Joining the Club – New Japanese Whisky Distiller

Although Japan is one of the largest whisky producers in the world, the majority of the distillate comes from two companies: Suntory and Nikka. There are a handful of other small/medium sized distilleries but not many. There is now word that another company is joining the whisky distilling club: Miyashita Sake Brewery (Okayama Prefecture). As the same suggests, Miyashita comes from a sake production background. They also produce shochu and beer but I cannot say that I have had any of their products myself.

Miyashita decided to give distilling whisky a try in preparation to celebrate their 100th anniversary which will be in 2015. The plans to produce whisky started in December 2011 and actual whisky production started in June 2012. Using a blend of malt from Germany and from Okayama Prefecture as well as local water from the Asahi river approximately 1000 liters of Genshu (new make) was distilled. There were 10 distillation runs and various factors such as the ratio of different malt types, yeast strains and temperature were changed incrementally. The new make is currently aging in oak barrels (I don’t have any more precise details on the wood) and is planned to only be laid down for 3 years. When I assume it will be bottled and released to coincide with Miyashita’s 100th anniversary.

Miyashita believes that its wealth of experience in producing beer and shochu translate well to the production of whisky. Their goal is to make a uniquely Okayama style whisky. I guess that we’ll have to wait a couple of more years to taste what that is. Hopefully this celebratory whisky will be a success and Miyashita will continue to distill whisky adding to the variety and uniqueness of Japanese Whisky.

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The New Normal – Whisky Pricing

Yes, I am piling on to complain about rising prices. I have a very small budget but a very large thirst – which makes for a very bad combination.

Over the past several years China has been extremely efficient in implementing an aggressive tactic in dealing with its territorial disputes with other countries. A bit of background: China has asserted its sovereignty (rightly or wrongly) over several islands to the dismay of neighboring countries that also claim ownership, such as Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. In asserting its sovereignty, China slowly begins to take incremental action to create a new normal. Taken individually, the actions, although provocative, do not appear overly aggressive or worthy of initiating armed conflict. But slowly and surely the actions erode the status quo and create a new normal. For example, China intermittently starts to navigate its boats into the waters of disputed territories. Then slowly these instances become more frequent. After awhile it becomes normal for Chinese boats to be entering into disputed waters. The same tactic is found with aircraft – an occasional fly through the air space of a disputed island turns into a regular airplane route over said disputed island.

So what does all of this international relations gibberish have to do with whisky? Well to me it feels like the whisky companies over the past few years have managed to create a new normal with the pricing of whiskies – or at least the regular price increases. This is not the case for all whisky companies (there are still some bargains to be found), but to me it sure feels like a whole lot of them. Prices have slowly and steadily crept up on us whisky drinkers. My $60-75 is not as significant as it used to be. Now it takes closer to $100+ for the same amount of whisky purchasing power. Although we don’t like the price increases, we are getting used to it. Besides, it’s normal now.

*Apparently Diagio was a little less tactful with their most recent pricing increase on Talisker 18 as the K&L Spirits Journal reports. They decided to forgo taking incremental steps and blitzkrieg’d directly to almost double the price.*

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Tasting Experience

Since it is the Holiday season many of us will be cracking open bottles to share with friends and family. We will also be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the whiskies we are enjoying together. So I thought it would be appropriate to post up an article we wrote earlier about describing the flavors in whisky. Have a great Holiday Season and enjoy your whisky!

Have you ever read the back of a whisky bottle or the tasting notes from a blog or magazine? Exotic, unfamiliar fruits, greasy mechanical parts – even colors are used to describe the taste of whiskies. Sometimes I wonder if I am reading a flora and fauna guidebook to an industrial seascape or a connoisseur’s whisky tasting notes. One of my favorite retailer’s in-store whisky expert always seems to be able to roll out a litany of delectable berries and spices, flowers and baked goods. Sometimes his description of the flavors does little to provide me with any insight into the whisky, as I am not sure if I have ever actually tasted an elderberry. In the off chance that I did, I have no recollection of the experience. The lack of common reference points and the sheer variety of interpretation can often bedevil any attempt to effectively communicate the taste experience of a whisky to someone outside your own frame of reference. But there is a certain joy in attempting to bridge that barrier.

Why do we love whiskies so much? The wealth and complexity in this fine shades-of-copper-and-brown spirit offer a bounty of different flavors for us to enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer to how a whisky tastes and we all pick up different flavors even though we are enjoying whisky from the same bottle. But how are we able to identify the flavors that we taste in a whisky? Unlike a specific item of food we cannot simply say that whisky tastes like whisky. That is an over-broad generalization of the flavors of whisky and do not do it justice.

All of our collective experiences and memories are available for us to draw upon when tasting a whisky. Even from the start of our whisky journey we drew upon our experiences – you might remember the first time you tasted a whisky and instinctually exclaimed that it tasted of hospital and nail polish remover. But whisky takes time to taste and savor and once we get past the nail polish remover we find that there is so much more. Whisky is like a time machine, less the flux capacitor and the 1.21 jiggawatts. As we slowly savor the flavors of the whisky, it brings us back to the moment that we bit into that crisp, green apple or lingered in front of that fireplace on a cold winter evening. There are fond memories of egg nog and fresh baked bread along with thoughts of vibrant tropical fruits and freshly cut grass that enter your consciousness as the warming whisky moves across your palate.

Even random experiences that you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with the flavor of a whisky will strangely find themselves being drawn upon to express a particular note in the palate. I would never have thought that the time I opened up that transmission with the busted differential from a Honda, a combination of oils and other automotive effluviums, would years later spring to mind as the most accurate and curiously pleasing description of the one facet of a certain Ardbeg in its Islay glory. Similarly, that an aroma emanating from a compost pile I once had the ignoble duty to build would years later be revived to help distinctly delineate the parameters of a blessed pour of an 80’s-era Port Ellen. I have even found myself describing the often disregarded Ledaig as tasting like garbage but in a good way. Quite possibly why it is often disregarded…

As you might imagine, while the scents and tastes of a whisky may often draw upon a strange and surprising range of experiences, communicating these concepts to someone else is not always the easiest of tasks. Like our fingerprints and retinas, no doubt the particular distribution and alignment of our taste buds vary from person to person, and while we may be able to share an experience, the fine details will almost certainly differ. My experiences are more than likely different from yours. So my descriptions of a flavor might be totally lost on you – much like the retailer’s were lost on me. Or my memory of what a specific fruit or spice tastes like doesn’t comport with yours.

At a recent trip to a bar in Tokyo with a friend that isn’t a whisky drinker I found that his memory points of reference differed from mine. We were sampling a fine and very rare 70’s Talisker aged in a sherry cask. I was brought back to dark red cherries, raisins and chocolate. While my friend was transported to a very specific herbal pill for stomach pain. As he described it to me I slowly put it together and figured out what he we talking about…I commonly call it the “stink pill”. Not the most satisfying or appetizing of all flavor descriptions but that is what struck a chord with my friend. And curiously, in the world of whisky, such seemingly disparaging terms are not a negative reflection on the flavor, they are simply an attempt to fix in some expressible medium one aspect of a multifaceted beast. One of the real pleasures of tasting whisky, aside from the obvious consumption of it, is attempting to use concepts like burnt leather, soapy orange, sugared cigar smoke, and grassy biscuits. Flavors that we do not have a culinary reference for, but that we can construct from the vast experiences of our sometimes-mundane memories. And better still is witnessing the recognition on a fellow drinker’s face when they understand what you mean by dark red, salted marshmallow.

As you can see there really is no mystery to the flavors that one tastes in a whisky. It is what you taste and what the flavors in the whisky remind you of. Whisky is a social drink that should be enjoyed with others. So I encourage you to savor a glass of whisky and discuss with others what you are tasting. Much of the enjoyment of whisky comes from discussing what flavors you taste and understanding what others taste as well.

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2013 Hakushu Sherry Cask

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Suntory’s annual Yamazaki Sherry Cask has been a whisky fan favorite and 2012 saw the inaugural release of the Hakushu Sherry Cask (Hakushu new-make aged entirely in carefully selected sherry casks). It sold out rather quickly even for a limited release of 3,000 bottles and there was no clear indication that there would be subsequent releases like the Yamazaki. Fortunately, Suntory just announced that it is indeed releasing a 2013 Hakushu Sherry Cask. The release date across Japan is set for February 5th. Like before, the 2013 release will be limited to 3,000 bottles and will come in at 48%ABV with a sticker price of 9,000 yen.

The demand for Hakushu has increased significantly. According to Suntory, sales were up 307% during the months of January through November 2012 from the prior year. With that, I imagine this release will not be on the shelves very long – if at all.

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Suntory Yamazaki 1984

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So we weren’t being exactly accurate when we stated that the US is limited to the 12 and 18 year old expressions of Yamazaki. There was actually one more available here and that was the 1984. But for most the purchase price ($600) was so high that it might as well not have been available here. The allocation to the US was also limited to only 300 bottles.

The Yamazaki 1984 was bottled to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Yamazaki brand. 1984 was the year that new stills were installed at Yamazaki with the intent of producing single malt whisky – as opposed to just blends. As with most Yamazaki’s the 1984 is a combination of American, European and Japanese (Mizunara) oak but there is a higher dosage of Japanese oak aged whisky.

Yamazaki 1984
Bottle #2645
48% ABV

Color: Burnt orange/copper

Nose: Loads of fragrant wood, sandal wood, old furniture, oily, musty, licorice, cloves, cinnamon, fresh baked spice cake, hints of cherry, red fruits.

Mouth: Oily mouth feel, cinnamon, Mizunara influence is clearly present, dark baking spices, sandalwood, hazelnuts, red berries, hints of mint, caramel, very luscious.

Finish: Clean, fades on the fragrant wood notes.

This is a very luxurious, well composed and exactingly calculated whisky as I would expect from a Yamazaki (that is not a single cask). I think a big tip of the hat has to go to the blender(s) that created this amazingly well balanced and full flavored whisky.

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Single Cask Nation Arran Pinot Noir

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While I do enjoy the consistency of distillery release bottlings, I find the uniqueness of independent single cask bottlings a bit more alluring these days. It is true that independents can be hit and miss but for me it is a gamble I am willing to take. The Single Cask Nation is a new independent bottler that set up much like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, in that you are able to access their bottles through being a member of the “Nation”. This independent bottler was started by Joshua Hatton, Jason Johnston-Yellin and Seth Klaskin. The independent bottler category is pretty competitive these days for which casks they are able to procure. This is my first sample of the Nation’s bottlings so let’s see how they did…

Single Cask Nation Arran Pinot Cask #6
1st Fill Ex-Bourbon Cask for 8 years
Ex-Pinot Noir Cask for 4 years
54.8% ABV

Color: Light copper

Nose: Very fragrant, initially a touch of steel – something metallic, an interesting combination of charred oak and fragrant sweetness, ripe apples, bubblegum, a layer of dark red fruit – strawberry jam, maltiness and freshness are not lost though, hints of salty air.

Mouth: First thing that came to mind was: Fun! The interplay between the two casks was a bit of a high wire act but the result was very well balanced. Initially the red fruit sweetness then switches to the traditional notes of bourbon cask and maltiness. It is not over powering neat I am happy to say. A nice sweetness (not cloying), strawberry jam, vanilla. I really liked the layering of flavors. With water: it got a little medicinal – cough syrup and I picked up some tannins.

Finish: Medium, malty with a touch of red fruit.

Again, this was a fun one to try. This is a perfect example of what I like in single cask expressions. You chose wisely Nation!

*Disclosure: this sample was provided to us by the Single Cask Nation*

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SMWSA Outturn Sampling

We took a bit of a hiatus due to an attempt to train for my recent run so we are a bit behind. The run is over so now its back to the business of whisky. And what a better way to start than with some single cask SMWSA bottlings? 

5.35
Lowland
12 y/o
2nd fill hogshead
$105
 
Light dusty straw. Sweet grain and wine. Tropical. Peach. Light and bright spices with cake and medicine on the side. A taste reveals a light and gradual sweet-heat, grass and dough, and it is slightly numbing. What I thought was a little pale in the beginning sticks around with a distinctive grain character and a touch of cola. A certain, elusive flora lingers. And what a nose!

26.84
Highlands
21 y/o
Refill barrel
$145

Light yellow. Sweet, apples and peach and grain up front. A sip reveals a traditional start.  Simple, sweet, lightly malty, and slightly burnt. Pleasing.

85.23
Speyside
12 y/o
Refill sherry
$105

Light gold and leggy.  Caramel, a bit of salt, and a load of atomized sugar. Some butter in the nose as well. The taste is caramel, a strange burnt note, and playful spices. Lingering butter and sugar with a slightly thick mouth feel move into hints of medicine and malts.

93.47
Cambpeltown
9 y/o
Refill barrel
$90

Quite pale dry straw. Burning rubber (think tires), peat, solid malts, and some iodine, maybe. And salted butter. Intriguing. A goodly sip bring welcome, balanced sweet grains followed by peat and hard candy, which merge and develop… Then dust sprinkles in from somewhere. Almost like its from the highland part of Islay.

33.113
Islay
8 y/o
1st fill Bourbon
$85

Light liquid gold.  Jammy preserves and spices. Toaster-oven toasted malts and nose moves on to a hint of tobacco. Just-right oily. A warm, red, mid-viscous, satisfying journey ’round the palate. Slightly darker, malty sugars just shy of burnt take up residence.  Peaty, but muted… but not lacking in presence.  A pleasant, mid-tongue tingling. Enjoyable, almost robust… In a contradictorily relaxing fashion. Long lingering with hint of ash.

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Getting the Balance Right – Whisky and Running

It is no secret that I like my booze – maybe a little too much some times.  Where else would I come up with fodder for the drivel that makes up all of these posts here?  But as hard as it is to believe I do like to maintain some modicum of balance in my life when it comes to my health.  Drinking whisky and being healthy are not mutually exclusive pursuits.  Mixed in between the low key after work dram nights and complete destruction what was I thinking nights is a healthy dose running for me.  There always seems to be something that nags at me to get out and hit the road running to balance things out – possibly a form of penance or maybe a  not-so-subliminal message I picked up from an oft forgotten B side track from Depeche Mode.

In any event, my running ambitions crossed paths with my whisky interests (I like euphemisms) a little over a year ago with Glendfiddich’s Cask of Dreams.  As a refresher, Glenfiddich traveled around the US with casks to have people write their dreams and ambitions on to.  Later these casks were used to partially age the whisky that would later be bottled and released as the Cask of Dreams.  I happened by Mitch Bechard rolling one of these casks down by the Ferry Building in San Francisco by pure chance.  Without much thought I hastily scribbled one of my “dreams” onto the cask:  “One day I will run a 50K.”  It probably isn’t all that ambitious of a dream but at the time it might have been the same as me writing that I’ll walk on the moon.

This Saturday, a little over a year after memorializing my dream on the cask, I will be running the NorthFace Endurance Challenge 50K through the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  I don’t know how long it will take me but I just want to survive and finish.  What I do know though is that there is going to have to be a whole lot of whisky consumed after I recover to get the balance right.   – Chris

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Another Round of Whiskies from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America

This round of single cask expressions from the SMWSA was very diverse as well as surprising.

2.81 $120
Distilled in April 1998 – 15 y/o
First-fill Sherry butt
59.9% ABV

Color: Medium/dark copper

Nose: Christmas-time spices, a walk through Cost Plus store, what I would imagine candied rhubarb would smell like (Yes – I had an internal WTF? moment myself when this came to mind), herbal tea, figs, dark sugars and a little dusty

Palate: Sweet sherry immediately takes hold, stewed red fruits, definitely needs to be dialed down with some water, dark red (American) cherries – not the ones I see in Asia. I was happy to not sense any sulfur flavors from the Sherry butt

Finish: Medium – Chris

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Dark bronze and burnt. The nose consists of sweet leather and peaches. Bread, brown sugar and wine. The liquid is coating and dark with some heat on the center of the tongue.  Taffy and cola and spicy malts show up in short order.  Quite tasty. – Nate

23.72 $90
Distilled in July 2002 – 9 y/o
Refill Sherry butt
66.4% ABV

Color: Dull yellow

Nose: Earthy, dirty, fresh/lively peat, struck matches and burnt tires

Palate: Not as rutty as the nose initially lead on, peat is always present, tires, light saltiness, was expecting something a little fuller based on the nose, with water: brings out more burnt tire and some spices

Finish: Medium – toasted oak and peat hang around – Chris

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Bright, straw yellow. Slightly harsh and slightly sweet. A burnt malt and fumes? Touch of coals and earth? Moving on to the body shows more primordial aspects of peat and burned meat.  And A lingering increase in heat.  A bit confusing, but simplified by water. – Nate

125.48 $110
Distilled in November 1998 – 12 y/o
Re-char Hogshead
52.1% ABV

Color:  Medium yellow

Nose:  Lots of light/bright fruits up front, vanilla, bourbon influence

Palate:  some salt, strong malty presence, spicy oak bite, grassy, well balanced

Finish: Short – Chris

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Liquid gold. Sweets, tropical fruit, and honey varnish in this nose. The taste is wet and sweet, followed by malts and celery. A light, mellow finish with a slight touch of pepper and light butterscotch. – Nate

G1.8 $145
Distilled in December 1990 – 21 y/o
Refill Hogshead
62.9% ABV

Color:  Light yellow with a hint of orange

Nose:  Sharp – be careful with how close you get when you nose it, grainy sweetness, chai tea, hints of licorice

Palate:  Initial bite up front but then backs off into something mellower than the nose sets you up to believe, sweet, pretty neutral

Finish:  Short with some oak char coming through in the after taste.  – Chris

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Light yellow.  Medicine and malts. Heat, lemon, more heat and sugar round out the nose. A hot nose. The body brings on a Bourbon piña colada. Hot and malty.  Cheeks are tingling in short order. Malty malts and something with incipient heat linger. Water brings out distinctive fruit nose I can’t remember the word for.  Sour cherry Belgium. Toasted sugars and, yes, the heat is checked… Some spice in the tail, though. – Nate

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Mr. Dopeman: Shinanoya’s 5th Anniversary Chichibu Bottling

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*Image from Shinanoya’s Rakuten Site

Japan’s whisky retailer Shinanoya is quickly becoming my Mr. Dopeman by continuing to release tempting private bottling after tempting private bottling. Every time I hear about a new release from them I get the itch to pick it up. The private bottlings range from a 30 y/o Highland Park to this 3 year old Chichibu. This single cask Chichibu was aged in what Akuto San calls a chibidaru – which is a version of a quarter cask. However, the chibidaru is not constructed the same way as in Scotland. Instead of having less staves, the chibidaru staves are shortened to get to the smaller size.

This private Chichibu bottling comes in at 61%ABV with a price tag of 8,400 yen. You can order from Shinanoya here. I have not tried it, but Shinanoya does state on their site that they can ship to the US and Europe via DHL.

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