Friday, November 30, 2012

Suntory Whisky Shop W. Exclusive Single Grain Whisky

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

In the build-up to the Christmas season (and winter-gift time here in Japan), new products are flooding the market from all sides. Nothing special - same old story. Needless to say, the drinks business is not standing idly by. That's old hat, too. But Suntory wouldn't be Suntory if they didn't have something special up their sleeve. And they do. On December 6th, Suntory's flagship store Whisky Shop W. - on the first floor of the Suntory Building in Osaka - is releasing their 4th store-exclusive bottling. The three previous ones were Hakushu and Yamazaki single malts, priced very reasonably, presented in a sexy little 300ml bottle. They were nice enough, but nothing to write home about, to be honest. Basically, they were designed to appeal to people who were curious about whisky, but not ready to buy a full-size bottle. They made for perfectly safe gifts, too: safe for the giver's wallet; equally safe for the receiver's palate. It was the whisky equivalent of that guy or girl everyone liked at your high school - you know who I'm talking about.
So what's all the fuss about this 4th release? Well, this is not just another Hakushu or Yamazaki concoction - as lovely as they can be - but a Chita single grain whisky. It's been put together by chief blender Shinji Fukuyo, and although there are some relatively young components in the mix, he also used some older grain whisky matured in ex-sherry casks. This is a rare chance to experience a different side of Chita. At the moment, the only alternative is the "standard" Chita bottling sold at Suntory's various distilleries and some clever retailers in Japan. People for whom Osaka is not exactly next-door need not despair: it will be available from their online shop as well... but they do not ship abroad, so if you're not based in Japan, you will need to speak to your friends here... or make some, quickly. It's a limited edition of 1,500 bottles (48% abv, by the way), priced at a mere 3,150 yen. And yes, it is almost Christmas, so they won't last long. We'll have tasting notes up here soon, so watch this space.

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Some changes

Over the past three months, Nonjatta has been quietly changing toward a more team-based model. The site has established itself as the main independent English language source about Japanese whisky on the web since I set it up in 2008. That has been due to the efforts of a large group of contributors, including some leading whisky writers and the top experts on Japanese whisky. However, the management of Nonjatta has essentially been an amateurish one-man show by yours truly. I can't have done that badly because there were about 150,000 unique visitors to the site over the period, but there comes a time when a site has to grow up.

Last month, we moved to a much more formal model for editing the site. While I will continue to contribute to and still own the site. We also have a management committee for oversight. Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub and Ruben of Whiskynotes will be playing key roles on the writing side. The former is our man on the ground, finger-on-the-pulse as it were, while the latter will be supplying Nonjatta with in-depth tasting notes whilst keeping an eye on the reception of Japanese whiskies on the European front (releases for the European market, etc.). I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to other potential contributors to get in touch. I also need to say a sincere thank you to Dramtastic, who is moving on to no doubt better things. He has made an amazing contribution to Nonjatta and he will be greatly missed. His reviews will still be available and he will always be welcome back.

Things have been very difficult for my family since last April, requiring us to move halfway across the world for the medical treatment for our son, but I hope the new, more cooperative structure will allow Nonjatta to prosper and keep up with the rapidly changing demands of online readers while I try to deal with these personal battles.

Chris Bunting, founder of Nonjatta

"Stellar Selection": a new series for the Japanese market

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

A few weeks ago, we looked at a series of single cask bottlings of Scotch whisky for the Japanese market featuring deep-sea creatures. Astute readers will remember that this was one of three new series launched by Whisk-e this autumn. I promised to fill you in on the other two, so here we are with the second one, and for this one, we're leaving the depths of the oceans to seek pleasure a little higher... actually, a lot higher. It may seem a bit cocky to call a series "Stellar Selection", so without further ado, let's see if it is stellar in more than just the literal sense of the term.

For the first two releases, the people over at Whisk-e tapped into their own inventory of casks. They picked a 15-year old Clynelish ("Libra") and a 27-year old Linkwood ("Scorpio"), both drawn from single hogsheads. The first thing one notices when putting them next to one another - other than the beautiful labels - is that the whiskies are very similar in colour and both very light in colour, in spite of the considerable difference in age. Never judge a book by its cover, though. While it would be easy - but misguided - to suspect these whiskies spent their life in exhausted casks, it is equally plausible that the more gentle influence of the wood led the spirit to higher realms of subtlety rather than to increased intensity and beefed-up flavours.

Let's start off with the Clynelish (1996/2012, bottled at 55.4% abv). The nose is very light with notes of green apples and baked goods (shortbread, Dutch spice bread, ...) at the centre. Water stresses the apple note and brings out sweeter notes, such as manuka honey and Werther's Original, as well as adding a light floral note (not my forte, flowers, so I'll leave it at that!). It's light but wonderfully fresh. The palate delivers citrus notes, a hint of rice pudding and oatmeal and some ethereal woody notes. It's beautiful but fragile (and in large part, beautiful because of its fragility). With water, it loses its definition so this is definitely one to enjoy at cask strength.

On to the Linkwood (1984/2012, bottled at 53.6% abv): the nose is similarly light, but the component notes are very different. There is a distinct panettone note as well as a hint of frangipane tart with stewed apricots, raspberry jam and golden raisins adding their own individual charm to the proceedings. I also picked up some light woody notes hiding in the background. Water brings out hints of cantaloupes and mango sauce. The palate starts off with tingling tannic notes and white pepper, quickly followed by a compote of ripe summer orchard fruits. There's a wonderful touch of sangria on the finish, which fades quickly but the afterglow stays for what seems like an eternity.

The context and the whiskies reminded me of a passage in Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace: "Stars and blossoming fruit trees: Utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity." These two whiskies really express the fragility of that equation. I'd be hard pressed to choose one over the other - they are sublime in their own way. There's no doubt in my mind that the people at Whisk-e really nailed it when they called this a "Stellar Selection".

Update 26.11.2012:
Some of our readers abroad have inquired as to how to get hold of these bottles. We're happy to report that both the Clynelish and Linkwood are now available directly from Whisk-e, but only for people residing abroad (i.e. not for Japanese customers, for the simple reason that they are available from decent retailers throughout the country).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hop Revolution

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

The next couple of weeks, malt enthusiasts based in and around Tokyo have a plethora of exciting events to choose from... but then again, why bother choosing when you can just as easily decide to go to them all! On November 22nd (Thu), the return of Japanese whisky to the SMWS will be celebrated (for more information, check this post); on December 2nd (Sat), the annual Whisky Festival in Tokyo will be held; the Saturday after (December 8th), SMWS members have their quarterly tasting at Bar "S" (The University of Tokyo) to look forward to; and the day after, it's Hop Revolution. Nothing to do with hip hop, by the way. This is the first edition of what will hopefully turn out to be the craft beer equivalent of Whisky Live. The same minds and hands are behind it, so you know you're in for a wild ride - and you can expect to get a decent education along the way, too (if you need any sort of excuse to get out of the house on a Sunday).
I grew up in an area where hops were grown left, right and centre, so you can imagine my heart skipped a beat when I saw the logo, but aside from that rather sentimental reason, the fact that this event is featured on a blog about whisky is simply because... well, people who love good whisky also tend to love good beer. They're cousins, really, and we wouldn't want any family feuds, now would we. Anyway, what can you expect of this inaugural Hop Revolution? There will be two sessions: one from 13:00 to 16:00 and the second one from 16:30 to 19:30. At the first session (4,000 yen), you can try all the craft beer you like and you get a lovely, original "Hop Revolution" beer glass. The second session will be party-style: you pay 1,000 yen to enter (except if you were already there for the first session, in which case you can stay for free), and then pay 'cash-on' for beer and other drinks. Not only will you get to meet and drink with the brewers at the forefront of the European craft-beer movement, you'll also get to hang out with such domestic luminaries as Baird, Yona-Yona, Nide, Delirium Cafe, etc. There will be seminars as well. Too much to mention, really, so check out their website! Oh, did I mention there will be whiskies courtesy of the chaps at Whisk-e as well? Tickets are available via E+, and if you don't know what that means, don't worry: there is a special page in English for you on Malt City where you can buy tickets, too. If you're looking at your agenda now: the date is December 9th. If you aren't: I'll let you know what you missed in a few weeks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A new Karuizawa... and already gone!

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.
These days, if you even so much as blink, chances are you will have missed a new Karuizawa bottling. Liquors Hasegawa doesn't often release store-exclusive bottlings, but so-called "point members" will have noticed on the postcard they got yesterday that a new Karuizawa was going to be released, exclusively available from them. No indication when. But past experience (read: "having missed out once too often") taught me to keep my eyes peeled, and sure enough, today it was up on their website. A beautiful label sporting the Karuizawa surroundings in the fall and in the bottle: the contents of a 13-year old single cask, distilled on 30 March 1999 and bottled on 28 September 2012, drawn from cask number 5329, and brought to you at a whopping 64.2% abv. The outturn - and here you'll start to get the gist of the title of this post - a mere 82 bottles. The good news: it was the most reasonably priced Karuizawa in recent years (at 8,980 yen). The bad news: they're all gone... sold out in less than a day. If you missed out on this one, well... a little bird told me a new Karuizawa for the Japanese market will be released tomorrow or the day after. If that isn't a red-hot tip, I don't know what is!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Double Trophy for Suntory at ISC 2012

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.
Yesterday (November 5th), the yearly International Spirits Challenge (ISC) award dinner was held at the Marriott Grosvenor Square in London. Suntory made history once again by being the first ever whisky producer to capture two trophies at the same time: one for the Yamazaki 18, the other for the Hakushu 25. Trophies are awarded to the best of the Gold medal winners (21 in total, 10 of which were Japanese whiskies - 6 Suntory and 4 Nikka products). It doesn't come as a surprise to me at all - I've raved about these two expressions many times before. The Yamazaki 18 is very reasonably priced (which means there will probably be a rush for that expression in the weeks and months to come); the Hakushu 25 is not in everybody's price bracket (retails for about 100,000 yen) but the year-end merry-making is approaching, so you can always try and put it on a wish-list or two!