Friday, December 18, 2009

Temporary Japanese whisky shop opens in Paris

A temporary shop devoted entirely to Japanese whisky opened in the centre of Paris today.

The "The Strictly Japanese Whisky" store, at 6 Carrefour de L' Odéon, will stay open until January 16 and can probably claim to be the first dedicated (albeit fleeting) Japanese whisky retailer outside of Japan.

The leading Japanese whisky distributors and retailers La Maison du Whisky are behind the enterprise and the stock is pretty comprehensive, including not Nikka and Suntory's big hitters but rare gems from Karuizawa, Hanyu and Chichibu distilleries. Who knows, if there is enough demand, they may be persuaded to make this a permanent thing?

The opening party

Strictly Japanese Whisky
6 Carrefour de L' Odéon,
Paris, France

From December 18, 2009.
Shop closes January 16, 2010.
Monday to Saturday
10.30am - 9.00pm

Monday, December 7, 2009

"I like big butts and I cannot lie..."

Independent distributors Full Proof Europe have released two new bottlings of single cask whisky from the old Hanyu distillery. The Full Proof series, as well known for Hans Dillesse's sometimes risque and always fun labeling as for the whisky, has been distributing very limited bottlings of single cask Hanyu and Karuizawa malts since 2005.

The first is called "Big Butt" and is a Hanyu 1988 vintage (Cask no. 9306, alcohol 54 per cent), just like the "Nice Butt" bottling that preceded it. There are 200 bottles available at 140 Euros each. I have asked Jeroen Koetsier of Full Proof for a few more pointers on exactly what style of whisky it is but so far all he has divulged is that he prefers it to the company's previous "Nice Butt" bottling.

The new 1988's label switches to the other side of the dohyo from the "nice butt's" enticing image of a lady rikishi's rear (see the foot of the post). This time we get to see the baggy behind of a fully matured, male sumo rikishi. Nice!

Incidentally, I am not sure the boys at Full Proof know this but the fascination with the idea of female sumo wrestling has a long history in Japan. There is an old 13th Century story about a wrestler called Uchinaga from North of Kyoto who was on his way to the capital for a tournament when he saw a beautiful young lady carrying a water pail on her head. He reached out to touch her but she trapped his hand under her arm and continued walking, dragging him all the way to her hut. The powerful woman, called Takashima no Oiko, thought him rather feeble but trained him to be a successful rikishi. At the end of the 1600s, a nun was said to have repeatedly defeated the best wrestlers of the age and, from the 18th Century, there are proper historical records of professional female sumo bouts. Matches between blind men and women were particularly eagerly attended. "Blind search for a dark spot! Mutual groping and search," said one salacious flyer for a blind-female fight. The attraction of these bouts to the audience is clear in the names of the female rikishi : "Chichigahari" (Big Boobs), "Anagafuchi" (Deep Crevice), "Tamanokoshi" (Holder of the Balls) etc.. Even after female wrestling was banned by the authorities in 1873, it continued to be a feature of the provincial circuit and made occasional, furtively attended forays into the big cities. There is a record of a male/female bout in Tokyo in 1926.

The Story of Takashima Oiko (1889) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Anyway, back to the whisky. Full Proof's second bottling is a 1990 Hanyu (cask 9305, alcohol 53 per cent), priced at 130 Euros a bottle. Two hundred bottles available at Full Proof's website.

Jeroen Koetsier said: "The vintage 1990 I like even better [than the Big Butt], less ‘in your face’ and more subtle with notes of old balsamico and well aged calvados. The label is based on a famous Japanese woodblock print called "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Hokusai."

Previous Full Proof Europe labels by Hans Dillesse

Information about Sumo from "Sumo: From Rite to Sport" by P. L. Cuyler.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Malt Maniac Awards: "The quality of the average Japanese whisky has now surpassed the quality of the average Scotch whisky."

Japanese whiskies have scooped nearly half of the gold medals at the 2009 Malt Maniacs Awards.

A Number One Drink's Company bottling of a Karuizawa 1972 single cask (65%, Sherry cask #7290, 528 Bottles) won a gold as well as the first prize in the "ultra-premium" category but it was the presence of three Japanese whiskies among only seven gold medalists that shocked Malt Maniac editor Johannes van den Heuvel.

"Such a result would make sense if half of the bottles in the competition came from Japan, but in fact only a handful of the participants for 2009 were submitted by Suntory, La Maison du Whisky or the Number One Drinks Company. So, based on our experiences in the MM Awards it seems that the average Japanese whisky is fabulous," he said.

"It would seem that the quality of the average Japanese whisky has now surpassed the quality of the average Scotch whisky."

The Malt Maniac Awards are the most transparent international whisky prize and one of only two or three competitions that I pay close attention to every year. The organisers publish every score from a named panel of some of the world's most knowledgeable whisky people. The formula used to collate the results is also explained in detail.

Although the whiskies tasted are given for free by the companies that make or distribute them, the Malt Maniacs themselves are a non-profit making collective of whisky enthusiasts and so there can be no suspicion of commercial interests skewing the results (to be fair, there is no evidence of chicanery in the main commercial competitions.)

Alongside the Karuizawa, the other gold medal winners at this year's awards were a Yoichi 1991/2009 Single Cask (58%, Official Bottling, Cask#129374, 453 Bottles), made by Nikka whisky and imported into Europe by La Maison du Whisky, and a Hakushu 1989/2009 (62%, Official Bottling, Sherry Butt #9O 50021) made by Suntory.

Another major prize went to my current love interest Yamazaki 1984 (48%, OB, matured in Japanese Mizunara oak, +/- 2009), which won the Best Cask Innovation Award in the Ultra Premium category (best whisky matured or finished in an unusual cask). The Yamazaki 18-year-old (43%, OB, +/- 2009) scooped the Sherry Cask Award in the premium category.

"One trend that emerges from these results (or perhaps an existing trend that is confirmed by these results) is the strengthened profile of Japanese whiskies. Ever since they started participating in our competition in 2006, the Japanese managed to collect more than their fair share of medals," said van den Heuvel.

"Of course it's entirely possible that we've only received the very best whiskies from Japan, so we'd never encounter possible sub-standard expressions - even if they existed. Nevertheless, based on what we've experienced so far it would seem that the 'quality' of the average Japanese whisky has now surpassed the quality of the average Scotch whisky.

"This didn't have to be a problem if the price levels had not changed in recent years; Japanese whiskies used to be considerably more expensive than Scotch whiskies a few years ago. However, the prices for most of the Scotch whiskies were raised considerably in recent years. That means that these days Japanese whiskies offer some serious competition for Scotch whiskies, especially in the 'premium' and 'ultra premium' price segments."