Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eigashima Distillery: 2013 Whisky-making Season

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
© Niko Neefs
Today is the last day of whisky-making this year at Eigashima distillery. They only distill for two months a year with a crew of 4 people, making it the smallest whisky operation in the country. The rest of the year is set aside for the production of sake (about 6 months) and barley shochu (about 2 months). We were at the distillery a few weeks ago, so here’s a short update.
© Niko Neefs
Whisky making this year started on May 31st. Forty tons of lightly-peated malt (5ppm) was used, i.e. 1 ton a day over 8 weeks. They’ve also switched maltsters and are now buying from Crisp Malting, like most of the craft distillers here. Spirit will be filled into ex-bourbon (Wild Turkey) and ex-sherry casks, but they're also planning on filling 15 second-fill recharred ex-shochu barrels.

As reported before on Nonjatta, it will take a while before they can release anything as old as their recent 15yo konara-finish single cask. The oldest stock in the warehouse is 6 years old and maturing in 2 ex-sherry casks. The plan is to release a 5-year old sherry wood single malt in the fall.

© Niko Neefs
We’re also able to confirm a rumour that has been going around for a while now, namely that some of Eigashima’s output is maturing in Scotland. Independent bottlers Duncan Taylor bought 3,000 litres of new-make spirit and had it shipped over to Scotland where it is now maturing. It’ll be interesting to see if this will be more than just a one-off thing – Eigashima has no intention of providing other independent bottlers with new-make spirit because their output is far too small for that – and what will come out of this in a decade or two.

Read more about Eigashima Distillery here.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Karuizawa 1979 for Japan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Half a year ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of spending a couple of hours with several dozen Karuizawa cask samples. I was working my way back from the last vintage (2000), through the 90s, then the 80s and the last sample on the table was one drawn from a 1979 cask. The moment I nosed it, I knew this was something special. The Number One Drinks people felt the same way and decided there and then that – seeing as loads of casks from older vintages had already been selected by retailers and distributors abroad – this would be a cask for the Japanese market. And here it is. As of today, it’s available to Bond #1 members and soon, it will make its way to specialist liquor shops nationwide.

I normally don’t attempt tasting notes in the excruciating heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, but for this 33yo Karuizawa (sherry butt #7752) I was glad to make an exception. On the nose, the initial impressions are furniture polish, old chapels and antique shops. Then, there’s dried figs, prune jam, sour plums and a whole variety of nuts: macadamias, pecan pie, cashews, hazelnuts, … you name it. That’s not all, though. In the background, you’ll find some really intriguing secondary notes: freshly made rhubarb jam, griottines, porcini, a hint of beef jerky and some lime peel. On the palate, it throws a whole patisserie at you: Christmas cake, pound cake with dried fruit and port sauce, marrons glacés, mincemeat, chocolate-coated blueberries, tiramisu, tarte tatin, Pierre Hermé’s plaisirs sucrés and Irish coffee. If you’re not into sweets – really good sweets – you’re in trouble with this Karuizawa. The finish is long and mouth-coating on chocolate orange peel and caramel popcorn but with a lovely bitter-sweet edge. It’s classic old Karuizawa but with little surprises left and right, as always. If you don’t get this, you’ll end up regretting it. Trust me.

Part of this cask was bottled in 2006 for sale at the distillery shop so you may come across a 200ml bottle with the same cask number on it. The present bottling – everything that was left in the cask – is limited to 348 bottles. That’s not much but, even though this is a special release for the Japanese market, a few cases have been set aside for Karuizawa fans abroad who are members of Bond #1. Couriers in Japan will not ship alcohol abroad if the abv is over 60%. As if to accommodate fans abroad, the whisky in cask #7752 dropped just below that limit: 59.9%. Coincidence? I don’t know, but where I come from, you don’t question good fortune … Your move.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Yamazaki “48%” for Aeon

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few months ago, we reported on a special limited edition of Suntory’s iconic Kakubin for highball bar Rockfish, available exclusively – at the time, that is – from Aeon supermarkets. It seems like the Aeon group have quite a special relationship with Suntory because last month, they managed to arrange a special limited edition bottling of their Yamazaki malt, simply entitled “48%”, which refers to the bottling strength, obviously.  It sort of slipped under the radar and, unless you can track down a bottle or two in an Aeon supermarket that doesn’t move too much liquor, your chances of getting hold of one are pretty slim now. The retail price was a little over 5,000 yen and there were only 300 bottles.
© Niko Neefs
We decided to do a little head-to-head with the standard NAS Yamazaki (bottled at 43%), which our readers abroad may not be familiar with, since it’s only available domestically, but as the entry-level Yamazaki single malt, it’s ubiquitous here and a good point of reference. Although the Aeon bottling is slightly lighter in colour compared with the NAS, it’s immediately clear on the nose that the “48%” contains a higher percentage of sherried malt. On the nose, the NAS offers stewed orchard fruits, maraschino cherries and light wood notes – in the double sense of: forest notes and new plank. The “48%” has dried fruits but also fresh orchard fruits (pears in particular). It’s also got a really nice, light earthy dimension (root vegetables), and there are hints of paper, cloves and even cardamom. Given time, the pear element becomes really pronounced.

With the NAS, on the palate, you get candied orange peel, fruit cake, butterscotch, crème brulee, honey-on-toast, soft caramel and lemon tart. It’s one of the best-kept Japanese whisky secrets, really. People abroad don’t know it and whisky fans here tend to overlook it but it is the most versatile Japanese malt on the market, in our opinion. It’s great neat, but it also works well with ice, in highballs and in mizuwaris. In fact, not a day goes by here at Nonjatta HQ that it doesn’t find its way into our system one way or another. The “48%” is even better. It’s a bit more lush, with loads of orchard fruits again, freshly-made preserves, apricot Danish, … and even though it’s obviously quite young (probably an 8yo, if they had to put an age statement on it), it’s fresh and vibrant and perfectly balanced. Well worth the extra money compared with the NAS.

© Niko Neefs
Something else we like about this Aeon release is that they named it so matter-of-factly – “48%” – and stayed away from the word “rich”, which seems to be the new buzzword here in Japan as far as new products are concerned – not just whisky, but beer and other drinks as well. We’re getting a bit sick of it, to be honest, and it’s quite interesting to compare the situation now with whisky advertising and catch-copies in vogue during the bubble years. If you check Japanese whiskies released during the 80s, you’ll see “light” everywhere. Good whisky was light. A famous catchphrase – coined by a Fuji TV writer during the bubble – was “カルチャーっぽい” ("karucha-poi"which literally means, “culture-like” but is also to be understood as a pun on the Japanese for ‘light’, i.e. ‘karu(i)’). What people wanted then - what they needed - was 'lightness' or 'leggerezza' (the Italian, which is more appropriate carrying, as it does, connotations of "a lack of control in behavior because of scant seriousness and frivolous negligence"). It’s quite interesting that, in the current recession climate, things are pushed by being advertised as “rich”…

Read more about Yamazaki Distillery here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

27yo Single Cask Grain Whisky / Fuji-Gotemba’s 40th Anniversary

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
© Stefan Van Eycken
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Kirin’s Fuji-Gotemba distillery. The distillery was opened in the wake of changes to the liquor tax and went into production on 27 November 1973. It’s never been a high-profile distillery and the bulk of their output goes into cheap blends for the domestic market but they must be doing something right since they’re still in the game, 40 years later.

© Stefan Van Eycken
A few weeks ago, the people at Kirin found out they had another reason to celebrate: Mount Fuji was granted World Heritage status by the Unesco. With so many reasons to celebrate, it seemed a little strange that no special commemorative bottlings had been announced. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Kirin released a vatted malt and it’s likely that that was a bit of a bad experience. They must have overestimated response at the time – either that or they just bottled way too much – because that 20th anniversary bottling is still available at the distillery shop, 20 years later!

Earlier this week, I happened to be at Fuji-Gotemba to do some research for my forthcoming book on the history of whisky making in Japan. It was then that I heard news about an impending special release. On July 25th, Kirin will release a limited edition of 100 bottles, only available for purchase at the distillery (strictly 1 bottle per person). This will be a single cask single grain release, matured for 27 years and bottled at cask-strength (60% abv). If this piqued your interest, what follows may be a bit of a cold shower. It’s priced at 100,000 yen a bottle. A bit steep, yes, but Kirin got their timing right since people have just collected their summer bonuses here.

© Stefan Van Eycken
Even if this commemorative bottle is out of your price range, it’s still worth visiting the distillery in its 40th anniversary year. They’ve finally got a good tour – in the past, you just had to walk around by yourself, which took all of 5 minutes – and they’ve got a few things that you can only get there: a lovely 15-year old single grain whisky, the aforementioned 20th anniversary bottling and some whisky-jelly chocolates. If you’re not driving, you can try all the special releases and even some new-make. What a treat! And even if you’re not drinking at all and aren’t particularly interested in whisky, you’re still getting a break from the oppressing heat and humidity of the capital. That in itself makes it worth the trip.

Read more about Fuji-Gotemba Distillery here.

Nine Leaves Distillery (5): The Future

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photography © by Niko Neefs

There’s not much spirit left in the storage tank at Nine Leaves distillery. A little over 400 bottles of ‘Clear’ have found their way to adventurous punters nationwide and what little is left in the tank is waiting to be filled into wood. That’s the next step on Yoshiharu Takeuchi’s journey to produce the first premium Japanese rum: maturation.
Takeuchi-san got hold of two 225-litre virgin oak casks – one American oak, the other French oak – and is planning to fill them next week. It’s a start, but he’s got bigger plans. The idea is to set aside 60% of the distillery output for his ‘Gold’ releases (i.e. rum aged between 6 months and 2 years) and 20% for his ‘Dark’ releases (rum aged well over 2 years) with the remaining 20% bottled as is, i.e. as ‘Clear’.

With 80% of the output destined to spend time in wood, Takeuchi-san is going to need more than two small casks, obviously. Aside from ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, he’s working on sourcing ex-red wine barrels. He spent a few days in the US this week, scouring Napa valley for good quality wine wood. Seems like it was a productive trip. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t have a warehouse… yet. Until there is one – and he’s planning on building one, partially below ground level to keep the angel’s share from skyrocketing during the hot summers here – those soon-to-be-filled barrels will have to sleep in the actual distillery building.

What else does the future hold for Nine Leaves distillery? Expansion? Not really. For Takeuchi-san, it’s not about quantity but about quality. He plans to produce just enough rum to keep the legislators from pulling his distilling license, i.e. the legal minimum of 6,000 litres per annum.

The first release of Nine Leaves ‘Gold’ is scheduled for the spring of next year. There’s a lot of work to be done but Takeuchi-san is ready. He’s driven but he’s patient. He knows it will take years before something will come out of his little distillery in Shiga that will be up there with the best rums in the world and of the same quality as the best Japanese single malt whiskies.

Before we head back to Tokyo, we ask Takeuchi-san what sort of practical advice he got from Akuto-san while he was learning the ropes at Chichibu distillery. “Just two things, really,” he says, “to trust your intuition and to believe in what you’re making.” Simple as that…

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nine Leaves Distillery (4): The First Bottling

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photography © by Niko Neefs

At Nine Leaves Distillery, everything is pretty much done by hand. Owner / distiller Yoshiharu Takeuchi likes that; it makes him feel part of the process. And that includes bringing the product to the customer.
His first release, unaged Nine Leaves rum, came out a few months ago. He named it ‘Clear’ – as opposed to ‘White’ – in reference to the transparent glaze that used to be mined from the mountain from which he now draws his water. (See part 1 for more about this.) Cutting the spirit in the storage tank down from about 58% to 50%, his bottling strength of choice, is one of the hardest parts of the whole process, he says. Getting the numbers right is quite tricky.

Finding the right bottle was hard, too. Most mass-produced bottles in Japan scream ‘shochu’ or ‘nihonshu’. Since rum is not a Japanese spirit – and wanting to avoid confusion with shochu and nihonshu – Takeuchi-san didn’t feel the standard bottles available here were suitable. Having them order-made was a possible solution but a costly one, especially for a craft distiller with a small output. He looked abroad and found just the right bottle in France. As he says, “everything inside is Japanese but the ‘clothes’ are foreign.”

Takeuchi-san bottles everything by hand – sometimes helped by his wife and/or son(s) – without chill-filtration. Each bottle is labeled by hand and even numbered by hand. He doesn’t feel it’s tedious at all – it’s just a continuation of the care and attention to detail that goes into making the rum. As he checks and labels a couple of bottles, using an impromptu jig he made from a piece of styrofoam, we ask him where the actual name of the distillery comes from. Turns out there’s nothing mysterious about it: it’s just a modern translation of Takeuchi-san’s family crest, which consists of... nine leaves.

The first release... and the family crest.
Join us again tomorrow for the last part of our mini-series on Nine Leaves distillery as we find out about Takeuchi-san’s plans for the future.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nine Leaves Distillery (3): The Process

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photography © by Niko Neefs

Having a distillery doesn’t make you a distiller any more than having a piano makes you a pianist. According to Yoshiharu Takeuchi, owner of the one-man rum distillery Nine Leaves, being a rum distiller is not quite as difficult as being a pianist, though. Who are we to argue with that? Today, we’ll follow him from raw product to spirit.
Even though rum is not a spirit native to Japan, it was essential for Takeuchi-san that all the raw materials for his rum would be domestically sourced. Just like he found his water source by accident, he came in contact with an excellent sugar cane producer at just the right time. As he says: “whenever I needed something, the right person turned up to help me.” The sugar cane used for his rum comes from Tarama-jima, a small island between Miyako and Ishigaki in the Okinawa archipelago.

Takeuchi-san uses 120 kg of sugar cane for one batch, i.e. per 1,000 litres. The fermentation time is 4 days and when it’s ready for the first distillation, the wash is about 6-7% abv. Following the practice of French ‘rhum agricole’ distillers, Takeuchi-san uses baker’s yeast – again, domestically sourced. The first distillation yields about 300 litres of low wines (18% abv), and the second distillation about 100 litres of spirit (62-85% abv).

During the second distillation, Takeuchi-san carefully monitors the quality of the spirit because he’s found that, even during the middle cut phase (the ‘heart’), there can be a peak of undesirable feints. Making clean cuts is not that hard, according to Takeuchi-san. During his three-day training period at Chichibu distillery, he worked closely with the stillman there and showed a natural talent for making the cuts. He credits his mother and wife’s home-cooking for giving him a discerning nose and palate – in spite of being a smoker – and says the key is to trust your nose and your instinct: “we all know what’s good and what isn’t… it’s not rocket science.”

After a day’s work, Takeuchi-san checks his clear rum. It’s smooth and fragrant with none of the harshness and fire usually associated with new-make spirit. He’s satisfied. As he empties the spirit still and moves the dunder (the spent lees) outside in his forklift truck – a Toyota, of course! – he puffs on his pipe. A picture postcard of a happy craft distiller…

Takeuchi-san doesn’t have a fixed cycle of production. That’s because the distillery is a one-man operation. When he’s busy elsewhere, the distillery is closed for days. When he’s got time, he works until the process has run its course. On an average day, Takeuchi-san will take care of his car parts business in Nagoya during the daytime, then jump in his care and drive for an hour and a half until he arrives at his distillery in Shiga prefecture and start his work there. Depending on how long things take, he will either drive back home or stay at the distillery. He likes this way of working, he says, because it’s a bit like the work cycle of a bartender. Also, since he’s the boss and the only employee at the same time, he doesn’t have to worry about overtime pay.

Making rum is one thing; bringing it to the people another. Tomorrow, we’ll follow the spirit from tank to glass. Join us again as we continue the story of Nine Leaves Distillery.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nine Leaves (2): The Distillery

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photography © by Niko Neefs

Nine Leaves Distillery is the first rum distillery on the main island of Japan, making it the most northerly located rum distillery in the country. Most rum, and its cousin ‘kokuto shochu’, is produced in the southern islands of Japan. It just makes sense because that’s where the raw materials can be found aplenty. Sure, rum is produced in Tokyo but that’s on the Ogasawara islands, technically part of Tokyo but located 1,000 kilometres south of the metropolis. Also, some of our readers may have come across something called ‘Yokosuka Rum’, but that’s not actually made in Yokosuka but in Kochi prefecture in Shikoku.
Most Japanese rum is decent enough. None of it is really up there with the top rums produced in other corners of the world, though. About three years ago, Yoshiharu Takeuchi was pondering this - to his mind - bizarre state of affairs and, not a man to waste time, set himself the goal of changing that. He wasn’t really into rum – to tell the truth he didn’t really know much about it – and he knew absolutely nothing about distilling. So how did he get a distillery up and running in a few years’ time?

Takeuchi-san runs a company that makes interior parts for cars. It was set up in Nagoya by his grandfather, so he grew up in a manufacturing environment. As said, his company makes parts for cars, and one of the many things that drove him to start a rum distillery was the desire to create something from start to finish. But again, why rum?

Takeuchi-san felt drawn to rum because, unlike whisky – which is very tightly regulated, even in countries where the rules don’t necessarily apply – there is no such thing as a ‘standard method’ of producing rum. Takeuchi-san saw this lack of global standards – and the absence of yardsticks – as an opportunity. His way of tackling the challenge was to look towards the world of whisky for pointers, to try and make a rum as if it were a malt whisky.

A chance encounter with Ichiro Akuto, who had just started up his own distillery at the time, led to a training period of … three days at Chichibu Distillery. For Takeuchi-san that was all he needed. Coming from a manufacturing background, he felt that paying close attention to the work a craft whisky distiller for three days would give him the technical know-how and ideas needed to pursue his own goal of making a premium rum. The first thing he did, on advice from Akuto-san, was fly to Scotland to order his stills from Forsyths, the best in the industry. For the wash still, he chose a short, fat still; for the spirit still, a tall, slender one with a small boil-ball. The parts were shipped from Scotland to Japan and he put everything together himself. Piece of cake.

There are two 1,000-litre washbacks at Nine Leaves Distillery and, although Takeuchi-san considered using wooden ones, like Akuto-san at Chichibu distillery, he decided to go for stainless ones when he was at Glenfarclas Distillery. He figured if they managed to make phenomenal whiskies using stainless washbacks there, he could try and do the same with his rums here.

In the next installment, we’ll take you through the whole process and show you the distillery in action. Join us again tomorrow.

Karuizawa 28yo 1983 ‘Noh’ (57,2%, No.1 Drinks 2012, sherry butt #7576, 571 btl.)

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes
Nose: beautiful Karuizawa elements come out right away. Mocha beans and chocolate, figs and cherries, as well as some tobacco. Lacquered meat. Raisins. Liquorice. Also a dryness of black tea and leather. Hints of mint and plenty of polished sandalwood. Very expressive and well balanced.
Mouth: powerful, this time very much on cigar leaves and pipe tobacco. Very concentrated notes of forest fruits, red berries and prunes. Goes on with nice bonfire smoke and earthy notes. A bitterness of mint stems, walnut skin and wood. Eucalyptus. Then back to sweeter toffee, balsamic syrup and cough sweets.
Finish: long, fruity and nutty. Milk chocolate. Liquorice and plenty of herbal notes.

Another one of these very intense Karuizawa expressions that still manage to keep the rich balance between sweet, sour and savoury notes perfectly right. As small extras there are peaty notes and the classic exotic woods. Quite wonderful and probably one of the best Karuizawa expressions bottled in 2012.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Nine Leaves Distillery (1): The Source

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Photography © by Niko Neefs

It’s not everyday you get to witness the start of a new distillery in Japan. Well, it’s not everyday a new distillery is built here. The obstacles are enormous – more so than in other whisky-producing countries – and it’s highly unlikely we’ll see anything like a craft/micro-distilling boom here any time soon. So when the first spirit runs off the stills of a new distillery in Japan, it’s big news. It’s even more extraordinary when a new distillery is the work and vision of one man. Meet Yoshiharu Takeuchi, the owner of – and, basically, the entire crew at – the Nine Leaves Distillery.  Oh yes, it’s a rum distillery but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a malt whisky distillery. More about that later.
On an excruciatingly hot and humid summer day in early July, the Nonjatta team made the trek all the way to Shiga to spend a day at work with Takeuchi-san. Over the next few days, we’ll show you what makes Nine Leaves so special. A day in the life of a new rum distiller…

The Source

Nine Leaves Distillery is located in Shiga prefecture near the South Basin of Lake Biwa (Biwako), along the Seta river (Setagawa), the only river flowing out of the lake (as opposed to the 118 rivers that flow into the lake). The distillery sits at the foot of a small mountain that doesn’t really have a name but people in the area refer to it as ‘Ishiyama’ (lit. stone mountain).

Straight out of 'Totoro': the entrance to the caves
The mountain is privately owned by the Inoue family, who started mining it for the transparent glaze used in noritake porcelain three generations ago. At some point, while dynamiting the interior of the mountain 50m below ground level, they discovered a water source. In retrospect, this turned out to be a profound stroke of luck for the Inoue family and also for the new rum distillery.

Towards the source
About twenty years ago, most producers of noritake in Japan started using glaze imported in bulk from China. The cost was 1/50th of glazed sourced in Japan and things didn’t look too good for the Inoue family. Only artisans on the highest echelons of noritake production – those whose artifacts sell for millions of yen – continued to use locally-sourced glaze, but that wasn’t enough to keep the Inoue family business afloat. They reinvented themselves and started bottling the water that had been accidentally discovered (it’s sold under the ‘Iwashimizu’ name). Now, that same water is central to the Nine Leaves Distillery’s operation.

Forlorn glaze
Takeuchi-san discovered the water source by accident, too… although, ‘by accident’ may not be the right expression. Takeuchi-san often uses the Japanese word ‘goen’ (pronounced ‘go-en’) when talking about how his distillery came to be. ‘Goen’ is usually translated as ‘good luck’ but it implies something beyond the accidental – a connection or relationship with karmic overtones.

The water source
The water is very soft (12 mg/L) and very pure (pH 7). For Takeuchi-san this was the perfect water for his rum, but it took him well over a year to persuade the community that his distillery would not have a negative impact on the local ecosystem. Once they were on board, Takeuchi-san could focus all his energy on designing the actual distillery, nuts and bolts, and building it from the ground up.

The Ishiyama shrine
Join us tomorrow as we open the shutters and discover the distillery itself.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Osaka, Suntory City (3)

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

We’re finishing our round-up of Suntory attractions in Osaka with three fairly recent establishments.

Whisky Shop W.
© Niko Neefs
Whisky Shop W. is located in the Suntory HQ building in the Dojima district of Osaka. It’s not really geared towards the malt maniac, but two things make this a port of call for us whenever we’re in town. One, they’ve always got a store exclusive bottling, whether it be one of their 300ml NAS Hakushu / Yamazaki / Chita special bottlings or a single cask (anniversary / Owner’s Cask bottlings). Two, you can try the entire Suntory line-up, including limited releases such as the yearly Heavily Peated, Sherry a.o. Hakushu / Yamazaki offerings and even things you’d have a hard time getting your hands on, such as the recent Deep Harmony (bar-trade only) Hibiki. They’ve also got Scotch and American whiskeys from the Suntory portfolio and a variety of snacks and goods. The only thing we don’t like about this place is their crazy hours.

© Niko Neefs
Address: Suntory Building 1F, 2-1-40 Dojimahama, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0004
Tel: 06-6341-3123
Hours: Mon - Fri: 10:30 - 18:30; Closed on Sat, Sun & National Holidays

The Aging House 1795

© Niko Neefs
This bar/restaurant is in the same building as Whisky Shop W. so the best thing is to go around noon when you can take advantage of both. It opened on March 21, 2013 in the wake of their ‘Cool Bourbon’ campaign, just after Suntory had acquired the Jim Beam brand. It features a nice albeit limited selection of Jim Beam-based libations – including their original Jim Beam Mint Julep – and cured, smoked and whiskey-aged meats. Unlike the Highball Bars, where the drinks are the main attraction, The Aging House is really a place where you’d go to eat and have a couple whiskey(s)/cocktails to help wash down the beef. As said, lunch is the best time to go, also in terms of value for money.

© Niko Neefs
Address: Suntory Building 1F, 2-1-40 Dojimahama, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0004
Tel: 06-6345-2118
Hours: Mon -Sat: 11:30 - 15:00, 17:00 - 23:00; Closed on Sun & National Holidays

Suntory Whisky House

© Niko Neefs
The most recent Suntory establishment in Osaka is the Suntory Whisky House, located on the second floor of the Grand Front building. It opened a few months ago (April 29, 2013) and it’s got something for everyone. There’s a mini exhibition of Suntory memorabilia and old bottles. There’s also a shop with furniture made from used barrels. They’ve got everything from tables and chairs to racks and even a mini bar for your home. Chances are – if you spend more than 5 minutes looking around – you’ll find something you’ll want to take with you. (I speak from experience!) There’s also a bar, with the standard official bottlings and some older “vintage” releases, and a restaurant. It’s easy to be dismissive about these PR-driven establishments, but the restaurant really is fantastic. Best time to go is in the evening when you’ve got the whole menu to choose from. The food’s so good I forgot to take notes last time I was there. Whatever you do, don’t finish without trying the Hibiki Ice Cream… and it’s even better with a Hibiki on the side.

Hibiki Ice Cream © Niko Neefs
Address: Grand Front Osaka 2F, 3-1 Ofuka-cho, Kita-ku, 530-0011 Osaka
Tel: 06-6359-2177
Whisky Gallery: Mon - Sun: 11:00 - 20:00
Whisky Dining WWW. W :  Mon - Sun: 11:30 - 14:00, 17.30 - 23:00
Whisky Bottle Bar DEN OSAKA: Mon - Sat: 17:30 - 24:00

Also take a look at:
Part 1 : Juso Torys Bar
Part 2 : Highball Bar Umeda 1923

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Osaka, Suntory City (2)

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Yesterday, we introduced one of the few remaining Torys Bars. Today, we're looking at the present-day equivalent of the Torys Bar: Suntory’s Highball Bars.

Highball Bar Umeda 1923

In Japan, most people associate the year 1923 with the Great Kanto Earthquake. When the earthquake struck, Suntory was about to create history of a different kind: the country’s first whisky distillery was almost ready for production and a few months later, the first spirit ran from the stills. That was really the beginning of the story of Japanese whisky and so it’s understandable that Suntory decided to attach the year the Yamazaki Distillery was founded to its chain of new highball bars. Sounds better than “Highball Bar 2009”, but it was, in fact, then that Suntory finally managed to break the downward spiral of domestic whisky consumption.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Younger whisky drinkers found old-style whisky bars a bit intimidating, so Suntory tried to get their cheaper whiskies into bars where they could be used for highballs, as an alternative to beer. As they say, the rest is history… The highball concept (revival, actually) really took off; other domestic whisky producers – big and small – jumped on the bandwagon; and whisky sales were up again for the first time in decades. In 2011, Suntory took the highball concept to the next stage and started opening themed highball bars (“Suntory Highball Bars”) built around the concept of “creating specialty bars that offer premium quality highball cocktails”. The first, Highball Bar Shimbashi 1923, was opened on January 28, 2011 in Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighbourhood. Soon after, they started opening Highball Bars left and right. In Osaka, the place to experience the highball boom is definitely Highball Bar Umeda 1923.

The flagship highballs are dispensed from 5-tap highball towers, exclusively designed by Suntory. Here’s what they have to say about the how and why: “It is presumptuous of us to call our shop a Specialty Highball Bar but we have good reasons for this:
- our whisky is cooled below 2 °C by using a dedicated dispenser;
- our soda water is made from mineral water; its gas volume is 6.0, the highest in the beverage industry;
- we use ice which is made below  - 15 °C and shaped like icycles; it keeps highballs extremely cold and highly-carbonated
So, they are delicious!”

Ginger Highball & Yamazaki Raisin Butter © Stefan Van Eycken
And they are. Our personal favourites are the “Hakushu Forest Highball” and the “Yamazaki Highball” (both of which used to be built around the 10yo expressions, but since these have been discontinued, they switched to the NAS versions). We’re also quite fond of the “Hibiki 12 Highball” and, as a palate cleanser, the “Ginger Highball” (Kaku highball mixed with maple syrup infused with freshly grated ginger). The latter is so good we never leave a Highball Bar without having at least one of those. They’ve also got a selection of food that goes well with highballs, such as “Yamazaki Miso” (a mix of white miso, Yamazaki whisky and sea urchin miso, served with narazuke pickles and cucumber sticks) and “Yamazaki Raisin Butter” (made with raisins soaked in Yamazaki whisky).

Hakushu Forest Highball © Stefan Van Eycken
Decorated to reflect a “nostalgic modern” theme, these Highball Bars have proven to be very popular. Last time I was at the Umeda 1923, a couple of days ago, it was so packed I actually had to wait to get a seat at the counter. It seems like Suntory’s highball strategy is working big time. If you’re not a convert yet, check out Highball Bar Umeda 1923 or another one near you. But only if you want to be converted…

Address: Umesendo Building 1F, 2-1-3 Shibata, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0012
Tel: 06-6375-2300
Hours: Monday - Saturday: 11:30 - 15:00 & 17:00 - 1:00
Sunday - Holidays: 11:30 - 15:00 & 17:00 - 24:00

Also take a look at:
Part 1 : Juso Torys Bar
Part 3 : Whisky Shop W., The Aging House 1795 & Suntory Whisky House

More Releases of Suntory and Nikka for the US Market

Post by Chris of the WhiskyWall

The Japanese whisky companies that already have a presence here in the US (Suntory and Nikka) have been very busy over the summer.  In fact, it looks like a mini-arms race broke out.  Both Suntory and Nikka appear poised to increase and diversify their existing line up.  Currently Suntory offers the Yamazaki 12 and 18, Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 12.  Nikka recently entered the US market with Yoichi 15 and Taketsuru 12.
Suntory is going big with a new release for the Yamazaki line and for the Hakushu line.  Contrary to the current trend of younger whiskies and non-age statement expression, Suntory is releasing the venerable Yamazaki 25.  This release has earned some very distinguished awards over the years including the 2012 Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards.  The Yamazaki 25 will come in at 43% ABV.  As for pricing we don't have those details yet but if it is anywhere near the pricing in Japan (~$900) it is going to be a luxury bottle.

Suntory also decided to go big with their new Hakushu release - big peat that is.  The new release will be the Hakushu Heavily Peated.  This has been an annual release in Japan of 3000 bottles that has tended to sell out very quickly.  Suntory is bringing the Heavily Peated in at a lower ABV though.  In Japan the release has always been at 48% ABV but the label for the US version indicates that it will be released here at 43% ABV.  The pricing should be closer to the $100 mark as that is roughly what it sells for retail across the pond.

Nikka is introducing the US to its other single malt distillery, Miyagikyo.  This distillery is located in the northern part of Japan's main island Honshu, in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.  This is still south of Nikka's Yoichi distillery which is on the northern island of Hokkaido.  The Miyagikyo expression will be 12 years old and bottled at 45% ABV.

Nikka is also supplementing its pure malt line with the Taketsuru 17 and the 21.  Taketsuru is a pure malt in that it is a vatting of two single malt whisky distilleries:  Yoichi and Miyagikyo (Sorry Scotch Whisky Association - can't prohibit a Japanese whisky company from using the term pure malt).  Both Taketsuru expressions will be bottled at 43% ABV.

Unfortunately the details of when all of these expressions will be released are unknown to us at this time.  But we imagine that they will try to have them ready to roll out or start to announce them in the fall - whisky season here.  As we get more information on release dates and pricing we will update.  Keep it up Suntory and Nikka! Get these new expression into the market and keep more of them coming in!

Editor's note: Label photos from TTB application approval