Thursday, July 17, 2014

Rare Japanese Drams (3): Karuizawa Kohaku Single Cask 1995 Vintage 10yo 59.9% abv

Nose: It's big and ballsy on first encounter. You'll get initial alcohol burn, but form there on there are a myriad of different aromas. Take your time. It becomes complex. Mens original cologne (spicy/sweet). Berliner filled with plum and strawberry jam filling. Fruit Loops, glazed Saville oranges, pink grapefruit, pomegranate, wine gums, berry marinade, raspberry-flavoured chewy confections, and rich berry tea. It doesn't stop there, next, fruit Lifesavers and authentic Turkish delight before it goes all tarty and spicy. Then, there is a touch of smoke (from cap guns?), new leather, and dried lemon peel before the sweetness starts again. Dried figs and dates (more so on dates) on sweet wheat based cereals. Berry mouse with honey. Fruity red wine and smoldering trees. The trademark warm rubber is present and welcoming (engine rubber hoses). The addition of water doesn't dramatically change the appearance but it highlights the sweetness (raspberry, cranberry, and/or red wine sauce) and tames the alcohol/spiciness.

Taste: Relatively intense on the spice front with pepper berries. Cigar leaf, warm rubber radiator hoses (not that I've ever eaten one), peppered raspberry lamb chops, burdock root marinated in soy sauce and black sesame seeds. Eucalyptus drops. Mild bitter grape tannins and a tad dry. Mild berry balsamic. As with the nose water tames the spiciness and turns up the sweetness before adding bitter dark chocolate and cloves. But also it turns up the warm rubber hose and it can become metallic.

Finish: Pepper berries, black bean sauce, red-wine gravy sauce, and mild bitter grape tannins. Warn rubber engine hoses. It becomes a tad dry and chalky with water.

Comment: 'Kohaku' in English means amber - named accordingly with the intention to describe the lush red amber liquid inside the bottle, which apparently, according to written and verbal sources, was matured in red wine casks, as with the distillery's Rouge bottlings (if any one can clarify that please share your thoughts)? This single cask 10yo Kohaku (vintage 1995) should not be mistaken with the single malt 10yo version bottled at 40% (non-vintage). The 59.9% abv bottling is a true experience, a must, if it can be found. What a lovely Karuizawa.

Rare Japanese Drams 1 & 2 can be found here and here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pre-owned Liquor Outlet Established in Tokyo

Foreign residents and visitors to Japan have most likely come across, at one stage or another during their travels, the secondhand book chain named BOOK OFF - a store that buys your unwanted pre-loved books, which then resells them on at cheap prices. Among the group's business enterprise there are other themed stores, up until now six category shops, such as HARD OFF (used computers and audio) and Hobby OFF (reselling used toys and games). One more concept shop titled Liquor OFF has recently been launched in Tokyo, stated originally by Kotaku (here), and then The Drinks Business (here). According to both sources Liquor OFF, just like it's sibling stores, is a secondhand shop that will buy unwanted liquor from the public before selling it on at a cheaper price than the original recommended retail cost. According to the store's website it buys and resells all major liquor categories such as wine, brandy, beer, champagne, Sake, spirits, and a vast array of whiskies that includes both domestic and international brands. A brief look suggests there are some good bargains to be had with some quality Japanese whiskies on offer. An interesting shopping experience that's for sure.

2-7-6 Koenji-kita, 
Suginami-ku, Tokyo
Koenji Building 1F

Image kindly borrowed from the official Liquor OFF website (in Japanese).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rare Japanese Drams (2): Chichibu Newborn Heavily Peated Cask # 453 - 61.4% abv

Distilled from peated optic barley, the newborn heavily-peated new make from Chichibu was bottled at cask strength after a short maturation of three months. There were three releases of this peated malt from casks # 451, 452, and 453 respectively - American oak hogsheads. Although this whisky was/is not uncommon the Newborn range are few and far between today making this reasonably atypical, therefore unique in my opinion.

Nose: Sweet peat. Golden brown crumpets with treacle. Shearing sheds, oily sheep fleece, Lanolin cream, and pork crackling. Lemon Strepsils along with a hint of eucalyptus. Char-grilled sweet potato skins with a sprinkle of salt. Damp earthy character. Sweet tar and tree sap. When diluted smoked sea scallops with citrus and soy sauce. Then, sweet crude oil, corn syrup and/or gum syrup, and coal smoke. Following on from this you get distinctive PVC rubber toys and diesel train smoke.

Taste: Besides the obvious peat that can be both sweet and peppery you get menthol initially, which moves towards bitter lemon licorice drops. Water adds ash and charcoal baked potato skins. Sweet tar. PVC toys.

Finish: Hard hitting and reasonably long. Ashy, and fair to say suggestions of sea salt. Peat smoke naturally, and let's not forget the Japanese medicine Seirogan (here).

Comment: It is what it is, but I can say I really enjoyed this. Some enthusiasts have voiced there is a personal favourite out of the three casks, regardless of cask type and variety of barley being the same. Interesting contrast when this expression is drank beside Chichibu The Peated (both releases). 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rare Japanese Drams (1): Golden Horse Single Malt 14yo - Hanyu Distillery 57% abv

Nose: Dry but at the same time complex, and with sophisticated sweetness. Ripe golden delicious apple with a touch of pear. Dry sandalwood. Honey and raisin cake along side a mild fruit tea infusion (green banana, mango, and cinnamon). With time Woodroofe's Sno-Top (a brown vanilla-flavoured creaming soda). Water adds barley sugar with mild floral hints and amps up the sandalwood (in oil form). Peanut shells. Then, Juicy Fruit gum. It's fair to say this malt is quite feminine in comparison to other hard hitting Hanyu.

Taste: Relatively dry. Aromatic spices are in play big time, which sends a tingling sensation rocketing your mouth. There is a touch of bitter tannins. Grilled Ginkgo nuts. Textbook sandalwood. Then, flirtatious, mellow Japanese star anise. Peanut husks - from beer nuts, and dried raisins with water. More water in my opinion introduces a burnt, spicy caramel toffee that quickly transits to mild Goya. Ease off the water.

Finish: Medium to long, dry with both chalky and mellow floral soapy elements.

Comment: I first tried this as recent as last year (2013), with Brian at Bar Augusta. I was totally amazed with the sheer quality and flavour profile that I made it my mission to track down a bottle, the conventional way and not on the resale market. It has taken roughly a year to do so, and by no means was it easy seeking out this rare gem. In fact I was giving up all hope. Then, I was lucky to go on a camping trip in the sticks and came across a retailer that I thought wouldn't stock anything interesting...pays to check high and low. Released in 2004 by Tao Shuzo.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky 45% abv

Nose: Heavenly seductive and rich. Vanilla oak, banana milk, and soft chewy style banana confectionary. Light honey drizzled over vanilla and cinnamon bread (hot cross buns). Coconut milk. Cadbury Summer Roll (lightly roasted peanuts and coconut flakes wrapped in milk chocolate). Then, Eggnog. With prolonged time a lot of the creamy sweetness subsides giving way to vegetal and rich malty notes. With water honey bush tea with a drop of vanilla essence and a dash of milk.

Taste: Extremely silky and buttery. Lightly spiced mellow honey caresses every part of your mouth. Arnott's Milk coffee (no pun intended) biscuits and/or Malt-O-Milk biscuits. Then, a transition to chai spiced banana bread. Grated coconut mingles with dark chocolate. Eggnog moderately spiced with nutmeg. Dried oats. With time celery stalks and malt. When diluted milky, honey bush tea.

Finish: Moderate to long with mild spiced chai tea, dried oats, malt, and milk coffee biscuits.

Comment: Pretty exciting stuff. Great to break away from the norm and have something slightly different. Nikka has impressed me yet again. The Coffey Malt expression, along with the Taketsuru NAS sherry wood finish and Date have become my all time favourites from the whisky giant (excluding single casks naturally). And lets not forget that it is extremely affordable.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Whisky Festival 2014 Osaka in Pictures

Chief blenders, brand ambassadors, importors, bar tenders, professionals, and whisky enthusiasts (both novice and savvy) - people from all walks of life, gathered to see what was on show for this year's Whisky Festival Osaka 2014 (June 8th). The festival, now in its 3rd year for Osaka, was a great platform to experience both old and new whiskies from around the world. Visitors were able to sample award-winning, old and obscure, aged, prototype, and new emerging whiskies to the market as well as old favourites, in what was a reasonably larger than normal venue (compared to 2012/2013) - there were certainly no complaints of space restrictions this time around. There were quite a few creative stands from the major players of both the Scotch and Japanese whisky industry however, it appeared the focus was on craft distillers and independent bottlings.

Venture Whisky was in fine form, as always, and allowed attendees to sample two of their 'prototype' whiskies for the festival. The first Chichibu 'model' (pictured above) was only one of two bottles drawn from a sherry butt (cask# 1284), which was distilled in 2011 and bottled this year at 60.7%. It was quite significant to see this sherry matured Chichibu - it is a topic that's been on everyone's lips at the moment. Although many were lucky enough to try this exceptional and tasty 3yo, it appears Venture Whisky has no plans to bottle their first sherry matured Chichibu soon. One thing is for sure, when they do fans alike will not be disappointed. The second prototype, was another 'Almost (aged) Five (years)' version only this time drawn from a single puncheon (Cask# 408) that was distilled in 2009 and bottled this year at 61.3%.

Original Chichibu froushiki were another hot item among dedicated fans, which were offered exclusively for the festival. Among the various distillery goods Chichibu have on offer the traditional wrapping cloth that is used to carry anything and everything was an in-house design, which is suitable to transport your favourite Chichibu bottle. It appears only one hundred pieces for now have been produced with the intention of printing more given the popularity.

This gorgeous Chichibu, by ePower, also made a debut. The specially selected bottling by Bar Barns (Nagoya) was distilled in 2010 and matured in a bourbon barrel (Cask# 657). The outturn for this bottling is 227 bottles and bottled this year at 62.1%. Barley: Floor Malted Optic. Although this is a bottling intended for bars alike, according to ePower you will be able to purchase this at a few of the big liquor retailers in both the Kansai and Kanto areas. So keep your eyes out for yet again another tasty exclusive single cask Chichibu.

The second edition, or should I say re-design of 'Twin Alps' from the Mars distillery gained some followers. This blended whisky was once bottled at 39% abv in 720ml bottles with a cream label. This new version however, with the distillery's new signature 'alps' bottle design (750ml) is bottled at 40% abv. This oaky, full bodied, blend with wood fragrance will be available, according the guys, from next week. This, along with Iwai Tradition is another good 'bang for the buck' and entry level blended whisky. Depending on place of purchase the suggested retail price will be from 1,580 yen ~ 1,680 yen.

The 6th Whisky Shop W original single malt Hakushu (006) is a store bottling that aficionados should not miss. Bottled at 48%, this vatted Hakushu is like no other, well at least in comparison to what I have tasted over the years. Having been matured in bourbon barrels, which I presume to be first-fill given the extreme quality, this release provides a unique Hakushu experience that some suggested is reminiscent of an early Bowmore (70s Circa). I cannot make that comparison as I don't think I've had a Bowmore from the 70's, but what I can say is this Hakushu presents rich tropical banana in various forms that interwinds with delicate smoke on both the nose and palate. Grab one here before they get snapped up quicker than any other 300ml store bottling. Possibly my best Japanese whisky on the day that can be purchased from a shop. 

Nikka also presented this top notch whisky that is of no secret. Nikka Coffey Malt, which will make its debut in Japan tomorrow (June 10) for the national market. Stay tuned for a detailed review of this in coming days as well as news of additional Nikka release set for July that most of you already know about.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Back-to-Back Pure Malt: Suntory Hokuto 12yo 1st and 2nd Release

"Hokuto" was created and named accordingly to commemorate the birth of Hokuto city in the Yamanishi prefecture. The vatting, which consists of a variety of key malts from the Hakushu distillery as well as Yamazaki genshu malt was released on June 22, 2004. The 12yo pure malt vatting that adopted the "bamboo charcoal filtration" method was the result of Suntory's pursuit to create an "easy to drink" whisky. Interestingly, the Hokuto pure malt was at times marketed as an alternative to Sochu with certain catch copy saying: "Clear, tasty, and refined - allowing you to shift from Sochu to whisky". Among other promotions Suntory suggested that this pure malt was designed to be drank with ice - specifically 'half rock'. This I'd not recommend as this whisky is initially mellow, watering it down completely drowns it. The Hokuto 12yo pure malt came in two distinctive label variations (releases) before it was sadly put out of production in 2010. The first release (left image) in 2004 pictured lush forestry that I presume is either the surroundings of the Hakushu distillery and/or the city of Hokuto. This release is labeled as Suntory Pure Malt Whisky (top of label) with Hokuto written in quotations (bottom of label), and bottled by Suntory limited. The second label variation (right image) drops the wording 'Suntory' out of 'Pure Malt Whisky' (top of label), and moves the brand name of Hokuto towards to top without the quotations. Besides these small difference on the second release that accordingly was put out in  2005, the obvious change is the label's image that clearly depicts the Hakushu distillery and surrounding forest in the foreground of rolling hills in Hokuto, and what looks like to be the area's wheat silos? Also, in 2005 a quarter bottle (250ml) hit the market. Now...any difference taste wise?

● Suntory Pure Malt Whisky - "Hokuto" - Aged 12 Years - Suntory Limited 2004 (pictured left)

Nose: Fresh and clean with immediate citrus - predominately lime with a hint of Yuzu. Fresh forestry notes. Aloe Vera mixed with vanilla and/or toasted marshmallows. Subtle Mint and Shiso intertwine. Actually, I could even say a weak Mojito? Musk melons and a drizzle of honey. Green banana. Pickled crisp vegetables (cucumber). All up - lovely oak, very delicate.

Taste: As with the nose clean, and silky smooth. Mellow spices. There's a tad mouthfeel of menthol gum. Moderate sweet lime. Green toasted capsicum, subtle oak influence, green banana, a touch of toffee and/or scorched black sugar. Plain cashews.

Finish: A combination of mellow mint and menthol gum, and white pepper on red cabbage. Mellow oak. Medium length.

Comment: This is an exceptional whisky that is quite rightly suited to the warmer months of the year. The colour of the whisky in the first release is much darker than the second release - both in the bottle and by glass. This may suggest malt in the first release spent more time in casks compared to the second release (there may be a slight influence in lighting).

● Pure Malt Whisky - Hokuto - Aged 12 Years - Suntory 2005 (pictured right)

Nose: Whipped cream, fried pineapple, fresh banana fritters, dusty wood chips, integrated subtle sweet smoke, Allen’s fruit tingles: lemon and orange, sweet oak, salt rock, and strangely but pleasant spicy tomato juice.

Taste: Lush. Smooth and silky with gorgeous oak, a dash of concentrated lime juice, and a drop of pineapple juice from a can. The whipped cream makes itself present before spiced mixed nuts roll into the equation. The malt becomes very creamy the longer it sits.

Finish: Dry, tame, and oaky, and like the first release medium in length.

Comment: Although a mass marketed line-up of Suntory at the time, it is now ever so scarce due to its popularity, and effectively cheap price for excellent quality. It originally took me months and months to find my first bottle (second release), followed with the first release. Now I can never stop finding them. This Pure Malt ticks all the right boxes, it offers something different to Suntory’s core Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts.

To conclude, both versions retain a clean-cut, fresh, mellow citrus presentation. Both versions are very similar. However, the second release in my opinion has a sweater top note (creamy) on the nose, and is slightly more richer than the first release (only by a point or two). At the same time the first release has a slightly more sumptuous mouthfeel (again, only by a point or two). At the end of the day there are only very subtle differences. Both versions are of exceptional quality with great blending - a must have for every drinker.