Whisky Squad #16 – Japan Part 1 (of at least 2)

After much speculation as to when it would happen it seems that The Whisky Squad has now officially run out of whisky to drink from Scotland. For that reason, or the more likely one that there are tasty whiskies made outside of the chilly northern territories of the UK, the month of June is to play host to two Squad sessions, both focusing on the far off land of Japan. The first of these was led by returning dodgy story king and Whisky Guy Darren Rook and focused on the world outside of Suntory, the original and biggest whisky maker in Japan. Darren has the added assistance of having a brother who lives in Japan which means that occasionally some interesting tidbits fall into his lap, some of which he kindly brought along.

Japan has had a much longer history of distilling than we in the west often think, and while their whisky industry only started in the 1920s they’d been brewing and distilling for a while by then. Along with brewing sake the Japanese have been making Shochu, a distilled drink made from a variety of grains or vegetables, and Awamori, an Okinawan distilled drink made from rice, since at least the 16th century and got rather good at it. They even aged their drinks, although mainly in clay and other fairly inactive containers, building up an industry that was huge locally but hadn’t made the leap to export until the 20th century. The probably apocryphal story of the introduction of whisky into Japan is based around an Admiral who presented a cask of Scotland’s finest to the emperor. However, as is the way of things, it didn’t go straight to him, instead going via a chain of intermediaries who all had a sample of the whisky, leading to an empty cask which didn’t quite make it to the centre of the Imperial palace. The higher echelons of society thus got a whiff of whisky and the seeds were planted for native production. The two fathers of Japanese whisky are generally considered to be Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory and Japan’s first distillery, Yamazaki, and Masataka Taketsuru, the first Japanese whisky distiller and founder of Nikka.

Taketsuru left Japan for Scotland in the 1910s and started of in Glasgow, quickly moving to Speyside. He was employed by William Grant’s at Longmorn and from there moved to Hazelburn on Campbeltown (now a brandname owned by Springbank) via a stop off in Glasgow to study for a degree. In 1920 he married Rita Cowan, a Glasgow girl, and later that year they moved back to Japan. For more about Rita I recommend Dave Broom’s article in Issue 93 of Whisky Magazine – she was an interesting lady, a medical student who left Scotland for Japan and lived through the second world war there. Taketsuru was the first distiller at Yamazaki, a position that being the only Scots trained distiller in Japan made him the only choice for, and after some moving around ended up being appointed manager of the Kotobukiya brewery – not only was this an out of the way location but it was a bit of an insult to the man who brought whisky distilling to Japan. He resigned in 1934 and founded the Yoichi distillery, and Nikka, on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Since then there have been numerous other distilleries that have appeared and disappeared for various lengths of time, but in the end only the stalwarts of Nikka and Suntory have survived the various whisky booms and busts. That said, there is an ongoing world whisky boom and some of the closed distilleries in Japan are coming back online, new ones are popping up and some older spirit is making an appearance on the local and international markets. Anyway, on to the whisky (tasted blind like usual).

IsawaFirst up was a whisky that Darren described as ‘very rare’. It was a mid-gold and from the nose I knew it was going to be a weird one – plasticine, tequila, wet forest, coriander, almonds, walnuts, PVA glue and Junior Mints (mint fondant sweets covered in fake dark US-style chocolate, I love them). Quite unlike any whisky, or other drink I’d smelled before. It was a toss-up whether I was going to like it or not, but the flavour dropped me definitely on one side of the fence – Werther’s original leading to a middle of tar and gravel, and a long dry woody finish with pencil shavings and a hint of fruit as it started to fade. This was not one for me and I announced that it was ‘my least favourite whisky’ to a generally more appreciative room. The paper was removed from the bottle to show that it was Isawa 1983. This is the first and only official release from the Monde Shuzou distillery in Yamanashi prefecture to the west of Tokyo. There’s been at least one release from a company who bought some of their whisky stocks, but this is the only single malt under the distillery’s banner, although they do produce some blends. A very strange whisky which I don’t like, but which I want a bottle of for some reason…

MWRNext was a more traditionally shaped bottle that Darren gave no hints about. On the nose it was deep and rich, with butter, bread, maple syrup, flowers, tinned peaches, cream, fennel and clove. To taste it was simpler, with caramel, sweet and sour fruit, and spicy wood leading to a long woody finish with spice and a touch of menthol. I rather liked it and was surprised to see a whisky I recognised when the bottle was revealed – Ichiro’s Mizunara Wood Reserve. This one popped up with a very reasonable price on Master of Malt when it appeared in the UK and I almost ordered a bottle. However, after reading a few reviews online I decided it was probably a bit woody for my tastes and decided to leave it, a big mistake now that it has almost doubled in price. The “Ichiro’s Malt” range of whiskies are made by distiller Ichiro Akuta who was previously at Hanyu (built by his granfather) before it closed and he founded the new Chichibu distillery. While he’s well known for the Card series of Hanyu malts (each with a different playing card as a name) he also produced a few others including the MWR, matured in casks made of mizunara, a Japanese species of oak. Mizunara brings in a different flavour profile to American and European oak, with sandalwood and incense, although in this whisky for me it was a delicate perfumed woodiness that was rather pleasant. The whisky itself is almost certainly a vatting of young malts from Chichibu and older ones from Hanyu and this has firmly gone on my ‘look for this at a reasonable price’ list.

Nikka from the BarrelNext was a very familiar whisky, having finished my own one the night before – a distinctive squat and square 50cl bottle full of quite dark whisky. On the nose it had lots of bourbon flavours – vanilla and sweet wood – as well as light rum, orange rind, sweet grapes and caramel. To taste it was rich, with sherry, dark chocolate, sour cherry and a boozy kick. The finish wasn’t too long, starting woody but leading to chocolate raisins before it faded. This was Nikka From The Barrel, a blended whisky from Yoichi and Miyagikyo vatted in batches and bottled at full strength. Most of the whisky found in Japan, as with elsewhere in the world, is blended and this shows how refined a blended whisky can be. Unlike in Scotland there isn’t much trading and selling stock between distilleries, meaning that each company needs to be able to produce its own malt and grain whiskies, as well as all of the various styles of whisky that the need to get the flavour profile of their blend. Nikka are no different, with Yoichi producing great single malts and Miyagikyo (recently rising in fame in the whisky community due to its proximity to the Fukushima nuclear plant – tests have been done and the whisky is unaffected) producing both grain and single malt. I’d also recommend this review of the From The Barrel, found by Squad co-founder Andy – much more evocative than my rather dry text…

ChichibuThe last ‘official’ whisky of the night turned out to be something I’d been looking to try for a while. On the nose there was vanilla peat (a bit like Ardbeg), “Like BBQ’d bread and butter pudding” said the indefatigable Japanophile Mr Matchett, barrels of fish, gravel, treacle and sherry. To taste there was pine smoke, sweet peat mulch, lime and lots of brine. A big punchy whisky for the end of the night, this was revealed to not actually be a whisky – Chichibu Heavily Peated Single Malt Newborn Cask #452. Chichibu is Ichiro Akuta’s new distillery and in order to keep money trickling in while the spirit matures, and to keep whisky geeks like me happy, he’s putting out a bunch of single casks at various stages of the maturation process showcasing the range of spirit and casks that he’s using. This one is very heavily peated, hence the bbq and smoky fish, and was matured in a new American oak hogshead for 3 months – July 2009 to October 2009. In that 3 months (the tail end of the hot Japanese summer) it’s drawn a lot of flavour and colour from the wood, creating something that tastes significantly older than you’d expect (as well as preparing the barrel for further filling). I’ve tried one of the unpeated casks in the past (#446) and it was rather good, but this one was something else – I’m very intrigued to see what other similar casks are like in a few years time.

The evening didn’t stop there, with Darren pulling out a selection of Drinks by the Dram as well as some samples that he’d got from Number 1 Drinks, importers of interesting Japanese whiskies to the UK. I managed to get my nose into a couple of them so here are some quick notes:

Ichiro’s King of Hearts: Nose: sherry, creosote and sandalwood. Taste: big and sweet, parma violets, toffee, dark rum. Finish: medium length, spicy wood, sherry.

Nikka Coffey: (coffey as in the type of continuous still rather than a misspelling of coffee) Nose: Pine, pineapple, resin. Taste: Big toffee and caramel, menthol, sherry fruit. Finish: long and piney.

Anyways, as I mentioned at the top this was the first of two Whisky Squad meetups this month, with the second one on the 3rd Thursday being led by UK Suntory Brand Ambassador Zoran Peric. It is, as usual, sold out (although keep an eye on twitter for drop outs) and I’m not going, the first Whisky Squad I’ve missed since I started going at #4. I’ve heard rumours that the July Squad will be continuing the overseas theme with some whiskey making its way over from the USA…

Isawa 1983
Japanese Single Malt Whisky, 43%. ~£90 for a 66cl bottle.

Ichiro’s Malt MWR (Mizunara Wood Reserve)
Japanese Single Malt Whisky, 46%. ~£90 for a 70cl bottle.

Nikka From The Barrel
Japanese Blended Whisky, 51.4% (although made in batches, so can vary). ~£25 for a 50cl bottle.

Chichibu Heavily Peated Single Malt Newborn Cask #452
Japanese Single Malt Spirit, 61.4%. Sold out, but was ~£65 for a 70cl bottle.

Alan also has a write-up over on his blog.

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