Sunday, March 31, 2013

SMWS-Japan 20th Anniversary Bottling: 1.167 (1986 Glenfarclas) Review

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
Tomorrow, the first SMWS-Japan 20th Anniversary bottling goes on sale. (For more info, check this post.) It’s a 1986 Glenfarclas (25yo) drawn from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Bourbon wood is a bit of an unusual habitat for Glenfarclas. Cadenhead put out a few over the years, but you won’t find too many other exponents of ex-Bourbon Glenfarclas. Now, Japan gets a whole cask (218 bottles) – what a thrill!

When you first approach this 1.167 (its official name!), you get pencil shavings, shredded paper and sawdust thrown in your face. What can I say? It needs time in the glass. The best thing to do is to pour it and then leave it for a quarter of an hour. When you get back to it, it will have transformed itself – or as I like to think: have revealed itself – completely: tropical fruits (dried apple mango, passionfruit, guava), baked goods (lemon cake, far Breton), dessert flavours (Poire belle Hélène) and a hint of ginger. A drop of water definitely helps the nose along! In the mouth, it’s both more sweet and a more sour, which is a great combo in my book. You get vanilla, frangipane, grapefruit sorbet, apple cider, lime candy and lovely wood spices. The finish is medium-long with leafy notes coming through, but also chocolate and rum-raisin butter. As it fades, you may also pick up faint hints of wood smoke and burnt hay.

The people at the SWMS-Japan have a knack for picking malts that demand a bit of time and need undivided attention. No rushing here. No quick fixes. This one is like that, too. But if you’re willing to approach the whisky with respect and by waiting, the rewards are immense.

(This bottling is only available to members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society based in Japan.)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Whisky Bars in Kansai (1): Bar Augusta Tarlogie, Osaka

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Visitors to Japan are often drawn to the Kansai area, the southern-central region of the main island, home to such major tourist-magnets as Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara. Even those who are here on business usually try to squeeze in a day or two in Kansai. After hundreds of emails from readers asking us about bar recommendations there, we thought it was high time we did something about the dearth of information on whisky hangouts in the Kansai area.
We start with Bar Augusta Tarlogie in Osaka. It’s conveniently located in the Umeda district of Osaka and it opens at 5pm, which is early by Japanese standards, making this the perfect starting place for a bar crawl through the city. It’s a bit tricky to grasp the logic behind the bar’s name – we came to the conclusion there isn’t any: “Tarlogie” refers to Glenmorangie’s water source (Tarlogie Springs); “Augusta” refers to a golf club in … the United States. Mmm… well, the owner must be a fanatic golfer, right? Wrong. He doesn't even play golf. Well, now you know, so you don’t have to ask.

The bar is quite small but well stocked. The majority of the whiskies are Scotch and owner/bartender Kiyomitsu Shinano really knows this field inside-out. No wonder the bar also functions as the Osaka branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Japan chapter. There’s also an interesting selection of Japanese whiskies available – and one of them is rather special:

This is a private bottling for the Nippon Bartenders Association Osaka Kita (North) Branch. It was distilled at Yamazaki in 1993, matured at the distillery (which is worthy of mention, since most of Yamazaki’s output is matured at Ohmi in Shiga prefecture) and bottled in 2003. Big deal? Well, yes. It was after this bottling that Suntory started up its “Owner’s Cask” scheme. This particular bottling is a peated Yamazaki, also quite unusual, and it is a vatting of two ex-bourbon casks, for the simple reason that either one of them wouldn’t have yielded enough to provide all bartender-members in Osaka Kita with a bottle or two. It comes at cask strength (62% abv) and it is stunning. The amazing thing is that it’s a real double-personality whisky: without water you get peat and smoke, but when you add a few drops of water, the “veil of smoke” lifts – as if by magic – to reveal a wonderfully fruity dimension. If this sounds improbable, visit the bar and try it.

Address: Arakawa Building, 2-3 Turuno-cho, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0014
Tel/fax: 06-6376-3455
Hours: 17:00-24:00

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ichiro’s Last 4 Cards: A Short Review

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

A while ago, we promised to review the final 4 Ichiro’s Card releases. They’re long gone now, of course, but they do pop up on auctions from time to time. You’ll also find them at lots of bars here in Japan and since some of our readers will be over for the Tokyo International BarShow – and have the chance to check out some of the better whisky bars – we thought we’d better get on it. We’ll make this an exercise in brevity:
Ichiro’s Malt Card ‘Seven of Spades’ [Hanyu], 1990/2012, Cognac Cask Finish (#525), 53.8%abv

Nose: baked goods, crème brulée, ramune (ラムネ), a hint of orange marmalade and beef jerky; given time in the glass: guava, dates and toasted coconut shavings;
Palate: assorted Danish pastries; citrusy tartness and pleasant oak notes in perfect balance;
Finish: medium-long with a hint of Irish coffee towards the end.

Ichiro’s Malt Card ‘Six of Hearts’ [Hanyu], 1991/2012, American Oak Puncheon Finish (#405), 57.9%abv

Nose: plank, sawdust, light wood smoke; leafy and grassy notes; vanilla subtly in the background;
Palate: surprising herbal notes (spearmint, thyme, …), orchard fruits and woody notes;
Finish: long and lingering with a lovely white pepper tingle.

Ichiro’s Malt Card ‘Five of Diamonds’ [Hanyu], 2000/2012, Sherry Butt Finish (#1305), 57.7%abv

Nose: a lightly sherried malt; blueberry jam; after a while: praliné chocolate and nougat;
Palate: very spicy with cinnamon-apple pie, assorted berries and sangria;
Finish: medium-long with a hint of wood polish after the fruits fade.

Ichiro’s Malt Card ‘Ace of Clubs’ [Hanyu], 2000/2012, Mizunara Puncheon Finish (#9523), 59.4%abv

Nose: very fragrant, old temples, marzipan and a hint of eucalyptus;
Palate: candied orange peel, tropical fruit punch; lots of wood spice;
Finish: very long; spicy elements slowly fade leaving an incense afterglow.

I first tried this quartet in avant-première at the Whisky Festival in Tokyo 2012 (see this post). Over the next couple of months, I revisited the whiskies in various settings in different company and each and every time, for me, personally, as well as for most of the people I was with, the real stunner was the Cognac-finished ‘Seven of Spades’. It’s incredibly lush and unlike any other Japanese whisky I know. It wears its heart on its sleeve, but there’s nothing wrong with that when the substance is there. I was expecting a bit more of the ‘Five of Diamonds’ – another 4 or 5 years in wood (split between the first and the second cask) could have given this more definition. With the other two – the ‘Ace of Clubs’ and the ‘Six of Hearts’ – it depends on the mood I’m in: some days, I just can’t get enough of the mizunara aura of the former; other days, I really enjoy the contrast between the nose and the palate of the latter.

If you ever come across one of these Cards that’s open – at a friend’s place or at a bar – don’t hesitate! With so many of them just sitting in collections, it would be a crime not to assist them in fulfilling their destiny, which is: to spoil the senses with a pleasure only they are capable of giving.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Japanese Whisky Hot-Spots Worldwide (1): “Sushi + Soul”, Munich, Germany

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
Regular Nonjatta-readers will have noticed we have a penchant for starting series, and sure enough, we’re starting another one today, but this one is long-overdue and comes at the request of many of our readers abroad: Japanese whisky hot-spots worldwide. We’re starting in Munich, Germany with one of the biggest sushi-restaurants in Europe. Meet Chris Herbst, the owner of “Sushi + Soul”.

Chris first came into contact with Japanese cuisine in 1991 and discovered Japanese whisky shortly after, on his first trip to Japan. He’s still got a few bottles of Golden Horse and some old Suntory whiskies from that trip stowed under the counter. When he opened Sushi + Soul in 1999, there were only a handful of Nikka and Suntory blends available in Europe, so he started with a meager 15 bottles in his bar. Over the years, friends, people who worked for him and even guests brought bottles over directly from Japan. Japanese flight attendants, in particular, played a crucial role in expanding his range of Japanese whiskies. Imagine that.

Around the turn of the century, with the proliferation of information about Japanese whisky on the internet, it became a little easier for interested parties abroad to figure out how to get hold of special releases. This, according to Chris, was the “golden age” for him and his colleagues in Europe: distributors and people in the bar trade in Europe had become aware of the quality of Japanese whisky, but the average consumer and most whisky enthusiasts/collectors hadn’t caught on yet. It often happened that entire allocations for the German market ended up behind the bar at Sushi + Soul. Then, Japanese whiskies started taking top prizes at international whisky competitions and awareness and interest spread.

The situation now is very different, and Chris admits that – with interest in Japanese whisky at an all-time high – it’s becoming hard to get hold of special releases. The competition is just everywhere. That Chris is not deterred by this situation is clear from his whisky list: he’s got whiskies from all Japanese distilleries past and present, the entire set of Ichiro’s cards, 10 (!) different Japanese grain whiskies, countless single cask bottlings (some of these are very hard to find SMWS bottlings), … and I could go on, but you get the gist. He’s got more than 220 Japanese whiskies open and I, personally, know of no other bar in the world – other than Bar Zoetrope in Tokyo – that boasts such an incredible selection. (Prices are very reasonable, too, by the way.) Chris also organizes “whisky seminars”, with an emphasis on Japanese whiskies, once or twice a month. He claims not to have a “favourite Japanese whisky” – a difficult concept when you’re surrounded by hundreds of them – but admits to having a soft spot for the Yoichi 1987.

Well, there you have it: a place worth making a serious detour for. In our next instalment, we’ll take you to Hong Kong and introduce an exciting new bar that just opened a few weeks ago. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Great TIBS/Whisky Live Tokyo 2013 Interview

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

With less than a month to go until the weekend-long highlight of the whisky year in Japan, we thought it was high time we spoke to the masterminds behind the Tokyo International BarShow / Whisky Live about their plans for this year's edition.
Nonjatta: Every year, there’s a specific theme. What banner is this year’s edition organized under?
TIBS: The theme of this, the 2nd Tokyo International BarShow and Whisky Live Tokyo, is “Legends & Rising Stars”. Although the title was devised around the four guest bartenders who will be gracing the main stage and also hosting bartending seminars, it can equally be applied to the range of whiskies and other spirits available, where old, established brands like Glenlivet and Yamazaki can be sampled alongside the likes of relative newcomers such as Kilchoman and Chichibu.

Nonjatta: After just two years in Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi, the show is moving to a different venue.
TIBS: Yes, the decision was taken to move venues again this year. Why? Simply because of space constraints; last year as well as having to refuse a couple of potential exhibitors, the event itself was becoming overcrowded at times, which not only presents safety concerns, but also detracts from visitors’ enjoyment.
Anybody who has staged an event of any size in Tokyo will know that there are surprisingly few centrally located venues. We wanted to keep the convenience of Roppongi but needed more space; after investigating probably 50 potential sites with our event company, it was judged that Shibuya Garden Belle Salle offered the best balance of location and size.

Nonjatta: You’ve also decided to drop the masterclasses. We’re quite curious as to why you decided to change this, seeing as they were always very popular.
TIBS: The decision to drop the Masterclass program was largely driven by the choice of venue - there are no seminar rooms at Belle Salle. We had however been thinking about tweaking the Masterclass format anyway. It was felt by some that it was getting a little tired with the same brands hosting every year. Last year we introduced a mini-stage with Dave Broom in the Whisky Room and this proved very popular with both visitors and exhibitors alike. What we’ve done therefore is extend that format to a 2–day program of 44 mini-seminars, each of 20 minutes’ duration and free for participants.Each session is limited to just 50 people and tickets can be obtained in a variety of ways; details are on the TIBS website.

Nonjatta: Every year there are official bar show bottlings of Japanese whiskies. These are usually instant sell-outs. What can you reveal about this year’s commemorative bottlings?
TIBS: This year we have 4 official TIBS bottlings: from Chichibu (2009), Hanyu (1990), Karuizawa (2000) & Yamazaki. The first three are from single casks (two from closed distilleries, one from a newly opened one), whilst the Yamazaki is a very special 100% mizunara bottling, containing whiskies blended from several different vintages, centred on the 1984 and with an average age of over 21 years old.

Nonjatta: How can people get their hands on a bottle?
TIBS: Well, all of the bottles will be available for order at the event from any of the participating liquor shops. More details can again be found at the TIBS website.
Also, several brands will again be undoubtedly launching special bottlings to coincide with the show. Details of these will be available from the importers/producers.

Nonjatta: Last year, just before the inaugural TIBS, you launched Bond#1. Dave Broom held a special tasting at Shinjuku’s Golden Gai for the first members the day before the show. What is Bond#1 offering its members this year?
TIBS: Dave Broom, Whisky Magazine Japan Editor-in-Chief, Whisky Live host and Bond#1 Director, has had an extremely busy 12 months and will be making his first visit to Japan since last year’s BarShow. To thank the loyal members of Bond#1, Dave will be hosting a very special tasting on the eve of the BarShow at the Park Hotel Tokyo, where there will be the first opportunity to taste not only the four official TIBS bottlings but also a range of other special bottlings for the BarShow and some of the recent winners in the World Whiskies Awards. [Ed. This will be limited to 50 places and it's free. To secure your place, visit this link.] In its inaugural year, Bond #1 has offered members a variety of exclusive bottlings, tastings with Dave in Golden Gai and at Whisky Live Taipei, special invitations to a number of industry events, plus a variety of gifts & prizes. A number of new initiatives are currently in the works that will further extend the benefits of membership.

Nonjatta: One more thing, before we let you go: we often get asked by our readers abroad - some of whom are in the bar/liquor trade - whether it’s worth their while to make the trip over and attend the show.
TIBS: We’re often asked whether the Tokyo International BarShow & Whisky Live is a trade or a consumer event. Without wishing to sound like we’re sitting on the wall, the event is designed to appeal to people at every level of connoisseurship, knowledge and experience. Anybody just finding their way in the world of fine spirits can browse the various exhibitor booths at a leisurely pace, discovering for themselves the sheer range of flavours and styles on offer. Those more experienced drinkers can hunt out the many new and limited bottlings available at the BarShow, also making use of the fantastic value offered by the Premium Voucher scheme to taste the truly rare. Those in the trade from both Japan and overseas have a forum in which to exchange ideas, experiences and techniques.
We’re particularly happy to welcome overseas visitors to the Show; Japan is a long way away for many people and is not the cheapest country in the world to travel to, but using the BarShow as a springboard for a visit offers the opportunity to travel to some of Japan’s distilleries, explore its many wonderful bars and discover some rare bottlings on the well-stocked shelves of its retailers.

Nonjatta: Where can people purchase tickets in English?
TIBS: Tickets can be purchased at the English language webshop here. Payment is by credit card and tickets can be collected at the door.

Nonjatta: Thanks very much. Nonjatta will be covering the show in depth, so even those who can’t be there in person, will be able to get a feel for what’s happening in Tokyo on April 20th and 21st. Thanks again.
TIBS: Our pleasure.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Black Nikka Rich Blend: New Release On Sale Today

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Today, a new version of “Black Nikka” goes on sale in Japan: “Black Nikka Rich Blend”. It’s been two years in the making and more than a new “version”, it really is a new style.
“Black Nikka” was launched in 1965 as Nikka’s top-class blended whisky - top-class at the time, that is. It was incredibly popular throughout the following decades, but in response to changing drinking habits, Nikka introduced a new, lighter version in 1997, the “Black Nikka Clear Blend”. This was a cleaner blend with a non-peated malt base - light and elegant - perfect for people new to whisky and/or highball fans. Now, with their new “Rich Blend”, Nikka is trying to appeal to those who’ve been drinking their whiskies highball-style for a while and are ready for something a bit more … well, “rich”. They are specifically promoting the “Rich Blend” as a whisky that is great “on the rocks” and as the perfect “house whisky” for seasoned whisky drinkers.

“Black Nikka Rich Blend” is built around non-peated and lightly-peated Miyagikyo malt with a heavily-peated Yoichi dressing, with key-components matured in ex-sherry casks. The complexity of the malts - sweet and full-bodied - is balanced by a lightness supplied by the Coffey grain. It’s a completely different profile from the standard “Black Nikka” and Nikka is confident a large segment of the home market is ready to take this “step up”. It comes in 2 sizes: a full-sized 700ml bottle and 180ml mini - both bottled at 40% abv - and is very affordable, indeed (retailing for a little over 1,000 yen).

As part of their promotion efforts, Nikka is launching a competition to win a gold-version of the bottle, worth around 10,000,000 yen and is also giving away 10,000 small sized-bottles. They’ve also produced a commercial featuring popular Japanese actor/model Yusuke Iseya. The theme, apparently, is “The Cool Drink for the Adult Man”... which regrettably, it must be said, is the way most whisky is presented in the media here. I, personally, think there was much more variation in the way whisky was presented in advertising in the 70s and 80s, but that’s for another post. In the meantime, whether you’re a man or not, an adult or a kid in an adult’s body, give the “Black Nikka Rich Blend” a try. It may just be what you’ve always wanted without knowing it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

New Chichibu Releases: Chibidaru & Port Pipe

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
As of today, the follow-up releases to Chichibu ‘The First’, ‘The Floor-Malted’ and ‘The Peated’ are available, and there are two: ‘Chibidaru’ and ‘The Port Pipe’. ‘Chibidaru’ is Akuto-san’s original quarter-cask type (for more info, check out this post). ‘Port Pipe’ is the largest cask used in the whisky industry - a standard pipe holds about 550 litres. Since last year, Akuto-san has been taking samples of various types of Chichibu malt to local whisky events to gauge consumers’ response. Last year also saw the release of single-cask editions of both types - the ‘Chibidaru’ for last year’s Whisky Live/TIBS, Shinanoya’s 5th Anniversary bottling and a La Maison du Whisky exclusive; the ‘Port Pipe’ for last year’s ‘Modern Malt Market’ (split with a local bank in Tokyo - so there are, in fact, two different labels for this single cask). Response must have been good. The new ‘Chibidaru’ (2009/2013) is bottled at 53.5% abv with 3,900 bottles available; the ‘Port Pipe’ (2009/2013) comes in at 54.5% with an outturn of 4,200. Some online shops have already started offering these for pre-order but they won't be available until April. We'll have tasting notes for you very soon. It’ll be interesting to see how these new releases compare with the aforementioned single cask releases.

Karuizawa 2000/2013 for Isetan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
Isetan Shinjuku has just released their second Karuizawa single cask bottling. Their first - released in October 2012 - was a 1999 Karuizawa. This one (cask #199) is taken from the final vintage, but it’s quite different. Whereas the first was really heavily sherried - especially for a 12yo - this one is a bit lighter, allowing the character of the spirit to come through a bit more. It’s perfect for this time of year, in my opinion - that is, if you live in Japan - and there’s plenty to go around. There’ll be about 500 full-sized bottles available and some minis (200ml), as well. As always, you can try it at their basement bar in the afternoon. I just wouldn’t wait too long, if I were you...

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Benriach 1983/2012 for Shinanoya

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
To say that the people at Shinanoya are fans of Benriach is a bit of an understatement. They’re about to release their 6th exclusive Benriach single cask bottling and whisky enthusiasts who share their love for this distillery’s output know very well that the Shinanoya whisky-buyers have a knack for picking casks of exceptional quality.

In Japan, as elsewhere, Benriach casks from the 70s are instant hits. However, over the last year or so, with stocks from that decade dwindling fast, prices have shot up – to the point where retailers are being forced to consider slightly younger stable mates. For this, their 6th private Benriach, the Shinanoya people have selected a 1983 hogshead (cask #300) – one year shy of 30 – with an outturn of just 229 bottles. It’s very reasonably priced (16,800 yen) and will officially go on sale on March 27th.

On the nose, the initial impressions are melon sorbet, Jonagold apples, candied pineapple, also a hint of tinned peaches. Water really pushes the melon to the fore, but it also brings out honey butter on toast, apricot Danish pastries and a subtle vanilla note. Words don’t really do it justice, to be honest – it’s quite extraordinary. On the palate, it’s like a universe of sweetness but with an intriguing tartness at the centre: lemon-honey cupcakes, Greek orange-honey cake, baklava cigars (this is not something you smoke, by the way – it just looks like a cigar) and in the background some gentle wood spice. Water spotlights the woody flavours a bit more, which is nice. The finish is long, prolonging the palate’s themes while adding a white chocolate mousse note and a hint of summer hay fields, strange as it may sound.

I could go on raving about it, but I think I’d better stop here before this turns into malt porn. Just consider this to be a glimpse – if you think you want it, you know where to get it.

Update 25.3.2013
Shinanoya is willing to ship this abroad (using DHL). International customers are advised to use this link, or directly contact Internet Marketing Manager Mr. Yagyu at: y_yagyu (at) shinanoya.co.jp.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Karuizawa 1964 Video Report

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

If you wonder what that night, a few weeks ago, in Warsaw must have been like - the night when they unveiled the Karuizawa 1964 - well, wonder no more. The people at Wealth Solutions have put together this short video. Enjoy!

World Whiskies Awards 2013: Japan takes World’s Best Blended & Best Blended Malt Whisky

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

The results of the World Whiskies Awards 2013 are in and there are some surprises, and that’s putting it mildly. Without further ado, here are the world’s best whiskies as of today:

World’s Best Whisky Liqueur: Speyside Whisky Liqueur 40yo (Master of Malt)
World’s Best Grain Whisky: Bains Cape Mountain Whisky (Distell)
World’s Best American Whiskey: George T. Stagg (Buffalo Trace)
World’s Best Blended Whisky: Hibiki 21 (Suntory)
World’s Best Blended Malt Whisky: Mars Maltage 3+25 (28yo) (Hombo Shuzo)
World’s Best Single Malt Whisky: Ardbeg Galileo (The Glenmorangie Company)
The people at Suntory will have mixed feelings about this year’s results: on the one hand, Hibiki 21 managed to get the title of “World’s Best Blended Whisky” back – which they lost to Three Ships 5yo last year after two consecutive years at the top (2010, 2011) – but they didn’t manage to consolidate last year’s success of their Yamazaki 25 single malt. I’m sure people who’ve had the chance to compare the Yamazaki 25 and the Ardbeg Galileo will be more than a little surprised at the result – and I certainly am, but then again, I’m biased since I was one of the judges who served on the Japanese tasting panel. However, that’s the nature of the beast… you can’t win them all.

The big surprise, but not to people who know the whisky – and it must be said, even here in Japan and even among whisky aficionados, there aren’t many –, is the Mars Maltage 3+25. To understand why this blended malt is so special, you need to know a few things about the twists and turns in Hombo Shuzo’s whisky making history. The company’s whisky production is currently based in Nagano, at their “Shinshu factory”, but this particular blended malt whisky comes from the pre-Shinshu days and from their first forays into whisky production. After years of simply blending malt and grain produced by others, Kiichiro Iwai set up a distillery in Yamanashi in 1960. Less than a decade later (in 1969), Hombo Shuzo was forced to close the distillery due to poor sales. Towards the end of the 70s, whisky started to become popular again in Japan and the company was keen to restart their whisky operations. By that time, however, the Yamanashi site had been converted into a winery. They set up a temporary distillery in Kagoshima – on the island of Kyushu – in 1978 and kept looking for another site. In 1984, whisky production at Kagoshima was stopped, and the year after, they fired up the stills at the present location in Nagano.

So why “3+25” rather than simply calling it a 28yo? Well, the “3” in 3+25 refers to malt aged a minimum of three years that was matured in Kagoshima. This was then transferred by tanker to the new site in Nagano, where it spent the next 25 years maturing. Since it is – technically – a 28yo, it obviously does not contain any malt distilled in Nagano, but it does contain a proportion of malt from the Yamanashi days (i.e. the 60s), making it a “blended malt” (the preferred nomenclature in Japan being “pure malt”): i.e. a blend of malt from the Yamanashi and the Kagoshima distillery.

I happened to be at the distillery in Nagano a few days ago, and – by pure coincidence – they were, in fact, getting ready to bottle the last of their Maltage 3+25 (see the picture above). There will be about 2,500 bottles more, and while it wasn’t really a big seller up until now (this being the most expensive item in Mars’ regular whisky range), once word about the WWA 2013 award will get out, stocks won’t last long, I’m sure. There is no more malt from the Kagoshima (let alone the Yamanashi) days at the Mars warehouses in Nagano, so once this is gone, it’s gone forever. There’s also a hiatus of nearly two decades in their Shinshu whisky production (no whisky was distilled between 1992 and 2010) so it will not be so easy to repeat this a few years down the line. However, the people at Mars are experimenting with lots of different things since they resumed production in early 2011 – this will be covered in more depth in my forthcoming book on Japanese whisky – and one of the things they have in mind is a sort of “reverse 3+25”, i.e. sending 3 year-old malt from the new production regime at Shinshu factory in Nagano to the Hombo warehouses in Kagoshima for a further 25-year period of maturation. I’ll be eligible for a senior citizen pass by the time this reaches the market, but it’ll be worth the wait, I’m sure.

A further obstacle to wider appreciation of this truly incredible blended malt is the fact that Hombo Shuzo does not export any of its products. People have tried to interest them in this in the past, but their priority at the moment is the home market and establishing a name and wider appreciation for their portfolio in Japan. Their stock of older malt is very limited, and since they have only been distilling again for 3 years (and only in the winter), they simply don’t have the capacity to reach out to other markets. One thing is clear, though: this award will be an encouragement to the team working at Mars Shinshu now under master distiller Koki Takehira, and it will lead many people – some of whom may have been slightly prejudiced about the work of smaller domestic whisky producers – to give their products a try. We happen to know that two single malts from the early Shinshu-days are scheduled for release next month (one of which will be an ultra-limited one) and that the current whisky makers are thinking of releasing their first 3yo later next year. Exciting times for the people at Mars – we’re big fans and wish them all the best.

We would also like to congratulate the other winners in the 2013 World Whiskies Awards. It’s one of the toughest competitions in the business, and to be recognized as “the best in the world” is not a case of empty hyperbole. These whiskies came out on top after months of blind tastings worldwide by people with considerable experience in this area. It’s an incredible achievement, but in the world of whisky, it doesn’t pay to rest on your laurels. In the larger scheme of things, serious competitions like the WWA encourage whisky makers to keep raising the bar in their goal to create the best whiskies they can.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Playing card series website

Ulf Buxrud, the author of Japanese Whisky - Facts, Figures and Taste, has just published a fascinating new section of his website about the Ichiro's Malt card series.

Most Japanese whisky fans will be familiar with Ichiro Akuto's iconic and charismatically marketed series of whiskies from the now defunct Hanyu distillery but, in case some of you haven't been paying attention, the card series is hugely significant because it has ensured that a significant part of the narrative of the rise of top-quality Japanese whisky over the past 10 years or so has been about an independent producer. Without Ichiro's series, it is quite likely that the whole story would have been dominated by the huge makers, Suntory and Nikka. That would not only have made Japanese whisky a lot less interesting, but it would arguably have meant the minor resurgence of smaller makers (for example, Mars and White Oak) may never have happened. It almost certainly would have meant that Ichiro's own new distillery Chichibu would probably have never started, because the money raised by the card series went directly into funding that enterprise.

And, of course, we would have missed out of some extraordinary whiskies.  Though some card series bottlings have been eye wateringly expensive, they have usually been of very good quality. That consistency  across a large number of very limited bottlings is one of my abiding impressions of the series as it nears its completion (only the jokers to go).

Anyway, Ulf's pages are an absolute treasure trove. There have been occasions when the sheer number of card series bottlings has left me  feeling slightly bewildered, so it is great to have one site giving a really good overview of the series. Not only does it offer in-depth background on the story of Ichiro Akuto and his series and very detailed information and tasting notes on each bottle (complete with photos) but it is also great fun! You have got to visit Ulf's page about "poker hand blends" of cards (here)! What a great idea! He asks readers to send in their own blending suggestions.

There is some very abstruse trivia about the series on another page. For instance, who knows which bottling did not have an ABV percentage on its front label? I certainly didn't  Ulf asks at the top of that particular page whether it is dorky or cool. Dorky, Ulf, and very cool.

Update 07.2013 (Ed.) Ulf has updated his resource site on Ichiro's Card series with detailed information about the secondary maturation period of each cask (i.e. release). All casks were originally hogsheads, but the contents were then transferred to a wide variety of casks. Akuto-san has given Ulf details about the number of months the liquid spent in those second casks.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The long-awaited US-exclusive Karuizawa Noh pair

Post by Chris of the WhiskyWall

As initially reported here at Nonjatta earlier, a retailer here in the US is releasing two single cask expressions of the much coveted Karuizawa. The retailer turns out to be K&L Wine Merchants here in California. This is very surprising on a couple of levels. First, as we all know the stocks of Karuizawa are rapidly dwindling and there just isn't much left. Second, the amount of Japanese whisky available in the US is extremely limited - Nikka has only been available here since the beginning of 2013 and even then it is only two expressions.

The procurement of these two casks has been a long time coming. The spirits buyers at K&L, David Driscoll and David Othenin-Girard, had the foresight to start trying to track down some Karuizawa to bring to the US back in 2011. Coming to terms with the Number One Drinks Company to procure these two casks was only the beginning though. The much maligned booze laws and bureaucracy made importing the whisky to the US a challenging process. But finally after two years of work these bottles are on their way and now available for pre-arrival ordering. I had the opportunity to try a small sample of each but didn't have a lot of time to really break each of them down. So my impressions will have to be supplemented after I get the chance to spend some more time with each of them.
The first cask is 12 years old and was distilled in 1999. It is a first fill sherry butt (cask #869) and comes in at 58.9% ABV. This feisty 12 year old is actually a very balanced easy sipper that hides the high ABV well. Do not confuse this with being a boring or one dimensional dram at all. There is a depth of overripe red fruits, fragrant wood, incense and orange. I am particularly sensitive to sulphur with sherry casks and I am happy to report that I didn't detect any with this one. I am hesitant to say that this one can be a session whisky, albeit a very high end one.

The second elder brother cask is 30 years old and was distilled in 1981. This is also a sherry butt (cask #8775) and was bottled at 64.4% ABV. This is a true whisky geek whisky in my opinion. The layers of flavor seem to go on forever. The first thing that hit me was how rutty it was - I was not expecting that at all. I picked up a hint of flint smoke along with the dense sherry signature, variety of baking spices and fragrant wood (like the 12 y/o). This is one that you really have to sit with for awhile to get through and find all of the flavors that are hiding in it.

Both bottles are available to be pre-ordered now here. K&L is estimating that they will arrive and be available for pick up sometime in late summer/early fall. These bottles will not last long and I don't foresee another release of Karuizawa for the US market ever again.

Read more about Karuizawa Distillery here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Yamazaki Heavily Peated 2013

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
A few days ago, Suntory announced the release of the Yamazaki Heavily Peated 2013 edition. It will be a Japan-only release, and will go on sale on April 23rd. Bottled at 48% abv and priced at about 9,000 JPY, a mere 3,500 bottles will be available and if the recent Hakushu Sherry Cask experience is anything to go by, it won't be around for very long.

I happened to be at the distillery - doing research for a forthcoming book - when the imminent release of this Heavily Peated was announced and fans of Yamazaki will be happy to know Suntory is in the process of adding 4 more stills to the site there. These will be placed in a different building, seeing as there's no more room in the current stillhouse (which already holds 6 pairs of stills). In addition, a new warehouse is under construction at their Ohmi site in Shiga prefecture, where the bulk of Suntory's malt and practically all of its grain whisky is matured. It seems like things are going really well for Suntory and, indeed, for whisky in Japan in general. It's a big gamble, of course, since decisions made now will only prove valid ten years down the line, but the fact that the people at Suntory are confident enough to make these commitments show how vibrant the whisky scene is at the moment.

Read more about Yamazaki Distillery here.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ichiro's Blend - "Houou-uhi" for Isetan

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
Today's post is half-whisky-talk, half-language-lesson rolled into one. The excuse is an excellent blend that we forgot to mention when it came out a few months ago. It's the work of Ichiro Akuto and it's only available at the basement liquor section of Isetan in Shinjuku. It's called 鳳凰于飛 which is pronounced - brace yourself... - "Houou-uhi"(with macrons: "hōō-uhi"). It's not just tricky to pronounce, you will also need to be familiar with Chinese mythology to make sense of it. 鳳凰 refers to a magical Chinese firebird (also called a "phoenix") and the characters for this bird are composed of the characters for "male" and "female" respectively. The last two characters (于飛 ) can be paraphrased as "in flight (together)". I think it's quite a poetic metaphor for a whisky blend, but some people I spoke to about this weren't so sure. They felt it was a bit like a joke that you have to explain... it loses some of its power when you have to go through great lengths to get the point across. You can always look at the image on the label and make up your own story, of course. Anyway, it's a blend of Hanyu malt and Kawasaki grain - using components aged between 12 and 35 years - and it's a little masterpiece. I must admit Ichiro's blends - while perfectly decent whiskies - failed to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm in me as the rest of his range. There are two, however, that are exceptional: one is the Ichiro's Blend 33yo (which will set you back a little over 1,000 GBP but is worth every penny), the second one is this "Houou-uhi" for Isetan (modestly priced at 10,500 JPY). It was released in October 2012 and is still available. You can try-before-you-buy at Isetan - just make sure you've got enough cash on you, cause chances are you'll be leaving with a bottle or two. Another reason to seek out the liquor section in the basement is the imminent arrival of a new Isetan-exclusive Japanese single cask whisky... Oh, and they've got a handful of "Memories of Karuizawa 2" on the shelves as well... Don't you just love this place? I know I do.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

World Whiskies Awards 2013: Japanese Selection

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

On March 21st, the results of Whisky Magazine's World Whiskies Awards - the annual search for the very best proprietary whiskies in the world - will be announced at a high-profile event in London. Japan has been the top star of the WWA since its first edition back in 2007, so after the first stage each year - in which whiskies are tasted by region - all eyes are usually on Japan. The Japanese section completed the first stage of the 2013 edition in mid-January and has just announced its results, including which whiskies were sent to London to compete against the rest of the world's "best whiskies". I had the pleasure of taking part in the judging here, and will bring you a detailed report of what this involved after the final results have been announced. For now, let's just have a look at which whiskies came out on top in the various subcategories here in Japan:
Japanese Single Malt Whisky

NAS: Miyagikyo (Nikka)
12 Years & Under: Miyagikyo 12 (Nikka)
13-20 Years: Hakushu 18 (Suntory)
21 Years & Over: Yamazaki 25 (Suntory)

Japanese Blended Malt Whisky

NAS: Ichiro's Malt Wine Wood Reserve (Venture Whisky)
12 Years & Under: Taketsuru 12 (Nikka)
13-20 Years: Taketsuru 17 (Nikka)
21 Years & Over: Mars Maltage 3+25 (Hombo Shuzo)

Japanese Blended Whisky

NAS: Super Nikka (Nikka)
12 Years & Under: Hibiki 12 (Suntory)
13-20 Years: Hibiki 17 (Suntory)
21 Years & Over: Hibiki 21 (Suntory)

Japanese Grain Whisky

Nikka Coffey Grain (Nikka)
Fuji Gotemba Single Grain 15 (Kirin)

With the exception of the Japanese Grain category - in which the result was a draw, and both were sent through to the next (= international) stage - only one whisky was sent through, that is to say, the overall winner in each category:

Best Japanese Single Malt Whisky: Yamazaki 25
Best Japanese Blended Malt Whisky: Mars Maltage 3+25
Best Japanese Blended Whisky: Hibiki 21
That the Yamazaki 25 and Hibiki 21 came out on top in their respective categories will not come as a surprise to most people in-the-know: the Yamazaki 25 was crowned the World's Best Single Malt at last year's edition, and the Best Blended Whisky category has been Hibiki's turf since the first edition (Hibiki 30 won the 2007 and 2008 edition, and Hibiki 21 the 2010 and 2011 edition). The big surprise - but not to those who have tasted the whisky in question! - is the Mars Maltage 3+25, which was sent through as Best Japanese Blended Malt Whisky. All but one of the previous World's Best Blended Malt titles were taken by Nikka's Taketsuru (4 times with the 21yo, last year with the 17yo). This year, a creation by one of the smaller distilleries will vie for the accolade of best blended malt in the world and this will be followed by people at home and abroad with more than the usual interest. I think it is further proof - if any was needed - that the Japanese whisky industry keeps raising the bar (no pun intended). The judges here are convinced that the whiskies they have selected are of unparalleled quality. We will find out whether the rest of the world shares this conviction on March 21st.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Nikka: C.W. Nicol Single Cask 1997/2013

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub
Nikka has just released a special single cask Yoichi to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Welsh writer/actor C.W. Nicol in Japan. In 1962, Nicol left Wales to study karate in Japan. He has been based here since and became a Japanese citizen in 2002. Nicol himself selected this cask. He used to love heavily peated malts when he was younger, but now prefers milder whiskies, so he specifically wanted a non-peated malt matured in a refill butt. He closely monitored cask #400860 and felt that after 16 years of maturation it was just right. There are only 330 bottles and they won't be around for very long, I suspect. As always, they're only available in Japan and only through the Asahi webshop.

Read more about Yoichi Distillery here.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Japanese Distilleries: a new comprehensive web resource

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

The people at Whisky Magazine Japan have just launched a very interesting new branch of their site - “Japanese Distilleries” - which provides factual information about all Japanese distilleries, past and present, in both English and Japanese. Organized as a map with clickable distillery pinpoints, it gives you a profile of each distillery, followed by information about the core range, address, tour options, access, as well as details of a more technical nature (number of pot stills, washbacks, materials used, warehouses, etc.) that will appeal to the whisky anorak. It’s already very impressive, but it’s just a starting point. The people at Whisky Magazine Japan are in close contact with the distilleries and the aim is to make this a comprehensive resource about Japanese distilleries and their whiskies. They’re not just looking towards the industry for input, though. The idea is to take a 360-degree approach with ideas, comments and maybe articles submitted by writers, bloggers and even regular whisky lovers who may want to share something about a distillery visit or have another story to tell. This promises to be a much-needed central reference for enthusiasts of Japanese whisky. Definitely a page to bookmark.

Friday, March 1, 2013

1st Nonjatta Exclusive Bottling: Karuizawa 1996/2013

Post by Stefan of Tokyo Whisky Hub

Today, we’re happy to be able to unveil a special bottling selected by and exclusively available through Nonjatta. It is the first in a series of Japanese whiskies featuring artwork taken from the last great ukiyoe artist Yoshitoshi’s final series of woodblock prints “New Forms of 36 Ghosts” (1889-1892).
For our first bottling, we chose a rather atypical Karuizawa from the 1996 vintage. Cask #3681 was, in fact, one of the last from this vintage. It was carefully selected from the remaining stock – from the late 70s up to the final vintage, 2000 – and the moment we nosed it, we knew this was something special. People have come to associate Karuizawa with bold, robust, oily, richly fruited whiskies. This bottling shows a different side of the distillery character: light, elegant and subtle. It’s unlike any other Karuizawa you’ve ever tasted, and that’s precisely why we picked it.

On the nose, you get a wonderfully subtle amalgam of soft fruity notes: strawberry fruiche (a Japanese kind of home-made flavoured yoghurt), apricot butter, melon hi-chew, tinned peaches, dried pineapple and in the background, heather flowers and a hint of marjoram. The palate has some lovely surprises in store: pink grapefruit most prominently, but also apple sauce, peach jam and gooseberries. But there’s more: kashiwa mochi (a Japanese sweet rice cake wrapped in oak leaf), baked alaska, pencil shavings, and a hint of sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit) and pink pepper. The finish is long and lingering… and well, modesty precludes us from raving too much about it, but it truly is a small miracle.

The label, as mentioned above, features a woodblock print from Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of 36 Ghosts”. The series captures moments – episodes involving ghosts and/or unnatural events - from Japanese legends and folktales and shows a time when the spirit world was much closer to the consciousness of people. Our Karuizawa 1996 features print no14: “The Enlightenment of Jigokudayu”. “Dayu” was a term of respect for the highest rank of courtesan, but “Jigoku” (literally, “hell”) was a term for the lowest rank of unlicensed workers in the pleasure quarters of those days. Having abandoned her earlier life and ways, “Lady Hell” is portrayed here sitting in meditation as a procession of skeleton courtesans – including two child skeletons, the courtesan’s child attendants – passes by her.

We like to think there is a certain resonance between aspects of the print and the character of the liquid in the bottle. These sort of resonances will be further explored in subsequent bottlings and we invite you to join us in this project. There are 35 more prints, and it’s our goal to find the right Japanese whisky to “go with” each and every one of those prints. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves - back to our Karuizawa 1996: it’s available from our friends at Malt City via this exclusive link. The cask only yielded 140 bottles, so there is a limit of 1 bottle per customer.

We are often placed in a sort of “don’t shoot the pianist”-position when we share news of exciting new releases coming out of Japan. Many of them are hard to get for our readers abroad; some are already gone by the time we report on them; others are prohibitively expensive. It therefore fills us with happiness to be able to finally present something that is available, first of all, to you.