Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2014: Japanese Whiskies

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few weeks ago, we spent the better part of the day at the annual Whisky Festival in Tokyo. Organized by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, this has quickly become one of the most anticipated whisky events of the year in Japan. With TIBS/Whisky Live leaving the real whisky aficionado somewhat wanting this year, we heard many people comment that the Whisky Festival in Tokyo was what they had been waiting for all year long.
The festival bottlings: Caperdonich 1994 (l) and Blair Athol 1991 (r).
© Howard Weitzman
Rather than do a comprehensive review of this year’s edition (which would make for a long post, indeed), we’ll limit ourselves to the Japanese whisky presence at the festival and spotlight some recent and forthcoming bottlings.

The festival provided further evidence – if any was needed – that the big boys (Suntory and Nikka) have abandoned the hard-core whisky fan base that saw them through the hard times before the current (post-2009) highball boom. Volume is the order of the day, now – and small-batch limited editions or single cask releases are just a drop in the bucket and too much hassle to deal with from their point of view… hence nothing special was to be found at their respective booths. (One wonders whether the PR departments at either company have any idea of the specific demographics of the various whisky festivals in Japan – as the Whisky Festival in Tokyo is clearly aimed at the whisky connoisseur rather than the casual drinker.)
Kirin had brought an interesting new release to the festival – a pair, actually: Fuji Gotemba Blender’s Choice Single Malt & Single Grain (bottled at 46%abv, 500ml, limited to 500 bottles each). Expertly crafted by chief blender Jota Tanaka, it is clear Kirin is exploring ways of recapturing the attention of whisky fans. The quality of this pair and the reasonable pricing augurs well for the future.
© Howard Weitzman
As always, there was no lack of interest at the Chichibu booth. There was no new festival-only release as such (it is difficult for smaller distilleries to have a new product ready for every single whisky festival especially when there are so many in just a few months’ time, as was the case here in Japan after the summer), but there was a lot of excitement about a prototype bottling: a bit of a mystery, a peated malt from Chichibu but a ‘blended malt’… People felt this was one of the highlights of the festival, so if Akuto-san proceeds to bottle this, it will be a sure hit!
Our friends from Mars (the distillery, not the planet, obviously) had brought their recently released ‘Komagatake Sherry & American White Oak 2011’ (3yo, 57%abv, 5,200btls.), a promising dram. We spoke at length with the good folk from Mars and found out they had replaced the old stills with two brand-new (made in Japan!) stills – exactly the same size and shape (since the old blueprints were used). The old stills have been turned into a little monument in front of the distillery. Since the 2014-15 distilling season started just after the new stills had been put in place (at the beginning of December), it will be interesting to see what the new spirit is like in comparison with the old one.
© Hombo Shuzou
The people at Mars also told us that they are planning to release the first single cask from the new regime (i.e. post-2011) in the summer of next year. Their old stock is dwindling very fast – apparently no more than 40 casks are left in the warehouse. We were a little sad to hear that – because of re-racking – the two mizunara casks that we reported on a couple of years ago (check here) are no more… so that means we will have to wait another couple of decades for the possibility of a Mars mizunara release, if it ever happens. It does indicate, however, that quality is the prime concern there at Mars Shinshu – not hype / sexy words on the label.
Eigashima never participates in whisky festivals but they did have a new single cask bottling at the festival, courtesy of the people at Gaia Flow. This one is called ‘Kiri’ (#61191) and it’s a double-matured single cask (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), as so often with Eigashima. It was distilled in the summer of 2009 and filled into a European oak hogshead. After three years, it was re-racked into a white wine cask (from their Yamanashi winery) and left to further mature for two years. It’s bottled at 58% (as are most single casks at Eigashima) and available now. It’s one of the better single cask Eigashimas, so it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Our friends at Shinanoya had brought some stunning new store-exclusives (a Glenfarclas Family Cask 1979 bottled in conjunction with The Bow Bar in Sapporo; a fantastic Cadenhead’s Graigellachie 1994 and a 1997 Michel Huard Calvados), but there was a lot of buzz surrounding a forthcoming bottling that was announced at the festival: “Wa-Kyo” (lit. “Japanese harmony/resonance”), a blended malt created by Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo centred on Yamazaki 1984 Mizunara malt and with a label featuring calligraphy by Sho-shu (who created the calligraphy for an NHK period drama currently running). No word on when exactly it will be out, what the outturn will be and what it will be priced at, but we’ll keep you posted.
There was lots more to be excited about at the festival, but we’ll leave it at this. The next festival on the Scotch Whisky Research Centre’s calendar is the inaugural Whisky Festival in Kyoto on February 22, 2015. If it’s as good at this year’s Tokyo edition – and why wouldn’t it be? – it is worth the trip alone!

7 comments:

Tony said...

So it's largely left to SMWS now to keep the single casks of Suntory and Nikka flowing?

Stefan Van Eycken said...

Indeed, though you shouldn't be under the impression that, just because they release 8 at a time, there are going to be regular single casks from Japanese distilleries... it could be years before they bottle some again.

Tony said...

One of the reasons I have bought a few this time. And boy, the ones I have tried so far are good!

Anonymous said...

Can anyone point me to a list of whisky festivals in Japan. A good friend is living in Toyko and i'm going to try and combine a visit and a festival somewhere in Japan.

Thanks

Adam

Stefan Van Eycken said...

There is no such list because festivals always change date / location. Festivals are usually announced a month or two before they happen. Your bet bet is to keep an eye on our FB page or our site, as always...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stefan. Do you know of any after the Kyoto festival on the 22nd Feb? Adam

Stefan Van Eycken said...

No, no dates for whisky festivals after the one in Kyoto have been announced yet - not even unofficially..