5 Best Japanese Whiskies…

It is no secret I quite like Japanese whiskies. It equally is no secret I find the price-tags abhorrent and many are frustratingly difficult to find.

So when I was asked by the editor of Man’s World magazine to write about the ‘5 Best Japanese Whiskies’ for their 15th Anniversary edition, knew the biggest challenge for readers is that what is here today is gone tomorrow. He left it to me to choose and I opted to feature producers / distilleries with a mix of more readily available plus hidden gems. As we all need a gem or two!

Mans World, Oct 2015

Mans World, Oct 2015

So what whiskies were featured and why?

Naturally this article was prepared before I sampled the spectacular Karuizawa 39 year. And there is always more to discover!

Any favourite Japanese whiskies out there?

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Whisky Ladies Conquer a Cask Strength Diwali!!

We are no shy retiring missish lasses… no siree! Mumbai’s Whisky Ladies aren’t afraid to take on a trio of cask strength malts against the backdrop of India’s Festival of Lights – Diwali! After all, if firecrackers are bursting around us, why not have a few sherry bombs and whisky booms delighting our senses?

Last night we explored:

20151112_105,Chichibu2009,A'bunadh

And here is what we found…

Glenfarclas 105 NAS 60%

  • Colour – Burnished copper
  • Nose – Smells like Christmas! Very sherry-y, caramel, then vanilla notes as it opens up
  • Taste – Sweet, dark and smokey, honeyed prunes, raisins, nutty and chocolatey
  • Finish – Smooth yet also quite dry – especially with a few drops of pani (water)
  • Pairing – We just happened to have a few truffles on hand… so naturally started testing out pairings and pronounced it successful though “The kick comes back after a hit of chocolate truffles!”

Comments…

  • “It’s just like bad life choices… with caramel”
  • “Like cafe patron!”
  • “No sweet tooth here, just alcohol tooth!”
  • “Now it is simply a sherry wine bomb!”

This Speyside dram got things off to a rollicking start! Some missed the step of… “Perhaps you may wish to spit your 1st sip as going from 0% to 60% in the first swig can be a bit jarring. However our ladies were undaunted and found it became increasingly dangerous as this dram does go down rather well, easy to just keep sipping and sipping and sipping…

Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu 2009 French White Oak Cask #2357 63.1%

  • Colour – Golden straw
  • Nose – A little spicy, very sweet, light floral notes and yet can pack a punch or hit you between the eyes too!
  • Taste – Cayenne pepper, very summer-y and light, flirty, smooth yet confusing, bright and bubbly
  • Finish – Deceptive… there but much more subtle than the aroma and palate would indicate
  • Water – A couple drops of water rounds it out
  • Pairing – For some, the Chichibu and strawberries was a killer combination – who needs champagne if you have an effervescent whisky? For others, it was the brie cheese that did it. And the balance? Well… let’s just say there are a few of the opinion that chocolate goes with practically everything, doesn’t it?

Comments…

  • “From the wrong angle, just a sniff will get you!”
  • “While light and flirty, if you look at it the wrong way, it will kick you in the ass!”

This young Japanese single cask has many unique qualities and distinctly different from the straightforward Glenfarclas. It has a bright light element that completely belies its strength. Again – a dangerous combination!

Abelour A’bunadh Batch No 35 60.3%

  • Colour – A deep dark burgundy with ruby highlights
  • Nose – Cinnamon and cloves, gingerbread, honey, pronounced prunes, black cherries, Christmas cake, classic sherry-bomb
  • Taste – Apple cider, caramel, warm and smooth, very ‘Christmassy’, rum-soaked raisins, robust and bursting with character
  • Finish – Think curling up by a cosy warm fireplace…
  • Water – This one works straight yet also does a happy dance with drops or a dollop!
  • Pairing – Best with a sharp old cheddar, needs something that can hold its own with such brilliant flavours.

Comments…

  • “Beautiful things are happening in my nose! And its not what you are thinking!”
  • “This is one you notice every sip… and yes! It is probably getting you drunk…”

When the A’bunadh came out, there was literally a squeal of delight from one lady – as she would be re-uniting her taste buds with an old favourite. Talk turned to the slight shifts in flavour profiles between batches, fruitless efforts to track down certain batches from the 20s! Disbelief they are now into the 50s and a recommendation to simply ‘grab it’ if you see it!

What makes this Speyside stand out is its unabashed sherry quality. Rather than simply acquiring a sherry ‘finish,’ A’bunadh matures exclusively in Spanish Oloroso sherry butts, gaining a rich, robust and surprisingly well rounded profile.

Even better was the realisation that the price point for both Speysides remains reasonable (i.e. below $70) though the Japanese is near impossible to find at any price!

Our whisky ladies relished this cask strength trio – without a doubt a Diwali night to remember!

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Exploring Japanese whiskies – Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘The Floor Malted’ 3 year 50.5%

By now, it is quite clear that I’m a fan of Japanese whiskies. Alas two things are increasingly becoming a challenge – accessibility and affordability.

Six years ago, Suntory came to Mumbai for a trade fare to test the waters for distributing to India. I fell in love with their Hakushu even more than the lovely Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskies I could more readily obtain and had sampled many times before.

I remember following up to see if there was progress on their entering the Indian market – and more specifically the Hakushu range – at the time the answer was no.

So I would track down the nuanced character of the Hakushu 18 year in places like Singapore until the prices sky-rocketed beyond my bracket.

Since then, my interest in exploring Japanese whiskies hasn’t abated and through our fabulous Mumbai whisky tasting groups, from time to time, someone manages to snag an interesting bottle. Our journey expanded well beyond Suntory’s offerings to also explore Nikka and Ichiro’s Malts and more!

The challenge is that what we find and enjoy today is likely not available tomorrow. Nearly all of the Japanese whiskies we’ve sampled over the last few years are now found on auctions not directly through reliable sources like The Whisky Exchange or La Maison du Whisky.

For example, this delightful Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ‘The Floor Malted’ 3 year, may be relatively well-known but not so easy to find. So read on… as you may not be able to track down a bottle… which is a pity!

Chichubu The Floor Malted

Ichiro’s MaltChichibu The Floor Malted 3 year, 50.5%

  • Colour – Light, young and sassy
  • Nose – Bright fresh peaches, dried apricot and coconut… after airing a bit, bananas and sweet honeyed caramel also made an appearance
  • Taste – Strong, dry and nutty with a coffee bean bite, bitter-sweet and very woody
  • Finish – Woody, coffee lingered
  • Water? Too piquant for most, water spoilt it with even only a few drops

Reactions from blind tasting – Scottish or not? Must be matured in burboun casks, hence the honey and fruit, age indeterminate… but definitely interesting

The reveal – A more difficult to find Japanese offering that is a mere three years old! From 2009, bottled in 2012. We sampled bottle # 8791 of 8800.

Originally tasted October 2014 together with Blair Athol 16 year and Glen Deveron 20 year.

It was, more than many other of our tasting sessions, a perfect example of how age is not the most important factor in producing an interesting whisky. The character of the new make spirit, cask quality and care in maturation can enable a young upstart of only three years to challenge a mature 20 year old.

Interested in exploring other Ichiro’s Malt?

And Suntory?

Or go discover Nikka‘s offerings…

From time to time, you can also find other whisky related updates and activities on:

Japanese tasting session – take 2!

In February 2015, I shared tasting notes of four delightful Japanese whiskies:
After the 1st session, I had an opportunity to ‘revisit’ with one member (who missed the original tasting) together with his partner (who joined the original tasting) and two new folks.
It was worth doing a 2nd time and this is certainly my preferred practice:
  • Sample with a fresh bottle.
  • Revisit the same bottle after some time – perhaps a slightly different setting – either with new company or solo.
Four key observations from this revisit:
  • Timing is everything! Just as we found in the original session the Taketsuru Pure Malt absolutely needs time to breath, the Chita should be quickly savoured as the complexity settles into a singular note after an hour.
  • Size does matter! We sampled exactly the same whisky in exactly the same Glencairn glass yet there was a dramatic difference whether we were nosing a few drops versus a proper dram. With a small quantity, two of us delightedly exclaiming about discovering prominent overripe banana notes with the Chita whereas those with a fuller glass were puzzled as there was no hint of banana initially. So we exchanged and found the difference in nose remarkable!
  • Open, shut and open again – Cracking open a fresh bottle is a very different experience than one that has had time to evapourate… The Taketsuru Pure Malt was initially a massive disappointment not just due to the order and minimal time to breath but also as it was just opened. Even the 1st whiff poured the second night was far more interesting. Similarly the lemon we originally found in the newly opened Chita and Ichiro’s Malt 46.5% (possibly Houou-uhi) were completely absent the second time.
  • When you get the order right, it is just right! We were much better able to appreciate the Taketsuru Pure Malt when it followed the Chita rather than the robust Chichibu. We then tried the Ichiro’s mystery malt (possibly Houou-uhi) before closing with the Chichibu French Oak cask. Muuuuuuuch smarter!
Our Japanese collection revisited!

Our Japanese collection revisited!

Many of the original tasting notes rang true, however there were a few notable differences which I’ve shared below.
  • Nose – Champion pungency vs overripe bananas… as it opened up, perfumed eraser and fresh cut wood. We completely lost the lemony element found in the 1st tasting.
  • Taste – Harsh then mellows, described by one as a very ‘technical’ whisky rather than ‘easy drinking’ whisky, superb body, honey water, hint of mint, muddle of clove, cinnamon and saffron
  • Finish – Shifted from short yet happy to spicy with a dash of bitter, sits well
  • Final observation – While the delightful perfume remained and this is still quite a unique whisky, it does not stand the test of time… the more it aired, the more the ranges of notes reduced to a single perfume. Not sure I would want to leave this on the shelf for long!
  • Nose – Smelly socks, figs, apricots that opened further into a meaty aroma, then over-burnt sugar
  • Taste – Meaty, spice, dried kopra, well balanced spice, like a pullao with kala eleichi, yet subtle too
  • Finish – Sooooo dry  initially, subtle and long
  • Final observation – The musky quality we originally observed is very much there as is its dryness. It really is a different beast with time to breathe. It also remained throughout the evening a whisky that could hold its own.
  • Nose – Vanilla, honey, flower, coconut, cognac yet none of the earlier lemon or nori
  • Taste – Gorgeous oaky flavour, Ghana bitter dark chocolate, cognac quality remained
  • Finish – Mature, lingers… really quite fabulous
  • Final observation – Phenomenal how the palate is as good as the nose, brilliantly balanced
  • Nose – Star anise, gentle, soft pulpy fruit, refreshing sea breeze, fig, hint of sourness… one member actually stepped out to independently to determine his key impression and settled on ginger. The moment he said it, there was a collective ‘Ah yes! That’s it!’
  • Taste – Magnificent, mixed peppercorns of red, pink, white and green, intelligent, complex, remained deliciously ‘chewy’
  • Finish – Long and strong
  • Add water – Fruit gum, ginger honey and spice
  • Final observation – The new tasters were as stunned as we were in the original tasting about the alcohol strength. It also gives the impression of being much older than 5 years.
This experiment re-inforced my appreciation of the ‘life cycle’ of a whisky bottle. It also was most enjoyable to revisit four such interesting whiskies with excellent company on both occasions.
Slainthe!

Mystery Malt – Ichiro’s Malt 46.5% from Isetan Shinjuku

The Isetan Department store basement in Shinjuku has a remarkable whisky collection and sampling bar – a veritable wonderland for whisky afficianados.

I was like a kid in a candy store however trying to find someone who could help was slightly challenging given my non-existent Japanese. Hence figuring out what I was potentially buying involved some guess-work.

One goal was to track down something from the elusive discontinued Karuizawa, Kawasaki or Hanyu distilleries. Which definitely meant more carefully checking out the Ichiro’s Malt offerings as they astutely bought the Kawasaki and Hanyu discontinued stock.

Ichiro's Malt 46.5%

Ichiro’s Malt 46.5% (Whisky Lady)

However… I’m not entirely sure if I succeeded in my mission!

My best guess is that this particular whisky is a special bottling for Isetan using a blend of both rare Kawasaki whisky with Hanyu, sometimes found under the label ‘Houou-uhi’ (roughly translates as Pheonix).

If I am wrong, I would very much appreciate being corrected and educated further!

Ichiro's Malt 46.5% (Isetan Shinjinku)

Ichiro’s Malt 46.5% from Isetan Shinjuku (Whisky Lady)

Ichiro’s Malt 46.5% (Isetan Shinjuku) 
  • Colour – Deep copper
  • Nose – Lemon, mustiness of the rainy season, mud from a wet forest, nori like the seaweed used in sushi wraps, hint of jasmine perfume… as it aired a subtle complex perfume enveloped
  • Taste – Like a dry fine cognac, wood, oil, pepper spices, matured roasted Indian spices, sense of sea, distinctly ‘Asian’ merging sweet, salt and spice perfectly
  • Finish – Long majestic finish, very refined
Ichiro's Malt 46.5%... Houou-uhi?

Ichiro’s Malt 46.5%… Houou-uhi? (Whisky Lady)

Impression:

  • Without a doubt this was the show stopper of the evening
  • A grand dame in her full finery!
Unveiling:
  • Part way through our discussion, I received an update from my Japanese friend in Amsterdam that she also believes it is Houou-Uhi – a blend Hanyu Distillery (12 & 20 year) and single grain whiskies from Kawasaki (30, 32 and 35 year)
  • Bottled exclusively for Isetan and, as far as I can tell, only available in its Tokyo Shinjuku store – or perhaps on auction?
  • The bottle and packaging alone are unique and elegant. The only other 200 ml bottle I’ve seen is on Whisyrific’s post about Ichiro’s Malt 1991 Hanyu

However I’m still not 100% certain we correctly identified it… The bottle I have does not state that it is a blend (whereas other labels do)… and the only number I can decipher in the notes is 30 (not the other years). Despite several attempts, I cannot seem to find a combination of Ichiro’s Malt, 46.5% and 30 other than the Houou-Uhi blend!

Ichiro's 'Mystery' Malt 46.5%

Ichiro’s ‘Mystery’ Malt 46.5% (Whisky Lady)

PS – A couple of us revisited it last night. Alas the delightful zesty lemon nose had evaporated. The sense of seaweed also dampened however there was more of a honey vanilla that emerged and the flowery perfume remained – I would still identify it best as jasmine. The cognac-like element was prominent, as was the oak. Some also described it as having a dark bitter chocolate quality. Key was unlike many whiskies that simply do not live up to their nose – this one absolutely does! Overall brilliantly balanced. Whatever this mystery malt truly is… if you spot it, grab it!

Similar labels:

We sampled this together with  Suntory’s Chita Single Grain WhiskyNikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Year and Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask as part of a Japanese themed tasting session held on 19 February and again on 26 February 2015.

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Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask 63.1%

When I spotted this cask strength Chichibu in the Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku, Tokyo in July 2014, our whisky tasting group had never tried anything from this distillery before. As my quest was to find something ‘different’ and ‘difficult to source’ outside of Japan, a recent release from Ichiro’s Malt seemed to meet the criteria perfectly!

Now, clearly great minds think alike as another Chichibu – specifically the 3 year ‘The Floor Malted‘ – was sourced by another of our whisky tasting members. We sampled it in October 2014 and it could easily hold its own against older whiskies.

So what about this particular whisky? Well… here is where it gets interesting!

Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask

Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask (Whisky Lady)

Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask 63.1%, Cask number 2357, Bottled in 2014

First impression – solo interpretation

Confession time – I lost patience waiting from July 2014 to February 2015 for my next turn to curate our whisky evening… so I cracked open the bottle early and here is what I discovered:

  • Colour – Bright gold
  • Nose – A delightful burst of notes – strong sweet vanilla, tropical fruits, overripe banana, a deeper hint of chocolaty mint and cinnamon
  • Palate – Something slightly ‘rancio’, the fruits having an overripe quality, woodsy, a tinge oily and very chewy, the chocolate re-emerging
  • Finish – Spicy, nutty, slightly disappointing – sense of being a bit brash and ‘young’
  • Water? – Most certainly!

Second impression – group effort

Now here is what happened when I shared the same bottle with our intrepid tasters:

  • Nose – Medicinal, sweet perfume but with more depth and fruit than the Chita, pronounced pears, the more it aired the more we discovered – a whiff of grain, warm breeze on grass… then French vanilla… after sipping could smell dark molasses and cinnamon
  • Taste – Immediate sense of an aged whisky bursting with character, had punch, spice, very chewy, leather, bit of brine, woodsy
  • Finish – Coffee, bitter yet warm, hint of nuttiness and dark chocolate
  • Add water – This was definitely one we wanted to add water… Even dryer, woody elements emerged,  almost like eating rose petals, the French vanilla also became even more pronounced
Reactions:
  • Has ‘teeth’ and a ‘bit more alcohol’ than the Chita… perhaps 48%??
  • Also gave the sense of age given its robust character – something to feast on!
  • One suggested it was so chewy you felt like you could eat it!
Unveiling:
  • Very deceptive… absolutely unbelievable that it is cask strength at 63.1%
  • Also had the range and depth one would expect from an older whisky – remarkable it is only 2009 i.e. 5 year
  • I shared had opened it earlier so it had the advantage / disadvantage of a little bit of ‘air’ even before we sampled it together – in this case I believe it was an advantage
  • Overall an impressive whisky

I revisited my solo tasting notes only when writing this post – you can see that much overlapped but also some differences – including the finish.

What is so delightful about having a small group of friends taste together is the different descriptions and reactions. As we taste blind, we are also not influenced by origin, age, packaging, what we may have heard about a particular whisky… or even a previous acquaintance with the same whisky! Only the host knows what we are trying and we take seriously being ‘mum’ to not influence our fellow tasters.

Taste is deeply personal yet I find it tremendously enriching to have company when exploring the world of whisky… and pleased could share something less readily accessible.

Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask

Chichibu 2009 French Oak Cask (Whisky Lady)

We sampled this together with Suntory’s Chita Single Grain Whisky, Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt 17 Year and Ichiro’s Malt – possibly Houou-uhi in February 2015.

What others are saying:

  • Nonjatta – Brief note on the French Oak Cask and Chibidaru Cask
  • e-Ting – Mentions this release and the very same Isetan Shinjuku where I bought the whisky
  • Whisky Saga – On visiting the Chichibu distillery

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