Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bar Review #13: Zoetrope (Tokyo, Japan)

Moving onto the first (of many) bar reviews from our recent Japan Trip - kicking off with Zoetrope in Shinjuku, Tokyo....

There are many brilliant whisky bars in Japan, but Zoetrope (a Tokyo institution for 9 years) was firmly at the top of my list when planning our Japan trip (actually, it's been there for a few years, since I first read about it on Nonjatta).

Zoetrope (technically "Shot Bar Zoetrope*"), like many Tokyo bars is hidden in a nondescript city building, up a few floors, accessed by a slow and dinky lift. Now while the term "shot bar" might recall images of a dingy tourist bar in Hong Kong's LKF, or a seedy Kings Cross bar (before the lockout laws turned into a sleepy wasteland post-2am), nothing could be farther from the truth. All over Japan, it seems, "shot bar" just refers to a bar with a collection of spirits (in many cases, especially here, bloody fine ones).


We arrived at opening time, first patrons, and promptly took a seat in front of the bar, right in front of this, which set the tone for the night nicely....

Yes - Ichiro's Malt "Cards" bottles, that aren't empty, and don't cost an arm and a leg for a dram!
A very quick history lesson for those unfamiliar with these bottles. Ichiro Akuto's grandfather Isouji Akuto founded the Hanyu Distillery, north-west of Tokyo, which ceased production in 2000. Ichiro inherited the remaining stock, and like the enterprising chap he was, bottled a lot of it as a series of "Cards" - some vattings, some single casks. Despite selling for pretty reasonable sums at the time of release (many were under $85AUD / $550HKD), they quickly gained a cult following and rapidly shot up in price. One of the final bottlings (the elusive "Colour Joker") now sells for around $2,000AUD / $12,300HKD anywhere you're lucky enough to find it. I actually did spot a bottle on a shelf in Osaka, but sadly the shop clearly knew its value...

Suffice to say that any remaining bottles are incredibly rare, sought-after, and usually cost a pretty penny. We've been in bars with Ichiro's Malt bottles available, but usually one or two, and usually for far more than I'm willing to pay for a dram of whisky (and I'm willing to pay a lot for certain whiskies...).

So seeing 8+ available, generally for under ¥3000 ($30AUD / $185HKD) for a dram, with many closer to ¥2000, was a very welcome sight! The fact that the bar also did half-drams for anything over ¥1600 was an added bonus (they did previously have a Colour Joker available for ¥2800/dram, but unsurprisingly had sold out).


Zoetrope isn't a large bar, with only 6 seats at the bar and 3 tables, but it's not the smallest whisky bar we visited (more on that in a future post), and they make the most of every available inch by cramming it full of whisky. A ¥600 cover charge applies to all guests (as we found was the case with most Japanese bars), but this is more than made up for considering the prices:


Japanese whisky is definitely the focus, and if you're not into interesting or weird/wonderful Japanese whiskies, you can nurse a Nikka from the Barrel for a measly ¥600, or try one of their well thought-out tasting sets. For the enthusiast though, we recommend browsing the list, picking out 1 or 2 (or 5) that you thought you'd never get to try, and ordering half-drams. You can't go wrong...

..well, maybe with the section of the menu labelled "we don't recommend the products below", which included gems such as "Royal Crystal" (¥400), Single Malt Isawa 1983 (¥800) and "Mushu Cask Strength" (¥1800). We didn't venture into this territory, but I have tried a 1984 Isawa previously and it was drinkable (just not hugely enjoyable).

Owner Atsushi Horigami speaks English (though in general we found that if you learn just a few Japanese words, it makes your trip that much more enjoyable) and is also a massive film buff, so don't be surprised to see some vintage movies, or even animation being belted out on the project at the back of the room:


You know a bar is popular and well-loved (usually) when they have their own bottling (such a bottling also being one of my #101drams whiskies). Zoetrope doesn't have one. They have three. A Chichibu single cask, a Hanyu single cask, and an Akashu two-cask vatting. The first two for ¥1500, the latter for ¥1000 (and they were all very enjoyable).


Zoetrope is a Japanese whisky institution, and with good reason. The selection is fantastic, the bar itself inviting, and the prices excellent. With the popularity of Japanese whisky soaring though, we recommend going sooner rather than later. Atsushi relayed to us the story of a recent limited bottling he tried to get his hands on from the department store Isetan. Despite being there at opening time (on the morning the whisky went on sale), he simply wasn't quick enough to run down to the liquor department, and by the time he got there, it was all gone... (no doubt to appear on an auction site at 5 times the value later that night).

That's the Japanese whisky scene for you...

 
Tasting notes up shortly.

Cheers,
Martin.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Tasted #153 - #156: Two single cask Yamazakis and two Yamazaki 12 component whiskies

As mentioned the other day, our visit to the Suntory Hakushu distillery last month uncovered an amazing find in the form of the distillery bar, with some seriously cheap whiskies for tasting (see the article or photo below for examples).

Of course, being TimeforWhisky.com, we weren't going to taste all those whiskies and not write about them, were we? No, no we weren't. We already covered the first four (Hakushu and Chita) whiskies tasted a few days ago, so now it's onto the Yamazaki whiskies we tried during the same visit...

Yamazaki 1986 Single Cask (51% ABV, cask 6B0168, NAS, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Dark, rich copper.
Nose: Molasses, cask strength rum!
Palate: Furniture polish, leather, slightly sour, but not to the point of spoiling the experience.
Finish: Incredibly short, sour and oaky.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100.


Yamazaki 1995 Single Cask (62% ABV, cask 5P70008 NAS, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Pale straw.
Nose: Sweet. with honey-like, ex-bourbon sweetness.
Palate: Mouth-filling and rich. Slightly hot. Lamingtons and cake icing.
Finish: Short, sweet and hot.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100.


Yamazaki "Sherry Cask" component whisky for Yamazaki 12 (50% ABV, 12yo, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Dark copper.
Nose: Very sweet - at a guess I'd say ex-PX. Plums and berries.
Palate: Cherry-like. Much dryer than the nose suggests. Hints of port, big bold shiraz, and dark rich red berries.
Finish: Short and drying, with lots of oak influence.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 89/100. Not bad but not something I'd choose to drink every day.


Yamazaki "Mizunara Cask" component whisky for Yamazaki 12 (50% ABV, 12yo, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Yellow golden
Nose: Coconut and paprika. Lots of pepper and spice.
Palate: Banana toast (but not like a young whisky or new make) sprinkled with coconut.
Finish: Medium length, drying and "dusty. Hints of spice at the very end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 89/100. 



Cheers,
Martin.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Tasted #149 - #152: Hakushu 18, New Make, "smoky" component and Chita New Make

As mentioned the other day, our visit to the Suntory Hakushu distillery last month uncovered an amazing find in the form of the distillery bar, with some seriously cheap whiskies for tasting (see the article or photo below for examples), many of which aren't available to purchase, or likely taste anywhere else in the world (except perhaps the Yamazaki distillery).

Of course, being TimeforWhisky.com, we weren't going to taste all those whiskies and not write about them, were we? No, no we weren't....so here are the Hakushu and Chita whiskies (and spirits) we tasted:

Hakushu 18 (43% ABV, 18yo, Japan, $250AUD$2,400HKD)
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Colour: Deep orange copper
Nose: Earthy, hints of pine needles. The slightest hint of smoke.
Palate: Spicy earthiness, moss, some sesame.
Finish: Long, smooth and enjoyable. Moss, oak, and sesame crackers.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 92/100.


Hakushu new make spirit (70% ABV, unaged, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Deep, dark copper...ha no, I kid. Clear as water, obviously.
Nose: Grassy earthiness, with some kitchen cleaning products (but in a good way...?)
Palate: Earthy bubblegum.
Finish: Hot, as expected, and medium length. The alcohol esters are there, but they don't ruin the finish.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100. As far as new makes go, not a bad one. And quite different to the usual banana / strong bubble gum notes you get on a lot of others.


"Smoky" component malt for Hakushu 12 (50% ABV, 12yo, Japan, not available for purchase)
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Colour: Pale straw
Nose: Campfire smokiness, obvious peat, with an earthy undertone.
Palate: Fresh woodfired bread, shortbread biscuits, and a lot of peat smoke.
Finish: Medium and peaty to the end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 90/100.


Chita New Make Grain Distillate (58% ABV, unaged, Japan, not available for purchase)
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Colour: Clear as day
Nose: Windex, spirytus. Not a lot of complexity.
Palate: Surprisingly light - very few discernible qualities. Some bananas, some pineapple. Quite hot.
Finish: Short and plain, with no real stand-out characteristics.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 80/100. Nowhere near as complex or enjoyable as the Hibiki NMS.



Cheers,
Martin.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Distillery Tour #2: Suntory Hakushu Distillery (Japan)

As promised 2 or so weeks ago we're kicking off the first of many JapanTour14 posts, with a tour of Suntory's Hakushu Distillery, a few hours West of Tokyo.

Both Suntory tours (the Yamazaki tour post will be up soon) took a bit of planning for this trip. When booking hotels and deciding where to be and when, we thought we should probably consult the distillery opening days, given we were travelling around The Emperor's Birthday and New Year. Good thing we did, both distilleries were planning large closures over the new year period, but luckily we managed to squeeze in during their last days thanks to some help from Suntory Australia.


The Hakushu Distillery is located about 2.5hrs by train West of Tokyo. We took a JR train (which was included in our JR Pass, but otherwise would have been ~$120AUD / $755HKD return each) to Kobuchizawa Station, and then a 10-15min taxi ride (~$22AUD / $138HKD) to the distillery itself. A free coach service provided trips back to the station, and may have even arranged pickups if we'd enquired. You know you're in the right place when the (small, rural town) train station shop has a display like this:


Often seen as Yamazaki's younger brother, Hakushu (founded 50 years later in 1973) has a core range that echoes Yamazaki's (NAS Distillers Reserve, 12yo, 18yo, 25yo) but with a very different spirit. Far more earthy and herbal, and after one look at the distillery it's not hard to see where this might come from. In addition to being one of the world's highest distilleries (at an altitude of 700m), resulting in lower pressure / temperature distillation, Hakushu is set amongst some of the most dense and luscious alpine forest in Japan. It really is a beautiful setting, with the distillery, visitor centre, and barrel houses dotted around this stunning backdrop:


We joined the tour as the only non-Japanese speakers, and were given a headset with a pre-recorded tour guide in English (we knew to expect this - neither of Suntory's distilleries run tours in English). The tour, as I'd read beforehand, is pretty much a standard whisky tour. It takes about 40 minutes all up (including a brief bus trip), and you get to see the mashing, fermentation, distillation room (although only through the windows as it was closed for maintenance) and one of the larger barrel houses. You can also spend some time wandering around the (small but interesting) museum before or after your tour.

The tour does get you up close and personal at times (walking past the Douglas fir washbacks, walking between the large pot stills when the room is open, getting up close to the barrels etc...) but unlike certain Scottish distilleries, there's no cask tasting, no in depth discussion of the wood management program, or other sorts of things you might expect if they ran an "enthusiasts" tour (hint hint Suntory, this would be awesome). I guess given the popularity of Japanese whisky at the moment, that's not overly surprising. The tours are still very popular, running every 30 minutes (and with at least 25 people on ours).


The highlight of the tour was the non-temperature controlled barrel house. Unlike any ageing warehouse I'd ever seen in person, the automated racking system stacks barrels at least 12 high, and as far as the eye can see in pretty much all directions. A seriously mammoth facility. Impressive, but somewhat lacking that sense of tradition or hand-craftedness you get wandering around a traditional ageing warehouse (wait for the Yamazaki tour post).



Notice I said "highlight of the tour"? The REAL highlight actually came after the tour, when we visited the tasting room....


The standard tour (which by the way is completely free) includes a Hakushu highball (though we were kindly ushered aside for a tasting of the 12 and 18, and given a few departing gifts from the giftshop which was a lovely gesture!) but those willing to stay after the highball are in for a real treat. Apart from having a great setting (check out that outlook above), the most impressive part of this room was the whisky menu, and its frankly ridiculous prices. Hakushu or Yamazaki 18? That'll be ¥500 (just over $5AUD / $33HKD). Hibiki 21? That'll be the same. 1995 single cask Yamazaki? ¥200 (just over $2AUD / $13HKD). 1986 single cask Yamazaki? Whoa big spender, that'll be ¥800 (just over $8AUD / $52HKD). Granted the serves were all 15mL half-drams, but for us that was perfect, as it meant we could try more whiskies.

For the whisky nerds (guilty) they also had the various component whiskies that make up whiskies like Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 17 - including Mizunara cask, sherry cask and puncheon varieties. All between ¥200 and ¥1,200. The new make Chita (grain) was also interesting, and as steal at ¥100 (yes, $1AUD / $6.60HKD).

The menu wasn't limited to Japanese whiskies either, with a number of the whiskies Suntory either owns, or has exclusive distribution rights to in Japan, at similarly fantastic prices. Everything from Macallan 30 (both Sherry and Fine Oak), to Bowmore 25 to Glenfiddich 18 to Laphroaig 18, and even Jim Beam if you're feeling so inclined.


Of course we made the most of this opportunity (leaving some out knowing that Yamazaki, which we were visiting 2 days later, would likely have a similar menu), and decided we'd catch the later shuttle bus back. Or the one after that...

Our final visit was to the gift shop, which is worth visiting, but which I feel we should warn you about. Anyone expecting to pick up a bunch of single cask, rare, limited release Suntory whiskies is likely to be disappointed. You know how Japanese whisky is popular in pretty much every market now? Well it's even more popular in Japan. Some stores struggle to get even the most basic bottlings, and so the idea of finding a cheap, distillery-special single cask bottling was never going to happen. The shop did actually have an odd-looking 300mL Hakushu bottling for ¥1400 (which was included in our gift, along with some very nice pens made from old casks), though details were scant and we've yet to crack it open. The Suntory shop in Osaka, on the other hand, does have the odd limited bottling (generally in 200-300mL sizes) which are relatively cheap and (from our tasting) very enjoyable. Worth seeking out if you're ever in Osaka.


All up, we both had a thoroughly enjoyable time and would recommend the tour to anyone who enjoys their whisky...but make the most of it, don't drive, and give yourself an hour or so after the tour to sample the menu.

Cheers,
Steph & Martin.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

This week in whisk(e)y #16

As you might know if you read this blog regularly, we get a fair few interesting press releases and news articles here at TimeforWhisky, and usually try to feature them with our own spin, experiences or comments. Sometimes though, they come thick and fast, and we just don't have time to do them all justice.

So we've decided to take a leaf out of some other excellent whisky blogs, and feature a "PR roundup" every now and then - basically a wrap-up of relevant press releases we've received in the previous week or so (including other interesting whisk(e)y news Steph & I think you might enjoy). So on with it then...


Teeling Whiskey, set to expand in Australia in a big way, sees first new copper pot stills arrive in Dublin in over 125 years
We first brought word of Teeling Whiskey Company's Small Batch Irish Whiskey in December 2013, and over 12 months later we note that it's still punching well above its $49.90AUD price point Australia.

Good news then, that in just a month or two we hear that Dan's will soon stock 5 more of the Teeling lineup, including: Single Grain, 21YO, 26YO, 30YO, and Poitin. Whilst we haven't yet tried any of those releases, we've heard very good things about the Single Grain and 21yo (the latter which seemed to be very popular during our recent trip to Japan.

It seems the popularity isn't limited to Australia, with demand being such that the company are building a new distillery right in Dublin, with three new copper pot stills (crafted in Italy) - a 15,000 litre wash still, 10,000 litre intermediate still and 9,000 litre spirit still

"The Teeling Whiskey distillery is the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years and will have the capacity to produce 500,000 litres of whiskey on an annual basis. The Teeling Whiskey brand is already on sale in Ireland and is currently in over 30 export markets.  The construction of the new distillery will guarantee future supply for the Teeling Whiskey brands and allow the creation of a range of innovative and authentic Irish whiskeys based on the traditional and unique Dublin style of distillation 
Jack Teeling, founder and managing director of the Teeling Whiskey Company commented “Today is a major milestone in the development of the new Teeling Distillery, with the final pieces of the jigsaw, the copper pot stills, finally positioned in their new home in Newmarket. We are extremely proud to be returning to our ancestral distilling roots and bringing whiskey distillation back to Dublin. We look forward to the first spirit flowing from our new stills and opening our doors to the public to come see a real Dublin distillery in operation in 2015. ”
The new Teeling Whiskey distillery received planning permission in January 2014 and started work on site in August with over 100 people employed during the construction of the distillery with 30 permanent jobs planned for following its completion. Commission of the new distillery will happen early in the New Year and with the distillery opening its door to visitors soon afterwards.
For more on Teeling Whiskey Company and its award winning Irish whiskeys, visit www.teelingwhiskey.com"
We hope to bring you tasting notes of the full range in due course. No word yet on a possible Hong Kong release, but we'll be sure to let HK readers know.


Johnnie Walker Blue Label launches “The Year of the Ram Limited Edition”
Hot on the heels of the 2015 Johnnie Walker Blue Label launch, which Steph and I attended recently, comes a special release for 2015 - "Year of the Ram", just in time for Chinese New Year.
"Inspired by the famous Chinese brush-painting “Three Rams”, created during the Emperor Qianlong era, employing techniques of traditional Chinese ink painting with a light-as-air white brushstroke, the bottle’s design seamlessly merges visual art with calligraphy. The royal blue-tinted bottle symbolizes the Chinese tradition of celadon porcelain and on each of the four sides conveys the written characters for Ram. When four bottles are placed side by side, they unfold into a representation of the magnificent Chinese scroll painting “Three Rams”, to depict a New Year of great fortune. This tasteful limited edition is of particular value to collectors, especially during the all-important gifting season this Chinese New Year. 
The Ram’s character being naturally fearless of heights, unswerving in its determination and ability to conquer new heights, echoes the characteristics of JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL – the pinnacle of Blended Scotch Whisky from the House of Johnnie Walker. Created by the Master Blender with his decades of experience in selecting only the rarest casks from Johnnie Walker to create this powerful, complex, smooth character of Blue Label, only 1 from every 10,000 casks are selected to create Johnnie Walker Blue Label. 
Drew Mills, Marketing Director of Diageo Brands noted, “JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL Year of the Ram Special Release truly marries the best of Chinese ceramic art with the very finest blend of Scottish whisky. This classic combination introduces unrivaled creative elements to the global whisky market, and I’m confident it will quickly become the premier choice for discerning collectors." 
JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL The Year of the Ram Special Release (750ml) is now officially for sale at all major wine and spirit retailers. To personalise the Limited Edition for gifting, customers purchasing the Limited Edition at SOGO on 17th, 24th and 31st January 2015 will enjoy free engraving service."


Malt Masters HK: A Celebration of Single Malt Whisky
Steph and I arrived a little late in the year to hear about most of the Hong Kong whisky festivals last year, but we'll make sure that doesn't happen this year. First up, "Malt Masters Hong Kong", held at the ever-changing and always enjoyable PMQ.

"Malt Masters Hong Kong returns with Hong Kong’s Premium Whisky Festival.  The 2015 Festival will take place on Saturday 7th March at The Qube, PMQ, 25 Aberdeen Street, Central.  After the success of last year’s inaugural event, the 2015 Festival includes some new features.  In addition to accessing some of Scotland’s leading single malt distilleries, guests will experience the addition of ‘Dream Drams’ as well as gaining access to a variety of companies offering expertise throughout the world of whisky such as whisky investment and accessories, and the opportunity to buy whisky directly from the companies. 
A casual and relaxed general tasting session around many of the best loved whiskies will be supported by brand ambassadors from the various distilleries as well as other leading figures from the whisky industry. Meanwhile, individual masterclasses will allow participants to explore particular whisky distilleries and themes in more depth within a focused but intimate setting. 
There are two main sessions, each lasting three and a half hours: from 1.30pm to 5pm and from 6pm to 9.30pm. The main tasting event has the following benefits: 
  • Single Malt Whisky stalls featuring a variety of expressions
  • Access to brand ambassadors
  • Access to other whisky industry experts
  • Showcase of whisky accessories, available for purchase
  • Glencairn whisky tasting glass on arrival (included in ticket price)
  • Opportunity for onsite purchases
Over 20 companies and distilleries will be in attendance with each stall offering a selection of different expressions for tasting.  Masterclasses will run throughout the day, with the full masterclass schedule advertised online by early February.  Tickets must be bought in advance and spaces are limited so early booking is advised. 
Dream Drams - This year we are introducing Dream Drams.  All visitors to the 2015 event will receive a Dream Dram token to redeem against a range of truly outstanding whiskies from the exhibitors. These whiskies are extremely hard to find and are consequently very expensive.  Further Dream Dram tokens will be available to buy online before the event, offering visitors the opportunity of tasting a large variety of incredibly unique and expensive single malts.  
Tickets are priced at HKD 800 and are sold via www.maltmastershk.com. There will be a charity raffle offering a variety of excellent whiskies and whisky accessories in aid of 2 Hong Kong based charities."

Steph and I will be there, and you can bet we'll be checking out the "dream drams"!


Cheers, 
- Martin.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition Hong Kong Launch (Tasted #148)

As we mentioned last month, The Macallan "Masters of Photography" Mario Testino Edition has been released in Hong Kong, retailing for $28,000HKD. We were lucky enough to attend the Hong Kong launch event for this whisky in December, which was a lavish event celebrating the photography of Mario Testino, and of course, The Macallan.


Held on a Friday night at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, with views over Hong Kong Harbour, the event was attended by a number of people we've met so far in the Hong Kong whisky scene (including, sadly, the last HK whisky outing for local whisky expert Marlon of The Whisky Library, shortly before he left HK).

A selection of photos were placed around the room showcasing the photography of Mario Testino, and the whisky itself was presented by Coral Gill, Edrington Regional Brand Director (with whom we have an Interview coming up shortly). The Macallan's famous "six pillars" were discussed, namely:
  1. The Spirital Home
  2. "Curiously" small stills
  3. Finest cut (which we've referenced before on this blog)
  4. Exception Oak casks
  5. Natural Colour
  6. Peerless spirit

..and their relation to the Mario Testino Edition, which is a vatting of 6 casks, each representing one of the above "pillars".


In a slightly more upbeat / funky move when compared with a typical whisky launch, a number of models then paraded out onto the stage to showcase the various components (the aforementioned "6 pillars") making up the Mario Testino edition. The models' dress echoed those who formed the shoot itself, shot at the China Club in Beijing, to represent the luxury and diversity of The Macallan and its enjoyment around the world.


A fitting event for an impressive whisky (as all Edrington events seem to be), and we say that not just based on the launch party or the marketing, but on our own tasting of the whisky the day prior:


The Macallan Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition (46.6% ABV, NAS, Highlands, Scotland, $28,000HKD)
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Colour: Deep dark copper

Nose: Definitely The Macallan DNA in there, but more sweet, more rounded than the 12 or 18. Some nutty, almond notes, and some definite citrus - grapefruit? Sweet, but complex.

Palate: Citrus "zing" at first, but then some nuttiness, more grapefruit, and finally rich Christmas cake. Something for everyone in here. A complex, but very easy drinking dram.

Finish: Long, incredibly smooth, with lingering raisins and Christmas cake notes.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 94/100. A luscious dram that you could easily sip all night, but would feel far more appropriate saving for special occasions.
Cheers,
Martin.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Japan: Land of...incredible bartending and an amazing whisky scene

If you're one of our ~750 followers on Twitter (and if you are, thank you), you might have noticed over the past 2 weeks we've been posting a lot of Tweets from Japan. Between the whiskies tasted, bars visited, and distilleries toured, Steph and I spent two weeks touring around (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Sapporo and Niseko) and spent a good deal of that time exploring the whisky scene.

We'd heard that Japan bar/drinking culture was up there with (if not) the best, and we certainly weren't misled. Whether you point to the bartending skill and passion, the range of bars (and the range of whiskies within those bars), the sheer variety (and amazing prices) in the retail market, the passion for Scotch, and of course the home-market whiskies (which are increasingly becoming difficult to obtain), it's a brilliant place to be a fan of spirits, whisk(e)y especially.

We visited bars with whiskies (Scottish, Japanese and American) that you simply don't find in bars anywhere else in the world. We tried whiskies that would be prohibitively expensive to try anywhere else in the world. We sampled whiskies (excellent ones, I might add) available from only one shop on the planet, we experienced some of the most incredible and passionate bartending ever seen, we visited one of the most awesome whisky shops ever, and we toured the two distinctly different distilleries that make up the Suntory whisky portfolio.


With 40+ tasting notes, 7 bar reviews and 2 distillery tours to write up, the posts will arrive over the next 2-3 months, but you can expect some thorough coverage of the scene, and some top recommendations should you be planning your own visit to Japan.

We'll keep updating this original post with links to the aforementioned posts, so the JapanTour14 posts are all kept neatly in one place.

Until then...Kanpai!

- Steph & Martin.



Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Martin's 2014 Whisk(e)y predictions revisited

In December 2013 I wrote up my "10 predictions for whisky trends in 2014" (5 serious, 5 not so serious). 365 days later, after a fantastic year for whisky (and this blog), and after an amazing week of whisky distilleries and bars in Japan, it's time to re-visit those predictions and see how accurate the crystal ball was...

Serious:

1. The rise and rise of NAS (Non-Age Statement) whiskies.I'd feel comfortable saying this one was relatively accurate. We continue to see NAS whiskies proliferate in travel retail (especially in Asia), but increasingly in off-premise too. Suntory's "Distiller's Reserve" Yamazaki and Hakushu releases have replaced the 10yo / 12yo (depending on the market) as the "base level" whiskies, and they're absolutely fantastic. On the Scotch side of things we've seen new Glenmorangies, Ardbegs and The Macallans (to name just a few) in retail markets, all with no age statements. Not just at the "budget" end of the spectrum either, with whiskies like Ardbeg's 2014 Supernova and The Macallan's "Masters of Photography: Mario Testino Edition" (tasting notes up shortly) commanding premium prices.

They haven't all been winners, but the majority (including those mentioned above) certainly have been, and as the global whisky market continues to grow, I see no issues with the continuing rise of NAS whiskies....as long as they're good whiskies.



2. The rise of "New World" whiskies.We didn't see Indian whiskies particularly increase their status (that's not to say there weren't already some good ones), but we certainly saw the overall category of "New World" whiskies grow, with increased recognition of Australian whisky in particular. Just look at the Sullivans Cove win, and the rise of craft distillers like Peter Bignell's Belgrove. Not to mention New World Whisky Distillery (makers of Starward single malt), and their truly excellent young single cask releases. I expect we'll see big things from these guys in the future. Global awards perhaps? In time, I think so.

Add in Sweden's Mackmyra (who have done some very interesting things this year) as just another example, and I'd say this prediction overall was accurate.



3. Craft / quality Bourbon (and American whiskey in general) will grow in popularity in Australia. This one may take some more time, as I wouldn't say Australia has yet fully embraced Bourbon / American Whiskies as wholly as single malt just yet, but I definitely think we're seeing the start. American Whiskey tastings (like those at Shirt Bar) frequently fill up, and we even saw a SMWS Bourbon release this year sell out in a short period of time.

Give this prediction another 2-3 years and I reckon it'll be spot on.


4. Flavoured whiskies. This one definitely eventuated (ref: Ballantines' "Brasil", J&B "Urban Honey" and JD's "Tennessee Fire"). Though hey, if acts as a "gateway" to get people more interested in whisk(e)y, I've got no issues with it.


5. Stronger whiskyI wouldn't really say this one came true, though in retrospect, given the taxation on alcohol and its relation to strength / ABV in many markets, that's not really surprising.



Sarcastic / not so serious:

1. An Australian whisky will win a global award, and we won't hear the end of it for months.
Wow did this one come true!


2. The 2014 releases of Port Ellen and Pappy Van Winkle 23yo will cost an absurd amount, and will still sell out in minutes. My guess is £2,000 for Port Ellen, though £2,500 wouldn't surprise me.
£2,200 for the Port Ellen, $249USD for the PVW (though good luck finding the latter for that price). Incredibly difficult to get a hold of either. Fair to say this prediction was pretty close.


3. A new "world's most expensive / oldest" whisky will be released (and will probably taste like eating a chunk of wood).
While we did see a number of very old Original Bottlings in 2014 (two 50yo Balvenies and a 50yo The Glenlivet to name three), I don't believe we saw anything older than 70yo come out in 2014.


4. William Grant & Sons will release at least 3 new Global Travel Retail editions for 2014...and I'll try to buy them all.
Perhaps not three, but we did see a new Kininvie (17yo Batch 1) hit the Asian travel retail market, of which I may have bought one or two...(tasting notes up shortly).


5. Jim Murray will make a controversial statement in 2014, everyone will talk about it, but deep down, no one will really care.
Oh Jim....you certainly did, and it was the talk of the town. Did anyone care? Some probably did, but not me. I knew Japanese whisky was playing on the world stage years ago - I didn't need Mr Murray to tell me that (for what it's worth, having tasted the Yamazaki Sherry Cask*, I'd have to say it was good, but the single cask 11yo Spanish Oak Yamazaki I tried in Japan last week was much better! Notes up in January).
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As we end 2014, dram in hand, we'd just like to say thanks for all your support this year. 2014 saw Steph and I move to a new country, explore new whisky markets, and saw Hendy come on board to continue coverage of the Australian whisky scene (captured not just in words, but also through his stunning photography). It's been a great year for us, and we hope it has been for you too.

Hope you have a fantastic New Years celebration, and an equally fantastic 2015. Stay tuned for more posts in 2015 (covering both Asia and Australia) and expect a barrage of Japan posts (distillery tours, whisky bar reviews and 40+ tasting notes) starting in the next few days!

Cheers,
Martin.

* Admittedly the 2014 release and not the award-winning 2013 release.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Johnnie Walker Blue Label 2015 Hong Kong Launch - A Private Reception In Quest of Rarity, Depth and Character (Tasted #147)

Tuesday night saw Hong Kong's Armani/Prive transformed into a subtle sea of blue, as Moët Hennessy Diageo celebrated the end of the year and the launch of the limited edition 2015 Johnnie Walker Blue Label, with a stunning event complete with four Stradavarius violins and a performance from Amelia Chan, the newly appointed Concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong.


On arrival guests were greeted with a handsome (blue, of course) cocktail menu offering a choice of four cocktails - from the light "Traveler's Smash" (served tall with mint, apple, zest and of course Johnnie Walker) to the strong "Dark Fashion" (Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve with Vanilla, chocolate and a blend of bitters, served Old Fashioned style), prepared by Ricky Liau, fellow Aussie and 2013 Diageo World Class HK Champion (who we're told may be heading to Perth/Melbourne soon, if any bars are looking for a gun bartender). There was something for everyone and judging by the popularity of all four cocktails, the whole menu was well received (especially the Negroni-esque "Burning Light", combining Double Black with sweet vermouth and Talisker 10).


But of course, it was Blue Label we were there to celebrate, and so after the crowd had enjoyed a cocktail or two and Armani/Prive's fantastic canapés, Drew Mills (Marketing Director, Diageo Brands) took to the stage to present the main event - a (generous) tasting of the new 2015 release (the makeup of which we understand is still a closely-guarded secret, although I'd be willing to bet there's a little well-aged Islay malt in there, given the subtle peat smoke).

Long-time readers of this blog would know we mostly feature single malts, although have certainly featured (and enjoyed) many blends over the years. It'd been a good 3 years since I'd last tasted Blue Label, and that was from an old bottle back in Sydney which had been sitting 90% empty for far too long (and like any spirit, had likely dulled).

I have to say...while the main point of difference with the new 2015 release might be the bottle and packaging design, the whisky itself certainly impressed me more than I remember it doing years ago (and we were tasting it out of a tumbler too). 

Johnnie Walker Blue Label 2015 release (40% ABV, NAS, Scotland, $1,780HKD)
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Colour: ...a little hard to tell with all the blue light. Probably not so blue under natural light ;)
Nose: Nutty and rich, with a lot of orange citrus, and very slight peat smoke - reminiscent of an older (say 20yo+) Islay malt, Lagavulin most notably. The peat smoke is there, but it's almost not, and certainly not the dominant characteristic.
Palate: Rich, oily and mouthfilling, with lots of orange zest and some noticeable maltiness. Incredibly smooth. Some hints of varnish, oak and leather too. The smoke is there, but it's increasingly subtle.
Finish: Long, smoke, wafers, and varnish at the very end. Very enjoyable.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 93/100. A great nose, carried through right through to the finish. Complex, but at the same time approachable. Definitely a dram I'd be happy to have a second of!

Whilst enjoying the remainder of our Blue, Amelia Chan, Concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong took her place on stage, with a $6.5m USD Stradavarius in hand, and gave us a stunning rendition of two pieces, including a Bach (which was all the more impressive to someone...me...who played the violin for about 9 years but never got past Grade 1...).


It was interesting to note the quiet and respectful nature of the crowd, which was a direct contradiction to other HK whisky and music events we've been to. Everyone seemed to enjoy the performances, and of course the whisky - a great match.

A display was set up to explain a little more about the violins' histories (most dating back to the 1700s) along with tasting notes for the Blue Label. Another interesting set up was the nosing sticks (above), which separated the key notes found in Johnnie Walker and allowed guests to experience them individually.


After another cocktail and further chat with the friendly Diageo and PR teams, it was time to head home, a great night had by all.

Cheers,
Martin.

TimeforWhisky.com would like to thank MHDHK and QNMPR for the invitation to what was a very enjoyable night.