Friday, November 23, 2012

The Return of Japanese Whisky: Nikka/SMWS Launch Event

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

There are times - but they're few and far between for most of us - when everything just seems to fall into place, and you find yourself thinking there's nowhere you'd rather be than where you are at that particular moment in time. Sitting in the VIP Lounge on the 22nd floor of the Asahi Headquarters, a stone's throw from the Sky Tree, overlooking the Sumida river and the metropolis getting ready to call it a day, I had the distinct feeling that for most people there it was such a moment.

The occasion was the celebration of the first bottlings of Japanese whisky in over 2 years for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. It was billed as "The Return of Japanese Whisky", and it was in more than one sense. As most of you will know, the SMWS bottles all its whiskies - including those not produced in the homeland - in Edinburgh, and so these particular casks (2 Yoichi's and 1 Miyagikyo) were first sent to Scotland and then shipped back, bottled, to Japan. If it was a return in that narrow sense of the word, it was also a homecoming in the sense that in the decade since Japanese whisky really burst onto the world scene (after winning the Best of the Best at the Whisky Magazine Awards in 2001), whisky enthusiasts in Japan have become fully aware of the incredibly high quality of the whiskies produced domestically. That this return was welcomed with open arms was obvious the day these 3 single cask bottlings were offered to members of the SMWS's Japan chapter. Limited to one bottle of each cask per member, the entire allocation sold out in less than a day.

The official launch event today was sold out, too: those lucky people who had managed to get their hands on a set earlier this month no doubt wanted to see just how lucky they'd been, and for those unfortunate souls who had missed the train, this was the first and last chance to taste these amazing single casks. And amazing they were. The youngest one [124.3] was a (non-peated) 13yo Miyagikyo (1999/2012), matured in a refill butt. The nose is wonderfully estery, with notes of white peaches, pear drops, cherry jelly and lychees - all of this on a bed of freshly-cut grass. After a while, you get hints of apple-carrot juice, banana fritters and cotton candy. The palate develops the sweetness of the nose: honey, coconut milk, white chocolate mousse... a feast for the taste buds. With water, a ginger ale note emerges and a hint of dried pineapple as well. The finish is long and lingering, concluding the procession of fruity notes with a bit of lemon tart. Delicious.

The two other offerings were lightly-peated Yoichi's, one an 18yo [116.18] matured in a refill butt; the other a 25yo [116.17] matured in virgin oak. Let's start off with the 18yo. On the nose, the first impression is milk-chocolate, loads of it, then marzipan bread, dried figs - one moment, you're in a cigar humidor; the next, it's a library filled with old books. After a while, sweet notes come through: vanilla, kirsch liqueur, apricot jam, ... With water, you get even more milk chocolate and some soft caramel (生キャラメル), followed by a lovely propolis throat candy note. The palate is equally complex and mesmerizing: pear-syrup, library notes again, pepper, stamp gum, and with water: honeydew melon wrapped in prosciutto ham. The finish is long with peppery overtones, the chocolate keeps going but there's a hint of tobacco as well.

Its older brother - the 25yo - is similarly intense and complex. On the nose, the thing that hit me first was that dirty sweetness of unrefined cane sugar - but it doesn't stop there. There's cinnamon, chocolate-coated coffee beans, amarettini, furniture polish and blood sausages with cherry sauce. What an incredible amalgam of aromas. Water adds a bergamot tea note and kind of "cleans up" the nose, pushing sweeter notes to the fore (honey and vanilla). The palate is oh-so lush: loads of tea, rhubarb tart, dates, candied orange peel and pencil shavings, which you often get with virgin oak. Water brings out some honey-on-toast, macadamia nuts and a bit of smoked duck. The finish is medium-long and is kind of ... mmm, temple-like, for want of a better word!

I think it's clear that the people at Nikka and the noses at the SMWS were pretty sharp the day they picked these casks. They're absolute stunners. There's just one thing one can say, really: let's hope it won't take another 2 years and a half before we get to try more treats from the Yoichi and/or Miyagikyo warehouses, courtesy of the SMWS. The Society will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, and the Japan chapter its 20th anniversary, so it wouldn't surprise me if they're already working on some surprises for its members.

I didn't tell you about the incredible chocolates created by Toshi Yoroizuka (designed to go with the whiskies), the smoked foods of Yokohama Kunsei (I loved the smoked daikon - these people are geniuses, seriously) and the insightful comments of Nikka master blender Tadashi Sakuma ... but you get the picture: the people at the SMWS here know how to celebrate in style. One more thing. If you feel it's a bit cruel of me to rave about whiskies that are no longer available, there are two glimmers of hope: (1) these bottlings will be available from other chapters of the Society around the world, and (2) Nikka released two single casks under its own label yesterday (a 1994 Yoichi and a 2002 Miyagikyo) and they're still available (but only in Japan, unfortunately) from the online Asahi-shop.


Stefan " Swede " Berggren said...

Wow Stefan, it seems a like a truly amazing event. I appreciate your commentary on the event and tastings!

Stefan said...

Thanks for the kind words. It really was a beautiful night, and the whiskies were top-notch. If you're a member of the SMWS in your country, be sure to get hold of a bottle or two.