Tuesday, May 19, 2015

TIBS / Whisky Expo 2015 Highlights

Post & Photos by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Last weekend marked the first edition of the revamped Tokyo International Bar Show (that is to say, separate from Whisky Live Tokyo, which will be held in September this year). Reading reviews of festivals is a bit like listening to other people’s holiday stories, so we’ll keep things brief and focus on the Japanese whiskies at the show.
There were three official single cask festival bottlings: two Japanese whiskies (a Chichibu 2009/2015 and a Mars Komagatake 2011/2015) and a Martinique rum (Neisson 2003/2015). All three were excellent – and much sought-after – but the Mars seemed to be the crowd favorite. Seeing as this was the first single cask from the ‘new regime’ (i.e. distillate from after the two-decade hiatus in production), it seems to spell good things for the future. Prices keep going up, but that is a discussion we will keep for a rainy day!
The good folk from Mars had also brought a forthcoming release for sampling. Called ‘Cosmo’ (which refers to a mountain near the distillery), it is a blended malt (bottled at 43%) made up of in-house malt (again, distillate from the ‘new regime’) and Scotch malt whisky imported in bulk. It will be available from July onwards and will be a permanent addition to the Mars range. Judging from reactions at the show, it seems like this will be a big hit!

We spoke at length to the guys from Mars – for an in-depth update, check the forthcoming edition of the Malt Whisky Yearbook – and tried to find out if, among other things, they would be releasing a new single cask from their old stock (pre-1991) that is. While they couldn’t confirm anything officially, it did seem likely that they would be bottling a cask for a big Japanese retailer later this year. Watch this space!
Always one of the most popular booths at whisky festivals in Japan, the people from Chichibu certainly had their hands full. There were no new releases as such (although they had their recent 2015 Peated Chichibu available for tasting), but Akuto-san had brought 4 prototype bottles: a Mizunara, a Sherry Butt, a Bourbon Barrel and a Wine Cask offering. Of these four, the Mizunara and the Wine Cask were absolutely stellar. It is highly unlikely the Mizunara will be bottled any time soon. There are only about 10 mizunara puncheons containing Chichibu malt in the warehouses (although there are many other casks fitted with mizunara heads) and this being the first vintage (2008), it is quite special, indeed… and Akuto-san knows it! The Wine Cask prototype – matured in a cask that previously contained Pinot Noir from New Zealand – was very well received, too. One can only imagine what other marvels are slumbering in the Chichibu warehouses!
Of the three big dogs of the Japanese whisky industry (Suntory, Nikka and Kirin), Kirin made the biggest impression with their recently released small batch 25yo grain and 17yo malt whiskies. Although the price point places these outside the budget of most potential fans (at 30,000 and 20,000 yen resp.), the quality is top notch. The 25yo grain, in particular, was one of the most memorable drams of the festival.
Nikka had brought a forthcoming release (the follow-up to the ‘Rich Blend’ of two years ago). This one is called ‘Deep Blend’, bottled at a higher abv (45%) and with a smokier, more full-bodied profile. A good product, it was somewhat overshadowed by rumours (not unfounded) that Nikka is not only increasing prices for its products across the board (some by as much as 40%) but is also planning to pull out of the single malt market (only retaining their NAS products in that category) for a while. The focus will be on blends, their Taketsuru blended malt and NAS products until such time as their stocks are capable of meeting demand for age-statement products (incl. single malts) again – which may take a year or five. Again, we’ll dig further into this in a forthcoming post.

Suntory, you ask? The only Japanese product they had brought was their NAS Hibiki (‘Japanese Harmony’) – ‘nuff said…
On the Scotch front, the undisputed highlights were the 36yo Glenturret bottled by Silver Seal for The Auld Alliance and two Arran bottlings: the 18yo and a 7yo single cask (the first in a series bottled for the Japanese market to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the distillery).

All in all, there wasn’t as much whisky available at the festival as many had hoped, but we’ve got more festivals on the calendar this year, so hopefully that will be rectified in the fall. The cocktail and bartending side of the festival was great fun and there was certainly plenty to keep yourself happy on that front. Maybe, with so many good whisky festivals in the capital already, this is the direction TIBS should be taken in!


Peter Dixon said...

Thanks as ever for the informative posting - and good to see a post on the blog; it's been a while!
I do wonder with the explosion of interest in Japanese whisky how much will make it to Europe, and at what price point .......

Stefan Van Eycken said...

Thanks Peter. Yes, it's been a bit quiet on the blog but that doesn't mean it's been quiet on the ground. We haven't really addressed this but it is actually becoming tricky to write about new releases: 1) if we write about them ahead of release, we are just adding to the frenzy (not to mention helping speculators make tons of money, because usually they are much better organized when it comes to getting releases than the average whisky fan); 2) if we write them after they've been released, well - unlike before - the release time actually coincides with the sell-out time nowadays, so writing about a release after the fact is a bit like rubbing people's nose in it. Obviously option 1 still seems like the best but with so many releases selling out instantly, when we do have advance information about a release, we are usually sworn to secrecy by the parties involved. It is becoming a bit of an upside down world: soon you won't be able to find any decent standard bottlings of Japanese whisky anymore, and limited releases sell out in seconds (literally!). Not much room for informed commentary then...

Chris said...

Any tasting notes for Mars BarShow 2015??

This is new re-production from 2011, really want to compare with old version before 1992.