Japan is the second biggest producer of single malt whisky in the world.
It has been taking top prizes in international tastings since 2001. At the 2008 World Whisky Awards, Japan underlined its arrival on the world scene by scooping both of the top prizes - the best single malt whisky in the world and the best blended whisky in the world. In the 2011 and 2012 awards, it did the same, again leaving the best distilleries from the rest of the world to scrabble for the minor prizes.
This site is probably the most comprehensive source on Japanese whiskies for English speakers. It is also independent. No one who writes for Nonjatta is employed by the Japanese distillers. Sometimes we say nice things about their products, sometimes we don't.
Today's post is half-whisky-talk, half-language-lesson rolled into one. The excuse is an excellent blend that we forgot to mention when it came out a few months ago. It's the work of Ichiro Akuto and it's only available at the basement liquor section of Isetan in Shinjuku. It's called 鳳凰于飛 which is pronounced - brace yourself... - "Houou-uhi"(with macrons: "hōō-uhi"). It's not just tricky to pronounce, you will also need to be familiar with Chinese mythology to make sense of it. 鳳凰 refers to a magical Chinese firebird (also called a "phoenix") and the characters for this bird are composed of the characters for "male" and "female" respectively. The last two characters (于飛 ) can be paraphrased as "in flight (together)". I think it's quite a poetic metaphor for a whisky blend, but some people I spoke to about this weren't so sure. They felt it was a bit like a joke that you have to explain... it loses some of its power when you have to go through great lengths to get the point across. You can always look at the image on the label and make up your own story, of course. Anyway, it's a blend of Hanyu malt and Kawasaki grain - using components aged between 12 and 35 years - and it's a little masterpiece. I must admit Ichiro's blends - while perfectly decent whiskies - failed to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm in me as the rest of his range. There are two, however, that are exceptional: one is the Ichiro's Blend 33yo (which will set you back a little over 1,000 GBP but is worth every penny), the second one is this "Houou-uhi" for Isetan (modestly priced at 10,500 JPY). It was released in October 2012 and is still available. You can try-before-you-buy at Isetan - just make sure you've got enough cash on you, cause chances are you'll be leaving with a bottle or two. Another reason to seek out the liquor section in the basement is the imminent arrival of a new Isetan-exclusive Japanese single cask whisky... Oh, and they've got a handful of "Memories of Karuizawa 2" on the shelves as well... Don't you just love this place? I know I do.
Nonjatta is maintained by a team of Japanese whisky enthusiasts living both inside and outside Japan. It was founded in 2007 by Chris Bunting.
The current regular contributors includes:
Stefan - A composer, teacher and whisky enthusiast based in Tokyo. Stefan operates his own blog at Tokyo Whisky Hub, which covers the entire Tokyo whisky scene encompassing Scotch and other global whiskies, but cross posts entries directly related to Japanese whisky on Nonjatta.
Ruben of WhiskyNotes - Supplying Nonjatta with in-depth tasting notes whilst keeping an eye on the reception of Japanese whiskies on the European front.
Among the contributors over the years are:
AshDLS - A Japanese whisky fan currently living in Australia. He has spent time in Japan and has a talent for uncovering rare bottlings.
Ulf Buxrud - Author and long time fan of Japanese whisky. He published the first book in English devoted entirely to Japanese whisky in 2008.
Nicholas Coldicott - Writer for the Japan Times and numerous other publications. Knows more about the whole Japanese drinks scene than anyone I know.
John Hawkins - used to live in Japan and had some great tips on Tokyo's whisky bars at the time.
Takeshi Mogi - An incredible gentleman who has been extremely helpful in my faltering attempts to get my head around Japanese whisky. He kept the Japanese Whisky Web (now no longer online, but it was the original Japanese Whisky website in English) . I talk about him more here.
Hasse Nilsson - Chairman of the Växjö Malt Whisky Society, one of the most active and knowledgeable whisky clubs in the world.
Nick Sikorski - Nick is a Japanese specialist and is a key figure at La Maison du Whisky of Paris, one of the two main importers pioneering Japanese whisky in Europe.
Taylor Smisson - Author of the now discontinued "Malt Drinkers Diary".