Friday, August 31, 2012

Suntory White Super Clean 37%abv

Year of release: 2000 (new version of the original White Blend)

Nose: Varnish, cheap nail polish remover, a hint of non ripened white peach, very grainy, slightly dusty, waxed floors, and super glue. After 15 minutes left in the glass a reasonably pleasant citrus aroma becomes present.
Taste: Given that fact the nose has industrial qualities the mouth feel is quite smooth. However, there is not a lot happening on the palate besides a mineral taste, grain, cabbage water with a pinch of white pepper followed by Scotch tape and envelope glue.
Finish: A hint of white pepper, then Scotch tape before a very short ending of again envelope glue.
Comment: A mixer indeed. Although the above does not sound that pleasant this blend isn't that bad when used in a homemade highball. I presume the representation of "Super Clean" comes from the low ABV. This bottling of the new version uses the familiar shapped bottles used in the Owner's Cask series.

Reviewed by Clint A

Saturday, August 25, 2012

1981 Vintage Kioke Shikomi

Akashi city, Hyogo prefecture, can quite rightly be labeled as the Mecca for mom and pop liquor stores. The city thankfully has been untouched by new development; therefore it retains its heritage and unique atmosphere of yesteryear. Strolling down the rustic arcades send you back in time, nothing has changed. Signs, building architecture, décor, and shop fronts have the same appearance as they did numerous years ago and most likely from an era way before my time. On the way home from my recent trip to the White Oak distillery I decided on the spare of the moment to get off at the station and have a look around. I used to stroll around the nostalgic arcades of Akashi many moons ago, at a time when Japanese whisky was unfortunately unknown to me. Now, however, is a completely different story, and something inside, a force perhaps, was telling me some treasure troves were waiting to be found. Most of the mom and pop liquor stores do not easily stand out, so if you are in the area you will need to roam around with some perseverance, and stick to many back streets (opposite the bus terminal and heading towards the sea).

It was in this area, at the tiny liquor store named Mikuni, I found a reasonable gem: Suntory’s 1981 vintage Kioke Shikomi (木桶仕込). The label and various other sources suggests this is a Pure Malt, a vatting of Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts, and bottled at Yamanishi, implying a high percentage of Hakushu used in this bottling. The distilling techniques of this whisky used the “direct fire” method, along with the innovative bamboo charcoal filtration, and a traditional fermentation process using wooden tubs. It has been suggested that both the 81 and 91 vintage ceased production in 1999/2000. I picked up this bottle for a reasonable price, in fact the price I accumulated the 81 vintage was at the same price of the 91 vintage when it made its debut. Many people have suggested that this 81 Kioke Shiomi posses similar qualities to the 12-year-old Hakushu single malt. I’m certainly looking forward to finding out.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

White Oak Update

We've learned of White Oak's new no-age-statement that will hit the shelves soon, in fact at the end of the month, so that technically gives us a few days to wait. This new edition to White Oak's portfolio will sadly replace the Akashi 5-year-old single malt and become the distillery's flagship malt from here on. Although sad to see the 5-year-old go, perhaps it could be a significant turning point for the distillery?

According to the distillery the NAS will most likely make its debut around Kansai first, and will be spread out amongst smaller retailers before hitting the big department stores. The Akashi NAS single malt appears to be made up of at least 3 main malts that include the vatting of Spanish sherry oak, American oak, and Bourbon oak casks, compromised of multiple ages from young to slightly matured malt. The cost will be 2,500 yen (excluding tax) and bottled at the ABV of 46%. This year, the first bottling run will see a release of 4,000 bottles, followed by subsequent release year after year.

This leaves White Oak with 5 brands to their line-up: the aforementioned NAS, Akashi blend, White Oak Gold house blend, White Oak red house blend, and the recently introduced 14-year-old Akashi single malt. Excluded from their existing line-up are the 5, 8, and 12-year-olds as production has ceased and stock sold out. That and there really is not enough stock to go around (Akashi 8-year-old had an outrun of 4,500 bottles while the 12-year-old's outrun was 2,000 bottles). In addition, since August last year, the distillery also stopped producing their favoured blend: Crown.

However, the line-up of the 5 brands will at some stage, and in the very near future, decrease to 4. The 14-year-old (although limited is still available at the distillery direct and online), just like the 8 and 12-year-olds was produced with a limited outrun. The first batch of 400 bottles, which appears to have never left domestic shores, and for obvious reasons, is comprised of twelve and a half year old malt from Spanish sherry oak, and finished in French white wine oak casks for the remaining period of one and a half years. There will be a second batch release (late November/early December) that will be equally welcomed, this outrun is speculated to double that of the first batch and will be a little bit more complex in terms of the finish: twelve and a half years in Spanish sherry oak, one and a half years spent in American oak, while the remaining life of half a year is in French white wine oak casks. So in doing the math it's easy to see that White Oak's oldest bottling will not be around in the future once both batches are sold out.

The distillery is doing some great things though for the industry, perhaps we will see some other expressions introduced in the future and witness White Oak becoming that little bit larger than it is now. I cannot wait.

Photo courtesy of Eigashima - White Oak

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Welcoming Back the 180ml Yoichi NAS

The 180ml bottling of the Yoichi NAS (no-age-statement) has yet again made an appearance at 7-eleven convenience stores (it seems not all stores stock it, only participating franchises). This 180ml bottling is a bit of a rarity, obviously not in terms of the malt within but the actual size itself. This smaller version, as far as I know, popped up only in 7-eleven stores around the middle of this decade and stuck around for a while before disappearing, only to exclusively reappear in selected stores again not so long ago. A little shy of 700 yen, this small version makes a perfect gift sample, especially for sending. However, for double the price you can pick up the 500ml version of the Yoichi NAS, so it can seem a little expensive. Having said that, for those who have a thing for labels may be interested in the smaller version as it depicts the lovely landscape of Yoichi (well that’s my guess), whereas big brother does not. As at the time of writing the 500ml Yoichi NAS is retailing at Daie supermarkets in Hyogo for 1380 yen (I presume in other prefectures also), such a small price to pay for something of reasonable quality.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Suntory's Imperial Blend

To kickoff “Japanese Whisky Treasure Troves”, which is an insight into Japanese whiskies of yesteryear, Whiskies R Us will explore the unknown, the hidden and forgotten stores of a long lost era around Hyogo, Japan. First off, among many adventures, is the rustic store Liquor Land Ikeda, in Kobe Nishi-ku, on route 175. I have known about this shop for many years, a shop I always wanted to visit but never did as it always seemed to be in the opposite direction I was going, until now that is. This store, which took me back in time, had quite a few historic bottlings on its dusty and sun soaked shelves. However, today I will uncover Suntory’s Imperial blend. This not only marks the first of many entries to come, but a new and exciting chapter for readers of Whiskies R Us.

The “Imperial” blend was often labeled a whisky of “superior quality”, and at times was advertised with the slogan “suitable enough for an emperor”, quite relevant given the brand naming. This whisky, derived from distilling techniques around the time of 1964 (Tokyo Olympics), is said to contain only the best of the best malt from the Yamazaki distillery. Once described as Suntory’s masterpiece from their portfolio at the time, this blend was apparently in production for at least 40 years, with various bottle shapes and volumes during this period. The picture above appears to be the “Imperial” blend from the 1980’s (ABV43%), which the decanter, and quite a beautiful one at that, is hand crafted Kagami crystal. I have come across this so called extravagant blend on a few occasions, it generally retails in most mom & pop stores between 9,000 to 11,000 yen (although I did have the opportunity to pick it up cheaper), expensive really, and at a price most likely still from the late 80’s to early 90’s. It can be sourced much cheaper at auction on the Internet. Rumor has it that the Kagami crystal decanter arguably retains the most value of the blend, while the whisky within holds the remaining, that plus a few thousand yen could be attributed to the name “Imperial” itself. Regardless, this blend fascinates me (I must admit that it does have a lot to do with the decanter), something I hope to consume sooner or later if I can find it at a much more reasonable price, but this amongst the many treasure troves I have come across must wait its turn. The “Imperial” appears to have ceased production around the time of the millennium.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Whisky Hunter

The thrill of chasing down a unique whisky of yesteryear can be just as rewarding as indulging in an impressive dram of today. The vast portfolio's of the entire major brands, whether domestic or international, and which are all generally great, can be complex and overwhelming. At any given time a number of new releases that include limited editions, seasonal and commemorative bottlings, and regional whiskies hit the market in huge quantities. But there is more to whisky than the current availability that engulfs every major retailer and that is the line-up of the past: malts and blends that have ceased production, and perhaps the most important; long lost original bottlings from defunct distilleries, which are hidden and still adorn the dusty shelves of unfrequented mom & pop stores. It is satisfying to seek out these forgotten and unique bottlings and to add a bit of history to both your palate and display cabinet.
Bored of frequently visiting chain stores throughout West Japan and often than not leaving empty handed, I decided to approach the way I seek out whisky (specifically domestic whisky for obvious reasons) in a different way: one that does not involve a keyboard or mouse (Internet), or visits to commercial retailers (franchises), but one that involves stamina and a bicycle to seek out all the back street and remote liquor stores of a long lost era throughout Hyogo. This may seem unorthodox and might not be the preferred way of finding something special, unique, and limited for some, but often than not, with a little perseverance, something always comes up. Sure, at times, you come across something that has been sitting on a shelf since the bubble and still priced accordingly to that era (too expensive), but the majority of these old school shops have bottles reasonably priced, arguably a small expenditure to pay for a bit of history.
My adventures have led me to create "Japanese Treasure Troves", which will document my unearthed findings and give a brief outlook of the Japanese whisky bottles of yesteryear that I discover and where I find them. The main focus will not be on the shop itself (introduction), but on the individual bottles I come across that have significance.
Some of these unique finds I will purchase and others I will not, the bottles I do throw in my backpack, which make the journey home (at times a good 4 hours ride), will be followed up with a tasting review at a later time. The main principle behind this documentation is to simply share and make aware when ever possible. Watch out for the “Treasure Trove” side menu that will be coming soon.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Kirin Gotemba's Stronger Marketing Presence

Kirin Gotemba appears to have jumped on the bandwagon and joined in on the massive highball campaign, which has become highly lucrative to all participating players in the regime. Just like Suntory and the brands ongoing and very familiar advertisements of their Kaku blend, Kirin Gotemba's house style blend; Fujisanroku 50 percent, which is reasonably good, has hit supermarkets in a way that is relatively new to the distillery's marketing strategy. Kirin's blend, which is certainly not new to the market, is starting to throw itself out there a little more than before. In participating supermarkets, well, perhaps I should say a few of the acclaimed branded supermarkets I have visited, Kirin Gotemba have began to establish their own promotional corner, stepped up on signage (including that of “how to enjoy” a Fujisanroku highball), and have even splashed a bit of cash and thrown in reasonable packaging, which in my experience is a rarity from the distillery for this blend. However, the big guns often introduce some sort of special package around promotion time that quickly disappears. Therefore, in my opinion, these Fujisanroku cartons will not be around on a permanent basis. Generally, no matter what retail establishment you visit, whether it is a liquor chain, independent whisky shop, or the humble supermarket, the majority of times only a handful of this house style blend is on offer in small volumes. In a welcoming way this has began to change. In one particular supermarket the Fujisanroku blend outweighed Kaku in terms of quantity. It would be nice to see the brand continue its campaign, it certainly adds a new visual experience when visiting supermarkets, and quite frankly it's a good change from the bombardment of yellow advertising that sports the mentioned blend: Kaku, which is likely the most recognizable blend to locals. Will this ever change and can it change? I'm still waiting to see the Fujisanroku blend in canned highballs, it has always been my predicament.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

White Oak Blended Whisky by the Measure

While on the hunt for old liquor shops, which is becoming a regular thing to do recently with my obsession to track down original Karuizawa distillery bottlings, and a few other assorted expressions such as Suntory’s black label Hokuto 12-year-old (sadly ceased production), I stumbled across a small chain store that goes by the name of Liquor Kingdom (リカー王国), literally out in the sticks and relatively hidden away from the main road. This liquor chain is fairly small compared to bigger establishments such as Yamaya, but you do stumble across them from time to time and when you do they are almost certain to be in the most remote places. The store I visited was just that, in the most inconvenient place, and most likely not accessible by public transport. A store that you would most likely not try and seek out once knowing about it, unless the odds are you happen to be living in the area. The bright yellow painted store, which is the chains trademark, did however, have something of interest, a ji-whisky barrel selling spirit by the measure. The "Ji" in "Ji-whisky" basically indicates “local” and has the same idea of small quantity distilling or brewing (micro-production). I walked straight past this barrel on the way in and it was only on the way out that I caught a glimpse of the small laminated sign above, with the distinctive White Oak casks in plain view, advertising “Original Ji-Whisky”, sale by the measure, bottled by Eigashima Shuzo Co., Ltd.
As you can imagine I got extremely excited, I had all these thoughts running through my mind of what it could be. I considered it to be some special exclusive store owner’s cask, that was until I saw in small writing “blended by Eigashima” and the cheap pricing system, which automatically canceled out the notion. “Right, obviously a blend” I heard myself say as the excitement receded, “but which blend?” again saying out loud. Unfortunately the store owner, whether true or not, said he didn’t know as reps from the distillery organized the deal, but it was obvious it was either White Oak’s standard house blend (Shirodama) or the Akashi blend. The pricing for a 500ml measure from the barrel at 750 yen ($9) suggested it wasn’t White Oak’s Akashi blend, as the RRP of this in any outlet goes for 1000 yen ($12), therefore I thought it to be the house blend. That was until I got myself a sample, nosed it on the spot, which suggested otherwise (the Akashi blend). Driving on the day eliminated tastings, so it was not until after I concluded it was in actual fact, well in my opinion, the Akashi blend for two reasons alone. Firstly, the palate of my sample strongly suggested flavours of the Akashi blend and not the Shirodama house blend, and secondly the wording on the advertisement at the shop is the same of that on the label of the Akashi blend (ji-whisky). I believe that the price of the 500ml measure of the Akashi blend (presuming it is of course) is cheaper than the RRP of a distillery bottling is simply down to aesthetics. Measures come in a screw top plastic bottle (better quality than a standard juice bottle) with a wide mouth, and there is no adorning label. For the novelty it could be worth considering if you have the intentions to venture to the other side of Hyogo.

Price per measure:
500ml - 750 yen
700ml - 980 yen
900ml - 1,200 yen
1,400ml - 1,780 yen
1,800ml - 2,180 yen
2,000ml - 2,380 yen
2,700ml - 3,180 yen
4,000ml - 4,580 yen

Oshibedani-cho, Sakaie 90 banchi, Nishi-ku, Kobe-shi