Thursday, July 30, 2009

Big Brother: Yamazaki 1984

Update 9.3.2011: It won the 2011 World Whisky Awards prize for the best single malt whisky in the world.

Update: John Hansell also has a review of this up. He liked it too.

I am ashamed to say that I have been slow with my coverage of the Yamazaki 1984. Shame is not too strong a word because I am convinced this whisky is destined to win some very big plaudits indeed. My only excuse is that I am in the final stages of writing my book about Japanese alcohol and I think my publisher would have a fit if he knew I was spending my time updating Nonjatta rather than sending my drafts to him. (Looking at the front page just now it is far too dominated by Suntory. I promise to put that right when I get more time.)

Enough of the excuses. Here are my impressions:

Nose: The key word here is balance. Vanilla. The tiniest smidgen of orange, but not too estery; sweet spices and the faintest idea of earth. It is quite apparent that this is mizunara aged but it is not out of balance, which sometimes happens with mizunara whiskies. A very well behaved boy indeed. Mouth: Most well behaved young lads turn out either crazy or boring but the 1984 grows into one of those annoyingly capable and balanced 25-year-olds whom the rest of us can`t help admiring. It is not polite. It is big and there is all sorts of complexity but it is orchestrated brilliantly: butter, nuts, slight hints of pine (but nothing too aggressive). The base line is all satisfying cereal and vanilla. There is a waxiness under there too. You could not call it sweet but there is enough sweetness to balance out the astringent, bitter notes that are present but never allowed to overwhelm the whole. The finish is long sweet gravy. Phenomenal.
The 1984 is important for two reasons: 1. the quality is excellent and the whisky is quite unique. In my opinion, it represents a high point in the art of making mizunara influenced whisky (keep on reading if you don't understand what I am talking about). 2. It is being distributed in significant amounts abroad: 300 bottles in the US, 200 in Europe, 2000 in Japan (even those numbers are ground breaking: 300 bottles in the US! Until Americans have been the poor cousins in the Japanese whisky world). I learn from John Hansell that the 1984 is hitting the US market from October 1 and it was his post that spurred me to write up 1984 despite the book deadlines.

Now for the bad news. To say 1984 is not cheap at 100,000 yen is a bit of an understatement (That is from the Japan marketing and I make that about 1,000 dollars but I know the US marketing is quoting 550-600 dollars). I won't be buying a bottle. All of the whisky in the Yamazaki was distilled in 1984. It has a significant amount of mizunara aged whisky in it. If you do not understand what I am talking about there: read this post about mizunara. Suntory started using mizunara in the war years, when they had no access to the white oak casks they had been using. It is difficult to use: leaky and can impart overbearing tastes and smells. But it also adds something quite different to the whisky palette and Suntory are developing their use of it into a fine art. By sending this 1984 into the US and Europe, Suntory are showing that they are deadly serious about their new strategy of developing an export market for their best whiskies.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hibiki 12

Update 22.7.09: John Hansell has a review of Hibiki 12 on his blog. The piece below was originally posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 but reposted because of John's review.

This review is by Nick Sikorski of La Maison du Whisky, the innovative importer pioneering Japanese whisky in Europe. Nick has had an advanced tasting of the new Hibiki 12 blended whisky from Suntory (the unique features of its release are explained in this post) and has given Nonjatta permission to publish his impressions:

Without water: soft and mild with sweet floral notes of honeysuckle, as well as of gum and lemon curd. This is quickly followed by distinctive grain notes of airfix, and toasted cereal. After that comes milky porridge, bread sauce (milk, butter, cloves and onion boiling in a pan) and a fresh and inviting touch of orange zest. With water: the floral notes are still there, just not as sweet; lilies rather than honeysuckle. A hint of musk and vanilla oak follow, then feta cheese and sesame seed oil.

Without water: soft and rich but with a distinctive dry edge, like freshly buttered toast. It is slightly tannic and delicately fruity (almost acidic), like lemon tea. With water: still round and soft but more noticeably dry and astringent. There is toasted brioche and bread crust, dry cereal and lemon pith. Light and refreshing nonetheless.

Dry but nutty and slightly oily, rather like sesame seeds. A touch of milk and lemon completes the picture."
It is worth saying here that we may look back on the Hibiki 12 as a landmark in Japanese whisky's development. It is a mainstream blend which appears to be at least partially targeted at the export market. This is not the first time Japanese whisky makers have aimed at non-connoisseur export markets. In the Vietnam war, the bars and brothels where the GIs drank were often stocked with Japanese whiskies (see, for instance, "Two Score and Ten", History of the 3rd Marine Division, p. 211; or "British GI in Vietnam" by Ian Kemp, p. 178). The poster below, distributed sometime before 1963, seems definitely to have been part of an export push:

The next couple of posters are a bit more obscure and seem more recent. They may have been published domestically, with the English used to add to the feeling of sophistication, or in business/specialist magazines to improve Suntory's business profile. Just possibly they may be remnants of old export drives:

[Update April 2010: Actually, the first one may well have been a advertising push by Suntory abroad in the 1960s. I say that because of this photo, which is dated 1967, by the owner and appears to feature the same ad.]

Anyway, Hibiki 12 is being released in Europe in mid May, ahead of the Japanese launch. If this initiative even half succeeds, it may start something far bigger than those early foreign excursions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kirin and Suntory in merger talks

Update: This merger was called off.

The first and the third biggest Japanese whisky makers are discussing a merger, according to the Asahi Shinbun newspaper. (Correction: I think this was actually originally from Nikkei)

If the deal between Kirin and Suntory comes off, it will create one of the world's largest drinks companies and a dominant force in Japan's markets.

The combined sales of the two companies exceeded 40 billion dollars last year. The proposed new company would account for half of Japan's beer production and would further cement Suntory's domination of the whisky market.

Suntory, which owns the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, already accounts for about 70 per cent of domestic whisky sales. Kirin is the third largest whisky maker, although it is far behind Nikka (owned by Asahi), which has about 20 per cent of the market.

The future of Kirin's Fuji Gotemba and Karuizawa distilleries would once again be thrown into doubt if the deal went ahead. Kirin acquired Karuizawa when it bought Mercian a couple of years ago and has since mothballed the respected distillery, although its products are still being marketed. The companies strategy appeared to be concentrating on the much larger volume Fuji Gotemba site.

If these distilleries ever got into the hands of Suntory's sophisticated whisky people, would the strategy be reconsidered? Would they just close down all of the Kirin operations, which are dwarfed by Suntory's own internationally famous distilleries? Or would the respect that the tiny Karuizawa distillery, in particular, has among whisky drinkers get more of a hearing with Suntory's management? (Naive, perhaps.) Closing down all of Kirin whisky would, of course, be closing down the idea of a diverse Japanese whisky industry and limiting it to four major distilleries owned by two companies.

It is unclear what the Japanese anti-monopoly authorities will have to say about the merger but it is as well to remember that one company controlling 50 per cent share of the beer market, for instance, would be nothing new in Japan. In the 1970s, Kirin had over 60 per cent of beer sales.

The reason for the proposed merger has little to do with such domestic concerns and certainly nothing to do with whisky. With the Japanese alcoholic and soft drinks markets all declining, these companies need heft and cash to expand into foreign markets. Both Suntory and Kirin have been buying stakes in companies in South East Asia, China, and Australia recently to try to reduce their reliance on Japan's increasingly unprofitable market.

Kirin's shares were surging on the news today. Suntory is a privately held company.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

All in perspective

Double click on the graph for readable version

Sometimes it is good to put things in context and this graph of the Japanese alcohol market, which I found tucked away in an old Kirin annual report while researching my book, gives bucket fulls of context if you look at it carefully. I found it invaluable and I thought some of the harder core Nonjatta readers might find it interesting (double click on the image to get a readable version).

The jumble of lines takes a bit of time to sort out but the graph not only shows the relative popularity of various alcohols but also traces the ups and downs of Japanese boozing back to 1962, which is really near the start of Japan's post-war free market (before the mid-50s, for instance, beer co's were still heavily regulated by Government quota systems).

Since the high point of the whisky boom in 1982, it has all been down hill for whisky. But remember that the decline of high volume, cheap whisky as lead directly to the current emphasis on high quality. The same sort of thing happened in Scotch whisky's long history. Also, remember that we are looking here at the volume of liquid sold: you would never expect whisky (with 37 per cent plus alcohol) to be rivaling beer sales by volume.

Notes on the graph: the most important thing to notice is the right axis/left axis distinction. Sake, beer and happoshu sell tens of times more volume than any of the other drinks. "Happoshu" and "new genre" drinks are beer imitations that exist because Japanese tax rather crazily encourages poor quality beer making. Beer appears to be in decline but, if you add in the imitations it is not quite that simple. "Chu-hai" are canned fruit and spirit cocktails (which are also are very cheap and tax light compared to beer). This is a 2006 graph. Almost all of those lines have taken a jump downwards over the past couple of years, most notably the "chu-hai" which appears to be rocketing in this graph. The only line that has headed upwards is the "happoshu/new genre" one. We live in straitened times.
Source: Kirin annual report 2006