Friday, July 6, 2012

A Report from the High Street

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Purely by accident, I ended up in one my favourite neighbourhoods in Tokyo today - Nihonbashi / Tokyo Station / Yurakucho - so I went to all my regular liquor haunts. That was before lunch and on a half-empty stomach battling the humid summer weather: dedication or plain madness? Well, it's a thin line, sometimes. Here's a short report.

The liquor section of Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi is not exactly well-stocked - in fact, as far as whisky is concerned, it's a pretty miserable sight. The only thing that makes me want to go and have a look once in a while is the fact that they do have one or two store-exclusive Japanese whiskies at any given time. They don't make a big fuss about them and that's one of the reasons why they usually slip under the radar of the Japanese whisky community. A couple of months ago, I wrote about a Mitsukushi exclusive Quarter-Cask Hanyu bottling (still available, by the way). Today, I spotted an interesting Suntory single cask, which may well be a store-exclusive (they never advertise those kinds of things, strangely enough). It's a Hakushu, drawn from a single hogshead, distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2012. Single casks from Suntory are becoming more and more rare, so it's nice to see they're letting some slip through the gates from time to time. Mitsukoshi don't allow the customer to sample, so unfortunately I can't tell you anything about what it tastes like. Regular readers of this blog will be able to guess what it's priced at though... indeed: 10,500 yen a bottle.

On to Takashimaya Nihonbashi - that's a different story, altogether: they're very well stocked and tasting (for some, not all obivously) products is possible. To give you an idea of how well-stocked they are: today I spotted 2 White Bowmores (one of which was open, can you believe it!) and a 1965 Ardbeg. Anyway, enough whisky-spotting. They have various store-exclusives - both Japanese whisky and Scotch (usually sourced from BBR) - throughout the year. These are usually bottlings, with the emphasis on "bottle". Now, they have also started selling little mini-casks (2 litres) under the banner "Takashimaya Buyer's Selection - The Single Cask". When I was there, there were two for sale: a 43-year old Tomintoul (47.7% abv) at 94,500 yen and a 17-year old Bruichladdich (50.7% abv) for 63,000 yen. If you're well-heeled, have good taste as well as good friends and are generous to boot, either would make for a great "ochuugen" (i.e. summer gift). I don't imagine there are too many people who answer to that description, though.

Next stop: Liquors Hasegawa. I was keen to try the new Black ("Premium") Label "Malt & Grain" produced by Ichiro Akuto. I knew chances were high they'd have a bottle open, and sure enough, they did. Just nosing it, I knew the Black Label was a vast improvement on the White Label (which I was not a fan of, to put it mildly - see my earlier post on "Ichiro's Blends"). This was very different - a really lovely blend. To this nose, the dominant notes were orange peel and pine tree / forest notes; on the palate, it was clear some virgin oak must have gone into it (pencil shavings, anin dofu, coming through). I didn't take any detailed tasting notes, but I remember thinking it couldn't have been released at a better time. Just perfect for the hot, humid summers here; also excellent value for money, I think.

After the Black Label Malt & Grain, I explored some recent Scotch single cask bottlings, and just as I was about to wrap up my little morning impromptu tasting - feeling the need for some solid food - one of the members of staff - they are fantastic, without exception, and extremely knowledgeable, by the way - asked me if I had tried the NAS Hakushu and Yamazaki. I hadn't. Five minutes later, I had. And what a revelation that was: they are superb beyond description. The person who put these beauties together deserves a big, fat summer bonus. Both are constructed around a core of 8- / 9-year old malt but enveloped by much older malt (up to 25yo). The Hakushu is very-lightly peated, with some of it finished in sherry casks (they must have been second- or third-fill, because the effect was very subtle, never overpowering those typical, lovely forest notes). The Yamazaki is an absolutely stunner: the core (young) malts were finished in wine casks, but older stock was also used (including some mizunara). I loved the Hakushu, but the Yamazaki really blew me away. It is such a beautifully harmonized whisky - words just don't do it justice. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourself. You'll see. Kudos to the people at Suntory for creating this piece of art.


Stefan said...

Yes, very well put. I think the scepticism about NAS releases is based on suspicions that the producers will use younger malt components to try and make more money. I think the reality is very different: if I were a blender, I'd want complete freedom to make the blend I want, without having to think about the age statement that goes on the label. People are quick to think about the big boys "oh, they want more profit", "they're trying to cut corners" - all because there is some malt in the blend that's under 10 years old. At the same time, we're quick to laud the "small players" when they put out a 3 yo, or a 5yo (not just in Japan, btw) and compliment them on how "mature" it tastes. Isn't this a double standard, really? Why would Suntory or Nikka be unable to produce malt that is at 8 or 9yo perfect for a blend, when smaller producers are able to create 3yo, 4yo etc. whisky that tastes great? Food for thought, I think.

Alan Messini said...

Sounds like I need to get over there again & do a bit of legwork! Is the Hakushu you refer to the new "heavily peated"? I just received a bottle of this & loved it. The peat is beautifully done & balanced by lovely sweet malt. Another wonderful Hakushu! Stefan, did your travels take in Tanakaya? When I was in Japan last year I visited there & was blown away by their range of whiskies. However when my brother went past a couple of times recently they were closed. Have they shut up shop? A shame if they have.

Stefan said...

No, the Hakushu is not the new heavily peated one - although you're right, that one is brilliant too!
And Tanakaya is still open, but their selection is becoming less and less interesting, I think. When I first discovered the place, years ago, they had an amazing selection - so many Ichiro's malts too, I bought many of the old card bottlings there, in fact. But I noticed that what bottles just disappeared faster, but stock wasn't being kept up to date. (Not just for the Japanese whisky, Scotch as well.) So the shelves are becoming emptier and emptier, and most of the bottles older and older. (The really interesting stuff, of course, is gone... you'd be hard-pressed to find and Ichiro's malt there now!) As you may know, they are one of the few shops who don't sell online and who don't sell over the phone. The only way to buy is to go over there and buy what you want (cash only, I seem to remember). I think, to be honest, that they are slowly being eclipsed by liquor retailers with a big online presence. People just buy the stuff the moment it is released, and the safest way is to by online - lest it be sold out in a day, like the Ichiro's Malt the Game II. Slowly, over the years, consumers have been forced into adopting the attitude "online first". A few resist stubbornly... I hope they manage to survive the "amazonization" of business. Anyway, a long answer to say: yes, Tanakaya is still open!

Stefan said...

Apologies for the many typos (typed on my iphone).

Alan Messini said...

Thanks Stefan - very informative as always!