Tuesday 14 June 2016

Tokyo International Bar Show + Whisky Expo 2016 review

Call me a creature of habit, but a few weeks ago I did exactly the same thing I did last year, and flew to Tokyo for 36 hours to attend the 2016 Tokyo International Bar Show + Whisky Expo - aka "TIBS".

Why? A few reasons:
  • The whisky culture in Japan is just incredible. Not just Japanese whisky either - Japan's love of all whisky, especially Scotch and American, is endless. It shows in their expos (like TIBS and Whisky Live / Modern Malt Market, which we also attended last year), it shows in the special Scotch releases that no other market receives, it shows in their absolutely incredible whisky bar scene, and it shows in their own local whiskies too.
  • The cocktail / bar scene is equally as impressive - I'd go so far as to say the best in the world; and
  • The annual bottlings released at the show are always high quality, well-priced, varied and fun to bring home.

It helps too that Cathay have flights from Hong Kong that drop you into Tokyo at 6am on Saturday, allowing you to leave 6pm Sunday, all without taking a day off work.

..and so it was decided - I'd follow the same routine as last year and fly into Tokyo Saturday morning, have a quick shower and change at the hotel, then head to the show for a day of whisky....

As is tradition, the show kicked off with an introduction from the invited guests, who assembled on the main stage and included:
Following the brief introduction, and noticing the annual bottle queue had already snaked around the venue, I headed over to the Shinanoya stand to see what was on offer, and started my day with a dram of 20yo single cask 1995 GlenDronach from a PX Puncheon, bottled exclusively for Shinanoya. There are worse ways to start the day...

From there it was a short hop over to the always-popular Venture Whisky (aka Ichiro's Malt / Chichibu) stand. Unfortunately the annual Chichibu bottling (a 5 year old single cask ex-American Oak) wasn't available for tasting on the stand, but the core lineup bottles, along with a number of cask samples, were.

One thing I love about Akuto-San (and his wonderful brand ambassador, Yumi-San) is that no matter how popular their small distillery has become, they still go to the trouble of bringing along a few rare / unique / interesting / cask sample bottles (often accompanied by a "Bottle 1 of 2" label). TIBS 2016 was no different, with samples from four casks, all bottled in May 2016:
  • French Oak ex-Wine Cask (1st fill), distilled in 2011 and bottled at 61.4% ABV. My favourite, with a deliciously earthy, tannic (but not bitter) palate and a lovely nose of berries.
  • American Oak Bourbon Barrel (1st fill), distilled in 2010 and bottled at 60.6% ABV
  • Virgin American Oak "Chibidaru" (literally "small") quarter cask, distilled in 2010 and bottled at 61.9% ABV.
  • American Oak Bourbon Cask (1st fill), containing peated spirit distilled in 2012, also bottled at 61.9% ABV
All were fantastic, and showed incredible variety considering the new make in 3 of them was identical, and they'd only had between 3 and 6 years' maturation. A true testament to Akuto-san's skill.

With Ardbeg Day / Night just around the corner, Ardbeg were offering attendees cocktails, drams of the core lineup, and the chance to win tickets to the Tokyo event. 

The stand also featured Shortie (Ardbeg's famous Jack Russell mascot), but unlike the toy Shorties of 2013, or the real Shorties of 2014, this was a taxidermied Jack Russell, which was more than a little creepy....

Moving next door and keeping with the Islay theme, it was onto Lagavulin, who were showcasing the new 200th Anniversary 8 year old, available once visitors "Liked" the Lagavulin Facebook page. Having tried it a few weeks earlier, I didn't partake (though it is a good dram - notes up shortly).

The stand also offered visitors the chance to have their photo taken "inside" a 3D glass of whisky, which worked well when the photographer got the angle right... (as not evidenced here):

A few short steps away was the Scotch Malt Whisky Society stand, which had an impressive selection of over 20 bottles. While all required at least a few tokens (sold at ¥1000 for a book of 5, and required to sample the rarer whiskies on offer), the prices were very reasonable and they were offering generous member discounts.

I took the opportunity to try a young Rocktown Bourbon (B3.2 "Ooey-gooey Cinnamon Bun") which friends back in Australia had raved about - and with good cause. It was a brilliant dram, very reminiscent of a big fruity jam donut. Delicious.

As you can probably tell from the photos above and below, I brought my own Glencairn glass to Tokyo. Extreme? Perhaps, but Japanese whisky shows tend to be notorious for not offering proper glassware, as was the case again this year with most drams being poured into tiny little ~30mL plastic cups.

I get the hassle involved with having to provide thousands of glasses (and either collect them at the end, or build them into the price of the ticket), but small plastic cups are not really conducive to properly tasting / assessing quality whisky. It's literally my only complaint about the otherwise brilliant Japanese whisky expo scene, and it's a minor one.

Kavalan had a large range on offer, but the prices to taste most of them were (in my opinion) unreasonable, especially for the recent award-winning Amontillado cask, which ran about $25AUD / $145HKD for a small taste.

As the giants of the Japanese whisky industry, Nikka and Suntory had large stands, but (understandably) with no standout products, and only the basic NAS single malts on offer. As distributors of Edrington and William Grant & Sons products in Japan, Suntory were also offering pours of The Macallan and Glenfiddich, including Macallan Rare Cask and Glenfiddich 21.

Mars were offering their "Wine Cask Finish" Komagatake (which, like the aforementioned Chichibu, balanced the deep berry notes without being overly tannic or bitter), although on later reflection I realised we'd never heard of this particular release, as it's neither the blended "Wine Cask Finish" that was released in 2014, nor the 10yo single malt "Wine Cask Finish" that was released in a short squat bottle. Google was little help, so we're still not sure exactly when this one was released!

Smaller distilleries were well-represented too, including Chicago's Koval (which we first tasted back in 2014) and Finland's Kyrö Distillery Company, who were offering their gin (tasty) and rye (young but showing promise). 

Independent bottlers were also well-represented, and continued to showcase the level of quality we've come to expect from indie bottlings made available to the Japanese market.

GlenDronachBenRiach & Glenglassaugh were also well-represented, as was their recent new parent company Brown Forman. In addition to the core GlenDronach line-up, a 1995 single cask and the latest cask strength, there was also a bottle of GlenDronach new make - a rare opportunity to taste the raw product that, 18-20 years later, becomes one of my favourite sherried whiskies. With lots of oats and breakfast cereal, it was smooth, flavoursome and very drinkable. I suspect this was a recent batch of new make, and not the pre-2004 spirit from coal-fired stills.

BenRiach's new Cask Strength Batch 1 was also a treat - I'd heard good things before and they were all true. Lots of tropical fruit and gummy bears for me.

After all that whisky, it was time for a cocktail to reset the palate, and who better to share one with than bartending legend Gary (Gaz) Regan? Gary hosted a small masterclass focusing on a few of his creations from years gone by. including one odd creation involving chilli powder (which was interesting, but two sips was enough...)

With the cocktail class over, it was back to the drams, a quick visit to Bacardi's "pop up speakeasy" (a cool idea for a 2 day bar expo, but one we're reliably informed was already done by Hendrick's several years ago), and then time to call it a day and head back to the hotel for a quick freshen up before heading off to my favourite whisky bar in Tokyo - The Mash Tun in Meguro, where I tried this ridiculous 1979 single cask ex-Mizunara Yamazaki, and a 43yo Longmorn (amongst others).

Day 2 saw me arrive early enough to lock in a bottle of the annual Chichibu, as well as a 20 year old Springbank single cask bottled just for the show. There was a ~16yo Karuizawa too, but at ¥145,000, it was a lot more than I was happy to spend (and others too it seems - as there were still some left long after many of the other bottles had sold out).

Whilst not for sale, there was also a hand-filled Bowmore on tasting which was delightful, and a great way to kick start the day. We'll have full tasting notes for ChichibuSpringbank and Bowmore up in a separate post shortly.

My second masterclass of the show was with Christine Logan (aka "Lady of the Isles") - an Islay native, expert, and former Bowmore employee of over 25 years. Christine's class focused on pairing Islay produce with Islay whiskies, and whilst the first two whiskies themselves were pretty standard (Laphy Select and Bowmore Small Batch, from memory), the final was something much more special. One nose and I knew it was something I'd enjoy very, very much...

...and it turns out I was right - it was one of my all time favourite whiskies, the 1989 Bowmore Port Cask! Every single time I've tried this whisky, I've absolutely loved it, and this was no exception.

With my flight back to Hong Kong looming, there was just enough time to drop by the Chichibu / Venture Whisky stand a second time for another dram, grab an obligatory photo with Akuto-San, and then plan my exit.

...but not before I was convinced to make a brief stop at the Hendrick's stand for a de-constructed gin tasting. I've always said gin is the whisky drinker's white spirit, and the chance to do a tasting of all the components that make up one of my favourite gins (including a full-proof example at 70% ABV) was too good to pass up. Big props to Hendrick's for using real glassware at their booth too - both for tasting and cocktails.

So after nearly 36 hours on the ground in Tokyo, that was it - another Tokyo International Bar Show done and dusted. It's hard to say if there was more or less whisky present compared to 2015 (possibly a bit less), but the quality was high, the variety was great, and the people, as always, awesome.

Would I recommend the show? Absolutely. Will I return next year? Probably!

Until next time Japan, Kanpai!


TimeforWhisky.com would again like to thank Ueno-San (of the excellent Bar High Five, which we finally visited on this trip) for the press pass and kind hospitality at the show.

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