Monday, April 27, 2009

Best blended malt whisky is Japanese

Serge Valentin described it as "masterfully composed" and the judges at the World Whisky Awards concur. Nikka whisky`s Taketsuru 21 Pure Malt won the World`s Best Blended Malt Whisky at the World Whisky Awards on April 20-21. For a full list of the winners go to the Whisky Magazine site. The great thing about this whisky is, though it costs a fair whack at about 10,000 yen for a standard bottle, you can also buy it in 180ml miniatures. I am off out to hunt one of those down before they all disappear.

The Best Single Malt prize, won by the Yoichi 1987 last year, returned to Scotland in the latest awards. A Highland Park 21 year old won the coveted laurel. (Incidentally, have been busy on Japan`s southern islands researching Japanese spirits over the past few weeks so I missed this interesting little story on the whisky magazine website about Highland Park finding some of their rare old malts in Japan.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Komagatake Single Cask 1986/2006

Review by Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive

"Shinshu Komagatake 1986/2006 (60.5%, OB, cask #448, 402 bottles, sherry)
Colour: Amber.
Nose: Classic mild sherriedness over a rather simple whisky. Water is really needed. Quite a lot of oak, oranges, cedar wood and dried coconut. With water: more meatiness with a little coal smoke and whiffs of rusty iron. It remains a tad too simple in my opinion.
Mouth (neat): Concentrated sweet wine over very active oak and a shy spirit. Very hot and burning. With water: it got much better! Quite a lot of bitter chocolate, prunes, coffee and old walnut; the oak gets then much bigger and quite drying. Finish: Medium long, clean. Strawberries, with the same kind of oakiness as in the 1989.
Comments: Perfectly good whisky and an unusual Bourbon background. It is almost as if this was an ex-Bourbon cask that had been sherry-treated (seems unlikely, though). SGP:441 - 80 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Abv 60.5 per cent
This whisky is difficult to find now. Was being sold at about 14,000 yen.
The photograph is taken from this online seller.

Komagatake Single Cask 1989/2006

"Shinshu Komagatake 1989/2006 (60.1%, Official Bottling cask #616, 430 bottles, bourbon)
Colour: Full gold.
Nose: The oak is doing all the work here. There is a mass of vanilla, huge lactones, whiffs of sawdust and hints of coconut, strawberries and ginger. This one reminds me of the ‘Missouri Oak school’. We aren’t too far from grain whisky here. With water: It’s much nicer. Not particularly complex but there is a smoothness there now and a faint maltiness. Very ‘Glenmorangie’. Maybe the famous Highlands distillery had been benchmarked at some point?
Mouth (neat): Typical uber-sweet, very oaky whisky. Exactly the same profile as on the nose when neat. Needs water! With water: the wood really stands out now, with an unusual blend of plain cane sugar and very dry tea and spices (white pepper). A rather light distillate it seems.
Finish: Medium long. clean but a little indefinite.
Comments: A good average light whisky in a rather active cask. Maybe not much depth but it is perfectly drinkable. SGP:431 – 77 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Abv 60.1 per cent
This whisky is difficult to find now. Was being sold at about 12,000 yen.
The photograph is taken from this online seller.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Suntory trumpets anti-allergens

The alleged medicinal benefits of booze have played a major part in alcohol history. For instance, shochu and awamori were valued for their anti-septic uses among Samurai in Edo Japan. Wine, after failing to establish a mass market in Meiji Japan, got a foothold following a major cholera epidemic in 1886. The wine was a component of various concoctions that claimed all sorts of anti-choleric properties. Wine consumption tripled in a year. Shochu`s recent boom started with a magazine article claiming health benefits. (It is not just Japan, by the way, distilled alcohol in Europe got its start as a medicine.)

So it is no surprise that Suntory`s PR department have just given top billing to a press release about an initially peripheral looking study on anti-allergens in whisky. From little acorns do influential magazine articles and TV segments grow!

Basically, the study says that the anti-allergenic components in whisky have not been much studied because the alcohol itself can cause problems for allergy sufferers. The researchers found significant quantities of Lyoniresinol and Syringaldehyde (I hope I have identified those right from the katakana characters used by Suntory) among the polyphenols in whisky. These were found to have anti-allergenic effects.

While we are talking about the health benefits of the Water of Life (and because I have struggled to find an illustration for this post), I want to share this World War I letter to the editor of the Scotsman:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hibiki 12 to be released first in Europe!

The Japanese whisky industry is changing very quickly. Suntory have just announced that their new Hibiki 12 blended whisky will be released in Europe ahead of its launch in Japan!

The Hibiki 12 will be sold in the UK, France and Sweden from mid May at a suggested retail price of £35 (700 ml). The Japanese will have to wait until Autumn to get their first taste of the younger version of Japan's most famous blended whisky (the star, lest any of you be allowed to forget, of Sofia Coppola's movie 'Lost in Translation'). The 17, 21 and 30-year-old Hibikis have been winning loads of major international prizes in recent years, hitting the headlines last year when the Hibiki 30 won the overall best blended whisky title at the World Whisky Awards.

Suntory describes the young Hibiki as having a mild profile. They say it has a fruity smell developing into honey and custard creams. It has a soft mellow sweetness on the palate, according to Suntory, with just a touch of acidity and spice at the finish.

I have just done a couple of interviews with some big cheeses at Suntory and they intimated that they are committed to significantly expanding their export market. This year is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Hibiki brand and the decision to launch the Hibiki 12 abroad is a dramatic demonstration of the new priorities.

Nonjatta's large US readership will have noticed that this early export release is in Europe rather than the States. American fans of Japanese whisky are, it seems, still getting the short end of the stick. For this, I am afraid, you have no one to blame but your own bureaucrats. Hiroyoshi Miyamoto, general manager of Suntory's Yamazaki distillery, told me that it was a nightmare getting Japanese whisky and, particularly, single malt into the US. "They don`t have a category for us in their alcohol import handbook. We got lucky with Yamazaki some years back but when we tried to import Hakushu we were told there was no such thing as Japanese single malt whisky," he said. There is light on the horizon, however. Miyamoto said they were currently in negotiations in the US and hoped that they would make some real progress in the near future. I also believe there is a very strong possibility of getting Nikka whisky into the US. I am in touch with the people behind that effort and will post news as soon as something concrete happens.

In the meantime, can the first European to taste the young Hibiki please send in their impressions? Enjoy!

Updates on this: New Hibiki 12 tastes kind of yummy

24 sided bottle...
for 24 hour drinkers?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Proof of concept 2: whisky/Japanese grain blends

The last experiment with Japanese grain/whisky blends was a cop out. Blending no aged Miyagikyo and Iichiko is like blending Coke and Pepsi. It tasted smooth as hell, but then what did I expect?

Zuisen is a famous awamori distillery in Naha City, Okinawa. Awamori has a distilling tradition stretching back to the same sort of time whisky started in Scotland/Ireland and a long tradition of aging their liquor in unglazed pots (although I am currently planning a visit to a distillery that is experimenting with oak casks!)

Awamori is distilled alcohol made in Okinawa made from long grained rice. There is huge variety but this 43 per cent ABV Zuisen has a distinctive honeyed, cheesy smell and a rounded mustardy, earthy sweetness in the mouth that (as you can see) I am struggling to describe.

The problem with the Iichiko was that it was seriously underpowered (25 per cent alcohol and very mild in its taste). Zuisen is not. My hypothesis is that the very distinctive tastes/smells of the most angular Japanese shochus and Okinawan awamoris might offer a number of very interesting extensions to a very audacious blender's palate. This Zuisen is a kuusu (an awamori aged for more than 3 years). I tried a really basic, proof of concept blend: I found the characteristic awamori smell and taste really powered through a blend of 3xYoichi (a relatively fiesty whisky), 2xMiyagikyo (very mild single malt) and 2xZuisen.

The final product was definitely a whisky but I have a feeling that there is going to be a split between people who have learned to appreciate the characteristic smells and tastes of awamori and those that take those tastes as off flavours in whisky. I tried weaker awamori blends and I suspect that if this ever became acceptable among more sophisticated whisky blenders than I (extremely unlikely given the legal and historical context) that this rapier would be wielded less bludgeon-like. However, I tended to return to blends that preserved the characteristic awamori earthiness along with the peats and malts.