Monday, November 18, 2013

Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
© Stefan Van Eycken
The annual ‘Whisky Festival in Tokyo’, organized by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, has quickly become one of the highlights of the whisky year in Japan – second only in size to the Tokyo International Bar Show /Whisky Live, which takes place in the spring. This year there were noticeably more exhibitors than last year, but – and this may be a side-effect, or the law of diminishing returns asserting itself – it was also clear that there was less variety at each individual booth. To give you an idea of the complete lack of interest on the part of the big Japanese whisky distillers to showcase their range, this is what their selection was limited to:

Suntory: NAS Hakushu, NAS Yamazaki, Hibiki 12, Premium Kakubin
Nikka: NAS Taketsuru, Coffey Grain
Kirin: Fuji Sanroku 50° and 18yo

As you can imagine, bringing these sort of whiskies to an event that clearly targets well-seasoned whisky enthusiasts is a bit like bringing a poodle to a greyhound race. There’s nothing wrong with these whiskies but people have come to expect more from a high-profile event such as the Whisky Festival in Tokyo. What exactly the marketing people at these companies are thinking is anybody’s guess.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Fortunately, the good folk at Mars saved the day on the Japanese whisky front by bringing no less than three brand-new whiskies. Unsurprisingly, they were all outstanding. One of them was a wine-finished version of their 10yo single malt. The standard 10yo single malt was filled into Chateau Mars ex-red wine casks (Cabernet-Sauvignon) – at 40%! – and left to further mature for a year. The influence of the wine cask was stronger than with the Iwai Wine Finish (launched earlier this year), but most people at the show agreed that it worked well. Only 500 bottles have been produced at this stage; they will go on sale on December 9th (priced at 6,500 yen).
© Stefan Van Eycken
They had also brought two new single cask bottlings that are available as of today: a 1988 ex-sherry cask (#569, 349 bottles, 750ml) and a 1989 American White Oak cask (#619, 384 bottles, 750ml). The former is definitely one of the best sherried Mars single casks up until now; the latter is just a classic example of how wonderful the old Mars spirit and American White Oak go together. Prices keep rising, though, it must be said. Whereas last year these kind of single casks could be had for around 15,000 yen, the two new specimens will cost you 20,000  and 18,000 yen respectively. That’s a lot of money, but there’s very little old stock left. At the time of writing, the oldest vintages still maturing are 1990 and 1991. It’s almost 4 years since they fired up the stills again and they have to spread out the old stock for at least 6 more years, until they’ve got a new 10yo to replace their current 10yo  (which is from the pre-hiatus time at Shinshu). Things are going very well, though. There are plans to add a new warehouse to the Shinshu site. At the moment, they’re busy making wine, but from January 2014 they will start making whisky again (until April). They’re also expecting to release the first whisky from the new regime (i.e. post-2011) in the summer of next year. Something to look forward to.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Other highlights of the show included a 40yo Glenury Royal (1970/2011) and Dutch distillers Zuidam’s Millstone 100 Rye. There may have been some other gems, but – and this was another oft-heard criticism – with so many drams only available for extra dosh (500/1,000 yen for a sip), it’s not really financially viable to try everything you’d want to. I think it’s clear this needs to be rethought: on the one hand, it’s understandable that distillers/retailers are apprehensive about offering older/more expensive whiskies for unlimited free tasting; on the other hand, it’s a bit of a turn-off for the consumer to always have to reach for the wallet in order to try anything even remotely interesting. Many visitors we spoke to failed to understand why at an event that they paid to get into and that is all about PR for the participating exhibitors, it was necessary to pay so much extra just to get a chance to sample the products on display.

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