Monday, February 9, 2015

Mars 606 & 615, or: Why One Rarely Comes Across Old Japanese Bottles at Bars in Japan

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

There are two things foreign whisky fans visiting Japan never fail to remark on: the difficulty in buying interesting Japanese whiskies (i.e. anything other than the standards) in Japan, and the incredible whisky bar scene – the latter offering more than enough consolation for the pain suffered when discovering the former. Those who sample a few of the specialist whisky bars in Japan quickly notice a third thing: that, while there are old and rare bottlings of Scotch (and bourbon, grappa, calvados, cognac, vintage liqueurs, etc.) to be found aplenty, one hardly ever comes across old bottlings of Japanese whisky in Japan! Obscure Scotch whisky bottled for the Italian market? Loads. Pre-WWII Calvados? Any day of the week. Rye whiskies older than your grandmother? Not a problem. Japanese whisky bottled in, say, the 1990s? Mmm, that’s tricky…
A little diversion: a few weeks ago, a friend of mine who loves scouring mom-and-pop stores in and around Tokyo for old / rare / ‘interesting’ whisky sends me a message. He’s just bought two single cask Mars bottlings, released in 1999, and can’t find any information anywhere about these bottles. Quite a find, it seems. Both aged for 10 years – #606 matured in a Spanish oak ex-Oloroso sherry cask, #615 in a virgin American white oak cask – they look promising, a chance to find out what younger Mars single casks tasted like.

The enthusiasm quickly spreads and, before long, half a dozen mutual friends have caught wind of the find, and ask if there is a way to get a share of the liquid. The enthusiasm is short-lived, however. Both bottles are utterly disappointing: the #606 irremediably flawed, wrecked by sulphur and other off-notes; the #615 suffering badly from being diluted to 43%, any charm that may have been there totally drowned. As I am writing this, a friend has poured his share of the #606 in his breadmaker. Here’s hoping it works better in dough than in a glass.

Obviously, it would be a logical fallacy to use these two particular bottlings as explanations for the lack of ‘old’ Japanese bottlings at bars in Japan. Truth be told, I could have used a dozen other examples (from other distilleries/producers) by scanning the camera roll from the past few months on my iPhone. As a Japanese whisky fan, one can’t help clinging to the promise of a truly stellar old bottle gathering dust somewhere in a bar or small liquor shop, waiting to be discovered and catapulted to whisky stardom by aficionados. Until such time, specimens occasionally found left and right go some way to explaining the absence of old Japanese bottles at specialist whisky bars in Japan.


LovingWhiskey said...

Not in Bars?
>>Japanese whisky bottled in, say, the 1990s?

A) Bars could not buy them, they go to China mainland, please go drink them there
B) Bars could buy them, but everyone drunk them in 1 week (roundtrip)
C) Bars priced them too low in comparison to old Scotch, so people enjoyed highballs with snacks, and also drunk them in 1 week
D) There were very few bottles bottled anyway
E) Only the bad bottles remain, even in stores
F) Old Japanese whisky is indeed crap

rumrunner said...

I scour the auction sites and can't recall seeing these two. Seen (and bought) a few 393s and 452s. Will avoid these ones I think :)

Stefan Van Eycken said...

The 393 at cask strength is a good one. In fact, I just finished my bottle of that, literally days ago. But it is the exception that confirms the rule. It is also shows why bottling most of these at low strength was a mistake at the time.

John said...

I just opened a bottle of 1147. It was distilled in 1992, aged for 8 years in American white oak and bottled at 43% ABV. I think this one is pretty good. The mouth feel is terrific.