Thursday, August 29, 2013

From Kyushu (3): Kumamoto Bar Society Bottlings

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Readers with a long memory may recall our posts (1 and 2) about the Kyushu whisky scene. It’s taken us a while but we finally got round to writing up the sequels. Better late than never…

In 2008, the KuBS decided to arrange a private bottling for its bartender-members. They went for a relatively safe 15yo Macallan (1991/2007), sourced from Kingsbury’s in Scotland. For their second bottling, they wanted a Japanese whisky. They approached Mars – which has strong links to Kyushu (that’s where the Hombo Shuzo headquarters are) –, got some cask samples and selected a sherry butt they particularly liked, but negotiations were difficult and in the end, the whole thing fell through. Keen to still have their own Japanese whisky for 2009, they turned to Suntory.
Three members of the Kumamoto Bar Society (Bar: Colon, Bar Andrews, and Bar Masquerade) had arranged their own private bottling of a Yamazaki barrel in 2006, before the KuBS was founded, and were very happy with the whole experience so they spoke to their contacts at Suntory and arranged a visit to Hakushu distillery, where the KuBS members would collectively choose their cask. They produced a movie about the whole process, which is an extraordinary document. Just to give you an idea of how dedicated these people are: the movie starts at the airport in Kumamoto where the bartenders meet early in the morning after finishing their shifts – having had little or no sleep -; they then fly to Tokyo, take a train all the way out to Hakushu distillery (200km), sit down and carefully compare cask samples, select one, head back to the airport, fly home and open their bars the same evening.

For their third bottling (in 2010), the KuBS stayed with Suntory but decided to knock at the door of Yamazaki distillery. The selection process was rather arduous this time: with some casks they liked, the problem was that the yield was too low for all members to have a decent allocation; with others, the price was just too high. In the end, they went for a compromise and chose two casks from the 1998 vintage, one a hogshead, the other a barrel – reasonable in price (at the time) and with a good combined outturn.

For their fourth release (2011), many members of the KuBS wanted a blend… a Japanese blend. They got something really special, which we’ll talk about in the forthcoming 4th part of our Kyushu series. For their last two releases, the fifth (2012) and the sixth (this year) they returned to Scotland, choosing an extraordinary 23yo Caol Ila and a Glenfarclas Family Cask respectively.  It’ll be interesting to see what they’ve got in mind for next year… a bourbon, maybe?

Yamazaki “for Bar: Colon, Bar Andrews and Bar Masquerade” 1996/2006 (#AS70042)

Fruity on the nose with maraschino cherries, red apples with a slight cinnamon hint, marzipan and candied orange peel. Given time in the glass, vanilla and honey aromas become more pronounced. Water enhances the fruit and brings out a fresh grass note. On the palate, you get honey-glazed doughnuts, lovely soft fruit notes (raspberries, apricot jam) and a bit of white pepper. The finish is medium-long with a gentle, fruity afterglow.

Hakushu “Kumamoto Bar Society - 2nd Selection” 1999/2009 (hogshead #DF40647)

On the nose, it’s very vegetal (beetroot, potato skins) and herbal (assorted herbs and lavender) but with a delicate sweetness underneath. Water enhances the vegetal notes and after a while, a lovely grapefruit note comes piercing through. It’s got a great, creamy mouthfeel but needs a little water to fully reveal itself. Then, you get hints of candied ginger and liquorice allsorts as well as a subtle yoghurt (yakult) note. The finish is peppery with hints of raspberry mousse and peach yoghurt.

The two Yamazakis that make up the 3rd release are both on the light end of the whisky spectrum, but with different flavour profiles. The hogshead’s main tonality is grass, whereas the barrel’s is fruit.

Yamazaki “Kumamoto Bar Society - 3rd Selection” 1998/2010 (hogshead #CM60086) 

On the nose, the initial impressions are freshly cut grass and honeydew melon. This doesn’t need water at all - perfect as is. After a while, a light smoky note comes through (something akin to a burnt hay field) and you get a hint of olive oil as well. It’s very soft on the palate with some delicate fruit notes (apple jelly, apricot brandy) - quite austere with a similarly subtle finish.

Yamazaki “Kumamoto Bar Society - 3rd Selection” 1998/2010 (barrel #CC3083)

Lots of fresh orchard fruits on the nose (ripe pears, jonagold apples) as well as strawberry jam on toast and a slight hint of pear spread. On the palate, it’s more extrovert than its sibling with very pronounced red fruit notes (berries, …). The finish is long with a suggestion of raspberry-flavoured gum arabic.

If you ever find yourself in Kumamoto, get hold of a bar map (produced by the Kumamoto Bar Society, incidentally) and pick a couple of bars at random. You may still be able to get a dram or two of the single casks discussed above. And if your bartender doesn’t have any left, chances are he/she will know a colleague who does, make a quick phone call and Bob’s your uncle.

Special thanks to ‘master’ Takeshi Tsuruta of Bar: Colon for sharing the Kumamoto Bar Society’s whiskies with us and for opening his personal commemorative bottle (no. 3) of the 1999 Hakushu.

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