Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ichiro`s Blends

Post by Nonjatta contributor Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

In general, releasing blends is not really an option for the small craft distiller in Japan (for that you would have to distill your own grain whisky, which is what the major players in the business do, of course), so when Ichiro Akuto (of Chichibu Distillery) discovered some old casks of Kawasaki grain whisky a new avenue of enterprise opened up: the small batch craft distiller blend. Today, we'll focus on three fairly recent customer-exclusive blends created by Ichiro Akuto.

The first was released in the fall of last year to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the department store chain Takashimaya under the Ichiro's Malt & Grain banner. It was bottled at a strength of 48 percent abv in a limited run of 500 numbered bottles. When it was first released, the label (both on the bottle and on the gift box) had a spelling mistake in it ("exclusivery") - someone must have spotted this, because about a month after it had first appeared in Takashimaya, the mistake had been corrected. (I wonder if they actually had to relabel all of the bottles!) 

So, anyway, for the whisky completeists out there, there are two slightly different labels. There's no real information about what went into this blend, but the possibilities are limited, of course: Hanyu malt whisky, very young (i.e. 3 year-old) Chichibu malt whisky (or younger spirit, because the SWA regulations don't apply here in Japan, of course) and Kawasaki grain whisky. 

I had the chance to sample it on different occasions--my impression was that there must be a high proportion of grain in it, with a topping of malt (some stewed fruits coming through); that, or the grain simply has more character (is presumably older) than the malt used. It's a pleasant enough malt, but unfortunately it's a bit pricey (10,500 yen or 130 USD). I really feel the business of pricing whiskies here in Japan is a bit "bottakuri" (ぼったくり) --there just doesn't seem to be any logic to it, other than the logic of making everything an exclusive, limited edition so that you can slap on whatever price you want. 

The second Ichiro's Malt & Grain we'll focus on today is not explicitly customer-exclusive, but I've only seen it at the Isetan department store in Osaka, so it may well be. It seems to be a posh variation of the standard white-label Ichiro's Malt & Grain (which you can buy for about 3,000 yen, which is very reasonable indeed).

The Isetan version sports an elegant washi  (Japanese paper) label, is bottled at 48 percent abv as well, but limited to 300 bottles (not numbered). The price is the same as the Takashimaya blend, so maybe that's the standard price for a department store blend (Read: the percentage of profit that they add). I couldn't bring myself to buy a bottle without trying it first, which was not possible at the Namba Isetan branch, so if anyone has tried this... let us know what you think.

The last blend today also seems to be an Isetan exclusive--it's still available at the Shinjuku branch. This one is a little different--in fact, it's what used to be called a "vatted malt". Akuto-san called this creation "ku-zen-zetsu-go" which roughly translates as "the first and probably the last". The label says it is a vatting of Scotch and Japanese whiskies (doesn't say whether that includes grain, but presumably not) that was married and finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask.

Again, I tasted it on several occasions and my impression was that it was rather bland and uninspiring - it must have been a pretty tired sherry cask because I found the influence of the cask to be minimal. It was bottled at 50 percent abv (not numbered, outturn not stated) and sells for ... can you guess? Right: 10,500 yen. It's also available in a small 200-ml bottle for 3,900 yen.

I also wonder whether this was in fact "the first"... some of you may remember the "Uniting Nations" blend that Akuto-san put out in 2008 to celebrate the UK-Japan year which was a vatting of Scotch and Japanese whiskies (first edition: about 900 bottles; second edition the year after: about a 1000 bottles). These were also finished for about 5 months in Pedro Ximenez casks and bottled at 50 percent abv... so I would take the ku-zen-zetsu-go with a pinch of salt. To be fair, maybe something in the process was different.

I'm big fan of Akuto-san's work but the blends haven't really convinced me yet. I understand he is running a business, but I'd be happier if they were priced a little (well, let's be honest... a lot) more reasonably. Then, we might get the chance to buy them more regularly! As it is, I feel this strategy of making everything "exclusive"/"limited" in the interest of a higher profit margin might backfire when it comes to blends. We'll see...

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