Sunday, May 6, 2012

TIBS / Whisky Live 2012

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

While the second day of the inaugural Tokyo International Bar Show (a revamped 12th edition of Whisky Live Tokyo) is in full swing, here are a few impressions of the first day. This review will focus on the whisky side of the event, which is not to say the cocktail/bartending side was of little interest – far from it! I actually thought the new formula – one hall centered on whisky, the other offering a variety of cocktails and other spirits – made this edition an even better experience than in previous years. I found myself shuttling back and forth between the two halls: there’s only so much whisky one can assess fairly (i.e. with a fresh palate) before the law of diminishing returns starts to assert itself, so the cocktail section offered frequent, well-needed breaks from the sensory assaults of the hard-hitting malts.

Most of the early birds on the first day (many of whom arrived hours before the official opening) were there to make sure they didn’t miss out on the TIBS Kinen bottlings. There were five of them, and fifteen complete sets were offered at a discount – these sold out in a matter of minutes. Of the five, the Venture Whisky bottlings (Chichibu and Hanyu quarter casks, limited to 164 and 167 bottles respectively) were the most interesting ones. I was very keen to try the Karuizawas, because unlike most companies who focus on producing excellent single malts (i.e. vattings of several casks), with the occasional stand-out cask being bottled as a single cask, the No. 1 Drinks (owners of the complete Karuizawa stock since a couple of months) approach has always been to bottle single casks, so I was naturally curious to see where their recent multi-vintages (a single malt by any other name…) would fit into their portfolio. The need to vat casks is clearly enforced by circumstances: when you buy the entire inventory of a distillery there are bound to be casks of lesser quality. I found the two TIBS Karuizawas – a vatting of casks from the last two vintages, married for a number of months in two different casks – to be very similar with only the slightest difference in nuance, and certainly not of the high quality we have come to expect of Karuizawa. Some people feel that expectation is unrealistic, the irony being it was fed by the selection of stellar single casks by No. 1 Drinks. In a way, they raised the bar to such a high level that they are now forced to use all the tricks of the trade to make casks of lower quality into "great" whisky. (Another interesting angle of comparison is the pricing: compare the 1999-2000 vatting for TIBS priced at 8,000 yen with 1999 single-cask #867 which currently retails in the UK for a staggering 300 pounds or about 38,000 yen!) In any case, the TIBS Karuizawas failed to impress me. I found the Yamazaki puncheon to be similarly flat and uninspiring. Bottom line: go for the Chichibu and Hanyu chibidaru bottlings – they are of outstanding quality. There probably aren't many left, so I wouldn't waste time if I were you.

As in previous years, there were also special bottlings for the event by the Craft Distillers (the group of distilleries represented in Japan by Whisk-e, i.e. Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, Glendronach, Kilchoman and Springbank). For me, the Glendronach and the Springbank bottlings were the most impressive. Glendronach had selected a 2002 ex-bourbon cask, not the usual ex-sherry heavyweight! A few ex-bourbon casks of the same vintage have been released so far - some for the European market (whisky festivals and/or distributors in Belgium, and LMdW in France) - and one made its way to Japan two years ago, but this one is really quite something: it beautifully displays the power of the Glendronach spirit, subtly complemented by notes picked up from the cask. A real stunner, in my opinion. I was similarly impressed with the Springbank offering, a 1995 (bottled in 2011) 1st fill ex-sherry hogshead: wonderful prune and raisin notes in the foreground with all kinds of things going on in the background (too complex to put one's finger on in the hustle and bustle of the show).

Two of Japan's "craft distillers" used the show as a platform to gauge response to (possible) future bottlings: Hombo Shuzo (of Mars Distillery in Shinshu) and Venture Whisky (of Hanyu and Chichibu fame). Mars distillery is one of two part-time whisky distilleries in Japan - meaning they only produce whisky for part of the year - the other one being Eigashima. After a hiatus of 19 years, Mars started distilling again early last year. They only distill for three months every year (January to March) and have just finished their second season. They fill about 150 casks per season, and seem to have taken a leaf out of Akuto-san's book since they restarted, as they told me they are experimenting with many different types and sizes of casks (including small casks). Very promising, I think! They plan to release two new single-casks from the "ancien regime": a 1985 ex-sherry cask (#162, 60.7% abv) and a 1989 American white oak cask (#1041, 57.9%) later this month. They are priced about the same as comparable Nikka single-casks: 18,900 yen and 15,750 yen respectively. The ex-sherry cask is absolutely gorgeous - a must-have bottling, one of their best so far, in my opinion. The other one was more subdued in character, but intriguing nonetheless - one I definitely want to try again in peace and quiet. I also learned that there is another customer-exclusive bottling available in Japan (other than the Seijo Ishii one I wrote about a few weeks ago), but this one is a bit harder to get hold of. It's a vatted malt, created exclusively for liquor store Ushijima Sakaten in Kagoshima. As good an excuse as any for a trip to Kyushu, I reckon.

Akuto-san had brought no fewer than 6 possible future Chichibu bottlings to the show. A look at the pictures should give you an idea of the variety. The most impressive of the six - and for some people (including myself) the pick of the whole show - was the Mizunara Puncheon. If this isn't bottled soon, I think Akuto-san will find fans knocking down the door of his distillery. It's always a treat to try a mizunara (i.e. Japanese oak) cask bottling, but this one was superb beyond description. As some of you may know, mizunara casks are expensive. Most mizunara used for whisky maturation comes from Hokkaido. You can find the oak in other parts of Japan as well, but it's not of sufficiently high quality to mature whisky in. Staves are prepared in Hokkaido in two cuts, thin and thick. The thick ones are so thick that the only possible way to make them into casks is to go for the large-size puncheon. The cost however is quite high. Until recently, Akuto-san ordered mizunara-casks from a factory in Sendai. Lately, however, he started experimenting more with using mizunara oak for the cask heads only: it's much easier to fit casks with such heads at the distillery itself, and it's more cost-effective. I also had a chance to speak to some of the distillery workers about the chibidaru, the "original quarter cask". These are quite simply hogsheads that have been shortened by removing the top part (above the head hoop) and the bottom part (below the bottom hoop). They contain about 150 litres, and at the time of writing there are about 50 of them in active duty at the Chichibu distillery. It was obvious - both from the quality and originality of the whisky samples and from the queues at the Venture Whisky booth at the show - that Chichibu is one of the brightest stars in the whisky firmament at the moment. Exciting times up there in Saitama!

The Bar Show also offered the chance to try some exciting recent and forthcoming bottlings from Scotland for the Japanese market. Shinanoya, in particular, seems tireless in its efforts to keep bringing the best of the best to these shores. At the show, they had their recent 1985 Benriach and their 1991 Glenfarclas Family Cask bottlings open for tasting - both absolutely superb. They also had a forthcoming 40-year old Benriach (1971), a joint bottling with BBI Japan, available for tasting. It'll retail for just under 50,000 yen, but I'm sure it's worthy every yen.

Other personal highlights of the show included the Laddie Ten (Bruichladdich, that is), Taketsuru 35 and a wonderful pairing of Talisker 10 with Lindt "Sea Salt" chocolate (something I want to try with a top quality chocolate of the same type - for example, the sea salt chocolate I had the pleasure of discovering at Puccini Bonboni in Amsterdam when I was there last fall). I was very happy, though, to find one of my all-time favourites hidden amongst the bottles at Diageo's booth. The Diageo people in Japan routinely take it to all the events they attend. It never screams for attention and it's either free or very modestly priced (200 yen at the show), but it's a true gem. Like a message in a bottle from a not-so-distant past when the release of a truly great whisky didn't automatically lead to it being raved about by reviewers and bloggers (guilty as charged!), instantly selling out, being snapped up by collectors and offered on auction sites: the Dalwhinnie 29yo (57.8% abv), bottled almost 10 years ago and still available.

We'll have to wait another year to see an event with the same flair, appeal and intensity as the Tokyo International Bar Show / Whisky Live. There's just nothing like it, and it keeps getting better and better. I, for one, can't wait to see what marvels the organizers will throw at us next year.

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