Friday, September 27, 2013

Tomas Estes and Ron Cooper on Terroir in Tequila & Mezcal

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Nonjatta sat down with Tomas Estes of Ocho single estate tequila and Ron Cooper of Del Maguey single village mezcals when they were over here to launch their product range in Japan.
Ron Cooper (l) and Tomas Estes (r) at Bar Agave, Roppongi, Tokyo
Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey (literally ‘of the plant’) in 1995 to introduce the world to the beauty of real, unadulterated mezcal produced by local farmers in small villages in Oaxaca, Mexico. His products showcase how factors such as the type of agave, soil, altitude, water source, distillation type, time and ‘the hand of the maker’ conspire to create mezcals with a uniquely individual character.

Tequila ambassador Tomas Estes was invited by legendary master distiller Carlos Camarena (whose family is responsible for Tequila Tapatio en El Tesoro de Don Felipe) to produce something special. Together, they decided to explore the concept of terroir in tequila. By definition, all tequila is made from the same variety of agave (the blue agave), but nobody had ever focused on how the unique conditions in which the agave grow might contribute to the specificity of the distillate’s flavour profile.

We started by asking Tomas whether these agaves from different fields are distilled at the ‘ranchos’ they come from or whether they’re turned into tequila at one and the same distillery.

Tomas: It’s so curious that we’re here with Ron because in Ron’s case, he’s got single village mezcals which are gathered from around that village and distilled at a village distillery. With Ocho, it is one distillery. It’s called La Altena, in Arandas, Jalisco and it’s quite artisanal and old-fashioned. It was founded in 1937 and up until 15-20 years ago, they had no electricity, so it’s very rudimentary. Most of the old-fashioned ways are still used there: it’s the same oven, the same water source, the same fermentation tanks, the same yeast, the same stills… The one thing that’s different is that the agaves come from specifically delineated fields.

Nonjatta: Have you been able to discover a certain logic in how individual fields bring out specific flavour characteristics in the tequila produced from their agaves?

Tomas: We have not found specifics but what we have found is a generality and that generality is that the more the agave stresses, the more interesting flavours it’s going to give. It’s going to be more complex. It’s going to show you more. The Tequila Valley is very friendly to agaves: it’s rich soil, it’s hot during the day and hot at night, so it’s easy for the agave and it grows fast. In Los Altos (the highlands), they have to struggle more, and that tends to create more character. We have not been looking at it long enough to know, like the French oenologues, what it is specifically that each field contributes. We don’t understand all the effects of the terroir, the effects of the natural conditions on the resulting spirit.

Nonjatta: In exploring the effects of terroir in an empirical way, have you come across fields that just don’t work at all?

Tomas: We haven’t found that yet. Sometimes, we are harvesting fields that are the first crop of agave. El Vergel (one of the Ocho ‘ranchos’, ed.) is the first crop of agave – before, it was peaches and limes – and the generation before, Carlos Camarena’s father, did not think that agaves would last there. He thought that they would freeze or be damaged by the cold. So this is the first crop. There’s another field that is the first crop, Los Mangos. Before that, there were mango trees and cherry trees growing there. So, a lot of the other fields, they know have been good for other generations of agave but some of them are new. Prior to this single ranch concept, they didn’t really know which would be a good field or which would be a bad field, like they know in Burgundy. They haven’t studied it that much, except that – as a generality – the agaves from the highlands are better than those from the Tequila Valley. Even those who work in the Tequila Valley admit that. And within the highlands, you’ve got this ‘Golden Triangle’ that is supposed to be the best of the best agaves. And that’s where we operate.

Nonjatta: Are the fields rested after harvesting the agave?

Tomas: It depends. They may leave it to regenerate by itself, or they may replant it with other crops – beans, corn, squash, … – to regenerate. Ron: In Oaxaca, they do slash-and-burn and the ash gets plowed into the ground and they plant and it takes 7 or 8 years for the agave to mature. And when it is harvested, they do a second plant – so that’s 15 years – and then they leave the field alone for 15 years, and it goes right back to jungle. And then at a certain point, they feel it’s ready and they can slash-and-burn and plant again.

Stone Oven With Cooked Agaves
Nonjatta: Because the plants take so long to mature, the concept of vintage is very problematic. But the farmers and distillers that you work with have been doing this for ages. Were there periods that were considered special – something like a great vintage but in this case over a more extended period of time?

Tomas: I’ve heard one allusion to that when Carlos Camarena talked about that one harvest that he had that had such a high brix content. Jesse Estes: There are all kinds of unusual things that happen, in many cases, that are very hard to directly attribute, but in this case, one of our fields had snow a few years prior to harvest (2008), which is very unusual. Obviously, that would create different kinds of stress for the plant that would – in turn – concentrate the flavours. The result was a very high sugar content in the plants and pretty much, hands-down my favorite tequila came from that field.

Nonjatta: It seems like, whereas we as humans do everything we can to avoid stress, with the agave that’s exactly what you want and what brings out the best.

Ron: Yes, that’s what I found, and it has to do with many things: soil, altitude, micro-climate… To give you an example. Santo Domingo Albarradas is high and it is next to a valley that’s always cloudy. And the clouds are borne out of this other valley and chill down on Santo Domingo Albarradas several times a day and then the clouds blow out. It’s so high and the UV is intense, so you get this hot-cold-hot-cold and Albarradas (the mezcal, ed.) has a peaty herbaceousness that the other mezcals don’t have. All I can compare it to is coastal wines that have these fogs that chill the vines and concentrate the flavours.

Tomas: Another example… I was at Sete Leguas and I noticed that where a lot of their land is, is very steep. The agaves there are really, really stressed and they’re going to have these strange qualities so I said: “did you ever make tequila only with the agaves growing on these steep slopes?” And they went: “No.” They mix agaves from different fields. And I said: “Will you, please?” And it’s a really beautiful tequila. I would say Sete Leguas is right up there with Ocho in terms of quality.

Once we start paying attention, there’s no stopping the infinite subtlety of everything, so when Ron, Jesse and I were in Santa Catarina Minas, we were sitting with a maguey farmer and mezcal producer and we were talking about the earth, the terroir, and he was telling us they have two wells. They were 50 metres apart and they had absolutely different water. That’s nature. When we really think about it, Mother Nature is so varied, so complex, each square centimeter will be different, I think. It’s really beautiful and I think it’s way out there to think that we could make wine out of one plant, out of one grape plant; and it’s way out there to think that out of one agave, we could make one batch, but somewhere along the line, I’m going to do it. I’ll take one agave and one next to it and produce tequila in exactly the same way but separately.

Nonjatta: The name ‘Ocho’ (eight in Spanish) was chosen for many reasons: it’s the average number of years needed to fully mature the agaves used in Ocho; it takes 8 kilograms of raw agave to produce 1 litre of Ocho tequila; it takes 8 days from when the raw agaves enter the distillery until Ocho’s production is complete; the Camarena family are in their 8th decade of tequila production; and Carlos Camarena has 8 brothers and sisters, all involved in different ways in the family business. Also, when looking for the right production process for Ocho, the 8th production sample was selected as the house recipe. How were the samples different?

Tomas: Distillation. Carlos has got five stills: two that are rather new for him – installed in the last ten years – medium-sized stainless stills with a capacity of about 3,300 litres, and three old, very small copper stills (300 litres). So he played with different stills and leaving in different amounts of heads and tails. He tried different combinations of stills and different lengths of distillation time (faster or slower) and cuts.

Ron: Let me say one thing about stills. I was at Sete Leguas 2 or 3 years ago and I was speaking with Fernando Gonzalez, the distiller there. He had two identical stainless steel stills and I jokingly asked him: “which is your favorite?” And he said: “Oh, that one makes better tequila.” The same maker produced them both and they are identical and the guy who made the equipment doesn’t know either why one is better than the other. Nobody knows. This intangible, dialing stuff in, is real and has to be done.

Nonjatta: Let’s talk a little bit about maturation. For Ocho’s reposado, anejo and extra-anejo you use ex-bourbon barrels (Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey) that have been used 7 or 8 times before to age Tapatio and El Tesoro tequila. In whisky, 70% or more of the final flavour comes from the wood and tired barrels is the last thing you’d want as a whisky maker. Yet, those are precisely the sort of casks that you want?

Tomas: At one point I thought, when I tasted our blanco right out of the still, this is what I want! This is the concept. This is the design. I want agave-led, agave-forward tequila. I want a tequila that expresses all the nuances of the agave. I don’t want to cover that up with ageing. I don’t want to cover it up with new barrels, with lots of vanillins, lots of tannins, with a deep char. I want to leave it ‘as is’. Then I thought: but what if I age it, what would it be like? So I thought: let me do it the minimum amount of time (8 weeks and 8 days for reposado; 18 months and 24 days for anejo), so that that cuts down on the duration of the influence. I also thought: let’s use the most fatigued barrels so that we can eliminate most of the things that other people are looking for, like huge wood, huge tannins, huge vanillins. That’s our philosophy.

Ron has experimented with other types of barrels. We’re just about ready to start experimenting a bit… We have in our bars a product called Casa Cuervo 1800 Coleccion. It costs us 1,500 dollars, if we can get it. We’re selling it in London for 200 dollars for 35ml and we’re selling like crazy. What I’m thinking of doing is, to make a replacement for that. Carlos Camarena’s got a lot of samples around…  Ron: That’s because you have to keep 3 litres of every batch you make. One litre goes to the laboratory, one goes to the regulatory council and you’ve got to keep one litre yourself. You only have to keep it for 5 years. I have shelves full of these samples… Tomas: So Carlos has got all these samples and he’s got this little misshapen barrel that he got from France, Limousin oak, and it would have had cognac in it. Except, it’s had tequila in it a lot now…  He’s had probably 6 or 7 fillings of tequila in this thing. So I said to him: let’s replace Casa Cuervo 1800 Coleccion with our own thing. Let’s take all these crazy samples and put them in this thing and keep them for 6 months or 1 year and see what we come up with. The ‘Coleccion Camarena’. It would probably only yield about a hundred bottles, but that would be enough for our needs.

Carlos Camarena at work.
Nonjatta: Ron, you’ve experimented quite a bit with maturing mezcal in a variety of barrels?

Ron: My very first one was a limited edition for Park Avenue Liquors. It was Chichicapa that was aged for 14 years in glass and then finished for 43 days in a Stags’ Leap Cabernet barrel. And that’s amazing. Then, Hudson Whiskey sent me these baby bourbon and rye barrels for me to put mezcal in for a year, then empty them, and send them back to them so they can age their stuff in ex-mezcal barrels. But what we’ve got now is… our importer is Sazerac  and I’ve got 4 Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old barrels – great bourbon – and we’ve filled them with mezcal. The San Luis del Rio went in there. It was only in there for 15 days and it was so good, I couldn’t leave it any longer. Now that we’ve done that... these barrels are so beautiful, I hate the idea of them being turned into firewood or smoking barbecue wood, so now we’re sending them over to craft beer makers and they’re filling them with beer – so they have a Del Maguey-influenced beer. Sazerac just sent us eight 10-year-old Rip Van Winkle barrels and one of those huge 600-litre La Gitana Manzanilla casks. We’ve done something with that where we’ve aged it for 30 days, another batch 60 days and another 90 days – then blended everything and it’s just unbelievable.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chichibu Floor Malted Single Cask & The Peated 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
There wasn’t much to write home about at this year’s Modern Malt Market in Akihabara, Tokyo. The two most exciting corners were the Whisk-e booth – where some phenomenal exponents from the new Cadenhead’s line-up were available for tasting (more about that in our forthcoming interview with Mark Watt) – and the Venture Whisky (Ichiro’s Malt) booth.

Akuto-san had brought two special Chichibu treats: one a single cask bottling for the event and the other a new 2013 version of “The Peated”. The single cask bottling was a version of “The Floor Malted” (2010/2013, ex-bourbon barrel #653) – I say “was” because it’s all gone, sold out in a matter of hours. The new edition of “The Peated” will be released later this year and for this one, they've tweaked the formula a bit. The phenol level is higher (last year’s “Peated” was 52ppm and change; the new one is 59.6ppm) and the bulk of the malt comes from ex-bourbon wood with a top dressing of port pipe-matured whisky. It’s very fruity and even better than the first version, which is quite a feat, considering how stunning that was. There’ll be 6,700 bottles so there should be plenty to go around. We look forward to reviewing this in peace and quiet as soon as it’s officially out. As always: watch this space.

Read more about Chichibu Distillery here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Karuizawa Asama 50.5%

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
We’ve already written at length about the various Karuizawa Asama releases (1, 2, 3) and the recent 50.5% version. We finally got round to tasting the latter, so without further ado…

On the nose, it’s reminiscent of some ‘rouge cask’ Karuizawas (i.e. the 1995 vintage, when most of Karuizawa’s output was filled into casks that had previously contained Japanese red wine). There’s also a strong earthy, vegetal dimension to it (mushrooms, grilled capsicums) together with some dried fruit notes (dates, prunes) and a slight ‘metallic’ hint – something that tends to manifest itself in young Karuizawas. There are also many other tiny notes (barbecue sauce, rosemary, mint, tinned apricots, …), making this quite a complex nose for such a young Karuizawa. The attack on the palate is pretty sharp – then, you get wine-soaked fruit, dark chocolate (think 99% cocoa), fudge, liquorice, hoshigaki (dried persimmons), kumin and hints of kaiware (i.e. sprouted daikon radish seeds – slightly bitter and peppery) and bonito flakes. It’s not as sweet as you would expect. The finish is medium-long on Seville oranges and läckerli.

Although the label – well the printing on the bottle, to be precise – states this vatting of casks from the final vintages (1999 & 2000) of Karuizawa was married (i.e. returned to the original casks) for over 12 months, it’s actually closer to two years and the whisky has clearly benefited from this extended recalibration. There will be several thousand bottles of Asama 50.5% but I hope the Number One Drinks people are giving some of their ‘Asama casks’ a bit of extra honeymoon time. It’ll be interesting to see how the liquid keeps changing - and improving, fingers crossed - with time.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

4 New Stills Added at Yamazaki Distillery

Post by Nicholas Coldicott
As Nonjatta reported back in March 2013, Suntory installed four more stills at Yamazaki this year, bringing the total to 16. Last Friday, they shipped in the media hordes to have a look. The event kicked off with a video of trucks carrying the copper beasts through the streets of Yamazaki at night, then cranes hauling them up to an oversize window and plonking them in their new home, a little white private room.

The room used to contain washbacks, and a Yamazaki worker told me it was just a stroke of luck that it was the perfect width and height for four large stills.  Officially, Suntory wanted to increase the capacity and variety of the output. The capacity got a hefty 40 percent boost. Breadth-wise, they seem to already have quite a variety of still shapes, and the new ones look quite similar to ones they're already using. Both the wash stills are straight wizard-hat stills. One of the spirit stills is very straight, the other is more stocky with a boil bulb. One of the pairs is heated by direct flame, as most Yamazaki stills are. The other pair gets steam.

The budget for the expansion was a reported one billion yen (US$10 million), and the company makes production decisions using sales forecasts 20 years ahead, so it’s fair to say they’re feeling optimistic. Domestic sales are still rising and international sales are small but rocketing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Suntory to Release ‘Mellow Harmony’ Hibiki

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Since making their Hibiki available in a smaller 500ml bottle, the fan base for Suntory’s premium blend has expanded by 17% (compared with the same period last year, i.e. Jan-Aug). The top dogs at Suntory are pretty happy, it seems. A few months ago, they released a limited edition Hibiki finished in wine casks (‘Deep Harmony’). In November, they’ll be following that up with another special edition called ‘Mellow Harmony’. Unlike its predecessor, which was available to the bar trade only, this will be generally available… well, until the 4,000 bottles are gone.

‘Mellow Harmony’ is built around their Hibiki 17 with the addition of Yamazaki malt and Chita grain whisky that has been matured for over 30 years. Bottled at 43%abv, this special edition goes on sale November 5th and will retail for about 13,000 yen. It features a grayish yellow (a colour called ‘rikyushiracha’ in Japanese) Echizen-washi label with imagery suggestive of water rings and stone gardens.

Karuizawa 1971 & 1977 Single Casks for Taiwan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

To say that it’s getting harder and harder every month to get hold of new Karuizawa releases is a bit of an understatement. With the single casks featured in this post, it was almost like looking for two Holy Grails (well, actually three, because there was a 1981 as well) at the same time! They were bottled for Taiwan in 2012 but only released this summer. Don’t ask why! All I know is that even die-hard collectors/speculators in Taiwan were having a tough time getting hold of these bottles at home. Until the people at Bond #1 decided to re-import a few bottles and offer them to members, we got messages from desperate Karuizawa collectors almost every day. It was all a bit surreal since I was on holiday in France when word got out… Anyway, enough drama. Time to put these old Karuizawas to the test.
Karuizawa 1971/2012, cask #7267, 62.8%abv, 467 bottles

Karuizawa 1977/2012, cask #4010, 65.9%abv, 427 bottles

On the nose, the 1971 is very heavy and concentrated: sweet – think cough syrup, stewed and dried fruits – but also earthy (dried leaves) and with a very prominent fresh white peach note. After a few minutes in the glass, there’s a shift in emphasis and you get suggestions of red miso, balsamic vinegar, old parmezan, porcini, nail polish and gooseberries. If you leave it for a long time, it develops into something like orange balsamic glaze. The 1977 is much lighter and less sweet; here, the initial impressions are tobacco leaves, slightly smoked dried fruit (I have a friend here in Tokyo who’s a keen home-smoker – is there a word for that? – and the last time I met him he brought some smoked dried pineapple and mango and that’s what you get in this 1977 Karuizawa). There’s also hints of grilled mackerel (saba shioyaki), nuts (macadamias and cashews), postage stamp gum and katori senko (incense coils used to keep mosquitoes away, very common here in Japan especially around this time of the year). There’s also a lovely ruby grapefruit note that stands out if you give the whisky a bit of time.

On the palate, the 1971 offers berry jam on toast, chocolate mousse with cointreau, choco-chip scones, orange sorbet, persimmons and wood spice. It’s slightly tannic but not to the point where it gets in the way of the other flavours. The finish is medium-long on After Eights and umeboshi candy. Water pretty much kills the party – it really does. The 1977 is very different, again: a combination of a tropical fruit salad (pineapple, mango, passionfruit, a touch of lime) with Japanese seven-spice powder (shichimi togarashi) and a dollop of Nutella. The finish is medium-long with slightly bitter overtones (grapefruit peel) and settles on something akin to blood orange jam. This one swims well: water throws a bit more sour in the mix, especially on the finish.

I love the complexity of the nose of the 1971, but as a total experience I prefer the 1977 – an intriguing dram from start to finish. Then again, it’s summer and that may have something to do with it. We tend to forget how much we are influenced by the climate we’re in, and that includes much more than just the weather…

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

4 New Nikka Single Casks for Whisky Live Paris 2013

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Exciting times for fans of Japanese whisky in Europe. In two weeks, at Whisky Live Paris, La Maison du Whisky will be unveiling a quartet of exclusive Nikka single cask releases. These four releases also offer a cross section of the different types of distillate made at Nikka’s distilleries: there’s a Yoichi malt whisky, a Miyagikyo malt whisky, a Coffey grain whisky and a Coffey malt whisky (the former distilled at Miyagikyo, the latter at the now defunct Nishinomiya distillery).
Coffey Grain Whisky 1999/2013, cask #197772, 60%abv

In 1963, Masataka Taketsuru imported a set of Coffey stills from Scotland. These were installed at Nikka’s Nishinomiya plant (in Kansai) and used to produce grain whisky until 1999 when they were moved to Miyagikyo (Sendai). For this bottling, the people at LMdW selected an ex-bourbon barrel filled the year the stills were transferred. On the nose, it’s quite light with vanilla (but not too much, which is nice), subtle grassy notes, custard, Jonagold apples and hints of pencil shavings, cinnamon muffins and tinned peaches. On the palate, totally out of the blue, this whisky pulls out all the stops. It’s really intense and full of character: baked spiced fruit, assorted pastries, mango chutney, tinned apricots, nuts, … You can tame it with a bit of water, but why would you want to see this beast in the zoo when you can experience it in the jungle?

Coffey Malt Whisky 1998/2013, cask #100645, 57%abv

Nikka also use their column stills to distill malted barley and, in theory, the resulting product would be something between malt and grain whisky. In reality, however, it’s closer to a grain than to a malt. This particular release was matured in a re-charred hogshead. On the nose, there’s more spice (compared with the above grain whisky), also apricot Danish, slightly burnt toast, toasted marshmallows, meringue and roasted chestnuts. Strangely enough, it reminds me of some bourbons with a high rye content (Four Roses Single Barrel, Bulleit). Water kind of kills the nose, but really helps on the palate. It’s very creamy in terms of mouthfeel and wonderfully lush: crème brûlée, apricot jam, assorted nuts, banana fritters drizzled with honey, toasted coconut, a touch of nutmeg and a hint of citrus. The finish is medium-long on toasted walnuts and macarons (lemon and raspberry).

Miyagikyo Malt Whisky 1999/2013, cask #67223, 61%abv

On to the potstill malts: this lightly peated Miyagikyo was also matured in a re-charred hogshead. On the nose, the initial impressions are green orchard fruits (apple hi-chu, pear drops), eucalyptus and shaving cream (well, the kind that I use anyway). There are also hints of foie gras with apricot jam, lemon tart and – after a while – faint traces of smoke – very delicate, a bit like lightly smoked ham – as well as a very subtle earthy element in the background (something like spring potatoes with tarragon and chives). The nose reminds me quite a bit of a 2002 Miyagikyo single cask released in Japan at the end of last year except that this is a bit more complex. I’m becoming quite fond of these relatively young Miyagikyo single casks. On the palate, it traces a beautiful progression from sour (lemon tea, grapefruit sorbet) via bitter (apple kale juice, goya) to sweet flavours (mango pudding, caramel popcorn). Then, on the finish, you get a bit of soft smoke… what a lovely send-off. Water flattens the whole experience – it’s quite a delicate balance of flavours – so I wouldn't play with it.

Yoichi Malt Whisky 1988/2013, cask #100215, 62%abv

This – brace yourself – is a heavily peated Yoichi that has spent a quarter of a century in virgin oak (a butt, to be precise). The thing is: this exercise in extremes produced a whisky that works and how! On the nose, you get pencil shavings, new plank, annin dofu and furniture polish – that’s the virgin oak speaking – as well as ‘farm smells’ (reminiscent of some Port Charlotte single casks), heavily smoked nuts (beech nuts, peanuts, almonds) and a bit of fruit (apple butter barbecue sauce). The combination of new oak, heavy peat and that typically ‘dirty’ (in a good sense of the word) Yoichi character works a treat. On the palate, you’ve got sour cherries, smoked duck, marzipan, rhubarb jam, milk chocolate, smoked nuts again and the last of a summer campfire. Time has integrated the peat beautifully – it’s not as frontal as you’d expect from a ‘heavily peated’ malt. The finish is long and lingering with the peat smoke more pronounced and a slight hint of orange peel. It works well with water, too – delivers a bit more fruit. What can I say? On paper, it sounds like a whisky on steroids; in reality, it’s a little miracle of nature – ‘extremes that were made to meet’, Aldous Huxley would say.

Read more about Miyagikyo Distillery here.
Read more about Yoichi Distillery here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Karuizawa 1984/2012 Cask #2961

Review by Ruben of WhiskyNotes
Karuizawa 1984 cask #2961, featuring a rice paper label, completely in Japanese calligraphy. This cask had an outturn of over 500 bottles and was shared between a number of customers both in Japan (120 bottles for the ANA Intercontinental Hotel among others) and abroad (Taiwan and the Karuizawa Partners' Reserve).

Karuizawa 27yo 1984 (57,7%, 2012, cask #2961, 350 btl.)

Nose: a very oriental expression that’s also surprisingly high on glue notes and oil paint. I love that. Polished cedar oak. Opens up on raspberry jam, strawberries and sour plums. Raisins. Rhubarb! Also hints of fragrant lemon skin. Just a small nutty note and cigar leaves in the background. Very refined with the waxed oak theme ever-present.
Mouth: very powerful, a lot of sandalwood and cedar again. Big big tobacco notes. Dates and raisins. Dark chocolate. Nutmeg. Sugar coated pecans. A little balsamic and liquorice. Develops tiny fragrant, perfumy notes as well. Overall quite dry.
Finish: long, elegant, with brambles and cocoa powder. Some tannins as well.

I adore the nose of this Karuizawa. It’s oak-driven, but in a way that’s necessary to get this kind of oriental profile. I started with a higher score, but while sipping it lost some points because the dryness gets a little overpowering – even with water.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Eigashima 5yo for Sake Shop Sato

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Next month, Sake Shop Sato will be releasing a new private bottling: an Eigashima 5yo (2008/2013) single cask. It’s actually a double matured whisky: it spent the first three years in a hogshead and was then transferred to an ex-bourbon cask (#1131) for a further two years’ maturation. Bottled at cask-strength (58%abv) without chill-filtration or added colouring, it comes in the usual - usual for Eigashima, that is - 500ml apothecary-type bottles. As soon as it is out, we’ll do a little head to head with the single cask for Hanshin, Osaka that was released a few months ago - also a double matured whisky albeit slightly younger (3 years in a hogshead, 16 months in ex-bourbon wood).

Read more about Eigashima Distillery here.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hakushu & Yamazaki Single Casks for Whisky Shop W. 3rd Anniversary

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Earlier this week, Suntory’s flagship store Whisky Shop W. in Osaka celebrated its 3rd anniversary. Just like last year and the year before, they released two single casks to mark the occasion. Last year, the top dogs at Suntory had dropped some strong hints that the 2nd anniversary bottlings would be the last for a while as they were dealing with stock shortages. With a bit of persuasion from the people in charge of Whisky Shop W., they changed their minds and asked chief blender Shinji Fukuyo to select two special casks for this year’s celebrations.

Fukuyo-san selected a 1999 Hakushu hogshead (cask #DG41666, 55%abv, 210 bottles) and a 2000 Yamazaki Spanish oak sherry butt (cask #EO70049, 59%abv, 506 bottles). They were launched a few days ago (on Monday) and while there’s still plenty of the Yamazaki, the Hakushu won’t last very long anymore. Of the 140 set aside for sale at the shop, 90 remain at the time of writing. At Suntory’s online shop, however, it is close to being sold out.

If you’re in the Kansai area, you can try the new single casks at Whisky Shop W. for a mere 400yen (15ml). And if you’re there and haven’t tried the recent Hakushu Heavily Peated release yet, you can grab a baby bottle (180ml) – it’s the only place in the country where you can still find it.

Read more about Yamazaki Distillery here.
Read more about Hakushu Distillery here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Karuizawa 1997/2013 for Isetan #7815

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
The moment I saw this bottling, I knew it was going to be right up my alley. Biased? Sure, but not without good reason. Bear with me…

Whilst sampling several dozen Karuizawa casks – from the late 70s up to the final vintage (2000) – in January of this year, I came across two that stood out, not only because of the quality of the whisky (there were others that were up there with those two) but also because they were somewhat atypical, showing a different side of Karuizawa. I knew one of these was going to be the first release in the Nonjatta “Ghost”-series but it was hard to decide which. I spent many an evening going back and forth between cask #3681 from 1996 and cask #7815 from 1997. I took my samples to a few people in the business (bartenders, writers) and asked them which one they preferred: half of them liked the tenderness and elegance of the 1996, the other half was really intrigued by the rough, earthy character of the 1997. That didn’t help. In the end, I went for the 1996… but I’m happy I don’t have to choose anymore, because the good folk at Isetan Shinjuku have just released the 1997. Cask #7815 is, incidentally, the last cask from the 1997 vintage.

The first thing that will strike you is that #7815 is very light in colour (pale gold) for a 16-year old – definitely a refill cask. On the nose, it’s very earthy with barbecued vegetables (pumpkin, green peppers, jacket potatoes), herbs (mint, rosemary), burdock soup and a fair bit of smoke (something akin to a smoldering campfire). Underneath all this, you’ll find some honey-lemon tea, sour apples, Vicks VapoDrops (no, this is not product placement), foie gras, pine trees and new paper. On the palate, you get more vegetables – goya and okura, this time –, sour apricots, candied grapefruit peel, salmonberries, a hint of cough syrup and the sort of tiny metallic notes that you often get with ‘younger’ Karuizawas. It’s quite light overall and it doesn't have the sort of finish that follows you all the way to the parking lot but it lingers in a very subtle way, leaving you with fragile resonances that are hard to pin down.

Water intensifies the smoke… initially, that is, because after a few seconds the smoke gives way to lovely gentle fruit aromas (ripe peaches, apricots). The palate undergoes a similar transformation – you get more fruit, but you lose some of the complementary flavours that play together so well when you have it undiluted. But that’s one of the nice things about this particular bottling: you can really tweak it to the mood you’re in.

There you have it: not a big, robust, heavily-fruited, oily Karuizawa, but if that’s what you want, there’s plenty out there (well, on the auction circuit, I should say). This is a Karuizawa that’s in a different register, but what a fascinating register it is. I, for one, am thrilled the people at Isetan Shinjuku had the guts to bottle this.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Single Estate Tequila & Single Village Mezcal Event in Tokyo

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
On Tuesday, September 24th, a special event is being held at the well-known Roppongi Agave bar to promote the Japanese launch of ‘Ocho’ single estate tequilas and ‘Del Maguey’ single village mezcales. Tomas Estes of ‘Ocho’ (and author of ‘The Tequila Ambassador’) and Ron Cooper of ‘Del Maguey’ are coming over to introduce their product range to Japanese drinks enthusiasts.

Entry is 1,000 yen – with a welcome drink – and then cash-on. No need for advance reservation – just show up and pay on the door. The event starts at 6pm and includes a ‘talk show’, so if you want to learn a thing or two about premium tequila and mezcal, or if you just want to dive in and sample some of the 400 products available at the bar, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Dark Horse: Eigashima 12yo (1997/2010) Private Bottling

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few weeks ago, after spending a fortnight exploring the calvados and whisky distilleries of Normandy and Bretagne respectively, I made a little excursion to the city of Ghent in Belgium to host a Japanese whisky tasting. The organizer – importer/retailer The Bonding Dram – wanted to offer a sort of panorama of Japanese whisky and the decision was made to limit the selection to single malts (but no single casks). To cater to both well-seasoned Japanese whisky drinkers and newcomers, there was a selection of drams only available in Japan (brought over by yours truly) in addition to malts generally available in Europe (supplied by the organizer).

As part of an effort to try and compile a flavour map of Japanese whiskies – based on the model developed by Dave Broom for the Classic Malts – I thought it would be interesting to get some feedback from whisky enthusiasts in Europe and so it was decided to do the entire tasting blind, with no hints whatsoever as to what was in the glass. Just out of curiosity, to see what the collective preference was, we also asked the attendees (32 in total) to score the whiskies.

The line up was as follows:

Miyagikyo 12 (45%abv)
Miyagikyo NAS (43%abv)
Yoichi 10 (43%abv)
Karuizawa 12yo (an original bottling from the 90s, 40%abv)
Ichiro’s Wine Wood Reserve (leaf label, only available in Japan, 46%abv)
Yamazaki 18 (43%abv)
Hakushu Heavily Peated (first release, 48%abv)
Eigashima ‘Akashi’ 12yo Private Bottling (59%abv)

During the first half of the tasting I said very little, not wanting the influence people’s evaluation of the whiskies. When scores were tallied and the top 3 drams of the evening were announced a shockwave went through the room: in third place was Ichiro’s Wine Wood Reserve; runner up was Yamazaki 18 and the top dram of the evening was… the Eigashima 12yo private bottling. The fact that it managed to win – and win by quite a large margin! – was even more surprising given the fact that this particular whisky had received the lowest score from a small group of people, indicating that those who had given it their highest score liked it quite a bit.
The Eigashima 12yo was bottled in 2010 – together with a 5yo – in a limited edition of 102 (for more information, see this post). About half of the outturn went to Sweden, the other half stayed here, in Japan. On the nose, the initial impressions are Christmas cake, dates, figs, candied orange peel, breakfast cake (spice cake), lots of wood smoke, peat, charcoal, cigar boxes – also freshly roast coffee beans, vegetal notes (turnip, jacket potatoes), a hint of motor oil, nail polish, rubber and traces of sulphur. It was clear that the latter was responsible for the polarizing response: some couldn’t get past it; most people felt it worked in the context of the other aromas. On the palate, you get candied fruit, toffee, burnt toast with orange marmalade, tobacco, burnt marshmallows, beef jerky, barbeque smoke (pumpkin), goya and a hint of cointreau. Water smoothens the rough edges but makes it a bit more bitter. The finish is long and bittersweet on dried fruit, chicory and goya.

At the end of the evening, I got quite a lot of requests from people who wanted a bottle or two of the Eigashima. When I put my bottle (actually two, because they’re only 500ml) in my suitcase, I couldn’t imagine it would topple the Yamazaki 18, but such are the wonders of blind tasting… a Suntory brand ambassador’s nightmare if ever there was one, this little Akashi 12yo private bottling. A pity or good fortune – whichever side of the divide you fall on – that there’s nothing like this in the warehouses at Eigashima anymore and that there were only 102 bottles to start with.

Read more about Eigashima Distillery here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mars / Shinanoya’s ‘Petit Old Bottle’ Project

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

Last Sunday, we had the pleasure of trying the two ‘new old’ Mars bottlings (check our original report here) in avant-premiere in the company of the Shinanoya people who made this double release happen and Takehira-san, the current master distiller at Mars. We had high expectations and the whiskies did not disappoint – quite the contrary –, the American white oak bottling being a particularly fine exponent of young single cask Mars.
© Stefan Van Eycken
Since we announced these bottlings, some of our readers have expressed surprise – to the point of concern – about the fact that both casks were bottled at 43%, i.e. not at cask strength. The truth of the matter is that, at the time of bottling, the people at Mars felt that the finer nuances of the liquid in the respective casks were masked by an overly strong alcohol bite. In the interest of balance – a quality they feel very strongly about at Mars, then and now – they reduced the strength to a point where these finer nuances had a chance of making their presence felt. That they hit the nail on the head 10 years ago became clear on Sunday: those who were unaware of the fact that these single casks had been bottled at 43%, didn’t notice the drop in strength at all.

The people involved in this ‘petit old bottle’ release also commented on the fact that the whisky’s 10 years in the bottle had had a subtle effect on its character. The American white oak bottling had developed a more fruity character, whereas in the case of the ex-sherry release, a decade of refinement in the bottle had eliminated some of the slight sulphury notes and softened the overall flavour profile. The original idea was for Shinanoya to choose one or the other, but they felt this duo presented a unique opportunity to compare the effects of different wood on whisky of the same age from the same distillery.

Kameido Ume Garden / Flowering Plum Tree
Thunderstorm at Ohashi / Bridge in the Rain
For the labels, the people at Shinanoya decided to use Vincent Van Gogh’s re-interpretations (‘Flowering Plum Tree’ and ‘Bridge in the Rain’) of two woodblock prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (‘Kameido Ume Garden’ and ‘Thunderstorm at Ohashi’ resp.). Van Gogh’s works were painted in the wake of a Japan-mania that spread amongst French artists after 1870, later referred to as ‘Japonism’. Interesting as much for what is distinct in these re-interpretations (the use of different, brighter colours and enhanced colour contrasts) as what is taken from the original, it’s tempting to see a parallel with the way whisky-making techniques and ideas were transferred from Scotland and re-interpreted here in Japan.

One more thing: if you’re thinking of getting both bottles, you actually have the chance to experience a third. Owner/bartender Toru Suzuki of The Mash Tun in Tokyo tried his – experienced! – hand at blending both and found that a ratio of 2 parts American white oak to 1 part Spanish oak produces a lovely amalgam highlighting the best of both worlds.

The master distiller at work © Yasuko Ikeda for Nonjatta
We spoke with master distiller Takehira-san at length and learned about the many exciting things happening at Mars Shinshu now and his vision for the future… but that’s for another time and another post. In the meantime, don't forget to mark September 12th in your calendar – that’s when the two ‘Japonism’  bottles (priced at 7.580 yen each) officially go on sale.

Read more about Hombo Mars Distillery here.