Friday, January 29, 2010

Paris scene is buzzing

Bar Curio, first specialist Japanese whisky bar outside of Japan

It has slowly dawned on me in recent weeks that Paris is, without doubt, become the most exciting city for Japanese whisky outside of Japan itself.

Last month, Nonjatta carried an item about a temporary store devoted entirely to the Japanese good stuff opened by La Maison du Whisky at 6 Carrefour de L' Odéon in the French capital.The response was so enthusiastic that the store stayed open until January 23, a week later than originally planned (update: according to Kenneth Maxwell, author of the excellent WSJ article last week, they are keeping a small display of Japanese whisky in the store, although the focus has now turned to other drinks). People were traveling from outside France to get their Japanese whisky fix.

But that is not the half of Paris's burgeoning Japanese whisky obsession.. Of course, Paris has La Maison du Whisky at 20 la rue d'Anjou, the official distributor of Nikka whisky in Europe and probably the leading Japanese whisky retailer outside of Japan, but it also has the only bar outside of Japan endorsed by Nikka whisky: Le Nikka Bar du Curio Parlor, in the cellar of the Curio Parlor cocktail club ( I have never been but, with thirty odd Nikka whiskies in stock, and monthly "Nikka'fterwork" tasting events, offering unique opportunities to try some of the very rarest Japanese whiskies, I will definitely be visiting if I ever do find myself in France. The bar, at 16 rue des Bernardins (tel. 01 44 07 12 47), is open 6pm-2am, Monday to Thursday and until 5 am at the weekend.

Last night (28.1.10), for instance, lucky drinkers at a 10 Euro-a-ticket "Nikka'fterwork" tasting (see the bar's facebook page for information on these events) had a chance to taste the very rare Single Malt Miyagikyo 1989. Only 36 bottles for Europe!

La Maison has a big part to play in the Curio. One of the owners of the bar, Romée de Goriainoff traveled to Japan in the spring of 2008 on a trip organised by the distributor. On the first night of the trip, he sampled Nikka's phenomenal Taketsuru 35-year-old with Nikka top brass at the Nikka Blender's Bar in Tokyo (a tasting which I, rather embarrassingly and unknowingly, gatecrashed, but that is another story). On the second day, he was in the Nikka Bar in Sapporo having visited the beautiful Yoichi distillery. De Goriainoff fell in love with Japanese whisky and the quality of the country's products so impressed his partners, Olivier Bon and Pierre-Charles Gros, that they decided to open their open Japanese whisky bar at the Curio Parlor.

Over the coming months I will be trying to keep Nonjatta readers updated with the latest developments in Paris, as many as the many other locations across the world where interest is currently bubbling over (send in any news items, please!). The Japanese whisky world becomes more genuinely global by the month.

Whisky tasting at Bar Curio, Paris
Photos provided by Nicolas at La Maison.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal on Japanese whisky

An excellent article about Japanese whisky has just popped up on the Wall Street Journal website (update: it also made it into the main paper). Kenneth Maxwell, deputy Tokyo bureau chief for Dow Jones newswires, interviewed myself and others about the prospect of Japanese whisky becoming a serious export commodity. Until now, the industry has basically been all about the domestic Japanese market.

Whiskycast on Japan and the King Car distillery, Taiwan

King Car distillery, Taiwan

I forgot to mention that Mark Gillespie of the Whiskycast podcast (itunes), which is essential listening for anyone interested in whisky, interviewed me in the middle of the New Year festivities over here. I am not sure how much light I shone on Japanese whisky but Mark was his usual professional self while I stumbled over my sentences (link to interview on Mark's website).

Perhaps of more interest was an interview in the very next episode of whiskycast (episode 234, January 10; interview link) with Ian Chang from the King Car distillery in Taiwan. I try to interpret Nonjatta's brief broadly and like to take note of developments in whisky across Asia, the continent which seems to hold the future of whisky in its hands. I must admit I had never heard of King Car before listening to Mark's interview (having only heard of rip offs from Taiwan before) but the company sell four different bottlings of single malt whisky, including ex-Bourbon cask and Sherry cask single cask expressions.

The whisky is still very young (King Car only started distilling in 2006) but it seems to be good. The sherry, ex-Bourbon and "Concertmaster" single malts won Bronze medals in this year's Malt Maniacs awards and Jim Murray gave the sherry version a 90 rating in the 2009 Whisky Bible. The main Kavalan single malt won a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March 2009 and a silver medal (best in class) at the International Wine and Spirit Competition. The judges said the whisky had “a delicate, gentle nose … with a sweet sensation making for easy flow.”

That sweet, smooth style seems to be what King Car are aiming at. They did extensive research of the Taiwanese market before launching their products and found that their countrymen preferred a slightly sweeter, more oily taste. Their main challenge at the moment seems to be the relatively hot weather conditions. I found distillers wrestling with similar problems at the Eigashima White Oak at Akashi, Japan's most southerly distillery: the angels' share can be astronomical (I have heard of 7 per cent a year losses in Japan). However, King Car, with help from the British distilling expert Jim Swan, reckon they have it under control. They say, as I have heard Japanese distillers working in these conditions claim, that the warmth also makes the whisky mature more quickly.

Make no mistake, King Car have aggressively ambitious. Andy Chang, a section chief at the distillery, said: “Our goal is to become one of the world’s top five whisky distilleries. And we will prove to the rest of the world that Taiwan is actually an ideal location for making whisky.

“From the very beginning, our goal has been to build a distillery that will stand for hundreds of years for whisky lovers from around the world,” Chang said.

The distillery began operations in 2006 with copper stills made in Scotland and imported malt but, the very next year, another set of stills was imported from Germany. Its total capacity is now a very substantial 9 million bottles per year.

The company behind the operation, King Car Food Industrial Co. Ltd., is no minnow. It has established itself as one of the country's major food and drink makers since its foundation in 1979 and has ploughed 31 million dollars (US) into the distillery at Yuanshan Village in northeastern Taiwan. The single malt's name, "Kavalan", sounds a bit European but in fact comes from the name of an indigenous clan that lived in the region.

With a domestic market that is the sixth biggest in the world (Ian Chang told Mark that the Taiwanese like to drink whisky on special occasions and can down a bottle each in a night) and the potentially huge Chinese market on their doorstep, their future looks very interesting indeed. Currently, over 90 per cent of Taiwan's whisky is imported from Scotland. King Car intends to change all that.

Some quotes and information taken from Taiwan Today. The rest from Mark's podcast. Photograph from King Car website.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Get Whisky Live Japan Tickets

Tickets to Japan's biggest whisky festival, Whisky Live Japan, will go on sale at 12 am tomorrow (January 5) at This year's extravaganza will be at Tokyo Big Sight, Odaiba on Sunday February 21.

Entry tickets are 6,000 yen and tickets to the master classes (which must be booked and sometimes book out early) are 3,000 yen each. A Day Ticket which includes entry and three master class tickets is 13,000 yen.

Entry includes:
- Samples of loads of whiskies at the distillery stands.

- A 10th anniversary tasting glass & gift box.

- A special commemorative edition of Whisky Magazine Japan.

- A Whisky Live! 10th anniversary lanyard.

- A 1,000 yen voucher for refreshments from the New Tokyo restaurant (less than a minute’s walk away from Live!)
There should be some English instructions on the Whisky Live website but any non-Japanese speakers wishing to apply for tickets an send an e-mail to organisers also have a twitter page giving news in the run up to the event here.

I always try to get to Whisky Live Japan. It is a huge event with loads of opportunities to learn about and taste top whiskies not only from Japan but from across the world. Once you have paid for your entrance, there are more free tasting opportunities available than any one person could possibly deal with in a week and there is always good entertainment on the main stage to keep you content as you sniff and snort. The master classes are well worth making an effort to get into (though, be warned, the Japanese whisky talks are always in Japanese). If you do speak a bit of Japanese, those ones always book out quickly so get along to quick! The full master class schedule is here.

I expect to post fuller details about this year's special Whisky Live bottlings next week but I will say here that I waiting for the details with great interest. This is Whisky Live Japan's 10th Anniversary and there will be six specially bottled single cask whiskies to mark the occasion.

Whisky Live Japan organiser David Croll said previous years' offerings had been sourced through bottlers: "This year, given the anniversary, we approached the Japanese distillers, and were thrilled when they agreed to bottle ‘official’ casks for us. Dave Broom [ the famous whisky writer] made the final selections from cask samples prepared by the distillers, who then bottled the stock themselves."