Friday, March 27, 2009

New bottlings on the way from White Oak

I have just got back from two wonderful visits to Suntory`s Yamazaki and Eigashima`s White Oak distilleries. I think I got some really beautiful images of both places and lots of great interviews and new information. I think I have dropped the odd hint here but perhaps I should come clean: for the past few months I have been working on two books about Japanese alcohol for Tuttle publishing. The first is a comprehensive guide to the history and culture of Japanese alcohol combined with visits to bars and makers all over Japan. I am not just exploring what is known in the West as "sake", although there are a lot of new things to be said about that, but instead the whole incredible range of Japanese alcohol. My second project, which I should get on to later in the year, is a book specifically about the history and present of Japanese whisky but I am already making distillery visits alongside the other interviews etc. required for the more general guide.

Anyway, I visited Eigashima and grabbed a couple of pieces of news that I want to share with you. Eigashima, who released their first "Akashi" malt the year before last, seem to be really committed to single malt whisky. They are a tiny operation and are very much feeling their way in this new world (I have a bottle of Akashi here and so will try to post my impressions asap). The news? Well, a new 5 year old Akashi is to be released later this year. Then there will be a 12 year old next year. They have really small stocks of the older whisky because their strategy was, until recently, to make minimally aged blends. However, White Oak is a classic maritime location and who knows whether these are the small beginnings of a significant presence in the Japanese single malt world?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Proof of concept: whisky/shochu blends

One of the dirty secrets of the Japanese whisky industry is that for many years some companies put non-whisky alcohols into their whisky blends. I am sure there are a few rogue operations still out there (discussion of ji-whisky at the end of this post) but the big players, such as Nikka and Suntory, are now extremely committed to keeping in line with the Scottish conventions.*

This is why I think it will take a while for one of the big players to do what I just did in my kitchen: blending malt whisky and shochu. The idea occurred to me after reading a load of articles from the Scotsman newspaper (c. 1800-1900). I have been going back to the source material because there is such a lot of romantic claptrap talked about the development of whisky in the home countries.

One thing that came across to me from the debates about blended whisky in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United Kingdom was that they were often not at all precious about what exactly constituted the grain component of the whisky. According to one side of the debate, all of the grain was a foreign substance.

So, why not go for something completely foreign? Inspired by Serge Valentin's blending, by my knowledge of Japanese whisky dim and dusky past, and by my research into shochu and awamori for my book, I decided to do a "proof of concept" with the ultimate easy drinking blend: 4 parts Miyagikyou no age statement whisky (mainly made up of 5-8 year old whiskies) and one part Iichiko, which is a very popular barley "honkaku shochu".

"Honkaku shochus" are not continuously distilled in column stills like grain whisky but are made in pot stills like malt whiskies. My rather shallow thought process was that, although there are very significant differences in the processes of making shochu and whisky, the Iichiko is, as a pot distilled and barley based spirit, less "foreign" than the grain whiskies the malt whisky is habitually married with.

Iichiko is known as "Shitamachi no Napoleon" over here, which roughly translates as "Cockney's Cognac". It became very popular in the 1980s and is still prominent on supermarket shelves. As the nickname makes clear, Iichiko is nowhere near the premium end of the honkaku shochu market, retailing for about 900 yen a bottle compared to a still very reasonable c.1,800 yen for the Miyagkyou (no age statement). It is a very smooth drink. Indeed, it is soft to a fault and makes the already extremely easy going Miyagikyou very light indeed (and under strength. See the note below).

Let`s be honest, a Miyagikyou/Iichiko combination is a bit of a half-assed sort of a blend but I think I will be able to take this experiment a lot further. It at least proved to me that there is nothing in the nature of whiskies and shochus to preclude such mixtures. But what about a bit more oomph in the malt? And a lot more power in the shochu? We could leave the barley shochu shores and stick in a shlick of lengthily aged rice-based awamori? Or a heavily peated malt with a drop of stinking potato shochu. Nice! Or maybe not?

*There is at least one difference. The Japanese companies still bottle their cheapest whiskies (such as Torys and Nikka Black) at below 40 per cent alcohol, which any Scot would tell you is not a whisky. The Japanese tax laws still seem to protect the shochu market by taxing higher alcohol distilled drinks at a higher rate. This does nobody any favours, not least of all the quality shochu makers, but this anachronism will take a while to be reformed.

Suntory Single Grain Whisky "Chita" and the Chita distillery

See better photos of the Chita distillery here, here, here and here.

Eagle eyed readers may have noticed an interesting line in the report of the Japanese heats of the World Whisky Awards last month:

"Best Grain Whisky: Suntory Single Grain Whisky `Chita`"
Just so you know it when you see it, the label of the new release in question has the English description "Suntory Single Grain Whisky" across the top. Below that, in Japanese, it says: "Chita Jouryujou Tokusei Grain", which means something like "Chita distillery Special Grain". It is selling for about 8,400 yen and is 43 per cent alcohol. I believe the grain whiskies used have been aged at least 12 years.

The Chita distillery is in Aichi prefecture, to the south of the city of Nagoya, and it is Suntory's grain whisky distillery. It is part of the "Sungrain" division of the Suntory group. If you want to investigate a little more, there are some good photos of Chita on the Japanese language blog of Bar Athrun, Osaka: here, here, here and here. The photographer was one of a group of 24 people given an official tour of the factory. He says it has a production capacity of "550,000 kl" (presumably, per year) and that only 26 people work in this large factory. The number of people on site will often be half that. Incidentally, the photo of what looks like a large piece of discarded scrap metal appears to be an old patent still.

Chita distillery address in English:
Kitahama-machi 16, Chita, Aichi 478-0046, Japan

Chita distillery address in Japanese:
〒478-0046 愛知県知多市北浜町16

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Serge Valentin's "Great Cordial" (and Nikka's Key Malts)

The tasting set at The Nikka Blender's Bar

Sir Walter Raleigh famously produced the mysterious "Great Cordial" while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. I am not sure how Serge Valentin's current residence compares to the cruel Tower but his tasting of Nikka's "Key Malts" (which are most commonly encountered as a tasting set at The Nikka Blender's Bar in Tokyo, 3000 yen) inspired him to create his own vatting. What a great idea! And what fun! I have taken it upon myself to name the concoction "Serge Valentin's Great Cordial".

Anyway, without further ado, Serge's own assessment of his "Great Cordial":

Review by Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

Serge Valentin's "Great Cordial" (recipe: 2 parts grain and one part each of all of the "key malts", see below for details of the individual components) (Alcohol: 55% (or so Serge hopes))
"Colour: Gold.
Nose: Hey, cool! Something a little ‘modern’, in the sense that there’s obviously much oak, vanilla, lactones, coconut, ginger and so on, but also a rather wide range of ‘secondary’ notes. Leather, bananas, apple peeling, tea, a little peat smoke… As expected, the rather raw yeasty and malty/grainy notes that were in some components have been absorbed by the oakiness – or so it seems – or maybe just covered.
Mouth: Wow, the peat is much bigger on the palate, and dominates the woody vanilla this time. So much so that this is still a very peaty whisky (say, thrice as peaty as a current Highland Park). Other than that, we have quite some ginger, green tea, mocha, a little blackberry jam, fudge, hints of chilli… All that is very good, very good.
Finish: Certainly longer than any of the components. I didn’t know that blending could stretch a whisky’s finish.
Comments: I'm so proud of myself! Imagine, a whisky that I created myself!… I’m feeling a bit like God now… Ok, agreed, let’s cut the crap, this isn’t funny. SGP:455 – 87 points (Honest! With heartfelt thanks to Bert V.)" (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)
Infact, the Blender's Bar serves 12 different blends of its own using only the six ingredients that Serge used. The precise proportions of each of these blends are listed on the menu so it is a great way to learn about whisky blending if you can afford 1,200 yen a shot. Unfortunately, none of Nikka's blends exactly match the beautiful simplicity of Valentin's Great Cordial (2 parts grain and one part each of all of the "key malts" listed below), so you will have to just vat the tasting set if you want to follow in the great man's footsteps (3000 yen). [Update: This is the only point in this whole silly write up that Serge baulked at: "... 'great man' ? I'm not Gandhi or Michael Jackson!!!" ] Alternatively, Nikka are keen on Takeshi Taketsuru's Special Blend (recipe: 50 per cent grain, 8 per cent "Sherry and Sweet", 19 per cent "Fruity and Rich", 3 per cent "Peaty and Salty", 9 per cent "Soft and Dry", 11 per cent "Woody and Vanillic"; 1200 yen).

Let's get back to Serge for some more impressions of the individual constituents of the blend (these are also sometimes sold in small 180ml bottles, as well as in the Blender's bar tasting set.)

Reviews by Serge Valentin:
"Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky 12 yo 'Woody & Mellow' (55% alcohol, Official Bottling)
Colour: Gold.
Nose: Typical grain whisky from a rather active casks. Loads of vanilla and coconuts, the whole being still quite soft and very rounded. Distinct whiffs of plain oak (sawdust, roasted nuts) and hints of yellow flowers. Mouth: Rich, smooth, extremely coconutty and vanillic, developing on ripe bananas. It’s probably quite simple but I can really see how this will be a perfect ‘rounding base’ for any blend.
Not very long but in keeping with the palate, with soft, silky tannins.
Comments: I'm not into grain whisky but this is faultless. SGP:520 – 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.) (This one was distilled at the Nishinomiya distillery)

"Nikka Key Malt Miyagikyo 12 yo 'Soft & Dry' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Very expressive but very malty and grainy, with big notes of bakers’ yeast, bread, soaked grains, yoghurt and vanilla crème. Hints of chicken bouillon as well – and, believe it or not, warm sake (a very particular yeastiness.)
Mouth: Well, it’s not that dry I must say, rather fruity at first sip (apple juice), but it does get yeastier and more porridgy after a few seconds. Big maltiness as well, notes of lager beer this time, sake again (yeah, sure!)… Finish: Rather long, on a 50/50 mixture of beer and cider.
Comments: I don’t think this is very pleasant as such but it may bring a good structure and a certain ‘assertiveness’ to a blend. In other words, an ‘anti-grain’ component. SGP:261 – 75 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Woody & Vanilla' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Much more like Bourbon-y but not just Bourbon. A lot of vanilla as promised but also black tea, apple juice, stout (Guinness), cocoa powder (bitter) and not too ripe bananas. Goes beyond a simple Bourbon bomb. Mouth: Rich indeed, vanillic indeed, and woody too. Very woody in fact, the spirit having extracted loads of spicy components from the wood. Lactones, ginger, tannins (very tea-ish), white pepper, over-infused tea… Was that new oak?
Finish: Not long but pretty tannic.
Comments: Another one that really tastes like a ‘component’ and not like a ‘complete’ whisky. But it’s good! SGP:461 – 78 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

"Nikka Key Malt Miyagikyo 12 yo 'Fruity & Rich' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Gold.
Nose: This one is much fruitier, starting on cider apples and gooseberries but developing more on melons (big aromas) and butter pears. Hints of rum in the background (molasses, candy sugar). We’re rather close to Speyside here.
Mouth: Very smooth, fruity and rich indeed. The melons are back – and big time. Actually, this tastes like new-wood-matured melon eau-de-vie. That is a guess because I am not sure anybody has ever tried to produce such an oddity (I may try one day, when melons are on sale).
Finish: Medium long and now really liqueur-like.
Comments: The epitome of fruity and rich whisky, but don’t expect anything else. SGP:740 – 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Sherry & Sweet' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Full amber.
Nose: Classic sherry, totally flawless. Chocolate, raisins, ham, toffee, coffee, prunes and strawberry jam. After a few minutes, the chocolatey notes start to dominate.
Mouth: Big and much to my liking, even if this isn’t a complex whisky. Same flavours as on the nose, minus the meaty notes (no ham and suchlike here). Very slight rubber.
Finish: Longer than its colleagues. Strawberry liqueur and Armagnac. Comments: Once again, one is acutely aware that this is going to make a perfect component for a blend. Nevertheless, it is a very good malt whisky as it stands. SGP:631 – 84 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

"Nikka Key Malt Yoichi 12 yo 'Peaty & Salty' (55% alcohol, official bottling)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Typical ‘Japanese’ peatiness, a combination of straight peat smoke, bitter oranges and polished leather. Very rich and very engaging. Develops more towards smoked fish and seashells, with a fair amount of spice (nutmeg and grated ginger). Gets pleasantly earthy at the end. Compact and flawless.
Mouth: Explosively ‘Islay’. Big peat (even if it is not a ‘peat monster’), salt, orange marmalade, orange drops (and even icing sugar), Virginia tobacco, candy sugar. Once again, this is balanced and flawless.
Finish: Medium-long and rather citrusy and salty. A little rooty/earthy. Comments: Another one that would certainly stand on its own feet. SGP:356 – 85 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Photo of the bottled "Key Malts" courtesy of Bert Vuik