Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Third Mizuwari Death Match

The Champion
: Torys
The Challenger: Nikka Black

The third Mizuwari Death Match was always going to be a brutal affair: undefeated champion Uncle "It's Good, It's Cheap" Torys against arch rival Nikka Black. Until now, Suntory have kept the Death Match an in house affair. Red and Yellow Kakubin are both Suntory stalwarts. Nikka Black is the most widely sold brand of Suntory's main competitor, Nikka.

So, without further ado, let's add the water and ice: Uncle Torys is fast on his feet as usual: not too heavy despite all those late night drinking sessions and with his trademark aniseed aftertaste. He is going to be hard to beat on this kind of form. Black is a rounder sort of fellow and he's putting all of his weight behind his punches. Both Torys and Nikka Black make sweet, refreshing mizuwaris but there is none of Torys's aniseed on Black, just an easy mellowness. The good uncle walks into an upper cut in the fifth. We have a new champion.

The result: Nikka Black wins comfortably in the end.

Nikka Black - "a mouth full of toffees"

This is Nikka's main mass market brand. The bartender in the Nikka bar told me the fellow on the label is not Henry VIII, as I had thought, but one of the first Scottish blenders. I'm afraid that a combination of his butchering of the English name and my poor Japanese means I am going to have to do a bit more research on who exactly it is. (Update: This post gives a fairly comprehensive answer to the mystery.)

Anyway, Nikka Black is as ubiquitous as Suntory Yellow Label Kakubin and is quite a lot cheaper than its rival. You can buy it in huge 2.7 litre plastic containers for less than a yen a ml. Drink it diluted 2:1 with water and ice, as most of its consumers do, and you have an exceedingly cheap alcoholic drink.

This one is destined for the Third Mizuwari Death Match (what is that?) but its actually not too bad neat. It has a sweet, caramel taste. Quite rounded. It reminded me by the end of having eaten a lot of toffee.

37 per cent
700ml - 770 yen
2.7 litre - 2,660 yen

NB. The Black bottle was redesigned in 2007 so I changed the photo. It's the same product, just different packaging. This was the old bottle.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ichiro's Malt Queen of Hearts

Alright, I did it. I opened the Ichiro`s Malt Queen of Hearts. She had been sitting there on the shelf wiggling her tush at me for months and finally I cracked.

The colour was distinctive: tea that has been left steeping for hours. Smelled of varnish, apple, wet hair in a hairdresser's. I often like my whisky neat, even alcoholic bully boys like the 4 star Ichiro's Malt Single Cask 2000. This one, however, benefited from a touch of water. It burned my mouth without it (sulphurousness obscuring sweetness). With just a dribble of water, it became a very classy, kicked back and relaxed sort of drink: quite oily and chewy with butterscotch, syrup and a unobtrusive liquorice at the end.

Review by Dr Whisky

Dr Whisky has given me permission to cross post his review on this site. Visit his great whisky blog. It is well worth the journey.
: "Alive and energetic. Salt. Licorice. Spicy. Lime and cheesecake. Wood, plaster, a building site. Some smoke that becomes more evident with water. As does an apple cider smell with more candied licorice, Bassetts Allsorts."
Palate: "Soft, but active in all parts of the mouth, exciting. Plaster again, but a lot of oak and sweet pie-like flavours. Pecan pie. Black wine gums, white wine, dry oakiness that rides onto the finish with fresh fennel and some more spiciness. With water it tastes just like a warm pecan pie with cream. Cafe au lait. Pleasant shisha smoke aroma." Finish: "[M]ore apricot and soft old peach now. Empty glass minutes later has gorgeous filter coffee and brown sugar scents."
: "Exciting, adventurous whisky. Busy and a whole lot of fun to drink and talk about. Great packaging/theme labeling."

Reviews by others
Martine Nouet, Whisky Magazine, 56,1/6/2006. 7.75/10. She said it was a "well balanced and refreshing dram". It tasted "sweet and spicy" with hints of cooked bananas and lime syllabub in a "complex spicy display".
Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine, 56,1/6/2006. 7.75/10. Broom found it drier and lighter than the tangy nose suggested: "An interesting battle between deep sweetness in the mid palate and fizzing spiciness".

54 per cent
Other detailsDistilled in 1990. Bottled 2006
Non chill-filtered, non coloured
Aged in a Bourbon hogshead. Finished in a Cognac French Oak cask
Price (July 2007)
700 ml - 10,000 yen

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mixology Monday - a blog lovely tomato daiquiri

I made a little rule for myself when I started Nonjatta that I would try to post on topic. I will try hard to make this post relevant to Japanese whisky but it will be a stretch. There is thing thing called Mixology Monday. Basically, lots of cocktail blogs get together and all post recipes for cocktails on a particular theme on the same Monday. Not being much of a cocktail expert, I have kept strictly on the sidelines.

But this Monday is special. It is devoted to "Blog Love". Paul at The Cocktail Chronicles explains:
... to participate, simply pick and prepare a drink — an original or a classic, whatever you prefer — that you’ve read about on another person’s blog, and write a post about it, giving a shout out to the blog where you found it...

I really want to get involved in any effort that is about bringing together and celebrating the amazing community of drink bloggers out there. So, here goes. Jeffrey Morgenthaler's Nacional daiquiri was my pick, not least because I have just finished reading Graham Greene's classic novel Our Man in Havana in which the daiquiri is kind of like the story's femme fatale (see my comment on Jeffrey's post). The recipe looked delicious and the photo had me slavering.

Alas, it was not to be! I scoured the liquor stores here in Kanagawa and the more intricate ingredients were simply not available. Blast! Darcy O'Neil at the Art of the Drink came to the rescue with his post about a Strawberry Daiquiri, or rather the recipe for a classic daiquiri he appended. It was delicious. I sat there on our porch, with the rain tipping down in the middle of the Japanese rainy season, imagining I was a bit part character in Our Man in Havana.

My first faltering steps into the world of the cocktail did not stop there. Darcy's strawberry daiquiri and his comment that the daiquiri I had just been entranced by was a "bit one dimensional" had me intrigued. Unfortunately, I had no strawberries so I tried using his fruit muddling daiquiri method with cherries. It wasn't great. And then I discovered that my original inspirer Jeffrey Morgenthaler had invented a recipe for a tomato daiquiri. Sounded foul but I was on a roll. I didn't have the tomato puree Jeffrey stipulated so I kind of mashed together Darcy's fruit muddling instructions and Jeffrey's inspiration, using some fresh tomato in my shaker. Despite all expectations it was absolutely gorgeous.

So, there we have it, a big, saliva-dripping, tongue-down-the-throat Blog Love snog for Jeffrey and Darcy. Or their blogs at least!

All of which leaves me, hair out of place and rather flustered after my tumble in the hay, somewhat at a loss for how to connect this to Japanese whisky. How about this? My favourite Japanese author Haruki Murakami soaks his novels in whisk(e)y. There is hardly a story in which it does not feature, hardly a hero who is not half cut on the stuff. In "Family Affair", a short story in The Elephant Vanishes, the main character asks a girl out on an impromptu date. This is Jay Rubin's translation:
I picked her up, and we drove out along the shore just beyond Yokohama to a bar with a view of the ocean. I drank four glasses of I.W. Harper on the rocks, and she had two banana daiquiris (can you believe it?) And we watched the sun go down.

I think the Japanese original goes something more like:
... and she had two banana daiquiris.

Banana! Daiquiris!

So, there is my tenuous link: the daiquiri mentioned by the Japanese novelist laureate of whisky, who knows what is right and wrong in a cocktail and has his characters drink on the shore where I live. I tried the banana daiquiri idea, by the way. It was about as successful as the cherry daiquiri. Stick with the tomatoes. Someday soon I'll explore Murakami and whisky a bit more but, as this posting has reached epic proportions already, I'll call it a day there.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Togouchi 18

I had never heard of this whisky and, for that matter, I had no idea this company produced whisky until Daniel sent me his review. It is made by Chogoku-jozo, which is usually more in the shochu line, but seems to have branched out into whisky making. As I say, it was discovered by Daniel, who will be contributing reviews to Nonjatta over the coming months. It is a blend and, as Daniel says in his review, the company says it is aged in an abandoned railway tunnel in the Japanese Alps. Intriguing!

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Daniel

"General Comments: My hopes were so high after reading about how this unknown is aged in an abandoned railroad tunnel. It’s an elderly 18year old, and it’s dashingly packaged. A typical Japanese relationship: a long polite beginning. But given time (and liquid lubrication) it opens up to reveal a fine and nuanced character with many wonderful and interesting turns. A spectacular whisky.
: old gold (0.6 using the Whisky Magazine color bar).
: Imperceptible on opening. Oatmeal. Fabric softener. Dried hay. Exotic spices, old wood, incense, and vanilla emerged after giving the whisky time to open up and adding water.
Palate: Spicy. Sandalwood. Heather. Pepper. After adding water: toffee and honey, then raisins and nuts.
Finish: Dry and peppery. Medium smoke. After diluting: caramel and chai spice, then Dr. Pepper and all spice. Almond oil on the end.
Overall: Soft and ephemeral despite its robustness and spicy edge. Requires some water and takes ages to open up. Delicately layered and deeply complex, this whisky needs time, patience, and attention as it changes through the tasting. Water carefully, the character changes quickly with small amounts."


43 per cent
Price (April 2007)
720 ml - 6,300 yen
Can be bought here.

Contributor Bio: Daniel Mick

I am really pleased add another hand to the Nonjatta boat today. I've been rowing for all my worth but with the help of Daniel, and anybody else who is interested, I think we can row this thing faster. Daniel begins his Nonjatta career with a coup - Togouchi 18 years old. I knew nothing about this whisky before Daniel discovered it. Not only is this a new label for me but it appears to be a completely new distillery that I have never heard of. I will post Daniel's review separately but below is a bit of a bio for Daniel:

Daniel works as an English teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) in Gifu prefecture in the heart of Japan's main island (a happy coincidence because I too once worked as a JET in Gifu). He says: "I've been in Japan for 2 years already and will stay till at least August 2008. I have 5 years of various bar tending, bar managment, and alcohol retail experience. Once in Japan, I immediately noticed the difference in liquor prices; almost all retail liquor in Japan is cheaper than wholesale in the US! I'd never been much interested in whisky before, but decided this was my chance to explore. So I've committed myself to trying at least one single malt whisky a week until I leave Japan. I hope to work my way through at least all of Liquor Mountain's ~65 single malt's by next August."

He rates his whiskies on a 100 point scale, something I have never had the guts to do:

90 points or more (= Top of the bill, it doesn't get any better than this)
85 to 89 points (= Highly Recommendable)
80 to 84 points (= Recommendable)
70 to 79 points (= An 'average' single malt)
60 to 69 points (= Below average)
50 to 59 points (= Questionable)
49 points or less (= Avoidable)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Japanese Whisky History (1918-1919): Unlocking Scotland, Part I

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

On Thursday April 17, 1919, Masataka Taketsuru walked into the ramshackle wooden buildings of Glasgow`s Buchanan Street Station and boarded the Caledonian Railway train going north. It was a historic moment.

Taketsuru had arrived in Glasgow in December 1918 and signed up on a chemistry course at Glasgow University a month previously, but with this journey he was beginning the task of unlocking Scotland`s centuries old distilling secrets. He was to take that lore with him back to Japan. It still guides Japanese whisky making to this day.

Buchanan Street Station, Glasgow

He must have made a strange sight: a lone Japanese 25 year old singing Japanese traditional songs to calm himself as he traveled to whisky's promised land. He changed at Perth onto the North Highland railway and finally made it to Elgin at the heart of the famous Speyside whisky region. He put up at the Station Hotel.

His plan the next morning was to approach J.A Nettleton, the author of an exhaustive guide to the whisky industry, who lived in Elgin. Nettleton's book, "The Manufacture of Spirit as conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom", had already become Taketsuru's bible and he was making a painstaking translation into Japanese of its 450 pages. Nettleton was courteous to his visitor but his bill was too steep: more than £15 a month for Nettleton's technical instruction, plus more than that in accommodation and a £20 sweetener for an apprenticeship at a distillery. To put this in some kind of context, Taketsuru's monthly salary in Japan was less than £6. Reflecting on it now, it seems a more than reasonable price for the secrets of a country's distilling tradition but Taketsuru's expenses just wouldn't stretch that far. He left disappointed.

A lesser man might have returned with his tail between his legs to Glasgow and made do with the academic courses he had enrolled in at the University and the Royal Technical College. Taketsuru had been recruited as a student at the Osaka Technical High School by Kihei Abe, the founder and owner of the Osaka based spirits maker Settsu Shuzo. He had only been on the staff three years when Abe picked him to go to Scotland to try to find out how to make proper Scotch.

Taketsuru was every inch the dapper young gentleman. He came from a well established sake making family, had an excellent education (one of his schoolmates became the Japanese prime minister) and seems to have had some presence about him, but going to a profoundly foreign culture to discover and record a secretive industry's technical knowhow would be daunting for anyone. Britain in 1919 was not always friendly to non-white people: the day after his visit to Nettleton, Taketsuru visited three hotels in Rothes to try to find some cheaper accommodation than the grand Station Hotel, but was turned away at each. "Some people were afraid of foreigners," he explained.

In the meantime, far from giving up, Taketsuru had consulted a map of Speyside's distilleries and had determined to knock on their doors one by one. His first distillery was closed when he arrived, but his second, the Longmorn Distillery, three miles south of Elgin, turned up trumps.

J.R. Grant, Longmorn's general manager, agreed to give him five days practical experience. There does not appear to have been any charge. Taketsuru wrote a detailed diary of his crash course in Scotch whisky making, filled with detailed diagrams and observations of the whole process. He noted everything from spent mash being sold as sheep feed for a shilling a bushel to the precise temperatures at which maltose and dextrose were created during mashing (142 C and 147 C). There is no suggestion that Taketsuru was anything but frank in explaining his motives for wanting this invaluable information and it seems the people at Longmorn can take credit for first nurturing the seeds of the Scotch style Japanese whisky tradition. Mr Grant himself showed Taketsuru how to judge distillation progress by tapping the outside of the potstill. On his last day, the distillery manager Mr R. B. Nicol showed him the warehouse and explained the storage process. Taketsuru even recorded the weekly wage of the cooper: £2 2 shillings.

Taketsuru and Mr R.B Nicol, Longmorn distillery manager

Did Taketsuru mumble Japanese traditional tunes to himself as he took the train back to Glasgow on April 26, or was he whistling a cheerful new tune? He had made a massive stride towards unlocking Scotland's secrets, but he still had his studies to pursue in Glasgow. A much longer apprenticeship at the Hazelburn distillery was ahead of him before he would return to Japan. And a love affair with a Scots woman. But those are stories for another day.

The Buchanan Street picture is taken, with permission, from
this site.
The portraits of Taketsuru are from Nikka publicity material.
The photograph of Longmorn is from this site.
Permission has been sought.
This posting is largely based on Nikka publicity materials and Olive Checkland's book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend.