Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nishinomiya Distillery

Romantic looking, isn't it? This is Nikka whisky's Nishinomiya branch, a small corner of the sprawling Asahi brewing complex at Nishinomiya (Nikka is a subsidiary of Asahi).

When I visited a few months ago, I had fond imaginings of a charming building in the mould of Nikka's Yoichi and Miyagikyou plants. Nothing like it! The Nishinomiya operation is a massive hissing, steam snorting monster of a place, completely dominating this corner of Kansai. It makes you realise how small the whisky market is compared to beer, Japan's favourite drink. Nikka's Nishinomiya outpost is stuck in a side street on the Eastern end of the complex and I wouldn't advise trying to visit it, even if your whisky otaku glands rival mine in size. They will probably not let you in and it is really just a distribution office now anyway.

Nishinomiya does, however, have some significance in Japanese whisky history. Until the late 1990s, they had Coffey continuous stills installed here. By "here", I mean somewhere in the Nishinomiya complex rather than necessarily the present Nikka whisky branch pictured above. They moved the Coffey stills to Miyagikyou in 1998/1999.

This move from Nishinomiya to Miyagikyou sometimes confuses people, as became apparent on this Nonjatta comment thread yesterday. The Coffey stills are now at Miyagkyou so people often conclude that the Nikka Coffey malt and grain whiskies they are drinking were distilled there too. Nikka, for totally understandable reasons, does not spend a lot of effort correcting them because they have little interest in raising the profile of a now defunct distillery. In fact, all of the Coffey distilled malt and grain whisky Nikka has so far released (written 2009) was made at Nishinomiya. There will be some Miyagikyou Coffey whiskies arriving over the next few years.

Address in English
Nikka Whisky, Nishinomiya Koujou, 2-118 Tsutoiidenchou, Nishinomiya-shi, Hyogo-ken.

Address in Japanese

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Hoisu advertising

I have just heard a blood curdling scream from an adjacent cell caused by the appearance of a most horrific apparition: a non-alcoholic whisky!

It is produced by "Scottish Spirits Ltd.", a Panama based company run by a family called "Katz" (1,2), who claim to turn out more than one million cases of "Scotch whisky" a year (ahem, ahem). Their revolutionary brand seems to have more than one incarnation. As well as "Black Zero", they also make "ArKay", a non-alcoholic whisky which "is specifically targeted for Muslim consumers worldwide since it is Halal approved. ArKay non alcohol whisky tastes and looks exactly like traditional Scotch Whisky. It is suitable for drinking straight up or with soda, tea or other mixers. ArKay is the result of 10 years of research and development." The minimum order is 1,200 bottles.


I hate to break it to the Katz family but, as usual, the Japanese are way ahead in these sorts of heresies. Step forward "Maboroshi no Sake Hoisu", which roughly translates as "Illusory/dreamy alcohol Hoisu." It was invented way back in 1955.

During in the golden age of Japanese whisky drinking, between the 1950s and 1980s, everybody wanted to drink a whisky high ball. While I was researching for my book in Osaka recently, Eiji Eigawa, landlord of Torys Bar in Juso, told me: "The boss used come in and order a high ball. Then, everybody with him would order a high ball, right down to the newest guy in the office. It's not like that now. The youngest guy will order a single malt".

However, at the beginning of the high ball era, your average Joichi could not always afford proper whisky. Which is where "Hoisu" came in. Basically, it was a high ball mixer. You just stuck in some super cheap korui shochu and you had a "Hoisu-ky high ball" without any need to get involved in that peskily expensive foreign spirit. When the Japanese started earning a bit more cash they fell out of love with their grubby old consort but it has recently enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, along with everything else "Showa retro". There are whole magazines devoted to the bars (1,2,3,4) hawking this sort of stuff.

I should also mention "Hoppy", a retro "beer" mixer that has become really big in recent years. The company that makes it saw sales more than double to ¥2.33 billion a year in the five years to 2006 and you see its flags all over the drinking districts. The irony is, of course, that the "nostalgic" 20 and 30-somethings that are fueling this boom never actually experienced what they are pining for. I love these layers of facsimile and fake.

I sometimes drink Hoppy as a low alcoholic beer. I put water in rather than the shochu is was designed to be cut with (one part shochu to five parts Hoppy is the normal mix). It is better and/or cheaper than the non-alcoholic beers in Japan right now. I must admit I have never tried Hoisu, with shochu or water, but I am sure it would taste about as good as "ArKay". So, if you want to get the authentic taste of fake non-alcoholic whisky-like-stuff, forget Panama and come to the real home of alcoholic monkey business: Japan. They have been doing it here for nearly a century. And don't even get me started on the happoshu "beer" and the "third category beer"...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yoichi 1987

Update; June 3, 2009: What was all the fuss about? Read a bit further down this updated post and you will find that this whisky was pronounced the best single malt in the world in 2008. Serge Valentin begs to differ.

The reason I always read Serge's reviews is that he actually knows what he is talking about . Perhaps more importantly, he also knows what he likes. So many people follow the herd. Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com:

" Yoichi 1987/2007 (55%, OB, 2000 bottles)
This one won the 2008 World Whisky Awards prize for the best single malt whisky in the world, it was about time we tried it! Rumours say that there’s been subsequent bottlings after the Award but no idea if this is true. I have seen two different labels. [Nonjatta: This is true. There was at least one subsequent bottling and one new label]. This sample was gathered early in 2008 so it should be the original version.
: Straight peat smoke and mocha at first nosing, then more Virginia tobacco, old wooden furniture, burning beeswax (candle), new tyre and new leather jacket. Hints of smoked tea as well (lapsang soochong) and just a little seawater. Very nice, rather compact. With water: more of the same, with even bigger notes of newly tanned leather but otherwise no further development. Actually, it falls down a bit after a few minutes, really losing steam.
Mouth (neat): We’re more or less in the same category as the other 1987, only more aggressive and lemony. Notes of Limoncello and a little nutmeg. With water: now it has got really, really good. Perfect balance between the peat, the spices, the dried fruits and the various other phenolic notes. Quite a lot of buttered caramel.
Finish: Long, getting a tad grassy and drying now.
Comments: Very good Yoichi (of course) but some parts are nicer than others. What is sure is that there are better Yoichis – in my book! SGP:364 - 85 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

With all that fuss over Ginkgo, I nearly forgot Nikka`s annual "vintage" bottling. At about this time every winter they release a limited edition single malt of whisky distilled 20 years previously. This year`s version is now available in the Nikka online store. It is also on the Japanese high street and La Maison du Whisky, who handle the company`s European business, say 10 cases are being shipped to them. (By the way, La Maison are running a tasty looking competition, closing January 21, for a trip to Japan. Hooray! Only for residents in France though. Boo!)

Nikka are selling 2,000 bottles of the "1987" edition, four times more than the initial bottling of "1986" last year. Demand was such for "1986" that they had to drain the casks for a second 430 bottle release in May, hence the expansion.

Alcohol: 55 per cent
Price 20,000 yen (on sale here)
Tugged forelock to Alexandre Vingtier of La Maison du Whiskyand the Facebook Japanese Whisky Society for this one.

Yoichi Single Cask Malt Whisky 1987/2006

Blank label similar to this bottling

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Yoichi 1987/2006 (63%, OB, LMdW, cask #113200, Warehouse #15)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Certainly the most ‘Ileach’ of all five at first nosing, and the most ‘caramelly’ as well. Quite a bit of sulphur. That may come from the very high alcohol, so with water: once again, we aren’t too far from the last distillery on Kildalton here. Peaty, tarry, fruity (cider apples, lemons) and the most coastal of them all (seashells). Hints of paraffin.
Mouth (neat): Maybe the better balanced despite its high strength – or so it seems. Very spectacular notes of ‘earthy leather’, with a very nice bitterness. With water: again and again, we’re on Islay, with big tarry and liquoricey notes mixed with apple compote and quite some salt. On second thought, we may be on Skye.
Finish: Very long, with more pepper.
Comments: A big, wild Yoichi, maybe less ‘crafted’ and ‘engineered’ that its siblings. Maybe this style has something to do with a different set-up of the stills, maybe the excellent Chris at Nonjatta’s has the answer… SGP:646 - 88 points. " (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

In answer to Serge's question, I have no idea at the moment why this one would be so different. I will try to remember to pose the question to someone better informed when I get the chance.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nikka Single Cask Malt Whisky 1991/2007

Blank label similar to this bottling

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Yoichi 1991/2007 (62%, OB, cask #129493, Warehouse #15)
Colour: Amber.
Nose: Really straighter, more vivid and more ‘mineral’ peat smoke than the 1986. The driest and the most austere of all, but maybe that’s because of the very high strength, so let’s add water right away. With water: big fruits and big peat, an excellent combo, well above the 1986 and 1987s in my opinion. Superb waxiness and leafiness, notes of marzipan-filled dates, fresh putty, macadamia oil, limejuice… A great nose.
Mouth (neat): Big and very punchy Similar to its siblings. Maybe a tad grassier and bitterer but, once again, water is obligatory. With water: oh yes, the best so far, no doubt. Straight ‘coastal’ peat, fresh nuts (almonds, walnuts), lemon zests, coriander, cardamom, sage, green pepper, heart of palm… Totally excellent.
Finish: Long, a tad sweeter and rounder now. A little mild in the after taste. Comments: Goody-good! My favourite so far and by far. It seems that they increased the peat levels at Yoichi between 1987 and 1991 (but I may be way off the mark here). SGP:467 - 90 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

The image is an altered version of a different bottling pictured on the Whisky Museum site.

Nikka Single Cask Malt Whisky 1986/2008

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Yoichi 1986/2008 (59%, OB, cask #112112, Warehouse #15)
Colour: Pale amber.
Nose: Starts a tad meatier again, closer to the single cask version of the 1987s, and just like it. Then gets much sharper and ‘crystal clean’. Big notes of vanilla and lactones (a little too bourbonny here), then cinchona, ginger tonic, leather, moist tobacco and wet earth. The most organic version so far. Also hints of bubblegum and strawberry sweets. With water: much more development than with the 1987. Vanilla and lemon crème, fermenting hay, horse manure again... Nice nose, a lot of smoke and something medicinal after a while. Hospital.
Mouth (neat): Hot, peaty, earthy, minty and peppery, with also quite some orange marmalade and just hints of cough medicine (something ‘paraffiny’). With water: added notes of bitter oranges and gentian but other than that, no changes.
Finish: Rather long, more ginger and mint now.
Comments: Another very good one. There’s no bad single cask or small batch Yoichis! SGP:365 - 85 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Yoichi Single Cask 1987/2005

Blank label similar to this bottling

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Yoichi 1987/2005 (49%, OB, Peated, cask #254816, Warehouse #3) [Nonjatta: Not to be confused with the 1987 single cask bottled in 2004]
Colour: Pale gold.
Nose: Starts very meaty, on lovage and ham with notes of veal cooked in butter, even a tad acetic (wine vinegar). A lot of bacon too (the ferry to Islay at 8 in the morning – hard for continental stomachs!) The good news is that all this gets cleaner and purer after a few minutes, much more on crystal-clean peat, lemon juice and white pepper with faint whiffs of incense and sandalwood. Very, very discreet notes of horse manure. Very nice nose but nothing too wild here, even if it gets both fruitier and cheesier after a good twenty minutes.
Mouth: A very compact attack, all focused on Seville oranges and peat. More citrus fruits after that (slight fizziness) and more herbs, with hints of coriander and parsley. Good development on crystallised ginger and Szechuan pepper, with a return on crystallised oranges. Very balanced peat.
Finish: Long, half-round, half-wild, with added notes of chewed cigar.
Comments: Maybe not total magic but very, very good. Perfect balance peat/wood that create a most pleasant spiciness. SGP:455 - 87 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Nikka Single Cask Malt Whisky 1986

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Miyagikyo 1986/2008 (63%, OB, cask #80283, Warehouse #23)
Colour: Gold.
Nose: Superb as the 1989 at first sniff, maybe even better. More straight peat, very ‘wet’ (garden bonfire with wet grass) and a lot of lemon balm, lime, crystalised oranges and hints of passion fruits. Great nose at 63%! With water: oh, this is very strange. Gets kind of ‘pleasantly rotten’, on notes of well-hung game, gunpowder, even mud… Strange but nice, even if a tad ‘perverse’. So much for a friend who was telling me that Japanese whiskies were ‘lab whiskies.’
Mouth (neat): Ultra-strong but funnily enough, this is ‘swallowable’ as it does not really burn. Very rich but straighter than the 1989 again, with a big smokiness and a very special association of citrus fruits and very aromatic fruits such as ripe raspberries and even rose-flavoured sweets (or high-quality Turkish delights). With water: gets drier but very pleasantly so this time. More bitter chocolate, un-sugared herbal tea and plain tea, notes of cough syrup, peppermint… And always a lot of peat.
Finish: Long, maybe a little simpler than expected because of the rather heavy woodiness but very clean and very peaty (and quite salty).
Comments: A big, concentrated dram that stands water perfectly well this time. At 63%, it’ll make for two bottles for the price of one - almost. SGP:566 - 89 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)

Nikka Single Cask Malt Whisky 1989

A blank label similar to this bottling

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin

Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.

"Miyagikyou 1989/2007 (60%, OB for LMdW, cask #105419, Warehouse #20)
Colour: Amber - apricot.
Nose: What strikes first is a rather marvelous smokiness. Peat of course but also exotic woods such as eucalyptus and even pine wood smoke. This big smokiness never disappears and is only complemented with whiffs of earl grey tea, orange marmalade, furniture polish, cigar box and beeswax. It is a superb nose, even at such high strength. With water: It gets both fruitier and meatier: cured ham with pineapple slices. More wax and leather as well.
Mouth (neat): Heavy, immensely concentrated, starting all on plum spirit (zwetchke – sweet purple plum) with hints of Chinese anise and cinnamon. An unusual kind of spiciness. Then gets just a tad winey but not too much. Water may be needed more than on the nose. With water: the oak comes through now, the whole losing its ‘vividness’ a bit. Actually, water did not work too well here.
Finish: Long but a little too tannic and drying.
Comments: Great nose, both when neat and reduced, and great palate when neat, but the palate gets quite disappointing when diluted. Too bad, I had the feeling this one would go over 90 points. SGP:465 - 87 points." (Serge`s scoring system is explained on this page.)