Tuesday, April 15, 2014

2 New Single Casks from Nikka

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Nikka has just started selling two single casks exclusive to their webshop. They used to offer quite a few of these, but recently, it’s been pretty quiet on the single cask front. All the more reason to be happy with these two new offerings.

One is a 1999 Yoichi (bottled at 63%), the other a 1996 Miyagikyo (bottled at 62%) – both lightly-peated. It’s also clear that prices for these sort of releases keep rising across the board. Up until a year ago, these would have been several thousand yen cheaper; now, you need to shell out 12,960 and 16,200 yen respectively. Well, every silver lining has a cloud…

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Colour Joker

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The much-anticipated Jokers are finally among us – or are they? They sure seem to be elusive. We thought it was high time someone cut through the oohs and the aahs and actually opened one. So without further ado, this is what the colour Joker told us…
© Stefan Van Eycken
On the nose, it’s got all the characteristics of vintage Hanyu, lush and hyper-fragrant as it is. The initial impressions are sandalwood, furniture polish, oregano, thyme and incense. Then, you get guimauves, candied apples, marzipan, maraschino cherries but also some gentle savoury notes (iberico ham, barbecue ribs with cranberry sauce, chicken liver paté) and a hint of saffron. If you give it time in the glass, you’ll discover all sorts of little aromas: green apple peel, tiny perfumy notes (memories of a diva’s dressing room), toasted coconut flakes, Seville orange marmalade, shortbread, Yubari melon hi-chew, marron glacé, raspberry macarons, pomegranate syrup and soft caramel (nama caramel).

The attack on the palate is all spice and citrus: Seville orange marmalade again, dark chocolate with shichimi togarashi and some raspberry sorbet thrown in for good measure. Then, you get grapefruit peel, yuzu candy, cereal notes (oat bran), hints of crème caramel and a touch of fennel. The finish is medium-long and quite dry, on dried apple mango, aniseed, tamarind and Orangina.

With water, you get more orchard fruits (apple compote, peach sauce) on the nose, and assorted berries with fresh mint and balsamic vinegar. The fennel is more pronounced and there is a tiny wisp of wood smoke (think maple wood chips). Water softens the flavours on the palate and tones down the spicy elements quite a bit. Everything is more polished and harmonized. You also get more butterscotch and a suggestion of warabi mochi with kinako and kuromitsu.  Water also considerably lengthens the finish, with spice giving way to Italian fruit jam tartlet cookies.

The colour Joker is not an either/or dram when it comes to water. It’s best to spend some time with it undiluted and then add a few drops of water and stay with it a bit more. First, you experience the kaleidoscopic intensity of the whisky.  Then, you lose yourself in the radiance of its sustained harmony.

The colour Joker is a beautiful adieu to Ichiro’s iconic card series, and for those who have had the good fortune to experience some of the drams in the series, this omnibus release (which is a vatting of whisky distilled between 1985 and 2000, finished in a wide variety of casks) will undoubtedly bring back memories of particular cards (Four of Spades, Nine of Diamonds, etc.) It’s a whisky to treasure, but remember, you treasure it by drinking it - so if you are lucky to get your hands on a bottle, do open it and share it with friends. It will taste even better...
One Joker getting close to its final destiny...

Friday, April 11, 2014

A visit to the revamped SMWS home base in Tokyo: Whisky Bar ‘The Society’

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

The Park Hotel in Shiodome, Tokyo has been the home base of members of the SMWS in the Kanto area of Japan for a while now. The folks at the Park Hotel recently redesigned and renamed the official SMWS bar – it’s now simply Whisky Bar ‘The Society’ – and are about to launch a new collaborative series of exclusive art/whisky Society bottlings. We checked out the revamped bar and sat down with manager Kouji Nanmoku for a little chat.

Nanmoku-san spent time in New York (at the Bartenders School) and in France, but he’s been a fixture at the Park Hotel bar for almost 5 years now. Because he’s been at the stick there for a while, he knows the Society bottlings inside out, which is no mean feat, given the fact that each and everyone is uniquely different and identified by a code only. When we ask Nanmoku-san which of the recent bottles have been particular favorites of his clientele, he doesn’t need much time to think: “the recent Japanese releases (distillery codes 130, 131 and 132 – Chichibu, Hanyu and Karuizawa, resp.). All 9 bottles were empty in a matter of days, but fortunately we bought two of each, so there’s still some left!”
At any given time, bar ‘The Society’ will have 100+ SMWS bottles open. The staff knows each and every one of them as if they were their own children. In fact, they know them so well that they can offer suggestions for different types of presentation. As Nanmoku-san explains, “with some of the Society’s Islay malts, you really benefit from having it in a cognac glass as opposed to the standard whisky glass that bars tend to use by default. Similarly, some Speyside malts respond better to a grappa glass.”

To illustrate his point, he reaches for bottle 29.124 ‘Pregnancy Tea Mix’, a 20yo Laphroaig. Side by side, it’s instantly clear that the cognac snifter offers a more intense experience of this particular malt than a standard whisky tasting glass. After a while, he adds a tiny bit of soda. “This Laphroaig is called ‘Pregnancy Tea Mix’, which may not mean much to the average whisky drinker, but when you add a little bit of soda, you instantly feel the connection. You get more herbal tea notes, like nettle and tarragon…”
People tend to think that, with cask-strength whiskies, there’s not all that much to do for the bartender – pour it in a glass and that’s it – but at bar ‘The Society’, the staff feel that every bottle’s got a story to tell and that the bartender has an important role to play in conjuring up those stories. That is partly the reason why the bar space is a bit more narrow now, compared with what it was like in its former incarnation as ‘Bar High Society’. “We wanted to make it more intimate,” says Nanmoku-san, “to be closer to the customer, so that we can interact more comfortably. At the same time, if visitors just want to relax and enjoy a few drams in peace and quiet or in special company, the newly designed space is perfect for that, too. The best of both worlds, really…”
Art is an integral part of the Park Hotel ambience – they’ve even got ‘Art Rooms’, i.e. standard guest rooms transformed into art environments by various artists. In their ‘ART colours’ series, they focus on the work of a different artist every season. This goes far beyond a simple exhibition. Everything in the hotel is linked with the theme/work of the artist in focus, so at the hotel’s restaurants and in the lounge, there are special menu items inspired by the art. Bar ‘The Society’ also participates in this total art immersion. On the one hand, there’s always a special cocktail designed by resident cocktail guru Takayuki Suzuki. On the other hand – and this is really exciting news for SMWS members in Japan – every art season will see the release of an exclusive Society bottle with a label featuring the art displayed at the hotel at that moment. The first one will be released in a few days (April 15th): a stunning Bowmore (3.124, ‘Vintage Cameras and Turntables’, 1995, 18yo, Refill Hogshead) with art by Chiaki Horikoshi. As Nanmoku-san says, “even though we selected it in the winter of 2013, it is absolutely perfect for this time of the year… really spring-like.” The second ‘ART colours ART label’ SMWS bottle will be out in June.
Even though ‘The Society’ is labeled as a ‘Whisky Bar’ and the whisky selection is, obviously, its greatest strength, Nanmoku-san is keen to point out that they’ve got much more there than just whisky: “We’ve got a good selection of craft beers, wine, nihonshu (among others, a special hotel-exclusive ltd edition junmai daiginjo, that ties in with the Horikoshi-exhibition called ‘El Chiaki’) and of course, a wide range of cocktails.”
Before we leave, Nanmoku-san makes us a house cocktail, which was designed by Takayuki Suzuki for the opening of the hotel, 11 years ago. “It calls for calvados, amaretto, a special very thick sort of grenadine syrup and fresh lime.” When mixed, these ingredients miraculously conjure up a taste reminiscent of home-made umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur). “That’s intentional,” says Nanmoku-san. “We wanted something that would appeal to people coming to the Park Hotel from all over the world, but with a distinct Japanese aura. This is our take on that.”

Address: c/o Shiodome Media Tower, 1-7-1 Higashi-Shimbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-7227
Hours: 5pm~

The Society will be holding a special Society Malt x Craft Beer event at the newly opened BrewDog Bar Roppongi this Sunday (13 April) at 2pm. Price is 4,000 yen for members and 5,000 yen for non-members. The Art Colours Bowmore will be available for tasting there, as will the 72.33 (a 31yo Miltonduff), the 26.93 (a fabulous 28yo Clynelish) and much more.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Whisky Festival in Osaka 2014

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo
Details about this year’s ‘Whisky Festival in Osaka’, organized by the Scotch Whisky Research Centre, have just been announced. This, the third edition will take place on Sunday June, 8th from 11am to 6pm. Interest keeps growing year after year, so the organizers have had to move to a more spacious venue, the Osaka Merchandise Mart in Tenmabashi. There will be more than 30 exhibitors as well as food booths, a cocktail area (courtesy of the Kansai chapter of the NBA) and a whisky flee market, just like last year. Advance tickets are available now at 3,500yen – on the day, you will have to pay 1,000 yen more.

Nonjatta will be there, as usual, and we look forward to reporting to you live from the festival. Here’s hoping there will be some new releases unveiled at the festival…

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Two New Stills for Hakushu Distillery

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A year after the addition of four new stills to Yamazaki distillery, Suntory has just announced it will be following suit at its Hakushu distillery. The distillery in the Southern Alps is getting an extra pair (i.e. two, not four stills) and the estimated cost of the expansion is a massive one billion yen. It is projected the first spirit will flow off the new pair of stills in September of this year. Talk about not wasting time…
Hakushu Stills © Stefan Van Eycken
Having just introduced its entry-level Hakushu and Yamazaki NAS versions in Europe, the distillery expansions are urgently needed to keep up with growing demand for all whiskies in the Suntory portfolio, both at home and abroad. The extra pair of stills at Hakushu is intended to boost capacity with about 30% at the distillery there. The big question is: where does Suntory go from here, if the sort of growth we are witnessing now is sustained over the next few years…