For this year's edition of the Whisky Festival in Osaka, the organizers (the Scotch Whisky Research Centre) moved to a more spacious venue in the heart of Osaka, the Umeda Sky Building. This seems to have been a smart move on their part as the crowds were considerably larger than last year, too. It's the most important forum for whisky enthusiasts based in Kansai, but for some reason, the festival is not generally used as a platform for Japanese distillers and retailers to launch new or upcoming releases. Two of our favourite local craft distillers - Venture Whisky (Chichibu) and Hombo Shuzo (Mars) - were there but they didn't have any new products to showcase. We did catch a glimpse of one much anticipated bottling, though…
We had heard rumours of a new Karuizawa single cask jointly chosen by three Japanese whisky retailers a few months ago, but were sworn to secrecy. A release of this bottling at the festival was anticipated by some - seeing as each of the three retailers had a booth at the festival - but the fact of the matter is it won't be out until next month. "The Joint Bottling of HST" (which stands for Liquors Hasegawa, Sake Shop Sato and Whisky Shop Tamagawaya) is a 14yo Karuizawa (1999/2013, Cask#2316) and, as you can see, the label shows the position of the three shops in relation to the Karuizawa distillery… well, the place where it used to be. It's not clear how many bottles there will be, but it's safe to say they'll be gone before you know it. It's a Japan-only release and, unfortunately for the fans abroad, the shops will not be shipping this outside Japan. We'll have tasting notes for you as soon as it is officially out.
official festival bottling
There were a few new or soon-to-be-released single cask Scotch whiskies at the festival. The official festival bottling was a 16yo Clynelish (1996/2012, #8778, 51.7%abv) drawn from a refill sherry cask. A lovely dram. The indefatigable people at Shinanoya had brought two upcoming releases to the festival, a 27yo Macduff (sourced from A.D. Rattray) and a 33yo Caol Ila (sourced from Three Rivers). The latter was an absolute stunner. Bottled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Bar Caol Ila in Tokyo and featuring Botticelli's Allegory of Spring, this is bound to join the pantheon of great Shinanoya releases - and there are more than a few of those! It was drawn from bourbon hogshead #5306 and bottled at a cask-strength of 55.8%abv. The official release date is July 25th so keep an eye on their website around that time.
Liquors Hasegawa adopted a strategy of surprise at the festival. With so many whiskies vying for the attention of people's tastebuds (and wallets), they had chosen to spotlight a selection of armagnacs. A bold move, but it paid off, since one of the indisputable highlights of the festival was an armagnac: a 1963 Dartigalongue Bas Armagnac. Phenomenal stuff. Other personal highlights include a 1965 (40yo) Clan Denny Invergordon single cask grain whisky (courtesy of World Liquor Brutus) and a 1977 (34yo) Glenturret sherry hogshead from Berry Bros. & Rudd.
We were also very happy to hear Dutch distiller Zuidam's products will finally be available in Japan from August. We're big fans of their Millstone whiskies and other spirits as well (try their 5-year old cask-matured 'genever'!) and, in fact, next month, we will be visiting their distillery as part of a new series ('Nonjatta on the Road').
As said, not much in the way of new Japanese releases, but it's clear our local distillers are not resting on their laurels. Take the case of Mars distillery. Their traditional whisky-making season (winter) was just three months: January to March. This year they extended it by one month, and the idea for next season is to start one month earlier and add another month at the end (December to May), keeping them busy for half the year. Because of the increased productivity, they are currently considering building a new warehouse on the same site in Shinshu to mature their whiskies. They're really dedicated to producing whisky of the highest quality and are in it for the long haul. Further proof, if any were needed, of how serious they are: their master distiller has been to Scotland to hone his skills (in Speyside - at Longmorn distillery, among others) and to learn about malting. It'll be interesting to see how they put these newly-acquired skills to use in the future. In the meantime, they're working on several new releases. They're continuing their wine-finishing adventures. Usually, wine finishes are applied to single casks (to be released as such, or prior to being vatted/blended). The people at Mars do it a little differently - and successfully so, judging by the unanimously positive reception of their "Iwai Wine Cask Finish": they compose their blend first and finish that in wine casks. They've got a wine-cask finished version of their 10yo in the pipeline. It was put into wine casks last year and will probably be released some time in 2015. They've also picked two single casks for release later this year or early next year. Exciting times up there in Nagano.