Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Calm Blended Whisky for COOP 39% abv - by Toa Shuzo

Just thought I'd report back on the recent discovery of Coop's new home brand blended whisky - Calm. Days after my post I thought it only natural to lay down the minimal cost (1,011 yen) and see what this whisky was all about, simply out of curiosity for myself and for WRU readers (even though I originally said otherwise).

Before I comment on this whisky that is produced by Toa Shuzo Co., Ltd, I'd like to re-visit the topic of the blends bottle shape. Previously I mentioned that Calm's bottle was surprisingly reminiscent of Hanyu's "Card Series", but due to volume differences and research I decided that Calm's bottle shape/design was more that of the 12yo Golden Horse Chichibu single malt by Toa Shuzo (the people behind Hanyu). After speculating, purchasing, and further research I'm confident to say that the spec's of Calm's bottle right down to the plastic cap is in actual fact the same as the bottles used for the "Card Series". But what about the difference in volume you may ask? Something I admittedly over looked - quite simply Calm's blend at 720mls and Hanyu's Card Series at 700mls are bottled in the exact same bottle. Basically there is an extra 20mls in liquid only and not in glass. To take things a bit further I measured diameters and height and everything matches up, even to the markings on the bottom of both bottles by the manufacture, which I've been informed is a Japanese manufacturer. So what does all this mean? Not a lot really except that Toa Shuzo are using the same bottles that are used in the production of the "Card Series" to bottle their Calm whisky. That and just the coincidence really.

Nose: Certainly not complex, not too much going on really. It is very young but actually reasonably OK. There is no unpleasant alcohol burn, and it appears to be all young new make with light fruity notes. It's very reminiscent of something I've smelt before to be honest (just not as fruity). However, in my opinion it does have traits of being just a new make with artificial colouring added. Besides these traits there are light/weak red stone fruits: watery plums. In fact everything is light really - fresh non boiled unsweetened corn cobs and Weet-Bix steeped in hot water. There are slight suggestions of dry port, authentic Turkish Delight (without chocolate coating), rich corn flakes, and weak mango purée. Solvents are present but again subtle and not overpowering: wood varnish and envelope glue, and let's not forget Vodka and caramel essence.

Taste: Silky smooth, watery, with extremely subtle/light spices (cinnamon and nutmeg). Again, it has that new make quality only in a weaker concentration than the nose and without the fruit. Cardboard and envelopes represent the solvents, then there is cocoa powder, paddle pop sticks, cheap Vodka, malt flavoured corn flakes, and caramel essence. 

Finish: Subtle cinnamon and cocoa powder, envelope glue, cheap Vodka mixed with caramel essence. 

Comment: It's certainly not "pour down the drain" stuff but nor is it a dram to bring out to shout your friends when over. I thought it would be a brutal white spirit experience but it wasn't that bad, but again it's not extremely good. Lastly, it doesn’t work well also as highballs.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Memories of Karuizawa 16yo - 1996 Vintage

Cask# 3684 - 3rd Release - Outturn: 303 - ABV: 61.8% - Bottled: 2013

Nose: Alcohol burn and heat, but I guess that is expected given the abv. Past these attributes (I recommend a good 5-10 minutes in the glass before nosing) things begin to happen. Rich red apple skins, Redskins (raspberry-flavoured chewy confections), light cream sherry, steamed prunes, stewed rhubarb, and orange cake. Fruit is predominately consistent throughout with pan fried pineapple rings, rum spiked chutney, and fig jam given lots of time. There are a lot more aromas wanting to jump out but they appear to be blanketed by the alcohol. Interestingly at certain intervals I detected sweet beetroot. Water ramps up a tartness.

Taste: Intensely spicy with a woody zing. Heat, bitter tannins, raw burdock, fermented plums and spicy berries with alcohol infused grapefruit peel. There is a subtle suggestion of dried mint leaves. Dilution is the solution - candied citrus peel (orange/red grapefruit), chocolate malt and roasted honey glazed nuts. Water also cuts the intensity of the spice.

Finish: Long, tingly, tangy, spicy chutney with hints of dried mint leaves.

Comment: Perhaps it was the mood I was in but on many occasions I drew a blank in response to distinguishing the nose and palate. It was only after a good five drams could I really appreciate it and get rewarded. Interestingly enough I found no trademark rubber or toasted notes (coffee/toast) present. It was fun but I preferred the younger second release (13yo-1999) in comparison (a whole different flavor profile).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Roaming Tokyo (2): Bar Hermit Regalo

Every city often than not has a mini-chain of bars, usually fairly commercial and nothing distinguishable between them. Tokyo is an exception. Here distinguishable mini-chain bars flourish, especially in the Shinjuku and Shibuya area and there is one particular chain setting themselves apart from each other and that non-commercial chain goes by the name Bar Hermit. Technically there are four bars that don the "Bar Hermit" name; however the owner has six bars in the chain that are all in Shinjuku.

As far as I know, surprisingly no one else has ever written anything about this chain in English except for Dramtastic over at The Japanese Whisky Review (here and here). It was from these posts that made my decision for this particular trip easy, settling on Bar Hermit Regalo - conveniently located near Shinjuku JR Station - South Exit (two minute walk) in the Kyoshin Building (10F). This bar, like its siblings is a haven for old Hanyu bottlings (Card Series) and very cheap at that. They seem to have certain specials for a certain length of time before changing the theme. On Brian's visit to Bar Hermit Regalo he had the lucky pleasure of being there for the Card Series specials list. On my visit I was in time for the Owners Cask specials - an impressive specials list I must add. On a rough count I noted at least 20 bottles and almost half of these were at very reasonable prices, naturally including a few of their own. Impressive as all these were I was there for some young but old Hanyu, and lucky for me the kind staff poured my drams at the same prices as the previous Card Series specials list from a few months ago. BH Regalo is quite compact, therefore it can be quite smoky when patrons spark up, however this can be overcome by moving to a window seat that overlooks one of the main roads in Shinjuku. But at the end of the day it is not about space but the quality of drams, and besides it is quite cozy regardless.

No where have I ever seen such an array of Card Series in one place, and according to Brian's posts all the establishments appear to have an impressive selection, something never really seen in Kansai. So between these guys and Zoetrope if Hanyus are what you're after then you know where to go while in the area. A few favourite drams of mine on the night were the Single Cask Hanyu 2000-2005 #6076 and Ichiro’s Malt Ace of Diamonds 1986-2008. These were very satisfying whiskies at satisfying prices. Next time I'm in the area I'll be checking out the other "Hermits" while making BH Regalo my first port of call. Special thanks to my kind tender on the night - Matsuura san. 

Address: Tokyo 1-18-4 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Kyoshin Building 10F

Telephone: 03-5908-3805

Info in Japanese (Gurunabi)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Roaming Tokyo (1): Scouring Retailers

In comparison to large retailers and department stores in Osaka, Tokyo seems to be the place to pick-up something of uniqueness. On a recent roam around the major spots of the area - Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro, I found an abundance of limited Japanese whiskies that are either very hard to find in Kansai or outright not available. Visitors to Japan who have an affectionate interest in Japanese whisky may overlook certain retailers, perhaps with an assumption that limited releases would not be sold in such establishments - however it is always the least expected places you will find something.

First port of call was the SEIBU department store in Shibuya. SEIBU is the equivalent of say Daimaru and is only seen in the Kanto region. Here to my surprise, in the extremely small liquor section, was a store limited release of a Chichibu that was distilled in 2009 and bottled in 2012 from cask#1397 (1st Cask: Bourbon Barrel - 2nd Cask: Port Pipe). This 3yo with an ABV of 61% was introduced last year by SEIBU, and there are literally only a few bottles left as of writing.

A minute down the road from Shibuya SEIBU is the iTOKYU department store, equally just as big as any other major department store with a very interesting selection also. Besides the Yamazaki and Hakushu 25yo (in plenty) and a few Owners Casks the highlight of the department store was Akuto Ichiro’s 20yo Malt & Grain. This store release is very similar to that of the other 20yo Malt & Grain for Isetan but sporting a different label (as seen in the picture). For a 20yo old that contains artisan whisky from both the Hanyu and Kawazaki distillery the asking price of 10,500 yen is a small price to pay. There are not many of these left at iTOKYU however; there is an abundance of Chichibu’s Port Pipe/Chibidaru/and The Peated expressions.

From here I headed to Ikebukuro, mainly as that was where I was staying and wanted to freshen up. First things first, Ikebukuro’s Bic Camera was my priority before a shower and a change. Just like the Namba Bic Camera, single cask vintage Hanyu’s can/could be found here. What I liked about here is there is a whole separate retail store distant from the electronics store purely selling alcohol. These vintage Hanyu’s are not cheap, but why would they be, for those with a taste for Hanyu you may be lucky enough to secure a bottle still. The Ikebukuro SEIBU unfortunately didn’t have anything to write home about except for yet again a half dozen or so of Chichibu’s Port Pipe. 

Once refreshed and energetic I made my way to Shinjuku. No introduction is really needed here - both the Isetan and Takashimaya are in the neighborhood. The former stocking things we are all now fairly familiar with (Karuizawa Brilliant Sherry 12yo and Ichiros "Houou-uhi" blend), while the later was quite similar to that of iTOKYU (Hakshu and Yamazaki 25yo and another abundance of Chichibu’s Port Pipe/Chibidaru). To conclude I would say that Tokyo is a Mecca for store releases and surprisingly good for availability with distillery bottles - prime example the Chichibu Chibidaru official bottling is almost not seen any more in Kansai (Osaka), different story in Kanto, at any given shop I found a handful. There seems to be a bigger presence/portion of Chichibu in the area - I like it. And by the way don’t forget to check every single supermarket you come across, I was rewarded with the find of a sherry Yamazaki Owners Cask of all things. Happy shopping everyone!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Coop's Home Brand Whisky Gets an Interesting Facelift

Long established readers of Whiskies R Us may remember the various posts I used to upload regarding Japanese whisky and their presence in supermarkets - Whisky Intelligence. It has been quite some time since I've reported about anything from the good old local, and since no one else looks at this topic I thought it a good opportunity to report on something I've come across this week - and I must say it is reasonably interesting.

A post July, 2011 about the chain supermarket Coop and their home brand whisky New Calm created some good feedback, which led me to investigate and further report about in November, 2011. Just a quick refresh: New Calm - a blend that was sold in 1.8 litre plastic bottles produced by Nikka - this was clearly obvious due to packaging (black plastic cap with the words Nikka), and also the fact that Nikka was clearly stated as the maker of New Calm blended whisky (can be seen here in Japanese).

Things have changed quite a bit since those posts - quite a bit. Nikka is no longer the brand/maker of the supermarkets home brand whisky, and the wording "New" has been deleted leaving the blend marketed simply as "Calm". Toa Shuzo Co., LTD - the company, who unfamiliarly was behind Hanyu and the Golden Horse bottlings, is now the home brands supplier of Calm. Does this mean that the quality of the revamped blend is far from the original New Calm that was produced by Nikka? Simply in my opinion yes, and it has nothing to do with the fact that New Calm was produced by one of Japan's biggest distilleries but due to the simple fact that the revamped Calm blend  clearly states on the back label "caramel colour added". Anything artificial used in any product is often used to spruce it up - make it better in either appearance or taste. Quite frankly this means the initial spirit was not the greatest does it not? It also may contain imported whisky for all I know (malt source not stated).

Back on track, this post I guess isn't about what's good or bad (artificial colouring) but an introduction. The Calm blended whisky is bottled at a mere 39% ABV in a 720ml glass bottle, which on first inspection looked exactly like the same bottles used for Hanyu's "Card Series", only it's not, as mentioned Calm is 720ml while the Hanyu's are 700ml. However, on further research it appears the 720ml bottle for Calm is in actual fact the same style bottle used for the Chichibu Golden Horse 12yo single malt. Calm is currently retailing at 1,011 yen - generally I would take one for the team but given the circumstances (low abv/ caramel) I most likely won't... but I would be lying if I didn't say I was slightly intrigued. What do you think of that retro looking label, is that tartan?

Update 18 July, 2013: changed the word "infamously" to "unfamiliarly" - see reasons in comments.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Osaka Bringing Whisky to Our Glasses: Whisky Festival 2013 Highlights & Whisky History 2013

According to yumedia - the creative people behind the magazine Whisky World and whisky events, attendance at the Osaka Whisky Festival 2013, which was held on July 7, saw roughly 2,500 people walk through the door. Last year, the attendance was a little shy of 1,500 people, and it is expected the number to attend next year’s 2014 festival will further increase. Quite a positive result considering this was only the second time for the event to take place in Kansai - hats off to the organizers for their choice of the new location (Umeda Sky Building). This year’s event was a little different for me, usually I get to roam free and indulge among the smorgasbord of whisky from various makers and chat to industry figures. However, this time around I was pushing whisky so to speak opposed to consuming. Nevertheless, what fun would it be if it was all work and no play! I managed to venture away, mingle, and have fun - after all it was a festival.

Belated highlights: On the domestic front there are no new products to report on. It appears Japanese brands tend to showcase their new products by using Tokyo (events) as their promoting platform. Still, we all had the pleasure of having the company of Hombo Shuzo - Mars, who like always, were receiving tremendous interest in there Iwai Wine Cask Finish blend. For those interested in the delicious Iwai Wine Cask Finish and live in Kansai, a limited quantity will be making its way to a few shops in Osaka around mid July. Also, good news for us Mars fans, Hombo Shuzo have a few new expressions to add to their portfolio in coming time, and once that happens I hope to be able to shed more light on them.

Along with Mars, another favourite maker of mine made its way to Osaka - Akuto-san from Chichibu with his distillery crew and new member in tow: Yumi, who has recently just come back to Japan (May) from her long stint at Highlander Inn. As with Whisky Live the Chichibu prototypes were on offer - again the Refill Barrel appearing to be the favourite among aficionados. Perhaps one of the tell tale stories of the day, well two in fact, the first would be that of Suntory’s Yamazaki 1993 Owners Cask. This delicate smoky little gem according to staff made its way to Whisky Shop W on the Monday after the event , a mere 40 bottles at the time but it appears there are only a few left, so it may pay to rush in if you have a soft spot for smoky Yama’s - presuming there is any at all left.

The second would be that of a private release which I mentioned in my July 4 post, nothing overly secretive as many knew of it, well by “many” I mean people who are on certain mailing lists. This release would be that of a 14yo Karuizawa, which was unfortunately not officially on display and therefore not openly available for tasting to the majority of attendees. This Karuizawa, which is very tasty I must say, is from cask# 2316. It is a joint bottling from three well established retailers - Liquors Hasegawa, Sake Shop Sato and Tamagawaya and will be available or should I say released in August (Japan only).

For any reason some of you didn’t make it to WFO 2013 you may be delighted to know Osaka will host yet another event in October - Whisky History Osaka 2013. Here you will be able to try equally just as many whiskies and experience all the major brands and retailers under the one roof. Whisky festivities are still upon us in Kansai and like last year Whisky History 2013 will be held at Umeda Kensyu Centre on October 6 (Sunday). It is my guess there will be some decent limited releases available for pre-order here also. Whiskies R Us will provide further details closer to the date.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Karuizawa Vintage 30yo Cask No. 7924

Distilled: 1981 - Bottled: 2011 - ABV: 56.6%

Nose: Packs a massive punch full of new car radiator fan belts soaked in balsamic vinegar. There’s Soursob (used to chew on these as a kid in Australia), bike tyres/tubes, in fact an assortment of rubber items - but I think you get the picture. With time, and once past the latex/polymeric substances it does open up and show differences: kirsch syrup, port-like raisins and dark cherry bonbons. These are pleasant - if/when you can find them past the dominant sourness and rubber. Water adds burnt red wine sauce and tames the rubber a bit.

Taste: Borderline strange, if you are looking for something with “unusual characteristics” than this is for you. Smack-bang on Soursob, balsamic vinegar, and rubber wood. Extremely dry malt with bitter tannins and chalk. Dilution adds elements of mint licorice and spicy rubbery cherry.

Finish: Dry, long and chalky with Soursob. Water cuts the chalkiness and turns down the dryness a notch, adds a bit of bitterness and that’s about it.

Comment: In my opinion this is malt you either love or dislike. I was learning towards the later for the majority of the time. It did begin to grow on me with lots of time - and I do mean lots. I began to like the “unusual characteristics” at times, but then it all went pear shaped again and got a bit too much in the end. Grateful for the experience and very grateful if I must be completely honest that I didn’t fork out lots of cash on my own bottle.

For an alternate review take a look at Pierre W's over at Connosr. Once again, many thanks for the sample.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Whisky Festivities are Upon Us

As reported April 11, the Whisky Festival 2013 in Osaka is coming upon us, in-fact in a few days to be precise - July 7. If you have not prepared for the event it may pay to do so before the working week ends. Last year, the very first time for the event to be held in Osaka, apparently saw an attendance of  1,600 people during the day of festivities. According to the promoter and planer behind the event - Mamoru Tsuchiya from the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, preparations have been put in place to see an even bigger attendance for this coming Sunday. The event will be held in a much bigger event hall opposed to last year so this certainly is an indication the number of guests and makers/booths will multiply.

Event Venu: Umeda Sky Building - Aura Hall located on the 10F. Admission on the day is 4,000 yen or 3,000 yen with advanced tickets. Well worth it for a day out that allows you to sample a smorgasbord of whiskies as well an interesting seminar on Taiwan's Kavalan distillery. Besides these highlights there will be some interesting private releases available for pre-order from what I have been told. I hope to report more about these, if any, at a later date.

Getting there (in Japanese)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mars Single Cask Private Bottling: American White Oak Cask #1143

Cask# 1143 - Bottled for ESPOA - Distilled: 1992 - Released: 2004 - Age: 12yo - Limited: 655 - Bottle No: 525 - ABV: 43%

Nose: Very pleasant. Lovely wafts of light assorted fruits: stewed apricots with a dollop of whipped cream, overripe permission, a hint of mashed banana (or even banana soft confectionary) and faint waves of pineapple and kiwi fruit. There's even a touch of lime milkshake that surfaces. These fruits present a summery nose before it transits to a light vanilla oak, honeyed oats, dried apricots and Vietnamese dried fruit chips. In the background I detect a bit of wood stain and sugared nuts. This malt becomes a bit waxy (floor wax) with oxidation but it's certainly not an off note.

Taste: Refreshing and a tad effervescent. Medium and silky with a long tongue tantalizing spiciness - nutmeg on banana peel. Quite a simple mouth feel but pleasant with spicy vanilla Chai, dried apricots, grilled permission with a pinch of Chinese five spice and oak. I should reiterate all the spice is subtle and not hard hitting by all means. Floor wax is present on third and fourth dram.

Finish: Pulls up a bit short but again, pleasant with apricots, acute spice, and cinnamon fried banana.

Comment: This is reasonably simple, however nice and rewardingly light, great warm weather malt - I can see myself getting stuck into this throughout Japan's humid weather. I could argue a bit about the price and the ABV, but I enjoyed it enough not to go on about it. 

Hakushu HP 2013 at Whisky Shop W.

Yesterday, July 2, saw the launch of Suntory’s limited Hakushu Heavily Peated 2013 release. This delicious and sort after malt, like many of Suntory’s limited releases found its way to various shelves across Japan, most notably a big batch to Suntory’s in-house store Whisky Shop W in Umeda, Osaka. Once again, like previous releases, there is an outturn of 3,000 bottles, with a certain number allocated to certain retailers only in Japan (including Whisky Shop W). If you are a diehard fan, it will pay to start securing a bottle or two. The Hakushu HP 2013, which is bottled at 48% ABV is available for not only purchase but tasting (while stocks last) at Whisky Shop W - 15ml for a very reasonable 400 yen, an interesting way to experience this malt if funds do not allow you to purchase a full sized bottle. Enjoy - I certainly will be.