Monday, December 13, 2010
The reemergence of Japanese whisky's smaller distillery sector continues apace. As Nonjatta reported previously [1,2], Shinshu distillery owned by Hombo spirits has been getting a refit, and Takeshi Mogi just alerted me to the announcement of a date for reopening: February 2011.
This web posting gives more details and some background to Mars's fall and rise. At one stage, Shinshu was pumping out 900kl of whisky a year, the post say. But tax changes in 1989 and the general decline in Japan's domestic whisky market from the mid 1980s forced the company to stop making malt whisky in 1992.
The post says that the company had been considering restarting production for some time, and that what finally made it a feasible business proposition was the recent recovery of the whisky market. They feel that they can make a steady business out of single malt.
Refitting of the distillery is expected to be completed by the end of 2010, and distilling will start again in February. The basic stats of the new operation: grist mill can grind 0.5 tons of malt an hour; washbacks 7kl x 5. The two stills were originally installed at a different location in 1960 by Kiichiro Iwai, they were brought from Yamanashi prefecture to Shinshu. Wash Still (straight head) 6kl; Spirit Still (straight head) 8kl.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Dave Broom's The World Atlas of Whisky is a beautiful book. The photographs are stunning. I spent my first 10 minutes with it just flipping from the Japan chapter's double page photo of Fuji's purple slopes, to the standing stone perched precariously in a lush Irish landscape, to the placid waters of a lowland Scottish lake.
An encyclopedic study of the entire whisky world is an awesome task. Dave Broom is one of the two or three people equipped to write this sort of tome, but what struck me as I read it it was how he had marshaled such a huge amount of factual material and yet maintained a light lyricism in his writing. It is like bagging all the Munros wearing carpet slippers.
As a specialist writer about Japanese whisky, I recognise in myself a niggling temptation to pick at other people's work on the subject. It is extraordinarily small-minded but the dream book to review for a man such as I is one that I can praise to the hilt but can still find a tiny error in, to reassert my puny sovereignty: "Yes, I see you have done the Munros in your carpet slippers, but did you notice you left the price tag on the sole?"
I searched in vain in the Atlas for such an opening. Believe me, I read the Japan chapter from beginning to end several times, and was not only unable to find any small errors of detail, but also none of the cultural pratfalls that it is quite common to read in foreigners' writing about Japan. Broom is no stranger to the country, but in this respect his work reminds me of the late Michael Jackson's. I read Jackson's books and am amazed that a person who did not live over here could get the tone so right, avoiding all the errors of emphasis that seem to plague other writers. Broom, like Jackson, is relaxed enough in his writing not to eschew cultural commentary and references, but his research appears to be strong enough to keep his footing sure. Add to that Broom's intimidating grasp of whisky in general and you get the sort of confidence that can pen sentences like:
"If Scottish single malt is a rushing mountain burn, all the flavors jostling for position, Japanese malt is a limpid pool where all is revealed."Japan gabblers of my stripe sharpen our knives and sneers for such generalisations, but there is a beauty and lyricism in Broom's writing, and a truth in what he says, that disarms me completely. I learned something on every page of the Atlas's chapter on Japan. By way of fuller illustration, the paragraph from which the sentence above was taken is worth quoting in full:
"Japanese whisky isn't necessarily lighter, but it possesses a clarity of aroma that singles it out. Its absence of a cereal background note also differentiates it from Scotch, as does the use of the intensely aromatic Japanese oak. If Scottish single malt is a rushing mountain burn, all the flavors jostling for position, Japanese malt is a limpid pool where all is revealed."That sort of passage may look easy enough to write. It is not. It requires an absolutely secure understanding not only of one part of the whisky world, but of its entire extent. Broom has that, and, in the few areas where he is not completely sure of his ground, he has had the good sense to look to others that do. The Canadian and Central Europe sections, for instance, were written with the expert help of Davin de Kergommeaux and Bernhard Schafer, respectively, and both are really enlightening reads. I also found the "Flavor Camp" classifications and the lists at the back of the book extremely useful, allowing the reader to cross-reference, for instance, "fruity and spicy" or "smoky and peaty" whiskies from across the world.
This has been a unrelentingly glowing review, and I suppose that very positivity might provoke a suspicion in some readers' minds about its objectivity. I will admit that the whisky writers' world is small enough to make it difficult to write very negative reviews, but what I tend to do is not to review works that are not excellent. Broom's book is excellent.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Review by Nonjatta contributor - Serge Valentin
Visit Serge`s website, the definitive Whiskyfun.com.
Karuizawa 'Vintage' 1981/2007 (58.1%, OB, cask #103) This one was
selected by Marcin at One Drinks Company and it did extremely well at
the Malt Maniacs Awards 2007, with a Gold Medal and the Top Japanese
Malt Award. Colour: amber. Nose: truly powerful, starting on an
immense, but truly enjoyable woodiness. Big varnishy notes, almonds
and marzipan, green tea and hints of horseradish (or wasabi –
Japanese indeed). Then it's the wilderness that speaks out, with
notes of humus, moss, pine needles, roots, wet dead leaves... And
finally a big mint and a big eucalyptus. Oh, and our beloved dried
mushrooms. It's not really subtle whisky but the boldness and
compactness are very, very enjoyable. With water: now it's fully on
dried mushrooms (boletus and these huge black Chinese ones) and
Havana tobacco. Hyper-concentrated. Mouth (neat): huge, fat, punchy,
heavily concentrated. 'Good' oak infusion, walnut skin, curry,
mustard and bread crust. Goes on with cough syrup and green bananas.
It's amazing that all this oakiness remains good – I mean, excellent.
With water: it's the spices that really go out now. Pepper first,
then cloves and cinnamon, then nutmeg... How big this is! Finish:
very long – more of the same. One of the most muscular whiskies I had
these months, no doubt. SGP:586 - 91 points.
59.5 per cent (abv)
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Noh Whisky 32-year-old (1976/2009), which won gold
Update 5.12.2010: I dropped Marcin Miller at Number One Drinks Company a line asking about the success of "a couple" of his whiskies in the awards. It seems I was understating the extent of their success.
Marcin: "A couple? A couple? FOUR of the 12 Gold Medal winning whiskies were sourced by Number One Drinks; three Karuizawas and one Kawasaki. I think this is testament to the astonishing quality of some of the whiskies to which we have exclusive access and, of course, to the Japanese mastery of distillation and maturation. These medals follow the award of Japanese Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2011 to a Karuizawa we bottled for La Maison du Whisky and The Whisky Exchange. I’m delighted by the recognition these fantastic, sherried beauties are receiving from some of the most discerning palates around."
Two unsung Japanese whisky distilleries, Kawasaki and Karuizawa, were ahead of the pack in the Malt Maniacs Awards, announced on Wednesday.
The Non-Plus-Ultra Award 2010 in the premium category went to a La Maison du Whisky import of Kawasaki 'Ichiro's Choice' 1982/2009 (65.4%, OB, Refill Sherry Butts). The discovery by Ichiro Akuto of grain whisky from the long-closed Kawasaki distillery was one of the big developments of 2009. As I say in my write up for the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011:
The distillery at Kawasaki, an industrial city between Yokohama and Tokyo, had several incarnations but it was originally built by the old Showa Brewery company, which is believed to have produced some malt whisky in the late 1950s. Grain whisky was made from about 1969, by which time Kawasaki was part of the Sanraku Ocean company. Through a contact at Karuizawa distillery, which also used to be part of Sanraku Ocean, Akuto was able to uncover some 1976, 1981 and 1982 grain casks at a winery in Katsunuma, Yamanashi Prefecture and bottled them in 2009 under his “Ichiro’s Choice” brand. The real surprise has been that these neglected casks actually seem to contain some good whisky. Nicholas Sikorski at La Maison du Whisky in Paris describes the 1976 grain as “one of the best Japanese whisky finds of the year” and says the quality of 120 bottles of Kawasaki 1982 which La Maison are bringing to into Europe is such that they plan to feature it prominently in their 2010/2011 catalogue.My own impressions of the 1982 Kawasaki I have at home are that, while it has a rather unfriendly rough alcohol smell, it is surprisingly soft on the palate, with notes of sweet Demerara sugar, coffee and stewed black tea. The Malt Maniacs award, which, as I have explained previously, is one of the few whisky competitions that I take serious interest in, has justified Sikorski`s high praise. I don`t suspect many of those 120 bottles are left.
The other big winner at the Malt Maniacs was the Karuizawa distillery in Nagano Prefecture, which was crowned as the "Old World Whisky Distillery" of the year. Interesting that Japanese whisky has become so established that it is actually considered part of whisky's "Old World", rather than the "New World" represented by the Amrut Distillery in India. Karuizawa won three gold medal, more than any other distillery. Those went to:
-Karuizawa 32yo 1977/2010 'Noh' series bottling (60.7 percent, Number One Drinks, Sherry Butt, C#4592.)
-Karuizawa 1975/2010 (61.8 percent, Official bottling for La Maison du Whisky, Cask #6736)
-Karuizawa 32yo 1976/2009 'Noh' series bottling (63 percent, Number One Drinks, Sherry Butt, cask number 6719.)
Again, I will quote a bit from my recent write up of Karuizawa for the Malt Whisky Yearbook, because basically it sums up where we are with Karuizawa:
Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and, apart from a few distilling runs for maintenance purposes, has not been active since. The latest word from Kirin, which took over the distillery’s owner Mercian in 2007, is that the distillery is inactive. The most recent new official bottling was a 2007 12-year-old Karuizawa Wine Cask, to mark the 12th anniversary of the museum on the site of the distillery.All of the Karuizawa winners in this year's Malt Maniacs Awards are products of that European energy. Two are from the Noh series from Number One Drinks Company (about which I have written much more fully here) and one is from the always innovative La Maison du Whisky in Paris. Maybe, just Maybe, someone at Kirin might see Karuizawa's international prestige and put a few yen the distillery's way (it is only small). But then, I suppose, the opportunities for innovative independents like No. 1 and La Maison, who actually understand the European premium market, would probably dry up.
And that would be the rather sad ending to 45 years of whisky distilling in this beautiful Nagano Prefecture mountain resort if it were not for the phenomenal energy of the Japanese single malt scene in Europe...