Sunday, January 27, 2013

Shinanoya 5th Anniversary series: The Game IV

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Although the official release date is tomorrow (January 28th), Shinanoya sold out the entire outturn (232 bottles) of the final (5th) single cask Japanese whisky bottling to celebrate its 5th anniversary in less than half an hour when it was put up on its website last Friday. Such is the popularity of its series "The Game", but that merely reflects the respect it has earned from the whisky drinking populace in this country and, indeed, abroad over the last couple of years.
"The Game IV" is a real showstopper of a whisky and one of only a handful of Japanese whiskies finished in rum wood (some of you may remember Ichiro's "Four of Clubs" [1991/2007] and Zoetrope's 3rd Anniversary Hanyu [2000/2009, a sister cask of The Game IV]). "The Game IV" comes from Hanyu's final vintage (2000), and spent the last five years and a half - March 2007 to November 2012, to be precise - in rum wood. A long "finish" but well worth it. Shinanoya's spirits buyer knew he wanted this cask immediately when he tasted it. He also knew immediately this was going to be the cask to close the anniversary series with. Talk about confidence...

So what's it like? The nose is like a chameleon, and one that can't sit still! It starts off with stewed fruits, then moves into spicier territories (ground coriander, cinnamon, ...) with some "dirty"-sweet notes (brown sugar) thrown in the mix, before developing a kind of Lebanese edge with hints of aubergine moussaka and falafel. If you give it a bit of time, you may find an intriguing komatsuna note as well as some steamed edamame. But you may also get some lovely raspberry chocolate truffles. The nose just keeps evolving. The perfect whisky for when you find yourself home alone with nothing to do - you couldn't wish for better company!

The rum influence is most apparent on the palate. The balance between spicy and sweet is just perfect, but there's fruit, too - tinned peaches and dried dates, most prominently. The finish is phenomenal and - as you would expect by now - changes the mood, again: banana split with advocaat and dark chocolate. Water softens the nose and sweetens the palate but the amazing thing is that it brings out this gorgeous tiramisu (with lots of espresso!) note - absolutely stunning.

"The Game IV" is a complex whisky, but complex in a playful way. It's not a typical Hanyu, but that's one of the many things that it makes it so special. It's in a world of its own, and what a world it is. We've come to expect the best of the best from Shinanoya, but the incredible thing is that they keep on surpassing these expectations. The only thing that's alarming about this - as word spreads - is that it may soon become next to impossible to get your hands on one of their bottles. The Game I was on their shelves - actual shelves in physical stores! - for months. The Game IV didn't even survive an hour online. Makes you wonder about The Game V. You may have to resort to industrial espionage...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Arran 2001/2012 Single Cask for Isetan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

In August of last year, Isetan Spirits Block Leader Keiko Manni spent an afternoon rummaging through the warehouse at Arran distillery in search of a cask to send back home. It must have taken the scenic route, because it took a while to get here, but finally the wait is over. It is available at Shinjuku's Isetan basement liquor section since Tuesday (22 January). I had the pleasure of trying it in the company of Ms Manni and well... to make a short story even shorter: it's phenomenal, the most lush ex-bourbon malt I've had in years. It was distilled on 12 December 2001 and bottled on 24 October 2012 at cask strength (56.7% abv). There are only 203 bottles and I don't think they'll be there for very long. If you're in the neighbourhood, do yourself a favour and drop by Isetan. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Geishas for Taiwan: Karuizawa 1981 & 1983

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

If one looks at the various whiskies bottled exclusively for the Taiwanese market over the last couple of years, a pattern starts to emerge that seems to indicate a preference for heavily-sherried whiskies and for old whiskies. I'm sure many whisky drinkers elsewhere in the world would self-apply such a preference, too. What makes Taiwan a little different is that a large segment of the whisky drinking population there actually has the means to put their money where their mouth is. And so, it should not come as a surprise that Karuizawa has been and continues to be a big hit over there. Over the next weeks, we'll review some Karuizawa single casks exclusively bottled for Taiwan and what better way than to start with these "young" beauties... and I'm talking about the ladies on the label here. They're part of a series of "geishas" lost in various types of reveries. What's not to like?

Karuizawa 1983 / 2012, cask #2656 [sherry butt], 57.6%abv, 589 bottles
This is one of those roller-coaster type Karuizawas and definitely not for the faint-of-heart. On the nose, you get an intense rhubarb note, as well as some persimmons and something like a scorched lawn. In the background, there are dates and a hint of beef jerky. And if you really give it time, you'll get the last of a summer campfire. Nothing quite prepares you for the palate, though - and this is where the wild ride starts. It starts off with a short bitter episode (goya, mulberry leaves, tree kale juice), then takes you to a sour place - in the pleasant sense of the word - throwing some kumquats at you, but very soon after, a beautiful sweetness emerges (nougat and a hint of marshmallows). You don't get to wallow in that for too long, though, because before you know it, you'll find yourself in more savoury regions (the beef jerky making its re-appearance). Water changes things quite a bit: it brings out more sweet elements on the nose (cherry liqueur), but sabotages that great ride on the palate as the oak becomes a bit louder and the liquid has trouble getting beyond those first two phases. The trade-off is a lovely cafe latte note on the finish. Personally, I would take this neat and then have a cafe latte half an hour later, but - as always - it depends on so many factors (mood, time of day, company, whether you've got a decent coffee machine or not, etc.). It's just good to know that there is a different side to it, if you want it.

Karuizawa 1981 / 2012, cask #2100 [sherry butt], 60.4%abv, 409 bottles

In my opinion, Karuizawa's golden age was the early 80s - i.e. the 1981 to 1984 vintages - and this bottling is a classic example of that style: heavy, thick and rich but never incoherent in all its abundance. On the nose, you get raisins, prunes, some fig jam, marzipan, old balsamic vinegar, new leather, but also rosemary, macademia nuts and a subtle smoked char (the fish, "iwana", that is) note. Given a bit of time in the glass, things will get a bit more nutty (beech nuts, cashews) and meaty (coppa, dried pork sausage). The palate is a lush feast of assorted dried fruits, stewed prunes and roast lamb - incredibly mouth-coating (it just won't leave - not that you'd want it to). The finish is really long and gives you this beautiful brown-sugar-and-balsamic dressing note and something akin to a smoking room "the morning after". Water gives it a bit more definition on the nose, but disturbs the coherence on the palate. Classic Karuizawa and certainly easier than the 1983, but sometimes "easy" is not what you want or need. Then again, sometimes it is...

In the second part of our mini-series on Karuizawas for Taiwan, we'll be looking at two specimens from the 1977 vintage. Watch this space.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Karuizawa 42yo 1969 & 1970

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes

Karuizawa 42yo 1970 (64,3%, Number One Drinks 2012, sherry butt #6177, 326 btl.)

Nose: huge, clean sherry nose with dried fruits (dates, figs), fresh fruits (raspberries, plums, quinces, citrus) and a slightly curious (but quite enjoyable) smell of overdue bananas. Quite fragrant, with eucalyptus oil, polished cedar wood and hints of old roses. Cocoa powder. Turpentine. And a whole array of soft spices (cinnamon, ginger, cumin). Very rich. Mouth: whoa, hot. Full of raisins, plums, brambles, raspberries and oranges. A thick, jammy yet sparkling fruitiness. A peppery kick too (peppercorn and wasabi). Drying black thee and some woody tannins in the end. Finish: long, with a nutty dryness and spicy notes (pepper, clove, mint). Still some raisins.
This Karuizawa 1970 is showing the same kind of oakiness that’s present in most other 40+ whiskies, but the sherry brings enough fruits to make it a highly enjoyable experience. I prefer this one over the Karuizawa 1969 but at this price level shopping advice is probably less relevant anyway… Around € 600.

Karuizawa 42yo 1969 (61,3%, Number One Drinks 2012, bourbon cask #8183)

Nose: very bold bourbon oak influence. Different sorts of warm wood, sandalwood, cedar from cigar boxes, some thuja… In fact I like this kind of oakiness, it’s elegant and matches the oriental character. There’s also varnish and solventy notes. Leather. Underneath it has apricot jam, yellow plums and vanilla-coated berry cake. Touches of mint, with floral overtones. Mouth: this is where the wood starts to show more astrigency. Fruits are now heavily infused fruit tea. Slightly tangy ginger and clove as well. A little coconut oil. Unfortunately also a planky note which coats your mouth and a little tobacco sourness. Orange peel. Spruce needles. Again some flowery touches. Finish: long, quite floral and heady. Mint and traces of the apricot jam.

Of course the bourbon cask makes it difficult to compare, but I’d still say this is much closer to the Karuizawa 1968 than to the legendary Karuizawa 1967. The nose is fabulous but on the palate I'm having some trouble with the abundance and dryness of the oak. Around € 750.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Joining the Club - New Japanese Whisky Distiller

Post by Chris of the WhiskyWall.

Although Japan is one of the largest whisky producers in the world, the majority of the distillate comes from two companies: Suntory and Nikka. There are a handful of other small/medium sized distilleries but not many. There is now word that another company is joining the whisky distilling club: Miyashita Sake Brewery (Okayama Prefecture). As the same suggests, Miyashita comes from a sake production background. They also produce shochu and beer but I cannot say that I have had any of their products myself.
Miyashita decided to give distilling whisky a try in preparation to celebrate their 100th anniversary which will be in 2015. The plans to produce whisky started in December 2011 and actual whisky production started in June 2012. Using a blend of malt from Germany and from Okayama Prefecture as well as local water from the Asahi river approximately 1000 liters of Genshu (new make) was distilled. There were 10 distillation runs and various factors such as the ratio of different malt types, yeast strains and temperature were changed incrementally. The new make is currently aging in oak barrels (I don't have any more precise details on the wood) and is planned to only be laid down for 3 years. When I assume it will be bottled and released to coincide with Miyashita's 100th anniversary.

Miyashita believes that its wealth of experience in producing beer and shochu translate well to the production of whisky. Their goal is to make a uniquely Okayama style whisky. I guess that we'll have to wait a couple of more years to taste what that is. Hopefully this celebratory whisky will be a success and Miyashita will continue to distill whisky adding to the variety and uniqueness of Japanese Whisky.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Ginza Honey Highball

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

If the title of this post conjures up images of part-time lovers and late-night rendez-vous in Taisho-era Tokyo, I'm afraid what follows will be a bit of a disappointment. The "Ginza Honey" referred to in the title is exactly that: honey produced in Ginza. And yes, we're talking about the same Ginza, that of the posh clubs, haute-couture fashion shops and gourmet restaurants, where a square meter of land will set you back about 25 million yen. Not the ideal place for bee farming, you may think. Well, think again.
About 7 years ago, two Ginza businessmen started a project to make honey in the middle of Ginza by installing beehives on the rooftops of 25 buildings in the area: the "Ginza Honey Bee Project" (銀座ミツバチプロジェクト). If you're into honey - and who isn't! - it deserves your undivided support, for various reasons: it's an all-volunteer project; it aims to contribute to reviving the declining Japanese honey industry (the main reasons for the decline being the ongoing deforestation of Japan and the increasing use of pesticides in rice and vegetable farming); all proceeds are given back to the community to help fund other citizen projects; there's evidence that the Ginza bees are healthier than bees in the countryside here; and the honey really is out-of-this-world. It's available in selected food shops in Ginza, so next time you're in the area, pick up a little jar or two. Then, do yourself another favour and hop on a train to Omotesando, because that's where you'll find the "Ginza Honey Highball" ... at the Nikka Blender's Bar.

The highball uses Taketsuru 17 as its base, with a little spoonful of Ginza Honey slowly (and we're talking more than 5 minutes, here!) dissolved in it, and is garnished with two thick half-slices of orange. It's so exquisitely harmonized that it instantly became my all-time favourite highball. And while it's not too difficult to make a decent version yourself - as long as you've got the ingredients - the tender love and care that must go into this slow process of building it up means it's extra special if someone else is going through the trouble of making it for you. It's still on the menu at the Blender's Bar, so try it before they move on to other - probably equally enthralling - concoctions.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

From Kyushu (1): Hakata

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

Kyushu - the most southwesterly of Japan's four main islands - is not generally mentioned in the same breath as "whisky". Part of that has to do with the fact that the island's association with "shochu" - Kyushu's quintessential drink - is so strong. Part of it is... well, plain ignorance, and we here at Nonjatta would have been the first to have plead guilty as charged. But not anymore. We spent the last few days of 2012 in Kyushu and discovered a whisky culture so incredibly vibrant it left us in a state of constant embarrassment. How could we not have known about this? And how much did we miss all this time by not looking further than our own backyard? Over the next few weeks, we'll fill you in on what and who is driving this whisky renaissance in Kyushu.
We start our journey in Hakata - one of the oldest cities in Japan, now part of Fukuoka city - with this blended malt (the new nomenclature for a "vatted malt", although in Japan these terms have very little currency - the preferred term here is "pure malt") specially produced for Hakata: "Nikka Whisky Malt 100 Hakata" (bottled at 43% abv). This really is one of the best-kept secrets in Japan and when you try it, you'll understand why. It captures both the Yoichi and the Miyagikyo character but does so in a way that leaves received notions of what a blend should be by the wayside in favour of maintaining the energy generated by the meeting of these characters. It's as tough as nails but, at the same time, full of tenderness. I'm convinced it was also designed to stand up to the richness of the Fukuoka cuisine and it really does come shining through, with its smoke and spice, even amongst the most intense culinary assaults on the palate. It's only available in Hakata and the best place to try it is probably the Nikka Bar in Nakasu (the entertainment district - a pretty intense experience at night!). If you like it as much we think you will, you'll probably want to pick up a few bottles to take home. There are liquor shops on literally every street corner in Nakasu - the perfect excuse to spend a few hours roaming the streets there - and though it's getting harder to find, it's not impossible ... yet. They don't make 'em like that anymore and certainly not at this price (less than 4,000 yen, or 33 EUR / 44 USD).

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Nikka Single Casks (1994 Yoichi & 2002 Miyagikyo)

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub.

A few days before Christmas, we spent a bit of quality time with Nikka master blender Hidetoshi Yamashita, learning about wood management at Nikka – we’ll share some of these insights in a forthcoming post – as well as finally getting round to tasting two single casks that we signaled the release of a few months ago: a 1994 Yoichi and a 2002 Miyagikyo.

Both were drawn from refill butts. Let’s pause here for a few seconds. To most people “butt” equals “ex-sherry”, but Nikka’s “refill butts” have nothing to do with sherry whatsoever. There’s been a great deal of confusion about this – most recently, when SMWS releases 124.3 and 116.18 were mislabeled as being drawn from “ex-sherry butts”. To be clear, a “refill butt” (and they’re used quite extensively at Nikka’s two distilleries) is a butt that has been filled for the 2nd time, i.e. a virgin oak butt that has been filled with whisky once, then emptied and subsequently refilled.

Moving on to the liquid at hand: the 1994 Yoichi (a lightly-peated one, bottled at 62% abv) packs a massive punch on the nose – mainly wood and milk chocolate notes buried underneath the alcohol – but meets the palate very tenderly (papayas, crème brûlée, …) without any alcohol burn whatsoever. It has an incredibly creamy mouthfeel. That being said, it really does benefit from a splash of water. On the nose, you get milky, Yakult-like notes, then a bit of furniture polish, cut flower stems, and after a while a soft vanilla note (as in good-quality vanilla ice cream) and an equally soft, fragrant smoky note (wood smoke, incense) that grows stronger with time in the glass. The palate now offers a mild citrus note - orange peel, bergamot and iced yuzu tea – accompanied by lush notes of rose water, Turkish delights, chai and liquorice allsorts. The finish is long and intense, on candied ginger and mild spices (cloves, nutmeg, …)
The 2002 Miyagikyo (non-peated, also bottled at 62% abv) is a completely different affair: a beautifully elegant nose with grassy notes (early-morning meadows in spring), white grapes, gooseberries and green apples. The palate elaborates on the “green” theme with orchard fruits (pears and apples), white grape skins and adds a subtle tannic tingle along the edges. Water really unleashes the esters on the nose and pushes the green apples to the fore. After a while, you get a maraschino cherry note, and if you really give it time to develop, it offers something akin to chicken-cucumber salad with sesame-soy dressing (popular in summer here in Japan). The palate is more candy-like now, with lime candy and apple Hi-Chew, on a bed of young woody notes. The finish is medium-short, very light and elegant.

I was asked which one I liked better. Well… when the whiskies are at this level, it’s a bit like being asked – and being asked mid-winter! – which is more to your liking: early-morning spring in an orchard, or late-night summer in a mountain forest (which, if one had to reduce the two whiskies discussed here (the Miyagikyo and Yoichi, resp.) to a single image – and I rarely go there –, wouldn’t betray their multiplicities too much). You get the point. Anyway, the good news is you don’t have to choose and they’re both still available but only in Japan, and only through Asahi’s online shop.

The selection of single casks by big distilleries is something that’s a bit shrouded in mystery and sometimes intentionally so by the distilleries themselves (gives the marketing department a good story to wrap around a new release). At Nikka, this is how they find these beauties: casks are organized into lots (i.e. casks of the same type with the same type of spirit filled at the same time and stored in the same place in the same warehouse) and during routine stock-taking one sample from each lot is sent to the blenders for evaluation. When a particular sample is found to be of high quality, samples of all casks in the lot are requested. These are then, again, evaluated by the blenders. When one of these samples is considered to be of exceptional quality and a bit off-the-shelf, so to speak, it is set aside and considered for bottling as a single cask. This meticulous process, in part, explains why, with Nikka single cask bottlings, you really get the crème-de-la-crème. I’ve never had one that was less than superb.