Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Canned drams

While the mere idea of whisky in a can can still provoke outrage and bemusement in Scotland and other whisky markets, these whisky highball cans are now absolutely mainstream in Japan, with several brands available in most shops.

It is easy for people outside the country to get the wrong idea about the place of these drinks in the Japanese alcohol market. Essentially, they have their roots in the "chuhai" canned drinks sector, rather than Japan's whisky culture. "Chuhai" was originally a contraction of "shochu highball", the term given to the soda and shōchū cocktails that became popular in Tōkyō’s drinking districts immediately after the war. But, today, it normally refers to cheap cocktails sold in a can. I could blather on endlessly about the whys are wherefores of chuhais but, basically, it is best summed up with a graphic, stolen from Kirin's annual report:

Basically, Chuhai competes with beer and beer substitutes ("Happo-shu" and "New genre") and Japan's barmy tax regime means that chuhai is far cheaper than beer. The story of the last 15 or so years in Japanese alcohol has been the relentless rise of these low-taxed alternatives to beer (and subsequent squabbles among them for preeminence). The new canned whisky highball phenomenon has dovetailed perfectly onto the end of this narrative, adding a bit of class and glamour (on the back of Suntory's very successful highball campaign) to the low-tax booze ticket.

Not all of these canned whisky highballs are particularly cheap and that too is part of the ungoing narrative of alcohol in Japan. The big drinks companies, having driven down the cut-price road about as far as they could go and finding that they were just cannibalizing sales of products with higher margins, are desperate to increase the profits on their drinks. The classy image of whisky offers that opportunity. The furthest the concept has been pushed so far is Nikka Whisky's Pure Malt Taketsuru 12-year-old Highball (part of this range), which costs about 300 yen, substantially more than a can of the much higher taxed beer. (The Torys highball is far cheaper than any beer, at about 160 yen for 350 ml, but it too is drawing on a very well established and much-loved brand)

So, in summary, these things are less of a product of Japan's whisky culture than an outgrowth of the probably universal desire for a cheap way to get blasted (but are developing beyond those roots). Their existence will, nevertheless, have a great bearing on the future of Japanese whisky, not least because they are sustaining Japan's large whisky distilling sector. International competition winning single malts were never going to be able to do that on their own.

I must admit it seems a little strange (desperate?) to be canning 12-year-old Nikka pure malt but perhaps I am a fuddy-duddy. I do sometimes have a guilty sip.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Whisky Week begins

Whisky Week Japan is underway. In the run up to Whisky Live at Tokyo Midtown on February 19/20, there are dozens of events going on all over Japan. Here is the full list in Japanese.

Friday, February 11, 2011

U.S. distiller is Chichibu bound

Brendan Wheatley

Ninety-two years after Masataka Taketsuru secured his historic work placement at Longmorn distillery in Scotland and started this whole Japanese whisky saga, a professional distiller from the United States is making his own whiskey pilgrimage, and this time Japan is the destination.

Brendan Wheatley, 34, who is currently consulting for a startup micro distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, will be flying in from the U.S. to Tokyo on February 26 for a 10-day work placement at Ichiro Akuto's new Chichibu distillery.

"Hopefully I will be working, observing Chichibu's processes and engaging in dialogue about distillation and barrel blending techniques," Wheatley says.

"Chichibu and its production are on a scale that is very relevant to the micro-distilling movement in the USA, and the blending techniques of Japanese whisky are a way that a small producer can create complexity in their products without the gross overheads it would take to mimic what is currently done in American Bourbon's large rick houses."

For Wheatley, it is all part of an eclectic learning process as he works to develop his own distinctive style.

"My last job, before I started consulting, was for a California brandy producer called Germain-Robin. They used classic French Cognac techniques for production and cellaring, but with any varietal (Pinot Noir, Semillon, Muscat etc.) they wanted, unlike Cognac France, which primarily uses Uni Blanc. I really want to make whiskey that incorporates both French and Japanese techniques in production and cellaring, and blending (these influences) together in my products."

Before a thousand people start pounding on Ichiro Akuto's door (I would be the first in line) please note that Wheatley is a professional. He was the first person to be selected for the Michael Jackson Whisky Internship, which is helping to make the trip possible. I do get a lot of requests from people for my help in setting up these sorts of placements and I have to disappoint a lot of people by saying I am not in a position to arrange these things. It is probably best to start off with a proper training and then subsequently apply for this sort of experience. Anyway, hopefully, from the point of view of us Japanese whisky fans, Wheatley's work in Chichibu will reap benefits for all concerned.

"I hope that not only can I learn from what they are doing in their production, but I hope I can share what I have learned about French traditional techniques and cross pollinate new ideas with traditional techniques," Wheatley says.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ichiro's Malt Four of Spades

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic

"Ichiro's Malt Four of Spades, Mizunara Wood Finish 2000, 10-year-old. 58.6 per cent alcohol.
Nose: Sandalwood, pine, nectarines, peaches, golden syrup, vanilla essence.
Palate: Needs water to tame the alcohol. With water, sweet woods, tinned peaches, toffee, nutmeg, coconut and mint.
Finish: Long and creamy with sandalwood, nutmeg, coconut and peppermint.

Ichiro's Malt Six of Clubs

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic
Ichiro's Malt Six of Clubs 2000, 9-year-old. 57.9 per cent alcohol.
Nose: Gunpowder, lime, white pepper, mushroom, mixed peel. With water, marzipan comes through.
Palate: Blood orange, burnt toffee, gunpowder, blackberry, wet earth. With water, the mixed peel zings.
Finish: Sweet spices, blackberries, Christmas pudding drizzled in warm treacle and buttered shrooms.
General Comment: Not bad but a little too much gunpowder/sulphur.

Ichiro's Malt Wine Wood Reserve

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:
Ichiro's Malt Wine Wood Reserve. 46 per cent alcohol.
Nose: Reminds me of some sherry cask Scotches (e.g Macallan 12) more than a wine finish. Marmalade, figs, oak, chocolate, wood stain, soap. A little spirituous, but that's probably enhanced by the style of the whisky.
Palate: Initially, very fizzy on the tongue. Orange sherbert? Brazil nut, bitter chocolate, raisins, pepper.
Finish: Pepper, marmalade, raisins. Kind of bittersweet. Quite long, with hot spices on the palate and then butter menthols.

Ichiro's Malt "MWR" Mizunara Wood Reserve

Review by Nonjatta contributor - Dramtastic:

Ichiro's Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve. 46 per cent alcohol.
Nose: Quite gentle. The dominant note is honey. Also, lemon meringue, grapefruit and a little salt.
Palate: Pepper and white sauce over cauliflower. Ginger, lemon, grapefruit.
Finish: Short, with a little spice. Not a lot of power for 46 per cent alcohol, feels more like 40 per cent. Is this quite young, as I'm not picking up a lot of influence from the Mizunara wood? Easy enough to drink but not particularly memorable.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Excellent article on Japanese whisky

James Hadfield has just published a top-notch article on Japanese whisky in Metropolis. It is really well written and a nice summary of where we stand at the moment.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hive Five going all Japanese

Hidetsugu Ueno, the owner of High Five in Ginza is "draining his Scotch collection and going all Japanese."

This is significant because Ueno is one of the leading figures in Japanese bartending.

Address in English: High Five, No. 26 Polestar Building. 4F 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061.
Address in Japanese: 東京都中央区銀座7-2-14 第26ポールスタービル 4F