Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In the Shadow of Ichiro’s Cards: Bar Lagg Time 7th Anniversary Bottling

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
We’re continuing our mini series about obscure Hanyu releases related to the famous Card Series with this bottling for another Tokyo bar.

Very few people will be familiar with this particular release since it was a limited edition of – brace yourself – 24 numbered bottles. The occasion was the celebration of the 7th anniversary of Bar Lagg Time in October 2006. All nice and well, you may think, but what makes this interesting is the fact that it’s from the same cask – mizunara hogshead #9500 – as the “Two of Clubs”, which was released the following year (and in that year the abv dropped a percentage, from 58% to 57%abv).

We’re quite fond of this label, understated but playful, and a little surprised that nobody ever followed up on this brilliant “whisky for the whole family” idea: while mum and/or dad ponder the merit of the liquid inside, the kids can have some fun with the actual bottle. What’s not to like?

Read more about Hanyu Distillery here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

In the Shadow of Ichiro’s Card Series: the Secret Playing Cards

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Today, we’re starting a mini series about Hanyu releases that very few people will know about, but that are linked – in some way – to Ichiro’s iconic Card Series. At the same time, it’s part of our “Whisky Labels from Japan” series (1, 2).

After Akuto-san had rescued the few hundred remaining Hanyu casks from being poured down the drain (2004-2005), he knew he couldn't just sit on them and wait for interest to grow. He knew he had to go out and bring the liquid to the people, and in order to do that, he needed the help of professionals in this field: bartenders. He started visiting bars in every nook and cranny and tried to interest bars in selling his (family’s) whisky. To make this appealing to them, he offered small, private bottling schemes: the numbers were low enough to make it a financially viable project for those bars, but significant enough to keep the money coming in and build a brand (Ichiro’s Malt) and a reputation, in the process.
One of the bars Akuto-san visited was Bar Salvador in Takadanobaba, a student neighbourhood in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The owner was interested in having an “original” whisky for his bar and was particularly fond of ex-sherry butt #9000 … or what was left of it. In 2006, most of the cask had been bottled for the “Nine of Hearts” release in Ichiro’s Card series. This was, atypically, a bottling at 46%abv. A few months later, in 2007, Bar Salvador paid for what was left in the cask but they wanted it bottled at cask-strength (56.5%abv). They also came up with an original idea for the label. There were 60 bottles and instead of having one and the same label for all the bottles, they thought it would be nice to have a few different ones. Their idea – a stroke of genius – was to use the theme of Japanese playing cards known as “hanafuda”.

“Hanafuda” – literally, “flower cards” – consist of 48 cards divided into 12 suits, one for each month of the year. The history and rules of “hanafuda” are beyond the scope of this short post, but this brief introduction makes for interesting reading. “Hanafuda” are strongly associated with illegal gambling and organized crime here in Japan – film buffs, check out Masahiro Shinoda’s “Pale Flower” (1964) – so there’s a bit of a dark side to it. However, visually, they’re far more appealing than the ace-to-king deck we’re all familiar with. Each “hanafuda” suit consists of 4 images referring to a particular flower or tree associated with a particular month of the year.

For the Bar Salvador bottling, the following images were chosen:

- “Pine with Crane” from the “Pine (Matsu)” suit [January]

- “Cherry with Curtain” from the “Cherry (Sakura)” suit [March]

- “Pampas with Full Moon” from the “Pampas (Susuki)” suit [August]

- “Willow with Poet” from the “Willow (Yanagi)” suit [November]

- “Paulownia with Phoenix” from the “Paulownia (Kiri)” suit [December]

For each label, there were 10 bottles (a total of 50 bottles) and for the remaining 10 bottles they used a special label combining the five cards above.

Had it not been for a phone call about a “strange” Hanyu someone had spotted at a bar, this beautiful little project in the margin of the official card series would have been forgotten history. The call came in the early summer of 2010, and we had little hope that the bottles would still be at the bar by then. There were only 60 of them, after all. When we visited Bar Salvador, there were only 5 left and although there will never be a complete set of this, it was fortunate that there were 5… and not 6. Why? Well, because there was no last complete set any more, and therefore, keeping it there was less important. The owner had originally intended to keep one full set unopened but somehow one of the bottles from that memorial set got opened and emptied, leaving only 5. The owner wanted to keep the set together – something to remember his drinking establishment and this little project by – but not necessarily at his place… and that’s how they ended up at Nonjatta HQ: five bottles waiting for a very special occasion to be opened and an unused label of the missing sixth bottle, the omnibus label…

Read more about Hanyu Distillery here.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mars Komagatake 22yo and 24yo

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The two new Mars releases we wrote about in our TIBS/Whisky Live 2013 report have now been released. Just to refresh your memory: there’s a 22yo and a 24yo, and both are vattings of 4 casks, but they’re very different, indeed.
The Mars Komagatake 22yo is a vatting of two American White Oak casks (#1042 and #1039), an ex-sherry cask (#384) and a refill (ex-Scotch) cask (#481), bottled at 43% abv (750ml) and with an outturn of 1,359 bottles. This retails for around 9,000 yen. Then, there’s the 24yo – and that’s really special. During yearly routine checks of their mature stock, the whisky makers at Mars discovered a quartet of ex-bourbon casks that they really liked. On further inspection, it became clear that the level in each of the casks was very low and that a release as single cask(s) was out of the question. So, they put the contents of the 4 casks together and bottled them at vatting strength (58%abv, also 750ml). The outturn? A mere 120 bottles.

It shouldn't be too hard to find the 22yo. To secure a bottle of the 24yo however, you may have to jump through a few hoops (no pun intended). It would surprise me if the few retailers who actually managed to get hold of a few bottles have the chance to put it on their shelves/online. But you never know…

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Chichibu 3yo for Whisky Talk Fukuoka 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
"Whisky Talk" is the highlight of the year for whisky enthusiasts based in Fukuoka. The third edition was held last weekend and it's clear that the organizers have a soft spot for Ichiro's Malts. For the 1st (2011) and 2nd edition (2012), they bottled two young Hanyu casks with eye-catching labels sporting a wolf and a crane respectively. For this year's bottling, they're continuing the animal theme with what looks like a beaver, but this time they're going for a 3-year old Chichibu. It should be available soon - priced at 11,000 yen - so keep an eye out for it, if you're a fan of this young distillery's output.

Read more about Chichibu Distillery here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Memories of Karuizawa 3: 1996/2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Today sees the official release of the 3rd Memories of Karuizawa. It’s available to members of Bond#1 right now; from next week, it will also be on the shelves of selected retailers here in Japan.

The 3rd release is one of the few casks left from the 1996 vintage, and it is – in fact – a sister cask (#3684) of our very own Nonjatta Karuizawa (#3681). There’s definitely family resemblance so it won’t surprise you to read that we are quite fond of this new single cask.

On the nose, there’s fruit, of course – assorted berries, dried apricots and raspberry meringue – but there’s also fresh ginger ale and grass in early summer with some very subtle wood smoke in the background. After a while, a nice orange marmalade note comes to the fore, accompanied by over-ripe kiwis, honey-roasted almonds, shiso leaf and a touch of eucalyptus. On the palate, it packs quite a punch neat: orange zest and raspberries on the attack, then slightly under-ripe grapefruit and gooseberries. It really needs water – only then does it reveal its charms on the palate: milk chocolate, hazelnut cream, nougat, candied orange peel again, ramune candy, then caramel pear mousse and pumpkin seed spread. Resistance is futile… it’s a phenomenal amalgam of flavours. The finish is long and lingering on sweet jam notes but with a lovely tart edge.

Now for the bad news: there are only 303 bottles. Since no one will bother to ready any further, we’ll just sign off wishing you a nice weekend... and it will be if you manage to score a bottle of this.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hakushu Heavily Peated 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Suntory has just announced the follow up to their widely acclaimed “Hakushu Sherry Cask 2013” (released in February). On July 2nd, the “Hakushu Heavily Peated 2013” will go on sale nationwide (Japan only). It’s bottled at 48%abv and will retail for about 9,000 yen. It’s a limited edition of 3,000 bottles and if the response is anything like what we witnessed earlier this year with the “Sherry Cask”, it won’t be around for very long. Mark the date in your agenda now or start preparing yourself for disappointment.

Read more about Hakushu Distillery here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The “Asama Casks” and Karuizawa Cask-Strength “1st Release” for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

When Number One Drinks bought the entire remaining inventory of Karuizawa distillery, they quickly discovered the vast majority of the stock was from the 1999 and 2000 vintages, the final years of production. It was immediately clear that this relatively young malt needed to be categorized as soon as possible – there was loads of it and it was uneven in terms of taste profile – and so they brought in their Master Blender who tasted every single cask. Some casks were earmarked as “immediately ready to be bottled as single casks”, but most needed re-racking. (A few were rejected altogether.) The stock that had been put aside for vatting was nosed and tasted again to confirm the relative maturity and the taste profile. It was then decided to create two different vattings, both of which involved bringing together the liquid from a number of casks and then returning the contents to the original casks, all of which were still very active sherry butts. Obviously, since each of the original casks was less than full, fewer casks were needed to re-rack the vatted contents.

The first batch was a vatting of 77 casks – re-racked into 60 casks – that were considered to be mature already. These 77 casks were the ones needed to produce the final profile the Master Blender was looking for. The second vatting was of those casks he felt needed more maturation, with 59 casks re-racked into 46 casks. This was all carried out in late 2011, early 2012. Since then, there have been a few releases drawn from these re-racked 1999/2000 casks – let’s call them the “Asama casks”, for the sake of brevity. Everything so far has been from the first vatting:

(1) the “Asama” (46%), released in 2012 – which was first available in Sweden, and then in other markets as well;

(2) two single marrying-casks for the Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live 2012, bottled at cask-strength;

(3) two “Spirit of Asama” releases for The Whisky Exchange, bottled at 48% and 55% abv respectively;

(4) a cask-strength version (61.7%) called “1st Release” for Taiwan

A fifth one – a 2013 version of the first vatting, which has benefitted from 18 months of marriage, bottled at 50.5% and with new packaging – will be launched over the summer.
Today, we’ll focus on the recent “1st Release” for Taiwan. On the nose, the initial impressions are dried fruits (raisins, dates), prune juice, porcini, polished leather and a hint of rosemary – it’s reminiscent of some A’bunadhs but with a more earthy, vegetal dimension. After a while, there are subtle hints of virgin oak, menthol, after eights, raspberry sauce, liquorice allsorts and duck a l’orange. There’s also a gentle underlying smokiness, which adds further depth. Quite an intriguing nose. Neat on the palate, you get orange zest, assorted dried fruits with prunes quite prominent again, candied ginger and white pepper but also steamed new potatoes, burdock soup, roasted capsicum and a bit of chicory. On paper – well, on the screen – it doesn’t sound like that would work, but it does and marvelously so. It’s very drinkable undiluted, but it swims well, too. Water makes it more fresh on the nose – with grassy notes and hints of overripe pears and honeydew melon – and brings out orange pound cake and lemon sabl├ęs. It’s a versatile dram and you can really tweak it to your taste and to the mood you’re in. The finish is medium-long on milk chocolate spiked with cointreau. Fabulous.

This isn’t something that was hastily thrown together. Someone with a clear vision was behind this, but there’s nothing forced about it at all. It’s as if someone knew exactly what the liquid in these casks was dreaming of being - but couldn’t be on its own - and then found a way to make it happen.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

“Deep Harmony” – a new, limited Hibiki

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
A few days ago, Suntory released a new no-age-statement Hibiki entitled “Deep Harmony”. This new edition is built around Hakushu malt matured in ex-red wine casks and Chita grain matured in ex-sherry casks. The blenders consider this to be a variation on the sweet and elegant taste profile of the Hibiki 17 but it’s quite unique because of the use of ex-red wine cask matured Hakushu. It’s bottled at 43% abv, and retails for 13,000 yen. The label is a ‘sakuranezu’ [a traditional Japanese sort of mauve] coloured special type of washi, suggestive of grapes (in reference to the red wine and sherry origin of the casks used to mature the components). It is exclusively available to the bar trade here in Japan, but I’m sure some bottles will find their way on local auction sites (as with the bar-exclusive umeshu-finished Yamazaki a few years ago). Stay tuned for detailed tasting notes.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nikka Coffey Grain also to make debut in US

Post by Chris of the WhiskyWall
It appears that Nikka Whisky is confident enough to introduce another expression to its US line up. Interestingly though it is a grain whisky release instead of a malt or even a blended release (wouldn't we all love to see Nikka From the Barrel here in the US?). It has not been officially announced by Nikka Whisky or their importer Anchor Distilling Co. but Nikka looks poised to release their Coffey Grain expression here shortly as it has recently cleared the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) labeling certification process. This coincides with Nikka's imminent launch of the Coffey Grain in Japan, as announced on Nonjatta a few weeks ago. There's no word on what the price point will be at this time.

It will be interesting to see how drinkers react to a Japanese grain whisky - maybe Nikka has its sights set on taking some of the popular cocktail market with this release. Either way, I am glad that Nikka is moving towards introducing more of its expressions to the US market.

Editor's note: Label photos from TTB application approval

Monday, May 13, 2013

Karuizawas for Taiwan: 1970 Geisha with Paper Crane

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
We’re continuing our series of Karuizawas for Taiwan with the “Geisha with Paper Crane” 1970 (cask #6227, 61.9%abv) bottled last year.

On the nose, it’s a feast of griottines, cherry pie, strawberries in confectioners’ sugar and frangipane. But it’s a feast outdoors, because underneath, there’s grass after rain, earthy tones (burdock and murasaki imo [‘purple yams’]) and also hints of wood smoke, a bit like a campfire after rain. Later, we return to fruitier realms: roasted apple pie, white peaches, then cherries again. Water makes the red fruit notes even more prominent, but this is at the expense of some of the lovely secondary notes.

On the palate, things get really wild: orange bitters, candied orange peel, candied ginger, gooseberries, fresh rhubarb, also fresh coriander and lemongrass. The attack is incredibly sharp, fresh and incisive – a whirlpool of sour, bitter and (not too) sweet. Emerging out of this attack are notes of sudachi, celery, some apricot Danish and a hint of Pineapple Lumps (the New Zealand delicacy). This quickly segues into the finish – feint traces of kiwi jam, brambles and orange sorbet – but that’s very short as well. You may get a subtle hint of banana mousse and Jonagold apple peel later, but now we’re really stargazing with sunglasses … on a cloudy day.

In Japan, paper cranes symbolize hope, longevity and good fortune. It’s tempting to interpret the label as a sort of oblique comment on the liquid in the bottle because it’s precisely in the longevity department that this whisky is lacking, which is a bit unfortunate. The nose is incredibly seductive – promises a lot – and the attack on the palate is phenomenally intense, but the euphoria tapers off far too quickly. When things are this good, one naturally wants… well, more – so it’s a bit of a frustrating experience. This whisky is sort of like a musical tone with the attack and decay of a bell but the sustain and release of a xylophone, if you can imagine that.

In our experience, Karuizawas for Taiwan are usually top drawer; this 1970 is a bit of an anomaly, but then, you can’t win them all. Next time, we’ll check out another geisha – without paper cranes, mercifully – and an old demon. Pleasant company, surely…

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Final Curtain Call for Yamazaki 10 and Hakushu 10

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
When Suntory introduced their no-age statement versions of the Yamazaki and Hakushu single malt in May 2012, two things were immediately clear: (1) stocks of mature whisky were running low, and (2) the days of the 10-year old Yamazaki and Hakushu were numbered. Not in their wildest dreams two decades ago could the people at Suntory imagine that demand for their whiskies – both domestically and abroad – would be this high. When the NAS Yamazaki and Hakushu were introduced, they were obvious replacements for the resp. 10-year olds. Similarly priced and with the 10yo too close for comfort to the 12yo (but, significantly, not in price – the 12yo retailing for twice as much as the 10yo), it really felt like a changing of the guard at both distilleries. Suntory definitely closed the chapter on the Yamazaki 10 and Hakushu 10 at the end of March, which is when the last few cases were sold. Now, retailers are starting to draw the consumer’s attention to the fact that the 10-year olds are drying up quickly. So, if you haven’t tried these yet, it’s now or never. And if you have, then this may be your last chance to put a few bottles in the cabinet. It really is the final curtain call for the Yamazaki and Hakushu 10.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From TIBS/Whisky Live 2013: A chat with Douglas Cook about the TIBS Glendronach and Benriach bottlings

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

We were delighted to be able to spend some quality time with Douglas Cook of Benriach / Glendronach / Glenglassaugh at TIBS and we asked him about the special bottlings for the BarShow. We started with the Glendronach 2002 Sauternes Hogshead (10yo, #2534, 55.1%abv).
Douglas: A sauternes-finished single cask is actually quite unusual for Glendronach. At Glendronach, we tend to only use sherry casks for the maturation of our whisky. However, we do have a small quantity of bourbon, port and sauternes casks, and we use those casks for finishing. In this case, what we’ve done is: we’ve used a bourbon cask for nine years and finished it in a sauternes cask for about one year. So it’s actually one of the younger Glendronach bottlings we’ve ever done.

Nonjatta: It seems like there are a lot of ex-bourbon cask Glendronachs from 2002 around. What happened in 2002?

Douglas: It’s an important date because between 1996 and 2002, the distillery was mothballed. Production commenced again in 2002 and the new owners started to fill bourbon casks. That’s just part of the history of the distillery. Over time, however, as the new owners since 2008, we’ve started to re-rack – to fill sherry casks with some of those ex-bourbon casks. I suppose the whisky evolves a little bit, but we want to bring it back to the origins of sherry cask maturation. Today, actually, to find a bourbon cask from 2002 is quite hard. I honestly think there’s only a handful of them left. Sometimes my customers are interested in buying one and I speak with our director and am informed there are actually very few available to sell because they’ve been re-racked into sherry already.

In this case, what we looked for was something slightly different. We didn’t want to go down the road of sherry. We wanted to show the Glendronach spirit with a different type of maturation. So it was quite unique to have a Glendronach Sauternes 10yo.

Nonjatta: Sauternes is part of the regular Glendronach range. Is this TIBS bottling a single cask version of that?

Douglas: Well, the core product we have is a 14yo and it’s been in sauternes longer, probably closer to about 18 months to 2 years. It really depends on the cask in the batch. But in the case of the single cask bottling we’ve done for Japan, it was much shorter, so there’s only a hint of sauternes. The bourbon is much more dominant than the sauternes. It just gives you that slight grape aroma, which – obviously – comes from the sauternes.

Nonjatta: Since 2008, is wood policy at Glendronach exclusively ex-sherry, or are there other – more unusual and/or experimental – things in the works as well?

Douglas: To be honest, it’s really sherry casks. We have regular delivery of sherry casks from Jerez in the south of Spain – Pedro Ximinez puncheons and Oloroso butts, generally – so we’re trying to keep Glendronach sherry-based, as simple as possible, really, just concentrating on sherry maturation. However, that’s an expensive decision to make because it’s about 600 GBP for a good quality sherry butt. I suppose, in a way, a lot of other distilleries would choose to use more bourbon but we recognize the importance of keeping Glendronach’s traditional style.

Nonjatta: Here in Japan – as elsewhere – whisky enthusiasts are very keen on 1971 and 1972 Glendronachs. Are there many casks from the early 70s left?

Douglas: I wouldn’t say many. There are still quite a few available, but because we want to conserve those for future releases, we’ve actually had to take the unpopular decision of slowing down the sales of single casks of those. It’s about being cruel to be kind. Many people would like to buy them now, and the reality is we could easily sell them with all the emerging markets that are very keen to buy these old vintages, but we’d rather sacrifice those sales now so that we can satisfy our customers worldwide with future limited releases. We can’t really think about one market alone – we’ve got to think about everyone and that’s why we’ve taken that decision.

Nonjatta: Moving on to the Benriach for the BarShow – a 1985 hogshead (27yo, #3091, 42.2%abv) – I guess you’re also trying to conserve your casks from the 70s at that distillery.

Douglas: With Benriach, we were looking at certain vintages and, over the years, Benriach 1976 has become iconic. However, we feel that’s it actually unfair to a lot of the other vintages – to the 90s, or even younger, say 2000. So, I’ve been encouraging all our customers to look at vintages which are maybe not so well known, like the 80s. And in the 80s, we’ve got a variety of interesting casks. We selected quite a lot of samples from the distillery and the option in the case of the TIBS bottling was to go for something that was very classic Speyside, classic Benriach. It was not so much tropical fruits, but more light fruits, like apples; it also has those lovely sweet honey notes and sweet oak spices as opposed to the typical 1976 pineapple and passionfruit. We wanted to give Japanese whisky lovers the chance to experience a Benriach from a completely different era, a different period of its history but also very classic Speyside.

At Benriach, I suppose we’re a lot more progressive and innovative in terms of the styles of whisky that we create, compared with Glendronach. We have the peated range, of course, we have wood finishes, we have peated wood finishes, triple distillation, and so on. With Benriach we have quite a variety of styles, but we noticed the Japanese consumers actually like the classic styles and this was a chance to bring a new vintage to the market, which was less known than the older ones.

Nonjatta: Is this a worldwide strategy, taking attention away from the legendary 70s?

Douglas: Well, we have to do that. We still want to satisfy the consumer’s demand for single cask vintages, but once the 70s are gone, they’re gone. That’s part of it – I wouldn’t deny that. But actually, we find that consumers sometimes don’t give other vintages a chance because they’ve heard that one vintage is particularly good. And actually, it’s not like in wine; it’s more related to the cask and there are so many different factors. It was partly my influence, as well. I really wanted the customers to stop thinking about just vintages and actually think about the whisky, even if it’s from a year that’s not iconic. And that’s really what I would like people to appreciate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hakushu Grain Whisky Facility in production

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Suntory has just announced their new Hakushu Grain Whisky Facility – part of their Hakushu plant – is in production. It was set up in December 2010. The long testing period is now officially over and grain whisky is being produced there as we write this. It is much smaller than their Chita distillery (SunGrain) – about 1/10th the size – and serves an altogether different purpose. SunGrain will keep supplying Suntory with the bulk of their grain whisky, but the idea with the Hakushu Grain Facility is to use it as a place to experiment with different grains – other than corn, that is – and different grain bills and to also closely look at other factors influencing the final product (yeast strains, etc) so that they have a wider variety of grain whisky at their disposal in the future to perfect their blends.

This is incredibly exciting news and further proof – if any were needed – that distillers in Japan are not content to rest on their laurels, but are always looking to take their art to a higher level.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Two 1977 Karuizawas for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Today, we’re continuing our series of Karuizawas for Taiwan with two specimens from the 1977 vintage.

Karuizawa 1977 / 2011, cask #4747, 66.9%abv for Taiwan (Vintage Label)
This is one of those Karuizawas for which age is nothing but a number. It’s young at heart – vibrant, playful and with a frivolous lightness that I find quite seductive. On the nose, it offers cherry liqueur, after eights, roasted almonds, a roll in the hay (in the literal sense, although you’re free to imagine this any way you like) and tinned white peaches. Then, after a while, you may get apricot jam, grape jelly, liquorice allsorts, pear drops and a really pronounced, very sharp spearmint note. Lovely. There’s also a hint of roast duck with rum soaked apples and when you give it half an hour in the glass, there’s a suggestion of chocolate-coated coffee beans. Time in the glass is crucial here – not necessarily 30 minutes, but certainly 5 minutes or so. If you don’t give it a few minutes to settle, you may get some slight sulphur interference that may put you off, and then you’d miss out on all the loveliness that’s there. Again: give it a few minutes and it’ll clear up. Trust me.

Nothing on the nose really prepares you for the palate: sudachi, lime, pencil shavings, eucalyptus and Damask rose wax. It’s extraordinary. Sudachi is one of the signature notes of old Karuizawas – something I’ve never found in any other whiskies, Japanese or other – and here it’s at its most beautifully defined. It leads the attack, hand in hand with lime notes – refreshingly sour. Then, there’s a long interlude of pencil shavings and new plank, before the Damask rose notes (wax, rose water) enter and melt into air (the finish) rather than fade. You couldn’t orchestrate the progression of flavours and aromas any more beautifully. Water makes the nose and palate a bit more candied – personally, I prefer it without.

Karuizawa 1977 / 2011, cask #3584, 64.1%abv for Taiwan (Geisha Label)

Right from the start, it’s clear that the Geisha 1977 is much heavier, more intense and more concentrated than the Vintage 1977. The nose is really earthy, dominated by old leather, humidor notes, prunes and some great vegetal notes (burdock, potato peel). After a while, you get parmigiano stravecchio, cherries macerated in brandy, balsamico, mincemeat (just to be clear, I’m talking about the sort of stuff that goes into mince pies) and blueberry jam. Then, totally out of the blue (no pun intended), an incredibly fresh rosemary note comes piercing through. Underneath all of this, you’ll notice that with time, wood smoke becomes more prominent. It’s an incredibly complex affair: the more time you spend with it, the more it reveals but there’s never a moment where you get “everything”. Instead, you find yourself in the folds of the liquid, as it were, becoming part of a seemingly random process of unfolding and folding-back.

The palate is more compact, very integrated and therefore more difficult to analyze: old chapel notes, beech nuts, sultana raisins, a hint of kale juice, rhubarb jam... Water brings out more sweet fruit notes (overripe pears, peaches) – both on the nose and the palate – but makes it much more one-dimensional. The finish is medium-long – shorter than you’d expect – and reveals a nice chicory note.

There were only 169 bottles of the Geisha 1977. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many bottles cask #4747 (the Vintage 1977) yielded. Both were released two years ago, so – needless to say – the only chance of obtaining one of these now is on the secondary market. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bottle of the #4747 listed on any auction site. I imagine anyone who knows what’s in the bottle would have a hard time parting with this.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Nikka to launch Coffey Grain in Japan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

On June 11th, Nikka is officially launching its regular – i.e. not a single cask (of which there have been many) – no-age-statement Coffey Grain in Japan. It was first launched in September 2012 at Whisky Live Paris, and has since been available as part of the regular Nikka range in Europe. Now, it will also be part of the standard range in the home market. For some reason, the only difference between the European and the Japanese version is the size (500ml and 700ml, respectively).
Masataka Taketsuru imported a Coffey still from Scotland in 1963. He wanted a grain spirit that was – obviously – high in alcohol content but he also wanted to retain the character of the grain, its flavours and aromas. He wasn’t very keen on the newer – more widely used – types of continuous stills, precisely because he felt they stripped the spirit of too much flavour, so he went back to the Coffey still, which is notoriously difficult to operate but produces a more characterful spirit. Nikka originally produced its grain whisky at their Nishinomiya plant, but moved their grain whisky production – and the Coffey stills – to Miyagikyo distillery in 1999. Nikka’s grain whisky is distilled in the traditional way, using mainly corn and a small amount of malted barley.

Nikka’s Coffey Grain has received a warm welcome in Europe, especially from creative bartenders who enjoy using it to give classic cocktails a different slant. It’ll be interesting to see how the home front reacts to this new addition to the Nikka range. It’s bottled at 45% abv and will be priced at a little under (or over, depending on your retailer) 5,000 yen for a 700ml bottle.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Japanese Whisky Hot-Spots Worldwide (2): “Ronin”, Hong Kong

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Despite the high tax on spirits (a staggering 100%), there is a flourishing whisky culture in Hong Kong and even though only a handful of Japanese whiskies are officially imported, we are happy to be able to include not one but two “Japanese whisky hot-spots” there in our ongoing series of must-visit drinking establishments outside Japan. Today, we’re thrilled to introduce the first, Ronin, and the man behind the beverage program, Elliot Faber.
Elliot is originally from Canada but has been in Hong Kong for a while now. He’s always had an affinity for drinks, food, travel and all things Japanese. After university, he studied to become a sommelier; then, after wine, he fell in love with sake and started exploring that field. “It was only a matter of time,” he says, “before I started to appreciate the nuance and history of Japanese whisky.” In 2011, he helped set up the restaurant Yardbird – which has since become one of the hippest places in town – and it was then that his studies of Japanese whisky really began: “When we opened Yardbird, we decided to have only Japanese whisky and to use Japanese whisky for everything – so for our Old Fashioned we use Taketsuru 12 to highlight the bourbony sweetness and vanilla; for our Rob Roy we use Nikka From The Barrel, and so on.”

Sourcing the whiskies was a bit tricky, given the market situation there. More often than not, it involved traveling to Japan, a few suitcases, and a friend left or right, but for Elliot this was just part of the learning curve: “As the restaurant continued to grow, so did my passion for and knowledge of Japanese whisky. I got to know the Suntory team, Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu distillery, the people from Eigashima distillery, and many others.” These direct relationships with distilleries made it possible to expand the range of available whiskies in a relatively short time. Two months ago, he opened a second bar, Ronin, again with Japanese whisky as the focal point. At the time of writing, they have close to 100 Japanese whiskies. The two places are sort of complementary: “Yardbird is the loud and fun neighbourhood izakaya and Ronin is somewhat of a maturity. Both the food and the beverages are more refined.”

Elliot was brought in to take care of the beverage program at both establishments by chef/owner Matt Abergel, who trained with Masa Takayama in New York and was executive chef at Zuma in Hong Kong before he created the culinary identity of Yardbird. “It was Matt, my friend of over twenty years, who wanted this whisky selection and it was up to me to put it together. Matt has an incredibly clear vision and palate for the freshest, most artistic sashimi – both in terms of flavour and presentation – and he also applies a whole spectrum of traditional Japanese preparation methods to local seafood. We try to pair his creations with the right Japanese whisky, and it’s always fun: everything from capturing the freshness and texture of Hakushu 12 paired with the omega-rich saba sashimi with persimmon to the dried fruit, malty and slightly salty Mars Komagatake 10yo with the fried quail with the orange zest sancho. Sometimes we prefer to explore contrast, for example by pairing the slightly lean but quite nutty and cereal driven Chichibu Golden Horse 8yo with our unagi chirashi and wild kinome. Our general manager, Raphael Holzer, has a great affinity for spirits, too, so it’s a real team effort.”

Ronin also has a special “bottle keep” system: “We have the equivalent of a ‘library card’ for guests to date-stamp and sign in and out. Once a bottle is purchased, it can only go to that guest.” Elliot’s favourite Japanese whisky? “I don’t have a favourite. Every distillery has merit and a story. At Ronin, we gather the stories and do as much research on the history and flavour profiles of everything right from the distillery down to the individual bottlings, and share it with our guests.” Their motto really says it all: “sharing is caring”.

Address: 8 On Wo Lane Central Hong Kong
Hours: 6pm-midnight, Mon-Sat
Address: 33-35 Bridges Street, Sheung Wan Hong Kong
Hours: 6pm-midnight, Mon-Sat