Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Whisky prices on the rise: a view from Japan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Since Diageo announced the pricing for its 2012 special releases, there's been consternation (to the point of outrage) and debate over what has driven this price hike and where it will lead not only the serious-but-financially-limited whisky enthusiast but the industry at large over the years to come. The most illuminating - to me - of these debates is taking place on the Malt Maniacs & Friends Facebook page. Rather than add to the debate in general terms, I though it would be interesting to offer two case-studies of price hikes in Japanese whisky aimed at the connoisseur that may be less dramatic in absolute increase, but equally if not more pronounced in relative terms.

For the first case study, let's turn to a recent Ichiro's Malt release. Most of you will probably have missed this as it was a limited, numbered release of - brace yourself - 24 bottles and was gone in no time. There were actually six different types --sherry butt (see above), chibidaru, ...-- each of which came in a limited run of 24 - modeled on the prototypes Akuto-san brought to the Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live in May of this year (see our report of this event for a more detailed discussion). The original price for these bottles was 12,500 yen (125 EUR / 160 USD). Obviously, we're talking about a 3yo whisky here.  Now, to put this price in context, let's look at prices of Chichibu spirit/whisky - all single casks and at cask strength - over the last 3 years: - Single Malt Newborn (Bourbon Barrel / Hogshead / Double Matured / Heavily Peated): 4,000 yen - Single Cask 2008/2011 Bourbon Barrel for Whisky Live Tokyo 2011: 7,500 yen - Single Cask 2009/2011 Peated for Whisky Live Tokyo 2011: 8,500 yen - Single Cask 2009/2011 Virgin Oak for Takashimaya Nihonbashi: 6.825 yen - Single Cask 2009/2012 for Tokyo International Bar Show: 8,000 yen The next step in this list would be the set of 24 ltd.ed. releases, accompanied by a 50% price hike. Logic dictates that - if you're looking for an increase in profit for a comparable product (all Chichibu whisky/spirit is young by definition, so you can't go down the road of releasing older whisky with a bigger profit margin) - you need to make it more limited, appealing to that most human of instincts to want something more if (one imagines) somebody else wants it too and if one perceives there to be less to go around. Some may feel the 12,500 yen price tag to be a bit extravagant for a very young whisky, of which - relatively speaking (i.e. regardless of the size of the distillery) - there should be plenty to go around. Fast forward a few weeks, and a bottle of the 2009/2012 Sherry Butt 24-ltd.ed Chichibu goes for 21,500 yen (275 USD) on Yahoo auctions. The signal this sends is obvious: people are willing to pay much more than 12,500 yen for such ultra-limited editions. If I were Akuto-san, I could only interpret this signal in one way: in less than a month, somebody is making much more profit from my products than I am making by putting them out in the first place. Food for thought, I should think.

The second case study is slightly different in its details, but the bottom line is the same. Some of you may remember my Karuizawa Rouge Cask post: in a nutshell, these are Karuizawa malts (all distilled in 1995) that spent their entire life in ex-red wine casks. Originally available at the distillery only, they were sold - as late as last year - for 4,000 yen for a 480ml bottle - converted to 700ml that would be a little over 5,800 yen (58 EUR / 73 USD). Enter the 16yo Karuizawa for Shinanoya released last month and sold out before it could even reach the website.

This was a single cask bottling, distilled in 1995, matured in an ex-red wine cask, making this in effect a Karuizawa of the "Rouge Cask" type. Original price tag: 12,900 yen (130 EUR / 164 USD). Fast forward a few weeks and the first bottle to appear on Yahoo auctions goes for 20,800 yen (210 EUR / 264 USD). Again the signal this sends is obvious: if the original price had been higher, maybe it wouldn't have sold as quickly, but the profit would have ended up in the pocket(s) of the distributor and/or retailer, rather than speculators on the auction circuit.

It's clear from these two examples (and I could have given many more from the Japanese whisky scene) and from similar world-wide trends that whiskies aimed at whisky aficionadoes are starting to become prohibitively expensive for most people who were fans-of-the-first-hour, or who jumped on the wagon when there was still room. It's natural that this leads to a whole spectrum of reactions, mostly negative ones, from the consumer's side. On the other hand, can we really blame the industry for reacting to a situation that we - as consumers - have created, i.e. increased demand and the concomitant sky-rocketing of prices on the secondary market? Let's not fool ourselves: what's irrational is not the industry's reaction to the situation, but the consumer's impulse that it responds to (and creates to a certain extent, of course - it's never one-way traffic). To quote Serge Valentin, "people who buy these bottlings are not only seeking deals - it's like with all toys for boys, watches, cars, shoes... it's not all rational." The question is whether or not - and if so, to what extent - developments on the whisky-collector front will influence the pricing strategies of independent bottlers (which is not a problem in Japan, obviously) and the prices of entry-level and mid-price whiskies in the long run.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Two new whiskies for Europe at Whisky Live Paris

Whisky Live Paris will feature the launch of two new whiskies for Europe by Nikka and its European representatives at La Maison du Whisky: the Nikka Coffey Grain, a no-age-statement single grain whisky, and a quite affordable (30 Euros) Nikka Blended Whisky. Here are a couple of snaps from the promotional material for these EU-only drinks:

ISC 2012 results

Gold medals at the International Spirits Challenge 2012 for Nikka Whisky's Taketsuru 21-year-old pure malt, Nikka From the Barrel, Yoichi 20-year-old, and Tsuru 17-year-old blend. Suntory also did very well with Golds for their Hakushu single malt sherry cask, Hakushu 12, Hakushu 25, Yamazaki 18 years, and the 17-year-old and 21-year old Hibiki blends.

 Interestingly both of Nikka's cheap, non-age-statement Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malts got silvers, as did the company's Black Nikka 8yo blend; the Super Nikka blend; the Taketsuru 17yo and 12yo pure malts; the Yoichi 15yo, 12yo and 10yo single malts; and the Miyagikyo 15yo, 12yo and 10yo single malts. Suntory's Yamazaki 12yo single malt and Hakushu 18yo single malt both got silver, along with the Yamazaki no-age-statement bourbon barrel, puncheon and Mizunara bottlings and the Hibiki 12yo blend. 

These awards come thick and fast but the ISC is one that the distillers themselves take seriously.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ichiro's Malt and Grain Premium 50% abv

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Ichiro's Malt and Grain Premium 50% abv
Nose: Sherry but not heavy. Rhubarb, vanilla, sweet tobacco, strawberry compote, oak, yeast, mint, pepper,
Palate: Glazed cherries, toffee, cinnamon, wholemeat dough, sweet glazes oranges, rhubarb.
Finish: Glazed cherry, rhubarb, toffee, oak. The flavours tend to clash more than gel. Reminds me somewhat of Ichiro's Malt for the Taster which has a similar issue. Not bad by any means, just something not quite right.

Yamazaki Single Malt No Age Statement 43% abv

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Yamazaki Single Malt No Age Statement 43% abv
Nose: Tempura batter, teak, leather, toffee, potato skins, fresh baked biscuits, banana. Classy.
Palate: Honey over baked oats, creme brulee, silky oak, leather,banana, cola, tobacco leaf, nutmeg, nouget. Very smooth.
Finish: Honey, smooth oak, butter, cashews, tobacco leaf, cola, maples syrup, balanced. A lovely affordable Yamazaki, this bottle is emptying fast...

Hakushu Single Malt No Age Statement 43% abv

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Hakushu Single Malt No Age Statement 43% abv
Nose: Light but typically fresh Hakushu. Lime, Pine, wet moss/earth, tinned pears, salt, a little spearmint.
Palate: White pepper, lime, wet forest floor, almonds.
Finish: Lime, almonds, peach candies and some drying oak. A lightweight aperitif style. Serious whisky fans would be better served saving for the 12 year old in my opinion.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hakushu Single Cask 1998/2012 for Isetan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Suntory fans are strongly encouraged to be a little thrifty over the summer as they'll be needing funds very soon for a whole variety of releases. A couple of days ago, the yearly Yamazaki cask-type releases were announced. These are not single casks but releases drawn from a single cask type, with - as always - no information about the make-up of the vatting (age of components) and/or the outturn. Just like in previous years there will be a Puncheon, a Bourbon Barrel, a Sherry Cask and a Mizunara release, all bottled at 48% abv. All except the Mizunara will be available for about 9,000 yen. The Mizunara - which always sells out quickly - will be 25,000 yen for a bottle. That's the price you pay for hype and popularity. Anyway, these will be available on September 25th here in Japan.

The Hakushu single cask I want to bring to your attention today has been available for a little over a month now as part of Isetan's selection of ochugen (the Japanese tradition of sending summer gifts to people one is indebted to) and is also available at their department stores, in Tokyo at least. It's a bottling of a 1998 hogshead (bottled 2012, 58% abv), exclusively for Isetan, and is priced at 12,600 yen. I had the chance to try it today and it really is a gorgeous Hakushu with notes of pine trees, moss, wet grass in the morning, honeydew melon, canned pineapples, a bit of kirsch in the background and with water a distinct peach note. Perfect for summer if you ask me. Anyone who got this bottle as a summer gift should prize themselves lucky to have good friends with not only deep pockets but impeccable taste as well.

Whisky Blender DVD: Seiichi Koshimizu

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

If you're a whisky enthusiast with a special interest in the art of blending and/or Japanese whisky in general, and - like so many people during this excruciatingly hot and humid summer - are suffering from natsubate (summer fatigue), I've got the answer for you... well, for a few hours at least: seek out the "Professional: Whisky Blender" DVD. The main feature on the DVD is a portrait of Suntory master-blender Seiichi Koshimizu and was part of NHK's series "Professional". The DVD contains the entire episode as broadcast in 2007 plus a half-hour long interview with Koshimizu-san. There's good news and bad news: the good news is that it is the most eye-opening whisky documentary to my knowledge; the bad news is that there are no English subtitles so a certain familiarity with the Japanese language will be necessary to appreciate the finer points. That being said, Koshimizu-san is not exactly a chatterbox so even people with rudimentary Japanese will be able to take something away from it.

The bulk of the episode takes place at the blender's lab at Yamazaki distillery and follows the making of the Hakushu 25, which was released in March 2008, a few months after this documentary was shot. It really is like a peek into the mind of a master blender. I don't want to spoil the fun too much, so you'll just have to watch it for yourself. That Koshimizu-san is a busy man - he says in the extra interview that precisely because whisky matures in the calmest and quietest way imaginable, the blender has to do his work with an acute sense of urgency - is clear from the rest of the documentary. He's the first one to arrive at the Yamazaki distillery (when he's there) - for you stalkers out there, at 7:04 in the morning. His work also takes him pretty much all over Japan, and abroad as well: we follow him to the Hakushu warehouses in Yamanashi, to the forests of Hokkaido selecting mizunara trees, to a Ginza (Tokyo) bar where he submits his creations to the bar owner, his long-standing guinea pig, to the Suntory headquarters where vice-president Mr. Torii reviews his work on the Hakushu 25 and to the International Spirits Challenge in London. Most importantly, though, the documentary takes you inside his mind. It's fascinating beyond description. If you just get one DVD this year, let it be this one.

It's also worth noting that Koshimizu-san has just published a book, boldly entitled ウイスキーは日本の酒である (Whisky is Japan's liquor, 2011). It's available for a mere 700 yen in Japan and just waiting to be translated into English. Suntory? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

Whisky Labels from Japan (2): Arran 1995/2009

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Fans of manga and/or female beauty will certainly appreciate this stunning label. This single cask (hogshead) Arran (1995/2009, 55.5% abv) was bottled for a bar here. Enjoy!

A neat glass

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Very few whisky enthusiasts in Japan will be familiar with the NEAT glass, but that will hopefully change very soon. It doesn't happen so often that something completely revolutionizes the tasting experience of whisky, but the NEAT glass does exactly that.

NEAT stands for "Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology" - it's designed and made in the US, marketed by Arsilica Inc., and is quickly attracting followers all over the world. Those of us used to Glencairn or copita glasses will find the NEAT glass a completely different experience. As the acronym indicates, it was engineered to separate the ethanol and remove the punch of the alcohol to focus on the defining aromas of the whisky. It also offers a completely different experience for the palate. The wide rim has a kind of waterfall effect, spilling the liquid evenly over the tongue (and lips, as well!), which is very different from the usual channeling to the centre of the tongue that you get with Glencairn or copita glasses. This takes some getting used to - it kind of transports you back to your days as a toddler when you first started drinking from a cup - but it opens up a whole new dimension for the palate.

I compared the NEAT glass with Glencairn and copita glasses, using some reference malts that I thought I knew inside out. The results were fascinating, if a little unsettling: the reference malts were anything but reference in the NEAT glass. The malts seemed to completely redefine themselves and I picked up notes that I'd never found before. They revealed themselves in a completely different light, with much more intensity and depth in terms of aroma and taste and with much more overall presence and definition. Treat yourself to a set of NEAT glasses and you'll see what I mean - you won't regret it.

Ultra-limited Karuizawa 31-year-old

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

It's becoming harder and harder for Karuizawa completists to keep up with new releases. Shinanoya's private cask never really reached their website - in fact, people have told me off the record that they probably intended to sell most of the outturn at the Osaka Whisky Festival anyway - and a few weeks ago, an ultra-limited Karuizawa bottling selected by Dave Broom was released for Bond #1 members. Drawn from cask #7955 (1981/2012, 31yo) and bottled at 59.1% abv, only about 30 bottles were produced, and they sold out in less than a week. We'll have tasting notes for you very soon - watch this space.

Friday, August 10, 2012

New White Oak bottling

A little bird told us that White Oak is putting out a no age statement bottling at the end of the month: a vatting of a young bourbon and slightly older sherry cask.

The bird, who is partial to the odd dram and is not associated with the distillery or a retailer, said it was a simple but approachable whisky and will retail for just over ¥2,000. It will be non-chill filtered, non coloured and 46 percent alcohol.

The idea is for this whisky to become a core official bottling, replacing White Oak's 5-year-old at the bottom end of its range.

Whisky Labels from Japan (1): Noh-series

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

It's a truism - but that doesn't make it less true - that the way something is presented influences our perception of it. While some whisky enthusiasts may take the view that it's all about the taste, many would agree that factors such as setting, time of day, mood, presentation, company, and so on can have a big influence on how we perceive the qualities of the "whisky itself". Labels, too, can subtly influence our expectations and perceptions of a whisky. And let's face it, the eye seeks pleasure too, so here's the first in an ongoing series of whisky labels from Japan. Note the wording: this will not just be about Japanese whisky labels - although this will make up the bulk of the entries - but will also include non-Japanese whisky for the Japanese market. What better way than to start off with what has become one of the most iconic - certainly most collectable - series to come out of Japan: the Noh-series.

Most of you will be familiar with the full-sized Karuizawa and Hanyu Noh-bottlings since they were all for foreign markets (the UK, France, Scandinavia, ...). Very few people know, however, that the very first Noh-bottlings were 200ml-bottles produced for the Japanese market, that is to say, specifically for sale at performances of the Noh-troupe Kamiasobi. David Croll of Number One Drinks explains: "The relationship with the Kamiasobi troupe came about purely by accident when we were asked if we were interested in sponsoring a performance of their whisky-play "Bakuryu". It was just before Whisky Live 2008 and they very kindly agreed to come along to Big Sight [the venue] and perform an act from their play. We had requests for labels other than the Karuizawa Distillery labels and the Number One Drinks label, so the Noh costumes and masks seemed a very obvious and appropriate place to go. Several of the troupe are enthusiastic and knowledgeable whisky drinkers and they were delighted to become involved in this venture, from which a royalty is paid from each bottling to support their activities."

Interestingly, the very first Noh-bottlings were not Japanese whisky, but Scotch. The troupe's first - labeled as "Kamiasobi's Original Single Malt Whisky" - was a 12yo Royal Brackla from 1993 (bottled at 46%). They subsequently selected three single casks (partial bottlings obviously), one from Caol Ila distillery - again a 12yo (from 1995) bottled at 46% abv, and two from Karuizawa distillery: a 13yo (1997/20120, cask #3312, 60.2%) and a 19yo (1991/2010, cask #3206, 60.8%). Karuizawa anoraks will no doubt recognize the cask numbers of the latter two as the whisky came from the same casks the "Spirit Safe" Oxfam charity-bottlings were drawn from. Small amounts of the Karuizawa bottlings were also available at the time at the posh department store Isetan. There are no plans currently to expand the range of these small-sized Noh-bottles, but fans of the labels and/or the whisky can look forward to two new additions to the full-sized range very soon. A US retailer specifically asked for Noh-labels for their first inaugural bottlings for the American market, and the labels are currently going through the rigorous US approvals process.