Monday, April 30, 2007

Japanese Whisky History (1960s-90): Keizo Saji, single malt pioneer

Jurassic Period // Unlocking Scotland I // Unlocking Scotland II //Whisky and war// Whisky and war II // Pioneer of Single Malts // Kumaso scandal

It is customary when writing the history of Japanese whisky to talk about two men: Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. Depending on which company's creation myth you are listening to, either Taketsuru or Torii or both brought whisky to Japan in the 1920s.

It is a fascinating beginning, but talking only about Taketsuru and Torii seems to me a bit like trying to write the story of Rome and stopping at Romulus and Remus. Let`s talk about the Caesar of Japanese whisky: Keizo Saji (1919-1999). Without mention of Saji, I don't believe it is possible to properly understand Japanese single malt.

Keizo Saji

Saji was Shinjiro Torii's second son* and became president of his father's company, Kotobukiya, in 1961. He renamed it Suntory in 1963 and under him the firm developed into the Colossus it is today. During the 1970s, Japan experienced a whisky boom and Suntory was sitting right on top when it went off. It seemed every salaryman had a bottle of whisky waiting for him in his favourite bar. All of this whisky was blended and some of the stuff the office workers were sticking in their "mizuwaris" (very diluted whisky and water mixes) was of dubious quality but, in the midst of all this heavy drinking, Saji became convinced that the market would eventually develop in the direction of premium products. He started to build the "Hibiki" brand, a top quality blended whisky, and quietly began to prepare Suntory's range of premium single malts. In 1984, Yamazaki 12 years old, Japan's first really mass marketed single malt whisky, was launched. The Yamazaki distillery was largely refitted five years later and that investment paid off in 2003 when a Yamazaki 12, laid down after the refit, won a gold medal from the International Spirits Challenge. By that time, single malts from Suntory's deadly rival Nikka were also making a splash globally, but Saji Keizo and Suntory can claim a good deal of the credit for launching Japanese single malts on the world.

Saji's vision has yet to fully play itself out. Men from the 1970s and 1980s generations still, as a whole, have very little idea about the distinction between single malts and blends. They would generally identify a bottle of Johnnie Walker as the very finest whisky money can buy and reflexively stick half a bucket of water and some ice in their whiskies. A boom in the demand among younger people for Shochu, Japan's indigenous spirit, has hit whisky consumption. Shochu has less of a fuddy duddy image than whisky and its producers are now producing a variety of top quality products rather than the tubs of cheap booze that Shochu making used to be associated with. However, in the long run, I think it would be foolish to bet against Saji's assessment. I have a feeling that the real explosion in popularity of single malts will come from the sophisticated younger Shochu drinkers, educated by their adventures in that world and looking for something new, rather than the whisky boomers. Meantime, the top shelves of the liquor stores are filling up with good malts, both Scotch and Japanese.

*Saji was adopted by his mother's relatives, a common practice in Japan, and so took a different surname from his father Torii.


Update: A visit to the new distillery
Update: Ichiro Akuto's new distillery has got its official licence.
Update: The ground breaking ceremony at Chichibu

The Hanyu distillery sat in a town of the same name in a plain of rice fields near the Tone river. Unfortunately, the Toa company which ran Hanyu went bankrupt and stopped distilling in 2000. The stills were dismantled in 2004 after a change of ownership.

It seemed like the end of a long history of family brewing and distilling stretching back to the 17th century. The business had been founded by the Akuto family, sake-makers from the town of Chichibu, and an Akuto - Isouji Akuto - was still in charge when the Hanyu plant was built during the Second World War. In about 1980 they began Scotch style whisky making but were unable to survive the venture's birth pangs in a contracting and increasingly competitive market.

And there the story of Hanyu would rest, another footnote in the corporatisation of Japan, if it were not for Isouji's grandson Ichiro Akuto. He worked as a brand manager for the big conglomerate Suntory as a young man and then joined his family's company as sales manager. He was president when the firm hit the rocks. However, with the help of a sake making company called Sasanokawa Shuzou, he was able to salvage something from the wreck of his family's business: a large part of the stocks of malt whisky held at Hanyu, which were no longer wanted by the new owners of the site.

Ichiro has started a new company - Venture Whisky Ltd. - to market this whisky. He wants to set up a new distillery and is using all his marketing expertise to get people involved in the story of this phoenix-like rebirth and to establish "Ichiro's Malt" as a strong brand. He is greatly helped in this endeavour by the fact that some of the old Hanyu whisky he is selling is of excellent quality. The branding is worthy of an old Suntory marketing hand, with a distinctive playing card theme being employed.

Ichiro Akuto has begun to assemble the distilling equipment he will need to start production again and has picked a new site. He says the new distillery will operate on a small scale, emphasising traditional crafts and skills. He has employed Mitsuo Saito, one of Japan's most experienced coopers, to make Japanese oak and American oak casks for him.

Other Hanyu whisky
There are several brands of single malt from Hanyu besides that marketed by Ichiro's Venture Whisky. The old Toa malts used to be marketed under the "Chichibu" name and if you see the name "Golden Horse" it may be from this distillery. There was also a fairly celebrated bottling by Full Proof Holland/Europe, featuring a caber tossing short-skirted Japanese girl on the label, but that seems to have run out. (The shameless but classic label lives on in a bottling of cask throwing Karuizawa single malt reviewed here.)

View the location of the old Hanyu on a map of Japan's single malt distilleries here (I have not yet confirmed this location with Akuto san, but I am pretty sure). If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!

Related linksIchiro's blog
"Malt dream" documentary site
Number One Drinks Company - import Ichiro's malt into the UK. Their website was the source of some of the information in this entry and I stole my main illustration from them too.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Nestled in the Southern Japanese Alps, Hakushu is one of the loftiest malt whisky distilleries in the world. It is owned by Suntory, one of the big two Japanese Single Malt distillers.
The distillery takes its water from beneath Kai-Komagatake ("Pony Mountain"), the impressive granite peak on whose forested coat tails it sits. I think the name Hakushu means "white sand bar" and refers to white sand washed down from the mountain.
Hakushu in Japanese Characters

And in computer text, in case you want to search for Hakushu on the Japanese internet: 白州 (Hakushu) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)
The distillery
Hakushu, with its trademark walkway linked twin roofs, is a very large site and actually contains two separate distilleries. The original distillery was opened in 1973 but its 24 stills have now gone silent. The single malts come from the second, known as Hakushu Higashi (Hakushu East), which came on line in 1981.
The water used by Hakushu is soft as opposed to the relatively hard water used by Suntory's other single malt distillery at Yamazaki. This is because of the granite mountainside. Rainwater is naturally soft but can pick up minerals as it runs through certain types of ground. The rainwater at Hakushu falls on hard rock and therefore retains its softness.
The distillery has a museum, restaurant, nature walks and a factory shop where they sell all kinds of gumph: not just whisky but whisky cake chocolates, pen cases, barrels for your garden etc. etc. etc..
Single malts from Hakushu

See the side bar.

View location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
The distillery is open to the public between 10am and 4.30pm (in the Golden week holidays in April to early May this is extended to 6pm in some years). There are guided tours of the plant every half hour between 10 am and 3pm. They take about an hour and include a tasting at the end.
Print out this coupon and take it along. I think it might give you a discount or something.
Torihara 2913-1,
Ten minutes by taxi from JR Kobuchizawa station.
Tel: 0551 35 2211
Address in Japanese:
〒408-0316 山梨県北杜市白州町鳥原2913-1
Website in Japanese
Directions in JapaneseAll Suntory locations in English

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Hibiki 17 years - "pollen laden"

Hibiki is perhaps most famous outside Japan for its walk-on part in the film "Lost in Translation". In Japan, it is just famous. It is probably the most prestigious Japanese whisky brand you can buy. Although a blended whisky, Hibiki will set you back 6000 yen plus, more than many of the single malts. It is a very good blended whisky and the peppery floral taste is quite distinct from the prestige Scottish blends I have tasted.

There are things about this Hibiki that remind me of what I love about Hakushu 12, but this drink is in a lower register. The nose is much more heavily floral than the Hakushu 12's: a pollen laden field in summer. I nearly sneezed. In the mouth, it has a touch of that Hakushu 12 pepper but there is a more mellow spiciness here. A taste of pine sap then a nice long warming finish.

Hibiki tastes good if you add ice, as most Japanese people do, and is marketed as being designed to complement Japanese food (see the Hakushu 12 post for more background on this). Overall, it is good stuff but perhaps a little bit pricey relative to some of the excellent single malts Japan is making.

Reviews by more reliable types
Martine Nouet, Whisky Magazine, 40,4/6/2004. 8.75/10. Nouet liked the rich noseand found the palate full-flavoured: "Stewed peaches, coffee, walnuts. Aniseed. With water, toffee and more cream." She said it was quite dry at the finish, with nuts and spices.
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, 40,4/6/2004. 8.5/10. Broom found the nose elegantly sweet "with some creamy oak notes... Dried orange peel. Light cocoa butter. Violet." In the mouth, it was sweet and expansive with red fruit and toffee caramel flavours developing. It had a "balanced dry oak" and a good slightly nutty length.
Serge Valentin,, March 19, 2005. 79/100 ("better than average"). Valentin thought the nose nothing to rave about: "fresh, on cereals, quite bold. Hints of spices." The palate had a nice balance "but not much character, with some caramel and apricot jam. A little bit of wood. Flawless but not too interesting."
Hibiki 17 years' 2000 bottling got an average score of 79/100 ("better than average") from five reviewers on the website.

43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 6,670 yen

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Hakushu 12 years - "peppery"

This is a favourite of mine. The nose is quite restrained. There is some grape in there, a bit of caramel and also some floral flourishes. Tastes forthright and sweet. Dried apricots? But what really seals the deal for me is the well controlled pepperiness. It is quite light and playful. There is the merest hint of TCP sweetness near the end. But we are talking a hint, this is peppery not medicinal.

A bit of background: Suntory, who make Hakushu, put a lot of emphasis in their marketing on their whiskies being designed to go with Japanese food. Nikka, their main rival, put more emphasis on "authentic-ness". I suppose this difference might be stretched and simplified thus: Suntory like to pose as making "Japanese whisky"; Nikka market themselves as making "authentic Japanese Scotch". There is a danger of making too much of this difference, since a great deal of it is in the marketing style rather than the whisky, but it does seem to have some resonance when tasting the Hakushu 12 and the Hibiki 17. They do have quite a distinctive peppery taste. I can imagine them going quite well with a gingery fish side-dish or something. Japanese people usually eat a little bit when they drink. They also almost always put ice in their whisky, and often make very diluted "mizuwaris" (literally, "water mix") with it. I don`t know about the mizuwari - it seems a shame at this time of year to take good whisky that way, I will wait until the Japanese summer gets to its most sticky and oppressive for that - but Hakushu 12 tastes fairly good with ice. This, by the way, is also true of the Hibiki 17. Suntory always seem to advertise these drinks with ice in them. I`ll keep on taking this favourite without, however, until the weather changes my mind.

Reviews by more reliable types
Martine Nouet, Whisky Magazine, 56,1/6/2006. 7.5/10. Nouet found it sweet and florid on the nose, with sweet citrus notes emerging. In the mouth, she found it a little coarse compared to a "subtle" nose. It tasted sweet but prickly: "ginger and Tabasco". She found the finish drying and spicy with a distant hint of cashew nut.
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, 56,1/6/2006. 7.25/10. Broom memorably described this whisky as a ""a trembling and rather sensitive wee soul, but a charming afternoon companion." He found its nose clean and pure: "lightly floral and fragrant if a little lean". The palate was also light: "Starts sweet, then softens into peach before becoming nutty (praline)." Contradicting Nouet's impression, Broom felt the "well ordered" palate delivered more than the nose promised. The finish was "clean but a little short".
Serge Valentin,, March 19, 2005.84/100 ("Recommendable"). Valentin liked the apple and light spices on the nose and also detected "some fresh maritime notes". He found it had a nice rounded liveliness, with a "sweet and delicately peaty and smoky" taste. Overall "a good one."
The 2005 bottling has gained an average score of 83/100 ("recommendable") from the reviewers on the website.

43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 7,035 yen

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ichiro's Malt 15 years - "Tom Cruise not Alec Guinness"

I have struggled with this one: quite a buttoned up sort of a drink and not easy to characterize. It is not my favourite Ichiro`s Malt, not enough character for that, but there is nothing particularly wrong with it either. I wouldn`t even say it was boring, just not really striking in any particular way. Tom Cruise not Alec Guinness.

It had a fairly strong nose: a cross between sweet, cheap fizzy cider and the plastic smell of a freshly unpacked blow-up doll. The first taste was quite drying. Spicy. Cloves? There was also a wood flavour, like sucking on an ice lolly stick. It was balanced and classy enough but, as I say, quite a buttoned up, stiff upper lip sort of chap. Funnily enough, I found this one benefited more from a touch of water than the Ichiro's Malt Three of Diamonds or the Single Cask 2000, both of which are more powerfully alcoholic. Diluted, it was a bit more mellow and rounded.

Finished in Cognac barrels.
Non chill filtered. Non coloured.
300 bottles.

46 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 7,500 yen

Shopping info: The Ginza stores, Tokyo

Most of the big Ginza department stores carry limited stocks of Japanese single malt. Overall, I was quite disappointed by their selections when I visited. They are really not much better than two of the better local supermarkets round where I live. Although it is a fairly reliable source if you are on a flying visit, I wouldn't advise a massive detour to visit the Ginza. The selection is pretty much limited to Yoichi, Miyagikyou, Yamazaki and Hakushu, with some Karuizawa and Fuji Gotenba occasionally thrown into the mix. Some of the stores carry miniatures, which might be a good way to sample some of this stuff without spending a fortune.

Usually, the liquor sections are in the department stores' basements. If you go to the Ginza on a weekend you will have a more restful shopping experience because they have taken the very civilised decision to shut it off to traffic.

There is no clear winner among these shops, so I will let some photos say several thousand words. Click on the photos for bigger images:


Various ages of Yamazaki, various ages of Yoichi, some Karuizawa. (Oh, and by the way, some of that highly sought after Old Parr's Superior up at the top there, methinks.)


They had these miniatures (only Yamazaki is a single malt) and a small cabinet with a very limited range of proper bottles. I have not checked out their main store further north in Nihonbashi yet.

Yamazaki miniaturesMatsuya

A fairly reasonable, if standard, selection, plus a couple of miniatures.

Yoichi, Miyagikyou, Hakushu, plus various ages of Yamazaki.

Yamazaki and Hakushu miniatures.

MeidiyaI have included Meidiya, which is not a department store but a foreign luxuries shop, in this Ginza section. It is further up Chuo-dori on your left, if you are walking north, near the junction with the Tokyo station street. It has a big "My" on its blue shopfront. Meidiya carries a fairly good selection of Japanese single malts, as well as a lot of foreign wines and spirits, but it is not startlingly better than the department stores to the South.

Couple of different types of Karuizawa, as well as Yamazaki, Fuji-Gotenba (?) and Yoichi.
Chuo-dori, Chuo-ku, central Tokyo.
View location on map of single malt stores.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

And on the 14th day he rested...

A Japanese view of an Englishman drinking far too much (served by a couple of other foreigners, I think).
Artist: Sadahide, 1861.

Courtesy of this library.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ichiro's Malt Three of Diamonds - "butterscotch"

Hazy memory of this one, another of my tipples on my visit to the Argyll in Tokyo. It smelled of butterscotch and that taste met you in the mouth too: definitely Werther's Originals (I must have had a suppressed desire to gobble sweets on Friday night because everything seems to have brought up candy comparisons). Then, liquorice, along with Ichiro`s usual power finish: like popping in a Fisherman`s Friend with the remains of the Werthers?But in a nice way. Liked it.

Distilled in 1998
Bottled in 2007
Finished in Bourbon wood.
Non chill filtered. Non coloured.
273 bottled

56 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 12,800 yen

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ichiro's Choice Peated Golden Promise - "gas leak"

A bit of an oddity, this one. Bottled by the Ichiro's Malts people, it is from the Karuizawa distillery rather than their usual Hanyu distillery stock. Odder still, it is heavily peated, which is not a normal Karuizawa feature. Tasted this at Bar Argyll on Friday night and was devoting all my energies to talking a load of rubbish rather than tasting. This write up is more than likely also a load of rubbish. Never stopped me before.

Nose: If I smelled this coming out of my house, I would call the Gas Board immediately. Maybe the Water Board? Drains.

My first thought on tasting it was that it was a good job Karuizawa's style was not heavy peating, else they would be a bit of a car crash. Cabbages. Quite sweet: Cabbages boiled in orange juice. My second thought was that it was not as bad as I had thought. A bit different. In certain gaseous moods, I could go for this.

Distilled 1994
Bottled 2006
Sherry barrel
505 bottled

61 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 6,500 yen


Updates 2012: Stefan's "vignette" on casks

Updates: What does the future hold for Karuizawa? And Kirin and Suntory in merger talks. And Strike Karuizawa from your tour plans and No.1 acquires all the stock

The town of Karuizawa is a well known tourist spot. High in the Japanese Alps, it is traditionally a place for sweating inhabitants of the Tokyo plain to come for a bit of relief in summer. In fact, the current Emperor met his wife on a trip to Karuizawa. The Karuizawa distillery, in a populated area to the West of the main part of Karuizawa, sits somewhat insecurely on the southern slopes of Mount Asama, the island of Honshu's most active volcano. The mountain has erupted 152 times, most recently in 2004. Karuizawa malts have a reputation of being a bit on the aggressive side too.

The DistilleryThe Karuizawa site, previously a vineyard, first started distilling in 1956 and became one of three distilleries owned by the Mercian company . Mercian used to blend all Karuizawa's malts with products from its other distilleries but from about 1987 it began producing single malts from here. They built up a good reputation. Karuizawa has four stills and takes its water from a spring under Mount Asama. It uses Golden Promise malt shipped from Simpson’s of Berwick. Much of its whisky is matured in Sherry casks. The distillery's ivy covered buildings are quite picturesque and Mercian capitalise on this with a museum, visitor centre and restaurant on the site.

In 2006/7 Mercian was taken over the Kirin conglomerate, which has retained the Mercian name as a subdivision of its massive alcohol business. It is as yet unclear how the takeover will effect the Karuizawa whisky line. Kirin also own the Fuji Gotemba single brands (and a number of other cheaper whisky brands) and the takeover of Mercian has made them a significant force in whisky. The Mercian acquisition may not have been motivated by a drive to expand their whisky business, however. The conglomerate has subsequently made Mercian the centre of its wine division but transferred the sales side of the Karuizawa whisky brand to its Kirin offices. I have been asked whether the merger might also effect Karuizawa production, with perhaps fewer bottlings or (horror of horrors) a halt in production. I published this post explaining my current understanding of the situation.

Karuizawa in Japanese characters

In computer text, in case you want to search for Karuizawa on the Japanese internet: 軽井沢 (Karuizawa) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)
Single malts from Karuizawa
See the side bar.

LocationView location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
Good visitor facilities. Not sure whether there is a distillery tour.
Karuizawa Distillery,
1795-2 Oaza Maseguchi,
Tel. 0267-320-0288
Fax 0267-32-0289
Address in Japanese:
軽井沢蒸留所 〒389-0207 長野県北佐久郡御代田町大字馬瀬口1795-2

Ichiro's Malt Two of Clubs - "boiled sweets"

This Ichiro has a Japanese "Mizunara" oak finish. Tossed it back on an evening out at the Argyll. Didn`t really have my tasting hat on and I am afraid my memory is a little fuzzy, so my normal warning not to take my write-ups seriously is going out cask strength on this occasion.

Unlike the similarly powerful Ichiro`s Malt 2000, this one would benefit from a few drops of water. Undiluted, the nose had a touch of blackberry. The taste was slightly astringent but could still detect the fruit: more blackberry flavoured boiled sweets at this stage. There was a lot of pretty uncompromising alcohol around, especially near the finish. Water might have been a good idea but I was too busy muscling in on my wife's glass of Ichiro's Choice Peated Golden Promise to try it. Overall, belligerent but not inelegant.

Distilled 2000
Bottled June 2007
Mizunara Japanese Oak finish
318 bottled

56 per cent
700ml - 5,500 yen

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bar info: Bar Argyll, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Small bar, tastefully done up in wood, with a very good range of single malt whiskies and a good selection of Japanese stuff, mainly from the Ichiro`s Malts range. Like most of these bars, it is not cheap. We spent 7,000 yen for two people`s entrance fee plus four single malts and a small plate of jerky. The atmosphere is friendly and connoisseury. If you are not comfortable with connoisseurish whisky swilling and sniffing in a tight space, this may not be the place for you. If you are, I recommend sitting at the bar if that is possible because they will put all the whiskies in the area you are interested in out on the bar and it is much easier to order. Did not really test how much English was spoken but I am sure non Japanese speakers could get by.

Open 6pm - 3am
500 yen door charge
Seats 18 people (at a stretch)
Cards:VISA, Mastercard, DinersClub, AmericanExpress, JCB
3rd floor of the Dai-ichi Houtoku building.
Quite hard to find. Take this map with you. Go out of Shinjuku JR station's Nishi (West Exit). First, find the Odakyu Halc building, which is immediately opposite the bus station on the main concourse outside the station. The Argyll is immediately to the North of here (ie. to your right, if you have your back to the station). If you find the Star Hotel (the "H" in a black circle on the map), you have gone too far. It is in the little streets in the block between Odakyu Halc and the Star Hotel.

Update: I had another chance to work out directions to this bar when I went to the nearby bar Zoetrope. This was my best shot: Print out Nonjatta's google map for this bar's locality. Go to Shinjuku station. Go out of either the east or west exits or Shinjuku station (the east is slightly easier) and walk north, with the tracks either to your immediate left or immediate right until you get to the big underpass under the tracks. There should be a stream of people passing under the tracks to go and get their rocks off in Kabukicho. I have marked it with a red cross on the map. If you are to the the east of the tracks, go under the underpass. If west, stay where you are. You should be able to find it using Nonjatta's google map from there.

3rd Floor, Daiichi Houtoku Building
4-17 1-chome
Address in Japanese characters
バー アーガイル
東京都新宿区西新宿1丁目4−17 (Can't see it?)
Tel 03-3344-3442
Japanese guide entry including map.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ichiro`s Malt Single Cask 2000 - "flavour bomb"

Very good. Surprised I could drink this at cask strength. I found I actually preferred it neat.

A fairly restrained nose: dessert wine with a very distant smell of a wood cutting yard after the rain. The first taste is powerful but smooth. A bit Bourbonish. Creme Caramel. Fleeting nut and raisin flavours in there too. But they added way to much alcohol to this pudding. Hey, hold on a minute! It`s all alcohol, and mighty alcohol at that. The finish is exhilarating, like walking out on a freezing early morning, the air so cold it hurts your chest. Then a lingering bitter but not unpleasant taste at the top of the mouth, as if you had been chewing on a fresh green twig. This one may be only 5 years old but it is a real bomb of flavours. It is also well paced, each phase given time and space to develop independently.

When diluted to more normal strength, the flavours were more floral. Still smooth and elegant.

Distilled 2000
Bottled June 2005
Cask No. 6076 Puncheon American Oak (second fill after 6 years and 9 months maturation for grain whisky).
Non coloured, non chill filtered
516 bottled

Abv 60 per cent

Price (April 2007)
720 ml - 5,300 yen

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Yamazaki 12 - "Intimately Beckham"

Not really my scene. The nose was tinned mandarins and varnish. I liked the taste at first. It seemed quite balanced and floral. The varnish was still there, strong alcohol and somewhere at the bottom of it almond and a tiny bit of orange. Then I found myself drinking a 12-year-old David Beckham Intimately for Her Eau de Toilette spray! Started to get estranged from it after a few sips. It didn't seem to have much of a finish beyond the nagging suspicion that my wife had switched the bottles out of frustration at my spending too much time on this site.

Other Reviews Luca Chichizola, Malt Maniacs 101, February 2007. On c. 2006 bottling. 81/100 (recommendable). Luca found nuts, vanilla, oak and wood varnish on the nose. In the mouth it had a "dry and nutty attack, like a bourbon. Then lots of sweetness and vanilla oakiness... a bit sherried, some almonds, cedar and acetone. Very appetizing. A bit thin and metallic, even slightly acidic. It should appeal to Jack Daniels fans." The finish was "nutty, with dried grapes and an almost perfumy echo... Dry." Overall, he thought it was interesting but a little "cloying and unbalanced" with "excessive cedary and acetone notes."
Serge Valentin, Whisky Fun, December 18, 2006. On 2006 bottling. 79/100 (better than average). In the mouth: "rather perfumy, rose jelly, apple compote, white pepper, pear spirit."
Average rating from 13 Malt Maniacs' reviewers on 2006 bottling: 81/100 (recommendable).
Reviews of older bottlings:
Michael Jackson, Whisky Magazine, Issue 26, 16/10/2002: 8/10. "A pioneering malt in Japan, for which Suntory deserve great credit. In its early days, it was rounded and delicate, as though wary of offending anyone. Now it is more intense, confident and elegant."
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, Issue 26, 16/10/2002: 7.5/10. "Impressive nose and excellent body is undone slightly by the untidy finish."
This Japanese language blog entry recounts a tasting of some Yamazakis with various foods: duck with a mustard and miso sauce, haggis and mashed potato, herring and marinaded salmon with roe. The taster found Yamazaki 12's gentle taste went well with the duck.
(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Abv 43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 7,119 yen
180 ml - 1,732 yen
50 ml - c. 700 yen

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Suntory`s Yamazaki distillery was established in 1923 and was Japan`s first malt whisky plant. It is sandwiched between the two big cities of Kyoto and Osaka, nestled up against forested hills rising out of the Kansai plain. Yamazaki`s single malts have been described as being the "most Japanese" of the Japanese distilleries. Not sure I know what that means. Another characterisation I read focused on the "bright, fruity flavours" of its products, which fits in a bit with my very limited experience. Suntory`s own description is: "Whisky from Yamazaki Distillery has delicate taste with [a] woody yet sweet and gorgeous aroma."

"Yamazaki" mark in Japanese characters

And in computer text, in case you want to search for Yamazaki on the Japanese internet: 山崎 (Yamazaki) ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The distillery

On his return from Scotland, the Grand Old Man of Japanese whisky Taketsuru Masataka had advised the wine maker Shinjiro Torii to build his first distillery in Hokkaido, because of the similarities there with Scottish geography (see Yoichi for the fulfilment of this dream). Torii ignored the advice and built at Yamazaki, nearer to the great economic and population centres of the Kansai region. It takes its water from an area traditionally famous for its good water. The great tea master Sen no Rikyu chose to have his tea house here. It is also near the confluence of three rivers ( the Katsura, Kizu and Uji), which Suntory claims meet each other at different temperatures, causing a great deal of mist. The distillers say the mist is good for storing whisky, stopping the loss of moisture from the casks.

Yamazaki was Japan's first whisky distillery. It started operation at 11.11 am on November 11, 1924 (oddly and slightly unfortunately, this 11.11.11 time is when many Westerners commemorate the Armistice that ended World War I, so you probably won't hear too much about this little factoid in Suntory's English language marketing). Yamazaki's first whisky hit the shelves in 1929. It was also the originator of Japan's first mass-marketed single malt, the Yamazaki 12, which hit the market in 1984.

The Yamazaki plant uses 12 stills of three different types. These are used to produce spirits of the wide range of different characters needed in Suntory`s blends, notably the famous Hibiki. Unlike in Scotland, Japan`s highly bi-polarised (Suntory vs. Nikka) whisky market means there is little or no swapping of spirits between distilleries with different owners for blending. This means it is necessary for makers to produce a range of styles in-house.

A shop and a visitor centre are attached to the distillery where visitors can read about its history and sample products.

Single malts from Yamazaki

See the side bar.

View location on map of Japan's single malt distilleries. (If you download Google Earth and click on the "KML" button above this map you can see the topography in 3D!)
Visitors are welcome between 10am and 4.45pm. There are guided tours of the plant between 10 am and 3pm.
Yamazaki 5-2-1,
TEL: 075 962 1423
Address in Japanese
〒618-0001 大阪府三島郡島本町山崎5-2-1
The Yamazaki distillery has an English website here and an English language map as well (thanks to the anonymous poster for alerting me to these). The distillery is ten minutes walk from JR Yamazaki station.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Yoichi (no age) - Cheapest single malt in the world?

Is this the cheapest single malt whisky in the world?

A bottle costs 1600 yen. It works out at £6.80 or $13.40. That is for a 500 ml bottle, rather than the more usual 700/750 ml, but we are still talking about £9.50/700 ml, a price that not even discount supermarket Lidl's astoundingly cheap own-brand single malt beats in the UK.

This is no second-rate brand either. This is a "Yoichi", arguably one of the two top Japanese single malt distilleries. It was a 10-year-old Yoichi that confirmed Japan's arrival on the international single malt scene in 2001, when it won "Best of the Best" in the Whisky Magazine annual contest. So what are Nikka doing sullying the Yoichi name with one of the cheapest single malts in the world? Who cares? Ours it but to rejoice and get straight down to the nearest supermarket to buy three bottles of the stuff before they think again (if you are lucky enough to live in Japan).

Is it any good?

Like meeting a sailor, just off his boat and out on the town. He was shaven and sweet smelling after his first bath in months but rough and ready and still redolent of the docks. Is that all a bit homoerotic? The nose was warming, with bananas and apricots and a touch of vanilla. The first taste was powerful but sweet. There was a flavour of pine but then it moved into much more maritime territory. Then soap and then a hint of ammonia at the end of a long finish. It was all quite complex and unbalanced. Same as meeting a sailor at the docks, I suppose.

Did I like it? Yes. And, at this price, I could even justify making a toddy out of it. Which was damn fine, by the way.

Abv 43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
500 ml - 1,600 yen

Thursday, April 5, 2007


The Miyagikyou distillery is in the Northern part of Honshu, Japan's main island. It is run by Nikka, one of the big two Japanese single malt whisky makers. Nikka says that it typically produces "soft and mild" malts, although I am a bit sceptical about the generalisation.

"Miyagikyou" mark in Japanese characters

And in computer text, in case you want to search for these whiskies on the Japanese internet: 宮城峡 (Miyagikyou), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The distillery
Miyagikyou was opened in 1969. Nikka says the site, like that at Yoichi, was chosen by the founding father of Nikka and Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru. The distillery sits at the confluence of the Hirosegawa and Nikkawagawa rivers and Taketsuru is said to have decided on the location after tasting the water of the Nikkawagawa. Nikka's publicity says: "Travelling in the area one day, Masataka came upon this site completely enclosed by mountains and sandwiched between two rivers. He immediately knew that this was the perfect site for whisky distilling. Sendai's fresh water, suitable humidity and crisp air produce soft and mild malt." Miyagikyou takes its water from the Nikkawagawa. The coincidence of the name of the river and Nikka's own is just that.

The distillery, which also produces grain whiskies, uses more modern equipment than Yoichi. It has eight stills for malt whisky production and has roughly double the output of its Northern brother. Much of this production must go into the company's blends and vatted malts as its single malt brands are less widely marketed than those of Yoichi. Its setting is a bit less picturesque than Yoichi's and its image slightly less romantic, but I think it would be a mistake to dismiss its products. In my untutored opinion, some of them edge their Yoichi equivalents.

Single malts from Miyagikyou

See the side bar.

LocationSendai, Miyagi Prefecture, northern Honshu. Lat.38 N.
I am not sure if they do tours but they have a guest hall on site and visitors are welcome.Miyagikyou, Nikka Whisky Co. Sendai Plant.
Nikka 1, Aoba, Sendai City,
Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
Phone : +81 22 395 2111
Fax : +81 22 395 2861
Address in Japanese:〒989-3433
Here is the Nikka whisky directions page (in Japanese).
Here is Nonjatta's Google map of the distillery (and all the others).
Alternative spelling


Miyagikyou 10 - "certainly not the shy kid she seemed"

Update; June 3, 2009:
Serge Valentin adds these comments on the 2008 bottling: "Nose: Fragrant and very oaky, with a lot of vanilla and hints of star anis, orange blossom water and bitter oranges. Very expressive. Mouth: Very expressive as well, with a lot of oak again, notes of black tea and chewed Havana cigar. Also hints of morels and dark chocolate. A very unusual malt - and very interesting. 84 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Took a bit of getting used to but this one finished strongly with me. The Miyagikyou 10's nose was much less boisterous than the Yoichi 10 I was tasting it with: the kind of 10-year-old who sits at the back of the class avoiding the teacher's eye. What smell it did have was low and buttery. It tasted plain at first. There was a bit of sweetness on the tip of the tongue but this 10-year-old soon lost her inhibitions. Certainly not the shy kid she seemed at first. Tastes in every direction that I didn't know enough about whisky to identify properly. Then, the finish: big, chocolatey and satisfying. I liked the end a lot but I wasn't so sure about the middle.

Other Reviews
Martine Nouet, Whisky Magazine, 40,4/6/2004. 7.25/10. Nouet found the nose floral but peppery: "Cider apple. Becomes buttery with toffee notes" and even a rumour of creosote. The palate was "sweet and sour" with pear-drop, pineapple and varnish developing before a "dry and assertive finish". Overally she found the nose more beguiling than a palate which lacked "elegance and cohesion."
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, 40,4/6/2004. 8.5/10. Broom found the nose "lifted, lightly floral" with some complexity. In the mouth it was "medium-bodied and lively. Silky, soft fruits. Graceful and smooth with balanced oak" before a "broad" cedary and winey finish."

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Abv 45 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 4,718 yen
180 ml - 1,180 yen

Yoichi 10 - "he had a bus to catch and left early"

I liked it. It seemed to have a penetrating nose, fresh with a bit of vanilla flavoured bubblegum. Tasted smooth and a bit caramely at first, with a touch of that bubblegum in there. It had itself under a lot more control that the Miyagikyou 10 I was tasting at the same time. The finish, though, was not up to the Miyagikyou 10's. It had a bus to catch and needed to leave early. I tried it with ice because that is the way a lot of Japanese people still drink their whisky and it was quite good. I find the ice often makes single malts get very harsh and crude, but because Yoichi 10 had itself so under control, it seemed to cope well with the intrusion.

Other reviews
The 2000 bottling of Yoichi was generally received well. On it received an average rating of 84/100 ("recommendable") from four reviewers. The 2006 bottling which I was tasting has not been as widely reviewed in English with only one review on, giving it 85/100 ("highly recommendable"). All the reviews below refer to the 2000 bottling:
Michael Jackson, Whisky Magazine, 13, 16/12/2000. 9/10. Jackson loved "the almost shocking hit of heavy peating." The nose was dry and peaty: "pronounced, astonishingly fresh." In the mouth, he detected mint, cream, orange and then "the peat surges back. Clean, sweetish, soft smokiness".
Jim Murray, Whisky Magazine, 13, 16/12/2000. 9.25/10. Murray said it was one of his "day-to-day drams". The nose was soft and peaty. The palate: "Immediately sweet and oily, with a chewiness." At the finish a "bittersweet balance borders on perfection."
Serge Valentin, Malt Maniacs and Whisky Fun, on a 2000 bottle. 86/100. Highly recommendable.
Ho Cheng-Yao, Malt Maniacs on a 2000 bottle. 78/100. Better than average.
Luc Timmermans, Malt Maniacs, on a 2000 bottle. 87/100. Highly recommendable.
Michel van Meersbergen, Malt Maniacs, on a 2000 bottle. 84/100. Recommendable.

(Please note the dates on reviews if they are provided. There may be significant variation between different years of a single malt brand)

Abv 43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
700 ml - 4,718 yen
180 ml - 1,180 yen


The Yoichi distillery is on Japan's Northern island of Hokkaido. It is owned by Nikka, one of the two dominant Japanese single malt whisky makers. Nikka says that it typically produces "rich, peaty and masculine" malts.

"Yoichi" mark in Japanese characters

And in computer text, in case you want to search for these whiskies on the Japanese internet: 余市 (Yoichi), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)

The distilleryMasataka Taketsuru, one of the two founding fathers of Japanese whisky, chose Yoichi as the site of his new distillery when he left Suntory to found Nikka in 1934. They began distilling whisky in 1936 and released their first dram in 1940. Taketsuru is supposed to have chosen Yoichi because of its similarity to the distillery sites he had seen in Scotland. I have never been there but it is supposed to be beautifully located, next to the sea and surrounded by mountains. It takes its water from underground springs.

The peculiarity of Yoichi is its use of
old coal-fired pot stills, a method which Taketsuru learned in Scotland but has now almost completely died out in that country.

Single malts from Yoichi
See the side bar.

The virtual life of the distillery

A web clip hosted by Nikka. And a beautiful 360 degree photo of the distillery

Location50km west of Sapporo City in southern Hokkaido. Lat.43 10'N.Lon.14045'E
I am not sure if it does tours but they have a whisky museum on site and visitors are welcome.Yoichi, Nikka Whisky Co. Hokkaido Plant,
7-6 Kurokawacho,
Yoichimachi, Yoichigun,
Hokkaido, Japan
Phone : +81 135 23 3131
Fax : +81 135 23 2202
Address in Japanese:
北海道余市郡余市町黒川町 7-6
Here is the Japanese access map and directions.