Japanese Whisky

Hakushu Distillers Reserve

Reviewed by: Ted

Hakushu Distillers Edition

It can be a tricky and expensive task getting hold of age-statement Japanese whisky these days. If you’ve been paying attention to global whisky trends over the last five years-or-so, then you’ll know that Japanese whisky has been bang on-point and very much in demand by the smart set. The boom in sales, both locally and overseas, and a slight lack of foresight around barrel management has seen distillery stocks dwindle, so much so that that the two major players, Suntory and Nikka, have had to temporarily discontinue certain aged releases from their distilleries.

Naturally, the shortage in stocks has caused prices to skyrocket. I mean, just the other week I had the opportunity to buy a Yamazaki 50yo 3rd Edition 2011 Release for the low, low price of $157,763.99USD (I lashed out and got three)! Now, admittedly that is a bit of an outlier on the super-premium end of the scale, but even 12yo releases (if you can find them) are generally no less than $150AUD and more often than not well over $200.

So what does a common-or-garden whisky drinker do if you want to own a Japanese whisky without having to count your kidneys? Well, as it happens, there is an answer. These days most Japanese distilleries offer a Non Age Statement release of their product. While superficially a marketing device, the NAS releases are actually crucial for the ongoing survival of the distilleries, allowing continued market access by marrying dwindling older barrels with younger stock coming online.

An example of this is the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. While you can still find the 12yo for around $180, the distillers edition is available for a far more wallet pleasing $110. Located NW of Tokyo near Hokuto, an unusual feature of the Suntory owned Hakushu is that it boasts a bird sanctuary within its leafy grounds at the base of Mt Kaikomagatake in the Southern Japanese Alps.

Apparently the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve marries younger lightly peated malt and heavily peated malt around the 8yo mark with American oak-aged spirit of around 18yo. Or so the internet, repository of all things, tells me; you certainly wouldn’t pick it as being peated if you tried it blind.

On the nose the Distiller’s Reserve is bright, fresh and zingy, delivering a satisfying bouquet of crunchy green apples, sour plum, lemon grass, mint and citrus (Yuzu if you want to get technical according to Hakushu). The scent is clean and light, like a crisply pressed kimono, although after a bit of breathing time it develops a softer, creamy edge.

On the palate the spirit is sharp, clean and metallic, like a samurai sword across the tongue, and delivers a hit of hard, sour stone fruits and a twist of lemon rind. The finish is lingering and herbal, with perhaps a touch of green tea. Couldn’t find that smoke though I’m afraid, although to be honest, with the flavour profile presented by the Distiller’s Reserve I didn’t miss it either.

People quite often get a bit salty about the concept of NAS releases, considering them to be inferior to age statement releases (often without real justification… although sometimes merited for sure, but we won’t go into that particular Reserve here). I am pleased to say however, that in this case the NAS epithet is not a negative one.

But that’s what the Japanese do isn’t it? They take a thing, study it with care and then make not just a copy, but something that is even better than the original. Which is lucky really seeing as the Distiller’s Reserve will be about all we can reasonably get our hands on from Hakushu for the foreseeable future. In conclusion, if you want to see a NAS done right, then look no further than the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve.

★★★

Iwai

Reviewed by: Ted

Iwai

Japanese culture is intriguingly dichotomous in nature. On one hand you have a proud culture with ancient, beautiful and highly ritualised traditions such as the tea ceremony. On the other hand, as anyone who has had the confusing pleasure of watching a Japanese gameshow can attest, there is a definite kooky streak to the inhabitants of the Land of the Rising Sun.

This duality of nature can also extend to the whisky that the Japanese produce. Shinshu Mars Distillery, located in Nagano Prefecture, was built by the Hombo family in 1985 but was closed in 1992 due to a decline in the local whisky market. It reopened in 2011 and is apparently considered to be well respected in the Japanese market. So far so traditional; it’s the whisky that they produce that’s a bit weird.

Iwai, named after Kiichiro Iwai who designed the stills, is one of the base releases for Shinshu Mars. According to one of the few bits of information written in English on the packaging it is aged in small bourbon casks, which rather confused me when I first opened the box. Instead of the normal pale straw colour that you would expect from a bourbon barrel aged whisky, the Iwai is instead the deep, rich amber colour of a whisky aged in port or sherry casks… Or one that’s had E150 caramel colouring added to spruce it up a bit, which was a thought that crossed my mind until I stumbled across a rather curious nugget of information.

Turns out that mash bill for the Iwai is mostly corn, with malted barley making up the remainder. So for all intents and purposes, the Iwai is essentially a Japanese bourbon! How mad is that!? No wonder the colour is so dark. The flavours also make much more sense when considered in the context of an American whisky rather than the Scottish style that is predominantly produced in Japan.

The nose of the Iwai is dominated by sweet, buttery caramel which hangs fat and low. Underneath sits hints of rose petals, vanilla and almonds, with a touch of salt thrown in at the end. You occasionally hit a bit of a rough edge, but it doesn’t throw things out too much. On the palate the Iwai is thick and oily, with a dull spiciness that crawls over the front of the tongue. Sticky dried fruits, aromatic spices and a grating of fresh ginger stroll casually through the middle, while the finish is gentle and tingly, with a slight apple sign-off.

While the Iwai isn’t the best Japanese whisky you will ever taste, it’s certainly one of the most interesting. There definitely isn’t anything else like it kicking about in Japan (at least that I’ve encountered). To be honest, it’s probably better than quite a few cheap real Bourbons. But then, the Japanese have always been good at taking the ideas of the west, tinkering about with them a bit, and then adding their own quirky spin to make something that is all their own.

★★

Miyagikyo 12 Year Old

Posted by: Ted

Nikka Miyagikyo whisky waffle

More Japanese whisky? Bring it on! For your delectation (or mine rather, seeing as I’m the one drinking it. Go find your own) we have another drop from Nikka, one of the two big players in the Japanese whisky market.

Because Japan is a collection of islands, Nikka and its rival Suntory each own a bunch of distilleries scattered around the archipelago, with each providing its own special character and techniques.

Miyagikyo distillery is based in Sendai on Honshu, the largest of the islands. The distillery was founded by the legendary Japanese whisky maker Masataka Taketsuru. Quite unusually, Miyagikyo apparently makes both single malts and grain whiskies at their site.

The peculiarities don’t stop there. According to Nikka, Miyagikyo uses steam heat distillation to create their product, a process where steam is introduced into the distillation apparatus to carry the volatised compounds into the condensation flask. Whether this changes the flavour in any significant way I will leave up to you.

On the nose the Miyagikyo has that hot and sour Japanese vibe, like honey and lemon tea with a hint of ginger. As it first enters your mouth the spirit is silky smooth, quickly turning dry and dustily spicy. Pepper, caramel, metal, sour plum (which seems to be a common factor in Japanese drams) and lemon drops crawl fuzzily across the tongue. Tartness and sweetness make well balanced bed-fellows.

The Miyagikyo is a very laid back Japanese drop. Probably something best drunk while contemplating the universe in a garden of falling cherry blossom.

Rising Sun spirit/

Tranquil Miyagikyo flows/

The zen of amber/

★★★

Nikka from the Barrel

Reviewed by: Ted

Nikka from the Barrel

I’ve been at it again! For those who remember my Akashi review, I seem to have picked up a habit of reviewing Japanese whiskies at a particular bar that I occasionally habituate. Not a bad vice I must admit.

This visit’s subject is Nikka from the Barrel, which comes in an intriguingly plain, stubby little 500ml bottle. The labelling is sparse to say the least, and not particularly useful if, like me, you cannot read Japanese.

It’s not only the bottle that has limited information. The little that I could find out about this drop is that it is a blend (or as Nikka claims, a marriage) of matured malt and grain whiskies from re-casked barrels.

Bottled at 51.4%, the Nikka has a robust, gutsy nose. Dark honey, peach, apricot and orange jump on to the old scent receptors, although m’colleague swears blind that he could smell corned beef (odd man).

On the palate the Nikka is rich and syrupy, with notes of burnt sugar, oak, sultanas and honey, followed up by a pleasant herbal bitterness that reminds me of Speyside. I would take an educated guess that sherry barrels have played a part in the blend, as something of that quality seems to shine through.

The Nikka from the Barrel is a fantastic Japanese blend. It’s bold, gutsy, fun and will put a grin on your dial. Definitely give it some attention if you come across a bottle.

★★★

White Oak Akashi + 12yo

Reviwed by: Ted

White Oak Akashi vs White Oak 12 Year Old

Akashi White Oak

Just a quick review hastily scribbled down at the bar about two whiskies out of Japan. Founded in 1888, White Oak Distillery is one of the lesser known distilleries outside of its home country, only selling to the local market until 1984. Apparently though, White Oak was the first distillery in Japan to gain an official license, pre-dating Suntory and Nikka, the two major players in the Japanese whisky scene.

White Oak releases are less common in Australia, particularly aged releases. Luckily the bar that I am currently at had the presence of mind to have not one, but two of them hiding on the top shelf, prompting this on-the-spot review. The two White Oak examples perched on the bar before me are the Akashi Non Age Statement (NAS) and the 12 Year Old.

I cannot provide much more background to the two bottles as all the information is (unsurprisingly) written in Japanese, but I can reveal that the Akashi is much lighter in colour than the 12yo, which has a nice amber tone. On the nose the Akashi is fairly insubstantial, with only a light sweetness coming through. In comparison the 12yo has a strange sulphuric tang. It’s almost smoky at first, but quickly turns chemical.

The chemical vibe continues on the palate, with a smoky sulphuric quality that tastes like the water could have been drawn from a mineral-rich hot volcanic pool on the side of a Japanese mountain. Against this the Akashi tastes lightly bitter/sweet, not venturing too far in either direction.

In conclusion, the Akashi, while pleasant, is a bit of a non-event, showing a rather bland personality. In complete contrast the 12yo is full of character, but unfortunately the sort of unpleasant character that you might meet down a dodgy alley on a dark night. While curious to try, the 12yo definitely won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and the Akashi certainly won’t turn any heads down the street. It seems that White Oak is more miss than hit, but whether it’s older releases can redeem it will have to wait for another day.

Akashi: ★

12 Year Old: ★★

 

Yamazaki Distillers Reserve

Reviewed by: Nick

Yamazaki Distillers Reserve whisky waffle

Even the most diehard Scotch whisky traditionalists can no longer argue that countries other than Scotland cannot produce top quality single malts. Japan has become one of the leaders in New-World whisky-making and recent awards, such as the number one spot in Jim Murray’s 2015 whisky bible, suggest that the status quo is changing – slightly – but noticeably.

The establishment responsible for the latest-greatest single malt is Yamazaki, Japan’s oldest distillery. Some of their products are undoubtedly spectacular and produce flavours that will stand out in any collection. Others, however, are more content to blend into the background.

The Yamazaki Distillers Reserve features younger spirits matured in ex-red wine casks married with older sherry and Japanese oak (mizunara) casks. The results are pleasant, although certainly not world-beating.

Dark fruits are immediately noticeable on the nose along with some sappier floral notes. There is also a slight dollop of vanilla with subtle hints of wood shavings. It is lively across the palate – spicy and challenging and certainly not smooth. Although far from sweet, it contains notes of stewed apricots and raspberry jam, but these compete for attention with oaky tannins and form an intriguing but overall unbalanced flavour. There is a bitterness to the finish which partially hides the more pleasant fruitier notes and the overall impression is one of ‘so close, but yet so far’.

The Yamazaki Distillers Reserve is far from a bad whisky. It is interesting, challenging and uniquely Japanese. It is, however, far from Yamazaki’s best drop and certainly lacks the balance of flavours found among the distillery’s more accomplished products.

★★

Yamazaki 12 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Yamazaki 12 whisky waffle

If you stood at the top of Ben Nevis in the highlands of Scotland and turned your eyes eastwards, then you would probably just see quite a lot of Scotland to be honest. However, if you had truly exceptional eyesight, even better than the elf eyes of Legolas, then in the far East you may be able to see a mighty chain of islands under the rising sun (this is of course assuming that your amazing eyes can penetrate Scottish rain!).

The islands of course form the ancient nation of Japan, a place of legends and gods, samurais and ninjas, geisha girls, and very strict tea parties. A curious thing you may not have expected to find in Japan is a fully fledged whisky industry… and yet Japan is the third largest producer of the amber drop behind Scotland and America, and is home to some of the greatest whiskies in the world.

As a country, Japan has only a relatively short history of making whisky, and like Australia the modern scene has its origins in a conscious decision to start an industry. After the introduction of Scotch whisky to Japan in the late 1800’s, a primordial ooze of distillers formed, but it wasn’t until 1923 that the first serious attempt emerged with the founding of Yamazaki distillery by Shinjirro Torii.

Apparently the initial releases were not favourable and so Torii hired a fellow countryman by the name of Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru had studied in Scotland in the early 1910’s, and after marrying Kirkintilloch girl Jessie ‘Rita’ Cowan, worked at Hazelburn distillery for several years before returning to Japan. The in-depth knowledge of whisky making Taketsuru gained in Scotland provided the crucial spark that Torii needed to make a worthy dram.

Thanks to the work of Torii and Taketsuru, modern Japanese whisky shares much in common with Scotch whisky, helped by the fact that Japan has a similar climate and terrain to Scotland. Yamazaki distillery (owned by Suntory, one of the two major players in the Japanese whisky industry) is located in the outskirts of Kyoto on Japan’s main island of Honshu.

The Yamazaki 12yr old was the first Japanese whisky I ever tried, and it piqued my interest in the malts of those eastern isles. The colour is a burnished gold that would be at home in a Japanese shrine. The nose is sweet and intensely fruit driven, with a strong scent of red pears backed with a light hint of mandarins.

The flavour is bright, and bursts in a wave across the tongue and roof of the mouth. After an initial sweet hit, sharp tangy citrus flavours dominate the tastebuds and charge up to the back of the nose. The finish is lightly dry with a slight bittersweetness, and brings to mind the feeling left after eating a green chewy lolly.

Although the bright, sharp flavours may not be to everyone’s tastes, the Yamazaki 12 is a great starting point for anyone wanting to try Japanese whisky, and not only because it comes from the oldest commercial distillery in Japan. The Yamazaki 12 provides a glimpse into the mind of a new whisky culture, one forged out of the soul of an ancient civilisation. Kampai!

★★★