopefully fill that gap.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Whisky Round Table II

Another very thought provoking Whisky Round Table discussion, this time at The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society's salubrious home on the topic of the development of tasting abilities. Some really interesting writing, in my opinion.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Nikka Book

My friend Nicholas Sikorski at La Maison du Whisky has sent over a copy of a beautiful new book published by La Maison about Nikka whisky: "The Nikka Book".
He included some of La Maison's French publications in the package and, though I am afraid my appalling French means I am not in a position to judge their content, they are all a pleasure to "read", just because of the beautiful photography and page design.

"The Nikka Book" is in English and is being distributed to clients and contacts of La Maison. There is a fold out section at the start of the book with profiles of Nikka's distilleries and some history of the company. It taught me a thing or two. The rest of the book introduces Nikka's whiskies and some of the ideas of Stanislav Vadrna, the well known bartender and Nikka "ambassador". It is not trying to be a comprehensive reference tome, more of a coffee table or a bar top diversion, and it succeeds.

There was a launch for the book on June 14 at the Curio Parlor in central Paris, home to the only Nikka Bar outside of Japan and the monthly Nikk'afterwork soirées that I mentioned in this previous post. To coincide with the launch, La Maison also organised the first Nikka Perfect Serve Contest with Stanislav Vadrna.

Vadrna enjoys a quiet moment with a Yoichi

They plan to hold these bartenders' competitions in ten European capital cities (Paris, London, Barcelona, Rome, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, Moscow, Munich and Prague) with competitors asked "to present the perfect serve of any version of Nikka whisky to a panel of judges acting as customers."

Sikorski explained: "More than just the drink itself, what the judges look for are all the hallmarks of the perfect bartender: a warm welcome into the bar, pleasant small-talk, great knowledge of the products, the ability to give advice and defuse potentially difficult situations, plus a sense of ritual and good manners sufficient to make even the simplest drink an unforgettable experience. "

Up for grabs is a week's holiday for two to Japan including VIP visits to Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. The final will be held in Paris on the 27th of September, during Whisky Live Paris, and will see the winners of each leg going up against each other.

Anyway, the winner of the Paris leg was Carlos Madriz from L'Hotel, Paris 75006. "Totally unphased by all of Stanislav's efforts to catch him out or lead him astray," Sikorski reports, "Carlos stunned all three judges ... with his use of a sake tokkuri and ceramic pot for keeping his customers' whisky at exactly the right temperature, as with his sheer amiability and attention to detail. "

After all the book launching and competing, the evening got into full swing with another Nikk'afterwork event, starting with mizuwaris and the very interesting sounding "nikkahuettes" (the French for peanut is cacahuette...): dried malted barley direct from the kilns of Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries. "A surprisingly good to nibble on and very addictive," Sikorski reports.

"Nikk'afterwork" at the Curio Parlor
As I have said before, I am getting envious of this Paris scene.
Photographs provided by La Maison du Whisky.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Introduction: The (delightfully lewd) Ocean Whisky tradition

Intro: The delightfully lewd world of Ocean whisky // Map: Charting the Ocean tradition // The early years (Part I) // The early years (Part II) // Sanraku Ocean // Death and the afterlife

Nowadays, the story of Japanese whisky is basically all about two large companies, Nikka and Suntory, and a few tiny independents. The histories of Nikka and Suntory, prominently featuring their two great founding fathers Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii, dominate the industry's narrative to such an extent that I think a lot of people go away with the idea that these are the only narratives.

That is not true.

If you spend any time exploring Japanese whisky, you start to notice the bones sticking out of the ground. Even during the war, it was not just Suntory and Nikka making whisky for the troops, but also Takara Jozo and Tokyo Shuzo. Immediately after the war, the Takara, Toyo and Tokyo distilling companies were all making malt whisky and there were plenty of other companies dabbling in the market. Unfortunately, a lot of these other traditions have now died off. I have talked a little about Takara elsewhere, and I have notes on the others waiting for a spare moment to be written up, but there is one skeleton that is larger than the others: Ocean whisky.

It is fun (for a bloke, at least) digging around Ocean because, in its heyday, when Ocean was one of the big three Japanese whisky companies, it had a distinctive obsession with the ladies:

[Etc., etc., etc., and I think this was one of their brands too: etc. ... .While I am at it, I might as well link to one of my favourites from the "Carry on up the Japanese whisky" scene. As far as I know, it has nothing to do with Ocean, but I think you will agree that "Busty - the whiskey bottle cover" is an essential accessory for any discerning whisky connoisseur.]

Back to Ocean. This lineage in Japanese whisky is complex. It will take several posts to unpick all the strands. In this first piece, I am just going to map out the ground and some of the names that are associated with the Ocean tradition:

Nowadays, a large slice of the Ocean tradition is owned by Kirin. The Karuizawa distillery is a former Ocean distillery. Another (now defunct) whisky distillery that has cropped up on the Japanese whisky market over the last year is the Kawasaki distillery. Ichiro's Malts bottled some grain whisky from Kawasaki over the past year.

The Karuizawa distillery came under Kirin's umbrella through a take over of Mercian, so that brand too is part of the Ocean story. Then, going back into history, anything that bears the names Ocean whisky, Sanraku, Sanraku Ocean, Showa Brewery, Sunluck, Nisshin, Daikoku Budoshu, M.K mark Sweet Home Whisky, and (way way back in the mists of time) Kaitakushi Budou Jozoujo are all tied up in the story.

The tale of the Ocean tradition takes in desperate attempts to make fuel for Zero fighter planes in alcohol stills, some long forgotten malt and grain whisky distilleries, some nice whisky, and some spectacularly foul stuff (and that is a judgment from one of the people who made it). It is going to take several posts to get through all that.