Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"The Oceans": a new series for the Japanese market

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Whisky fans with a special interest in marine biology will be happy to know a new series of single cask bottlings of Scotch whisky for the Japanese market has just been launched. Those of us who go through life without worrying too much about sea creatures can still marvel at the beautiful artwork and - most importantly - the quality of the liquid in the bottle. It should not come as a surprise that the minds behind this series - and, incidentally, two other series launched this autumn, of which more later - are the people over at Whisk-e. The inaugural release in the series "The Oceans" comprises a Longmorn 1996 and a Bunnahabhain 1979, both drawn from a single hogshead and both selected from the vast stocks at independent bottler Duncan Taylor (although the series is planned to include casks from other sources, and indeed, Whisk-e's own stock of private casks in the future).
The Longmorn sports a lovely rendering of the Actaea peronii, that's the Thorn-legged Crab for you non-Latin speakers - a creature that seems to be fond of the waters around Southern Australia. The nose - talking about the whisky here, not the crab! - is very light and ethereal with hints of freshly-cut grass and assorted heather plants, followed by fruity aromas (green apples, toasted coconut, ...) and a hint of mint. After a few minutes, I caught a distinct note of beech-nuts, transporting me back thirty-odd years to autumns in the local park. The palate starts on woody notes that quickly make room for a beautiful mild espresso flavour with hazelnut chocolate on the side. With water, the coffee notes become more pronounced, and on the nose, a beautiful ripe banana note enters the proceedings. The finish is long with freshly-roasted coffee beans at the centre and After Eights (the mint picked up earlier making its return) towards the end. It needs to be stressed, however, that there's an incredible lightness to this whisky: one of those rare whiskies that is multi-dimensional yet oh-so light.

On to the Diodontidae - the Porcupinefish, a creature less picky than its labelmate in terms of habitat, as it can be found in most temperate and tropical seas worldwide. The bottle will be much less ubiquitous as there are only 102 specimens to go around. Appearances can be deceptive, and that's certainly the case here: there's definitely nothing spiky about the juice in the bottle. Quite the opposite: it's one of those lush, old Bunnahabhains. The nose seduces you instantly - the impact is immediate: cherry pie, apple compote, peach jam; then, notes of cedar, followed by banana leaves, a hint of passionfruit; underneath all this: massive marzipan with a little rose water mixed in; and after a while, a feint geranium oil note. Water acts a bit like a zoom in that it pushes the fruity notes to the fore and the whole thing becomes almost like a fruit pound cake (with lots of orange liqueur!). The palate - neat - is a surprise... a pleasant one, that is. There's tobacco leaves, lots of pleasant tannic notes, nutmeg, mince pies, dried ginger and that cough syrup I loved to "drink" as a child (I would have to check with my mum to be more specific, but then again, her memory is probably worse than mine). Water adds a zesty element to the party - candied ginger and yuzu, some orange peel, ... - which is lovely but it shortens the finish, which I prefer without water: medium-long and peppery. Well, that gives you the perfect excuse to have two drams in a row - one with, the other without water. Not that you needed an excuse, of course.

What - I hear someone in the back mumble - does all this have to do with marine fauna? Well, nothing, really, but as David Croll of Whisk-e says: "Labels can never be an excuse for poor whisky but a good label draws people in and offers them something different, particularly in the way shots are served in Japan where the bottle is often placed on the counter in front of the customer." Other than that, imagine what a powerful tool your newfound knowledge of sea life could be: next time you're looking to impress someone with your knowledge of non-whisky-related matters (they needn't know about this series, of course!) just bring up the Actaea peronii or the Diodontidae and make up some facts. If things go well, you know you have exactly what you need to celebrate in peace and quiet later: two stunning malts and the promise of more to come!

Friday, October 19, 2012

3 New SMWS Nikka Single Casks from Japan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

For Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) members in Japan, the end of November will be really special, and for those who aren’t a member, now’s the time to dig into your pockets and become part of what really is a must-join club for the serious whisky enthusiast. On November 22nd, a commemorative event will be held to mark the launch of three new Nikka single casks as Society bottlings. These are the first Japanese bottlings for almost 3 years, so there’s ample reason to celebrate. There will be two Yoichi single casks - one from 1987, the other from 1994 – and one Miyagikyo single cask from 1999. The 1987 Yoichi is drawn from a first-fill sherry cask; the others from refill sherry casks. They will be offered for purchase to Society members during November, but probably earlier and separate to the regular launch on the 25th. (Delivery will be at the end of the month, however.) Members in other countries can try and purchase them from their chapter in due course, probably with varying degrees of success depending on allocation and competition from fellow-members.
Japanese whiskies are available in most corners of the world now, but even as recently as 10 years ago, the situation was very different. The SMWS was instrumental in making Japanese whisky more widely available abroad. After a Yoichi won Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best in 2001, the Society started exploring the possibility of adding Yoichi to their list. Richard Gordon, then managing director of the SMWS, managed to make Yoichi the 116th distillery to supply the society with exclusive single casks. Soon after, Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu distillery (no.119 and 120 resp.) and Nikka’s other distillery, Miyagikyo (no.124), followed.

Back to the near future: the launch event of the 3 new Nikka single casks for the Society will be held at the 22nd floor VIP Lounge at the Asahi Breweries Head Office in Tokyo from 7 to 9pm, but only 100 lucky people will be able to get in. Tickets for members are 5,000 yen; non-members pay 6,000 yen. This price includes a tasting of the 3 new whiskies led by Tadashi Sakuma, the chief blender at Nikka, plus some smoked foods from Yokohama Kunsei and chocolates by the amazing Toshi Yoroizuka. As if that’s not enough, there will also be a Vaults-style tasting bar – with two additional drams included in the tickets price – with a selection of Society bottlings available, including the 4 new whiskies that will make up the November (regular) new releases. Tickets go on sale at noon today (i.e. 19 October) at the Society’s webshop: www.smwsshop.jp.

This promises to be one of the highlights of the whisky year here in Japan. Needless to say, yours truly will be there and we’ll report as soon as we’re back with our feet on the ground after the event. Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Karuizawa Spirit of Asama

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes

Spirit of Asama is a vatting of European oak sherry casks from the last years of Karuizawa production, 1999 and 2000. There seem to be different versions. A first one is simply named “Asama” and popped up in Asia early this year, and soon after also in the Swedish Systembolaget and LMdW. It was bottled at 46% but now there’s a higher strength “Spirit of Asama” version bottled for The Whisky Exchange. It’s supposedly the same vatting – I’ve heard they used 77 casks in total – but now at 48% and 55%.
Karuizawa 11yo ‘Spirit of Asama’ (48%, No°1 Drinks 2012, vatting)

Nose: not extremely punchy and the first thing that does come out is a sharpish winey note. The sherry is slightly vegetal, with mushrooms before it evolves to raspberry jam, dates and prunes. A hint of earthy smoke in the background.
Mouth: medium fruity notes (oranges, apples), a burnt sugar note / toffee and a light smokiness. The sherry is quite winey and dry – a bit of extra sweetness would have been welcome. Quite some ginger and pepper. Fades away on exotic wood and mint.
Finish: medium long, fairly oaky, with some herbal tea and oranges.

Karuizawa 11yo ‘Spirit of Asama’ (55%, No°1 Drinks 2012, vatting)

Nose: essentially the same aromas, but the higher strength leaves a slightly more volcanic, spirity impression. It’s a little more closed but it also seems to block the mushrooms a little. Dried fruits again. Slightly more spices. Tobacco and leather too. Cigar boxes.
Mouth: more punch, more weight and more flavour altogether. First some fruits like raisins and figs. Then some chocolate. Ginger and cinnamon, and fruit cake. A little tobacco.
Finish: medium long, a classic orange / chocolate combination with spices.

This is a slightly thinner style of Karuizawa that holds the middle between older, more flavoursome Karuizawa and traditional sherried Scotch, say a cask-strength Glenfarclas or A’Bunadh. Both bottlings are slightly rubbery and mushroomy, but the 55% version gets away with it more easily and has more diverse and intense flavours to balance it.

The 46% Asama is € 60-75 in France and Sweden, we’ve heard the UK Spirit of Asama version will have a similar price tag. Given the relatively inviting price level it’s a correct introduction to the Karuizawa style in my opinion. Both should be available from The Whisky Exchange in the near future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Karuizawa 1984 (64,5%, first fill sherry cask #4021)

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes
Nose: very punchy but also quite fragrant / fruity for a Karuizawa. Not too dark, no fireworks or mushrooms, or very much in the background anyway. Evolves on sweet fruity notes (plums, strawberry jam) as well as more sourish notes (raspberry, tobacco juice). Hints of potpourri. Cedar wood and cinnamon bark. Soft incense and a veil of paint varnish.
Mouth: hot but nicely all-round. There’s some Christmas cake, all-spice, ginger and cinnamon. It also shows smoke and (subtle but clearly present) peat, in fact one of the more Islay-esk Karuizawas I’ve come across. Turns drier and more floral. It also shows some herbal notes and a faint bitterness of dark chocolate in the end. Some dry oak too.
Finish: very long, dry, slightly herbal and oaky, with a warming end.

A variation on the classic Karuizawa theme. There’s the common intensity but also a certain fruity freshness that even anti-Japanese whisky enthusiasts will appreciate. The subtle peat smoke is also worth discovering. Around € 250. Available through TWE but probably not for long.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Karuizawa 1982 (46%, bourbon cask #8497)

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes
Nose: a totally different beast than any other Karuizawa. This is a beautiful bourbon-style, with a lot of sweetness: peach jam, tinned pineapples, lemonade… Some honey and fruit candy. Hints of vanilla cake, a few floral notes too. It’s fairly oak-driven, with some plain oak shavings and ethereal notes, but that’s alright, it’s intense, elegant and playful at the same time.
Mouth: funny how it was so punchy on the nose and on the palate I immediately expected more oumph. Only after a few seconds does it release its flavours. Fairly oaky again, with a slight tangy edge now. Sweet malty notes, a little vanilla sweetness again. Not a match for the nose though, it’s much more narrow and possibly too watered down – was the oakiness over the top at cask strength?
Finish: long, with the oak and malt lingering on, and a new sparkle of fruitiness in the end.

An excellent experience to try a bourbon version of a dram that’s almost synonymous for heavy sherry maturation. Great nose, maybe not a complete success on the palate. Around € 225. Not sure whether this has yet to be published on the TWE website. Update: now available.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A new Isetan-exclusive Hanyu

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Isetan in Shinjuku is fast becoming one of my favourite whisky spots in Tokyo: they have an excellent selection of both Japanese and Scotch whisky, you can properly sample many of the whiskies there before you buy, the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and they have a handful of store-exclusives at any given time. At the moment, you can choose from no fewer than 5 Isetan-exclusive bottlings, all from different Japanese distilleries. The other thing I love about Isetan is that these store-exclusives are for the most part... well, available only at the store, which means they don't sell out in a flash over the internet as is often the case with other store-exclusives in Japan. The Isetan-exclusives are a bit like a well-kept secret - something for people in the know, and well... now you know!
The latest store-exclusive to join the ranks at Isetan (hinted at in one of my previous posts) is a Mizunara Heads offering from Ichiro's Malt. Uncharacteristically, there's not much information on the label. It is, in fact, a single cask hogshead from the last vintage of Hanyu (2000, that is) that was refitted with mizunara heads (as explained in another one of my previous posts). It's bottled at 59.2%abv and comes in two sizes: a 700ml bottle priced at 12,600 yen and a 200ml bottle for 5,250 yen, which is a bit on the expensive side - it has to be said - but then again, the Hanyu juice is becoming scarcer by the year and there is, of course, the "mizunara factor", which always adds a bit of a premium to Japanese whiskies. I had a chance to try it a few days ago and it is really exceptional. I didn't have time to take detailed notes - in fact, I tried it during a quick stopover between two jobs (don't tell my boss!) - but it reminded me quite a bit of the 1st edition of The Game. It was just incredibly elegant with those lovely mizunara notes (incense, sandalwood, ...) gently caressing the palate for what seemed like an eternity. For those who are suspicious of the incremental price hikes that have taken over the Japanese whisky industry, this is one bottling where the liquid really does justify the price. Get it while you can.