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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2 New Old Mars Single Casks for Shinanoya

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

When Mars Shinshu stopped producing whisky in 1992, it seemed like the end of a whisky adventure with lots of ups and downs – more downs than ups, actually. Few, even in the company, could have predicted the incredible revival of Mars in the wake of the highball boom: critical acclaim for their old stock from the whisky community first at home and then abroad (with their “3+25” crowned ‘Best Blended Malt in the World’ at the last World Whiskies Awards) and a return to distilling in 2011, led by a young master distiller with a keen sense of craftsmanship and a think-outside-the-box mentality.
Two casks from the last year of production before the 19-year hiatus were bottled in 2004 (at 43%abv) and then left to refine inside the bottle… or forgotten, whichever you prefer: one a Spanish oak sherry butt (#1124, 275 bottles), the other an American white oak barrel (#1143, 358 bottles). The people at Shinanoya felt it was high time these bottles saw the light of day. They adorned them with lovely “Japonist” labels and will be releasing them officially, more than 9 years after they were filled, on September 12th.

A special Mars tasting event, led by the current master distiller, will be held at The Mash Tun in Tokyo on September 1st. We’ll be speaking to the Mars people about these and other forthcoming releases at the event and hope to be able to bring you more news from the good folk at ‘Shinshu factory’ then. Stay tuned…

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Yamazaki 20yo “Sengu” Limited Release

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

It seems like it’ll be raining limited editions of Japanese whisky this fall. Kintetsu – a major railway / tourism / real estate / shipping company based in the Kansai area – has just announced it will be launching a special 20yo Yamazaki single malt on September 27th to celebrate the reconstruction ceremony (shikinen sengu) of the Ise shrine.
Ise shrine - Photo: Ajari (CC BY 2.0)
The Ise shrine, located in Mie prefecture, is the largest and most revered Shinto shrine in Japan. Every 20 years, the wooden sanctum is rebuilt – in exactly the same design and proportions – on a plot next to the old one, so the shrine moves alternately to the east and back to the west. The ceremony of ‘shikinen sengu’ (lit. shikinen = “a set number of years”, and sengu = “transferring the shrine”) has been conducted every 20 years for over 1,300 years. To add luster to this year’s ceremony, Kintetsu has commissioned Yamazaki to create a special whisky built around malt distilled in 1993, the year when the last ‘shikinen sengu’ was held.

Limited to 300 bottles (48% abv) with a retail price of 38,000 yen, the bottles will only be available in Kintetsu station shops and department stores. Those who just want a sip, can try it at Kintetsu-affiliated hotels and restaurants – all in the Kansai region. Nonjatta’s man in Kansai will be whiskyspotting on the Kintetsu lines as soon as this special whisky is released so check back with us in a few weeks for further details.

Read more about Yamazaki Distillery here.

Karuizawa 1980/2012 ‘Noh’ for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The next couple of weeks and months will be an exciting time for Karuizawa fans as a plethora of new bottlings and mini-series is being prepared for release in various parts of the world. Until we can reveal more about these forthcoming releases, we thought we’d feature some drams from the recent past that haven’t received a proper introduction yet.
No point in beating around the bush: this ‘Noh’ bottling for Taiwan (1980/2012, 32yo, #7614, 50.4%abv) is one of the very best Karuizawas we’ve ever had. We’re not going to bother with superlatives – this is whisky in a class of its own. On the nose, it’s like a diva’s dressing room: lovely perfumy notes, flowers, fresh fruit, loads of nuts, raspberry mousse, strawberries with balsamic vinegar, ‘After Eights’, old manuscripts, … and the whole exquisitely balanced. This is the sort of rare whisky in which every aroma has an air of being glad to be together. What an incredible delight.

On the palate, the main tonalities are sweet and sour: lemon curd, grapefruit jelly, green apples drizzled with lemon, tart cherries and chocolate, acerola juice, cranberry granola with rhubarb jam… If you’re a fan of this sort of yin-yang interplay of sweet and sour, you’ll love this whisky. The finish reveals a lovely herbal dimension – mint, thyme and eucalyptus – against a seemingly endless afterglow of sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit – a signature note of old Karuizawas, here in full HD) and candied lemon peel.

It’s hard to capture this tour-de-force of a whisky in words: it’s incredibly fresh, vibrant and intense but everything’s so beautifully balanced and just… well, just right.  A desert island whisky if ever there was one. If you ever come across this particular Noh release – and chances are slim (there were only 102 bottles to start with and people in Taiwan know their whisky) – don’t hesitate… even – or especially! – if you’re the biggest Karuizawa-sceptic in the world.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Whisky Bars in Kansai (3): Bar K, Osaka

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

We’re continuing our series of Kansai bar reviews with an introduction to an establishment that has quickly become one of my favourites in the country. It’s the sort of place you would only tell really good friends about… or someone with a true appreciation of the marvels that liquid art has to offer, such as yourself, dear reader.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Bar K is located in the heart of the city, about a 10-minute walk from Umeda station. To get there, you will have to duck hostesses, scouts and assorted drunks left, right and centre, but once you find the place, descend the stairs and open the door, you enter an oasis of tranquility and intimacy. It’s a bit like Alice stepping through the looking glass. Here, the focus is on the drinks and the attention to detail is second to none. The cocktails are impeccably executed – don’t leave this place without having a few, even if you’re a malt otaku. I had a Manhattan, as usual, to wake up the taste buds and it was so exquisite it took me half an hour to get to my first whisky. Talking about which...

© Stefan Van Eycken
They have an incredible selection of whiskies. Among the real treasures are a 1985 Karuizawa single cask (#3323, 1985/2005) that was bottled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Japanese trading company Mitsuya Boeki, one of the very few, pre-Number One Drinks bottlings for private customers; a Hakushu single cask (2001/2011, hogshead) that was only available to bars that took part in the “Friendship of Hakushu” program; and two Yamazaki Owner’s Casks, one a peaty offering (1991/2005) bottled for a customer of Bar K – one of the finest exponents of that medium-peated style from the early 90s -; the other, a lovely hogshead selected by the owner of nearby Bar Harbour Inn (1997/2007). On the Scotch front, the two absolute stars of the place – but not for long since the end of their reign there is near – are the 1971 Glenallachie (bottled for 3 Rivers’ series “The Life” – don’t you just love that label?) and the 1971 BenRiach bottled for Shinanoya & BBI Japan last year. It doesn’t get much better than that...
© Stefan Van Eycken
I could go on for a while but I think that’s enough. Find out for yourself what they’ve got going on behind the counter at Bar K next time you’re in town.

Address: Kouyou Building B1F, 1-3-3 Sonezakishinchi, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0002
Tel: 06-6343-1167
Hours: Mon - Fri: 18:00 - 2:00, Sat & National Holidays 18:00 - 0:00, Closed on Sun

Friday, August 9, 2013

Karuizawa Cask-Strength “2nd Release” for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few weeks ago, the follow-up to the cask-strength NAS Karuizawa for the Taiwanese market (“1st Release”, a vatting of casks from the 1999/2000 vintages) went on sale. The extreme summer heat and humidity of the past month has not been conducive to evaluating fine whiskies but the show must go on, so here are our impressions of the “2nd Release” (bottled at 61.7%abv)… finally.
In theory, the difference between the 1st and the 2nd release is a few months. You’d expect the whisky to be very similar. In reality, though, they’re very different beasts. Maybe they come from a slightly different batch (when the original casks were vatted together). Maybe the influence of the cask(s) to which they were returned was stronger. (For some background on all this, check this post.) Maybe it’s just nature’s way. Who knows?

On the nose, it’s immediately clear there’s a bigger sherry influence: sultana raisins, dried figs, also prune juice, porcini and polished leather – like in the 1st Release – but much more concentrated. Given time in the glass, the figs really jump out. If the 1st release was quite shy and subtle, the 2nd one is loud and extrovert. The earthy notes of the 1st are still there – potato skins and burdock – but the lighter, subtler secondary notes are gone. On the palate, the first thing you notice is that the mouthfeel itself is very different, the 2nd one much creamier and thicker than the 1st. There’s Christmas cake, rum-raisin butter tarts, prune jam, candied ginger and candied lemon peel, but the vegetal dimension that I enjoyed in the 1st is gone (or masked by the impact of the cask’s original contents). Water brings out a certain freshness on the palate: maraschino cherries, apricot jam and a hint of marzipan. The finish is long – considerably longer than the 1st – on dark (as opposed to milk) chocolate spiked with cointreau and berry jam.

Most people seem to like the 2nd release, and I can certainly understand why, but I prefer the 1st. It wears its youth on its sleeve and revels in its contradictions. There’s something to be said for that. The 2nd release comes across as more ‘mature’ – and conforms more to our received notions of what a mature Karuizawa is like – but is lacking a bit in depth and complexity. There’s a 3rd release in the works, and hopefully more later, because whichever you prefer at this point – the 1st or the 2nd – having the chance to see how young Karuizawas of the same age can develop different personalities even with minimal changes (a bit of extra time and micro-variations in batch and slightly different ensembles of casks selected for each release) is a real treat.

Karuizawa fans in Japan will have the chance to try their own – again, slightly different – Asama-version. As mentioned before, this will be bottled at 50.5%abv. The bottles have been printed and bottling is in progress, so it should be available soon. There will be an initial release through a well-known department store in Shinjuku (while you’re there, do yourself a favour and grab a bottle of their new exclusive Kilchoman single cask, too) and then a more general release throughout Japan. It’s shaping up to be quite a summer for Karuizawa… let’s enjoy it while we still can!

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Chivas Regal MIZUNARA Special Edition to be launched in October

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Pernod Ricard Japan have just announced an exciting new, limited edition specially created for the Japanese market: ‘Chivas Regal MIZUNARA Special Edition’.

On a trip to to Japan, master blender Colin Scott got the idea of creating a version of Chivas Regal inspired by local whisky making techniques and customer preferences. He carefully selected the component grain and malt whiskies – all over 12yo – with the local palate in mind and then finished part of his blend in Japanese oak (i.e. mizunara) casks. As far as we know, this is the first time a Scotch blended whisky has incorporated mizunara. It’ll be interesting to see if there is a discernable influence.

‘Chivas Regal MIZUNARA Special Edition’ will go on sale October 1st, but some liquor shops are already taking pre-orders. It’s bottled at 40% abv – a shame they didn’t give this a more natural presentation at a higher abv – and will retail for about 3,500 yen. As soon as we get a chance to try this special edition, we’ll get back to you with further details.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Nikka to launch new ‘Taketsuru’ pure malts

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Nikka’s flagship blended malt ‘Taketsuru’ is becoming increasingly popular at home. Sales for the first half of the year were up 7% compared with last year and soon Nikka will be adding a new permanent expression as well as a limited one to its ‘Taketsuru’ range.

Those who have been following the developments on the Japanese whisky scene – especially among the major players – over the past year will not be surprised that the new permanent addition to the ‘Taketsuru’ range is a no-age statement one. It’ll be available in various sizes (700, 500, 180 and 50ml, all bottled at 43% abv) and – although there’s no word on pricing yet – this will obviously become the new entry-level ‘Taketsuru’. It’ll be interesting to see what new role (if any) the top dogs at Nikka have in mind for the ‘Taketsuru 12’. The new ‘NAS Taketsuru’ will go on sale nationwide on 25 September, and to add luster to the proceedings, Nikka is also putting out a sherry-wood finished version of the new ‘NAS Taketsuru’ (43% abv, 700ml only), limited to 2,900 bottles.

We’ll check out these new releases as soon as they’re available. Here’s hoping the new releases will add something genuinely new to the ‘Taketsuru’ range. Watch this space, as always.