Thursday, 26 November 2015

Battle of the Blends 2015

I was, like so many of you, a judge in Battle of the Blends 2015.  It was long ago but Christmas got in the way.  Christmas is almost over in whisky terms now, just the drinking remains so we can breath easy, pour a well judged blended whisky and relax.

For what it’s worth (as you can’t buy the damn things) here’s my notes.  At least they’re filed. 

Blend A (Neil Ridley), 42.1% A+

BlendsNose - Quite dark, juicy and classical. Good dusty wood, sweet dark fruits (prune, blackberry?), lovely cask influence and what peat here is very light and structural. Really quite juicy and delicious. I would guess this is Dave's blend with the Kilkerran and Springbank in it but the sweetness makes me think this is Neil's sherry seasoned barrel.

Body - Sweet but a little sharp and toppy, excellent oils with herbal notes and a touch of spice. A touch of youth too, expressed behind some sandalwood and wood bitterness. Chuggable.

Finish - Medium, quite spicy at the side of the mouth, toffee too at the end.

What's not good about it - A little pedestrian in the delivery.

What's good about it - A delicious, oil and fruit heavy nose with loads of interest. Great balance throughout and dangerously drinkable. A fantastic blend.

Blend B (Dave Broom), 43.5% A+

BlendsNose - Initially but more muscular, with cologne, musk and candle wax. A hint of smoked mackerel? Tobacco. A seriously toothsome nose but with a slightly offputting sour/whiteboard marker note in there. Get past that though and it's very grown up. If this is Neil's blend, then I think what I'm smelling is a big Highland Park influence but I would also call this as the rum cask. Lovely stuff though.

Body - Very gentle - soft wax, soft red fruit, toffee and tobacco.

Finish - Long and rolling, mouthfilling fruit, toffee and tobacco, and spicy peat. Perfectly poised.

What's not good about it - The nose takes a little getting into, quite soft on the delivery.

What's good about it - But a wonderful delivery in the round, great balance between toffee, fruit and cask/peat seasoning.


Very different noses here - much more sherry and fruit intensity with A, harder work with B but ultimately worth it. Delivery is quite compelling with A but perhaps a little more obvious and sweeter. B is definitely more grown up in the delivery with spicier finish.

Both are excellent to be honest - A takes it for the nose and initial delivery, B for the finish. But overall (as I have to pick a winner) I'm going with A.

And hats off to both contenders - blending seems like rocket science to me and these are both excellent.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Cadenhead’s October 2015 outturn

Cadenhead’s continues to roll out magnificent old casks, closed distillery gold and well judged long term finishes that must make most independent bottlers wonder how they do it.  They don’t really seem to be even trying that hard!  But it keeps coming.  This is part one of the release, the second was just released yesterday, including a 26 year old Macallan and a 14 year old Springbank.  The latter is full term matured in what was a full cask of New Zealand whisky shipped over and bottled by Cadenheads.  They just filled up the old cask with Springbank juice.  That’s why they don’t have to try very hard, they’ve just got so many resources! 

I have the Kilkerran Calvados, recent Society Springbank and the just-gone batch of Springbank 15 for notes coming soon, once all these ridiculously massive posts about Xmas whisky are out of the way.  They’re all amazing.

Anyway here’s some brief notes on the ones I have tried.  Most of this is already out and much of it still in stock. 

Littlemill 24 years old A⊕+

Nose - Beautifully fruity and floral, waxed fresh with old cask. Quite an Arran nose with a touch of funk and a touch of grain. Very good.

Body - Quite wooded, spiced and cereal, a little tougher than expected. Refreshers with water.

Finish - Very long, fruity but balanced structure - lovely.

Glenkeith 18 years old, 54.1% A+

Nose - Lovely and sweet, fresh and dusty. Clean but not as light as you initially think, with warm malt and candied orange.

Body - Big, fizzing refreshers, quite warm and zesty. Very balanced sweetness and light cask fruit.

Finish - Quite long, balanced tannins and orange zest. A lovely, clean, "ordinary" whisky.

Hazelburn 13 years old, 50.8% A⊕

Hazelburn-13--cr-200x300Nose - Sweet and somewhat ethereal, white flowers, Drumsticks and fungus, but also quite young.

Body - Ah… beautiful Springbank funk. Quite cheese-like - Stilton. Asian fruit and very sweet behind that, and spicier with water.

Finish - Actually quite a long, cheesey finish. Dirty, but floral and balanced, like Roquefort with truffle honey

Glenrothes 21 years old, 53% A⊕+

G-Rothes-21--cr-200x300Nose - Perfect and very Glenrothes. Quite dusty cereal, blonde wood, green apple and lime marmalade. But like being at the distillery (and Edrington's bottling hall, which evidently just smells like bourbon Glenrothes). Beautiful, though.

Body - Incredibly delicious. Very sweet but gently introduced, with building structure and warm tannins.

Finish - Very long, some sour spice providing balance and some warm wax backing. Fabulous.

Ben Nevis 16 years old, 51.2% A⊕

I find about 80% of the Ben Nevis I have I don’t like but the others are awesome.  It’s a dirty, fruity style that takes very little to tip it over from fascinating and delicious to awful.  At least, that’s what it’s like for me.  This is one of the good ones.

Ben-Nevis-16-cr-200x300Nose - Very complete… fresh fruit, deodorant, lots of mid-range and a very balanced wood and toffee character. Lovely complexity.

Body - Sweetly spiced, plywood and balanced sulphur. Kalamata olives?

Finish - Medium, tannic and quite savoury. Those olives are back. Delicious but (as always with Ben Nevis) slightly odd.

Craigellachie 26 years old, 53.1% A+

I tasted 5 OB Craigellachie last night as part of the tweet tasting and they were all pretty epic.  This one was finished in a Sauternes cask by Cadenheads.

Craigallachie--cr-200x300Nose - Lacquered with restrained sweetness. Dry Oloroso sherry, yoghurt raisins, dark wine and balanced sulphur. Quite restrained though.

Body - Sweet, ripe waxed fruit, bhaklava and lovely wax. Spiced and tannic.

Finish - Quite short in its intensity, but with lingering oak and oils. Classical, but a little "teenage".

Mortlach 26 years old, 56.1% A⊕+

Mortlach-26-cr-200x300Nose - Ripe. Intense; wine gums and meaty sulphur. Pipe tobacco, liquorice imps and pop tarts. Loads of sweet red wine and cut red cherry. Classy and very interesting.

Body - Sulphur, sweet red wine, beautifully balanced between the two.

Finish - Medium long, great balance of wine, oak and sweetshop.

A perfectly sulphured, perfectly sherried and satisfyingly sweet whisky.

Bowmore 12 years old, 58.1% A+

In Burgundy cask since 2011.

Bowmore-12-Burgandy--cr-200x300Nose - Coffee and chocolate. Quite young but very ballsy. The red wine is so well integrated it's almost hidden, with sandalwood box, toffeed and ripe. Quite odd but very good.

Body - Like licking a joss stick, but with a waxed, tropical fruit backing.

Finish - Long, tannic, dusty wood, very intense.

A fantastic nose on this deep red whisky. Sandalwood and dark fruity dominate. Like Devil's Cask "after hours".

Caol Ila 20 years old, 57.7% A+

Caol-Ila-20-cr-200x300Nose - Bright, sweet toffee, clean but no alien Islay. Quite young for 20, with wet charred wood.

Body - Textbook, but with an unexpectedly cereal depth and an insistent, appley sweetness.

Finish - Very long, robust, coastal. More joss sticks, last night's Marlboro light fag ends and white wine.

Classic Caol Ila with a sweet, cereal twist and big tobacco, lemon top notes.

Bunnahabhain 17 years old, 57.5% A⊕

Bunn-17-cr-200x300Nose - Quite excitingly dirty peat, with overripe pear and tobacco (plus crab nets and granite). Delicious (bandages).

Body - Big boiled sweets and Jackfruit. Very Asian and quite young, brassy peat. A real, fruity block buster.

Finish - Long, numbing citrus peat, but big mid-rangey tobacco.

And a couple for the road:

Strathmill 19 years old; sweet, musky, big dusty sherry on the delivery.

Fettercairn 22 years old; beautiful, classy wine and tobacco nose. A big sherry delivery but with awkward tannins.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

SMWS November Outturn–One more round!

So here’s the final 4.  SMWS changed hands, the bottling operation changed, and they made the largest outturn of all time – some things got left until the last minute!  The logistics of me actually tasting this outturn were already so hard that some got left behind.  Even now, there’s two missing here – G7.7 (a reissue) and 53.232. The latter is delayed until November 20th.  I might pick it up later in the month but don’t hold your breath, I’m done with November.

I wanted to reiterate here that this outturn is about volume, not big, old and weird.  If you already have hundreds of SMWS bottles, then this is an outturn to browse in the bar and enjoy for what it is, not collect. What sets SMWS apart from other indies is that it’s a members club, and a bar that happens to sell bottles of whisky.  If you only have a few then go for it, pick up some good stuff and enjoy some xmas whisky!  But if you do have hundreds of green bottles on your wall, then keep your powder dry for December.

So here’s the final 4, then something “special” at the end.  Thanks Cuan for taking the photos (they’ve got this weird and very unwelcome “moving then a photo” thing going on on my computer, but hopefully they’ll render ok on your phone).

SMWS 80.7, Glen Spey, Indian Summer Sangria, 16 years old, 54.5% A+

26th October 1998, 156 bottles, 2nd fill Sauternes hogshead.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a 2nd fill Sauternes hogshead before!  Maybe not a Glen Spey before.  Anything .7 is pretty special.

WP_20151113_17_19_09_Rich_LINose - Initially sweet, then hot like chilli peanuts. Perhaps honey glazed peanuts - salty, very sweet, almost a Vimto edge to it. Lots of cereal - weirdly this is oscillating between hot, sweet black fruits, exciting and young. Very interesting. With water, more of the cask comes through. Rather good.

Body - Big sweet fruits, cereal, a touch of funk and then lots of woody spice. Lovely mouthfeel with water but big yellow oak and lots of youth with water. Retronasal waxes and good cask leading into…

Finish - the finish which is mainly chilli hot - fried green chillis, tamarind and black plum.

A really interesting "dram at the bar" I'd say. Great black fruit notes running throughout and can stand up to the hubbub of public drinking, it but you probably don't need a whole bottle on your shelf.

SMWS 82.20, Glencadam, Big, bold and beautiful, 17 years old, 54.9% A⊕

4th May 1998, 612 bottles, 2nd fill butt.

WP_20151113_17_20_07_Rich_LINose - A rather restrained, but still a heavy sherry and cereal bomb, like a slow motion explosion. Balanced sulphur toffee and a rather fizzing brightness, a bit like popping candy. Fruits are roasted plums on puff pastry with marzipan. Nice enough but relatively ordinary, I suspect water will open it up. And it does, wonderfully. Jelly snakes, ripe pear, beautiful.

Body - Ah… delicious on the delivery, somewhat like that Springbank (27.019 Guns on the grouse moor) a really dirty fruity depth but just balanced on the right side. Deliciously sweet.

Finish - Quite short, fruity and a twang of sulphur make for quite a compelling dram. Tannins are pretty significant and balance it out. Lovely stuff. Slightly less good at the end with water but you can play with that.

Rather a lovely little whisky, and still in stock.


SMWS 10.85, Bunnahabhain, Live life on the edge!, 17 years old, 55.8% A⊕

30th April 1998, 600 bottles, 2nd fill butt

WP_20151113_17_18_53_Rich_LINose - Sweet, mineral and slightly funky, this has a slightly coastal edge to it, and actually quite delicate, with a feeling of restrained sherry beneath. There's a little sliced bread in there too, maybe toasted fruit bread with raisins and lots of butter. Rather good. Even better with water; more nutty fruit bread and more pronounced wood. A little more savoury actually.

Body - Nutty sherry, green apple and crumble, plus cherry pipe tobacco and crystal malt. Much more bitter with water. A touch of cinnamon too.

Finish - Very long, descending into spice and bitterness. Quite delicious too, very teenage Bunnahabhain.

This is a complex and very interesting Bunna with real depth and a well judged nutty sherry hit. Recommended (if a bit late).


SMWS 30.87, Glenrothes, A skinny dipping dram, 14 years old, 55.6% A⊕

27th March 2001, 738 bottles, Refill port pipe.  Port pipes are big.  From the notes I think this is full term maturation on the refill port pipe but I’m not sure – I’ll ask.

WP_20151113_17_18_26_Rich_LINose - Jewelled red sweetness, with a sour top dressing; candied Morello cherries, plus lots of honey and toffee. Caraway and good cask. Sweet and soft, a little sour, a little herbal and rather lovely. Quite small though. More funk with water, more toffee, delicious.

Body - Sweet, herbal, spiced again, and a very light port touch - slightly winey with its characteristic sulphur but brighter, more oaked than that. Much like the recent Springbank port cask, this is very subtle and nicely integrated.

Finish - Long with a waxy mouthfeel and a lovely balance throughout - never strays into bitterness. It honestly feels a lot more mature than you'd expect from Glenrothes and 14.

A perfect end to a truly epic outturn, and a far cry from the usual Glenrothes presentation. Highly recommended.


And a last little treat…

SMWS November outturn, Cacophony, Vatted malt, NAS, probably about 45%

This is the dregs of every whisky in the November biglist, after water, mixed together and left in a bottle in a laptop bag for a few days.  Terroir!

20151117_201200Nose – The power of marrying!  Last week this smelled truly dreadful – it’s really come together now.  Toffee, oak, fruits and fibre and a background level of peat (last week it was right in your face).  It’s really breakfast cereal!  Lots of wax too.  I’m genuinely surprised that this is this good.

Body – Rather good again – initially it’s like a highland park – toffee and peat, but quite coastal.  Some Ardmore is pretty present, but not the one in this outturn, weirdly. 

Finish – Medium, cloying, a little wrong.  Too bitter and too much wood.  Although some good things start to raise their heads later.  Maybe it’ll be better in a few months?

Cheers all – more SMWS gear in December!

Thursday, 12 November 2015

SMWS November Outturn - 2015 Big List

This is the biggest SMWS outturn of all time and certainly the single biggest post I’ve ever done.  November carries a big list, and a little list – and as I said in the review of the little list, this is a volume outturn, with lots of young drammers to buy people for Christmas.  Single cask means lots of individual society bottlings and I have nearly tried them all for you! 

Generally, I was a bit wary of this outturn.  Honestly I was a bit scared of making this post, but also a bit worried it was all (to quote a friend) “refill bourbon firewater”.  That didn’t happen – there’s some fantastic whisky in here and I genuinely think this is a really well thought through volume outturn.  There’s only one “old and dignified”, there’s a variety of peaters and there’s an ocean of good drammers

To help you navigate the outturn (there’s 57 of them including the little list), what follows next is some visualisations to help identify outliers before the notes themselves. Nobody wants to read all the notes, so find something you’re interested in and search for the note after.  I’ve laid the notes out in numerical (distillery) order rather than the usual tasting order to help navigation but of course I didn’t taste this lot in one sitting anyway. 

Anyway, to business…. In summary here’s what I recommend. 

  • 29.173.  This Laphroaig is awesome. 
  • 1.198.  Great value for a big, complex, bourbon ‘farclas
  • 35.139.  Great value for this Japanese-like well matured Glen Moray
  • 4.214.  A great choice for a bottle to open and drink all of over a year
  • 5.46.  A “good” Auchentoshan and nails the funky orange thing
  • 44.67.  At the higher end, seriously seasonal and a lovely dram
  • 64.64.  Just a pleasure to drink
  • 3.249.  Return of the great society Bowmore
  • 36.92. One of the most drinkable society whiskies of all time
  • 42.16.  Ardbeg-like
  • B3.2.  The second Rocktown is great – missable but so collectable if you bought the first.

First, price against age. 


Society pricing is pretty straightforward.  Low hanging fruit seem to be 5.47, 55.32, 35.139, 1.198 and of course the grain.  B3.2, 50.71 and 37.67 are way above the line (closed or age outliers).

Word clouds for the notes – the official ones and mine, for fun really:

official notesmynotes



More seriously, price against score for all of them, larger bubbles means more age.


29s, 1.198, 4.214 stick out – as does 48.68, 39.111 and 35.139.

Focussing on the sweeter ones, 44.68, 9.101, 5.47 look good:


Looking at the smokers, these are quite diverse, with Laphroaig and Highland Park leading quality, and Bowmore doing quite badly.  But this is showing up the bluntness of my scoring system a bit.


What casks are in this outturn?  Mostly refill bourbon of course, the bottom right hand corner is the non-refill bourbon stuff.  Some of these are actually finishes.


Here’s the drammers – everything under £57, rated for price and score, size is age again.  28, 48, 100, 63 look good here.  But check for yourself (click on it).


I’m missing 6 (10.85, 30.87, 53.232, 80.7, G7.7) – these are late due to bottling issues but I hope to pick these up later.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Japanese Whisky 6: Mars and the rest…

Mars whisky is the brand name applied to whisky distilled in the Shinshu distillery, which is owned by the Hombo brewing company. The distillery produces other spirits than whisky and stopped producing whisky altogether in 1992 through lack of demand, and only started again in 2011. So there's a natural gap, a change in production and a sense of this being a "new" distillery once again.  Everything I’ve tried has been from the new regime… except one.

I’d posted a couple from Mars before (here) including the Maltage 10 year old, which I’ve been enjoying working through the bottle of.  Seriously drinkable!

First off (and in the interests of ending on a high note!) I’ll mop up some of the other distilleries I’ve tried.

Akashi / Eigashima 5yo white wine cask finish for Gaiaflow, 58% B-

360 bottles, Kiri cask ref 61191

Eigashima is a producer of sake and shōchū (a weak distilled liquor made from various grains) that moved into whisky production using the equipment and experience from brewing and distilling shōchū. A dedicated whisky distillery (the "White Oak Whisky Distillery") was built onsite in 1984. The distillery is located in Akashi City and so the whisky is called White Oak Akashi single malt. Amazingly they import their barley from Scotland (contrast this with Paul John in India who use Indian barley but import their peat from Islay!).

2009-2014 - European oak hogshead for 3 years, then finished in white wine cask.

eigashimaNose - Young and sharp. Boiled sweets, hardwood, a little bacon, wet log cabin (mossy). With water, some sweet fruit and a softening sherried edge, and the wood makes more sense.

Body - Sharp and savoury, lemon and sandalwood joss sticks, flat pack furniture (MDF) - very distinctly. I had it on the nose but couldn't place it. Rescued somewhat by some pear. Water softens things out but this is still painfully young.

Finish - Long, very hot and spicy. Bitter MDF. I'll go with patchouli joss sticks at the end.

What's not good about it - Infanticide. It smells and tastes very much like a pellet smoker.

What's good about it - Some good stuff starting to show here, an interesting peek into what's to come from Eigashima.

Kirin, Fuji-Gotemba Distillery, NAS Blender's Choice, single grain, 46% A-

Fuji-Gotemba is a distillery owned by Kirin, located on the side of Mount Fuji, a location selected for its climate and quality of water.

fujoNose – A delightfully dark, berry led, Japanese grain. Sweet and toppy, but practically black. Balanced and not "youthful" although intense. Lovely hard but winey oak.

Body - Here comes the youth though - bourbon like in its virgin caskery. Blueberries and blonde wood, sweet bourbon.

Finish - Medium, sharply new oaky. Quite winey at the end though.

What's not good about it - Simple and young delivery, lacks complexity and integration.

What's good about it - A beautiful nose, sweetly balanced and winey, with complex bourbon overtones and a freshly opened flat pack shelf.

Fujikai 10 years old, 43% C-

Fujikai is a whisky produced by Monde Shuzo distillery, owned by a wine producer. The only other whisky I know of by this producer is a blend, Isawa. That's about it for intel, I'm not sure what they're doing with this one but I'm sure we'll see a few more bottlings. Anyway, it came out, we split a bottle to see what it was like, here's the notes.

fujikai-10-year-old-whiskyNose - Raw wood, like a piece of oak charred in a BBQ and soaked in young, uninteresting whisky with the hope of making it taste better (yes, that doesn’t work very well). Musty like wet cardboard. Mouldy. And a rotten jackfruit like topnote. But behind this there is, somehow, something interesting - some sweet toffee. Serious digging though.

Body - Musty and rotten again, like mushrooms growing in the forest, and again that hopefully sweet cask behind it. Damn that's annoying.

Finish - The interesting sweetness persists. This may be the first whisky I've ever tried where the finish is significantly better than the nose and body!

What's not good about it - seriously flawed.

What's good about it - but I suppose, interesting and if they hadn't mucked it up it promises something interesting. Perhaps an attempt to save a dodgy bunch of casks with some better ones? Good money after bad.

Yamazakura 15 years old, Pure Malt, 43% A⊕

Apparently aged for 15 years, then held in tanks for 5 (perhaps to await a market?) then back into barrels to finish.  1500 bottles.

yamazakuraNose - Sweet, restrained and slightly mushroomy (in a nice way). This is one of the most Scotchy whiskies in this set. Deep woody sweetness, toffee and Kendall mint cake and a top note of men's deodorant. A good "ordinary" nose - balanced and interesting with a clean, fruity sweetness and lots of fun to chase.

Body - Sweet with some raw barley and fennel seeds. A light, fizzing spice with fried chilli.

Finish - Medium with juicy citrus, good tannins and competent throughout.

What's not good about it - On first blush this is quite ordinary (although competent), and there's a bitterness which seems out of kilter if you're not paying too much attention.

What's good about it - But with time, really quite an insistent sweetness that throughout works well, and quite acidic like a heavily carbonated Belgian beer. And altogether very well put together (especially given its weird history) and a satisfying dram. In many ways it reminds me of why I like Cutty Sark; a kind of understated confidence and easy drinking balance.

Onto Mars!

Shinshu Mars, Cosmo Blended Malt Whisky, 43% A+

Cosmo is the name of a mountain near the distillery. This is a blended malt made of "new regime" malt whisky from Mars and bulk imported Scotch malt. This was introduced this year and will be part of the core range (not just a one off bottling).

imgrc0069218385Nose - Sweet but elegant - immediately enjoyable with sweet green apple, a vague structural peat note and some lolly stick. Actually some of the lolly too - has a touch of frozen water about it. For a blended malt whisky with Scotch in it, this is very Japanese! Refreshing and very approachable.

Body - Complex and balanced, more of that peat that seems to be everywhere in small amounts, and a little fried chilli. Some sherry notes, fag ends and then bamboo furniture.

Finish - Long, competent and effortless, offering up vanilla pastry after all the structural wood and peat.

What's not good about it - Not much - it's a drammer for sure, one for glugging in front of a film or over a good conversation. So a little low on challenge but that's no bad thing.

What's good about it - Balanced, delicious, very Japanese and easy drinking.  Lovely stuff.

Mars Komagatake 2011, Sherry and American White Oak 57% A⊕

3 years old.

japan_mar3Nose - Initially sour plums, then toasty oak and new pine furniture. Lightly citric - orange zest and a little grapefruit. The bright youth is backed by wax and lip gloss. Perhaps a hint of pickled jalapenos? Very tasty. Later, sawdust and green beans. With water, dustier, and deep sherry sweetness starts to come through.

Body - Sharp and winey, fresh and tasty, almost shockingly but reassures at the last minute with lots of umami and tannins. A lot softer with water, but the youth shows a bit.

Finish - Long and quite saccharine cloying with lots of new oak. Pineapple cubes at the end (just like kola kubes, these don't really taste like pineapple anymore - neither does this, but it's that oily sweetness that I'm getting here).

What's not good about it - A little uneasy with itself, could do with further time in cask. Cloying is never good but this makes a good fist of it.

What's good about it - A lovely, complex and slightly exotic nose, ripe and fruity on the delivery. Seriously drinkable too.

Mars Single Cask Whisky 904, 496/824, 43% A⊕⊕

An Enrico provided bonus at Bret’s Japanese mega-tasting session and the last whisky in this set of blog posts, this is the only Mars I’ve tried from the old regime!  I wanted to end on a high, and this is monumentally good. Unfortunately the review is a bit short when you take out all the swearing.

20151015_193215Nose - Dirty red fruit, deeply right and funky. Great filth and plenty of tobacco. Clean, juicy fruit, lime leaf, thick skinned lemon, urinal cake. Bright and balanced and authoritative.

Body - old Islay dust! Perfect berries and fruit but (despite the funk) clean and balanced with refreshers and black tea?

Finish - Very long and clean tannins. So delightful.

What's not good about it: unattainable

What's good about it: Perfection. How is this possible in a 15yo? Dusty fruit, epic wood, perfect balance, very long and clean but interesting and so drinkable.

Speaking to Bret, these old regime Mars are invariably excellent, and given that there’s a lot more age on them it could mean amazing things are to come from the new regime distillery.  Mars is definitely one to watch.


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Japanese Whisky 5: Chichibu and Hanyu

Hanyu distillery was built in 1941 by Isouji Akuto as an addition to the existing business of making sake, and started making single malt whisky in 1980 with the acquisition of two Scottish pot stills.  This was first released in the 1990s as Chichibu.  Hanyu closed in 2000 due to lack of demand.

Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the founder of Hanyu distillery, built Chichibu distillery in 2008 and (owning the remaining stock from Hanyu) has been releasing Hanyu (and other) stock as “Ichiro’s Malt” while waiting for the Chichibu whisky to mature.  These include the card series, which ended with the Joker (a coloured joker was a blend of casks and is tasted below, the monochrome joker was a single cask).  The first new Chichibu came out in 2009, and quite a few have been released.  There’s some good stuff to be had. The old Hanyu stuff is generally epic.

Huge thanks to Marcin Miller for sorting me out with most of the samples here and some elsewhere in this set of posts.  Marcin is basically in charge of Japanese whisky in the UK and most other places.

SMWS 131.2, Hanyu, Magic carpet in a sweetie shop, 13 years old, 55.1% A⊕

First fill sherry butt, 646 bottles.  Reviewed before.

hanyu-13-years-old-smws-1312Nose - Sweet, bright, elegant sherry and ripe orchard fruit. Wham bar and fresh bay leaves. New leatherette. A totally refreshing, bright and delicious nose. Cherry pipe tobacco (apparently I really miss that) and strawberry laces. This is youngish Japanese whisky at its best.  I really am finding it quite hard to put my finger on why this is so good, I might have to fall back on balance and integration.  But it's the breezy freshness of it despite the sherry that's at the root of it. With water, even better - juicy fruit, black jacks and pineapple candy.

Body - Liquorice torpedoes and lots of the hard candy shell. Glorious tobacco. Cough sweets. Intensely sweet with water in the initial delivery.

Finish - Long but bitter. Falls apart in the late finish - how did that happen? Water delays that fall from grace and presents a lot more sherry, sweetly coated nuts and yoghurt covered raisins.

What's not good about it - the soul falls out of it at the end.

What's good about it - but the nose is so wonderful you're pulled back in for more. And water shores it up quite a lot. A great, will-be-missed bottle.

Ichiro's malt, Chichibu the first, 61.8% A⊕

This was the first release from Ichiro Akuto's Chichibu distillery.

chichi1Nose - Deep, dark and brooding. But with travel sweets, tobacco, ice pops and cheap vanilla ice cream. Actually that's unstoppable once you've identified it. Slightly alien but seriously compelling and very delicious. After a while, there's a ghost of Ardbeg in here I'm sure, lots of peat? Even better with water, sweeter with a touch of Springbank and TCP about it. And something from my youth - rolling tobacco, forests and cheap white wine I'd say. And my leather biker jacket, by association.

Body - Deep, sweet, winey, oddly medicinal, quite bright and sour. Loads of black pepper, lots of sweet hard caramel, and rolling tobacco.

Finish - Quite long with lots of virgin wood, numbingly tannic and peppery.

What's not good about it - Intense and overly wooded, showing its youth in the delivery.

What's good about it - Bright, confident and excitingly alien. Wonderful wine and sweet wood on the nose, structured and exciting in the delivery. I can see why this caused such excitement.

Ichiro's Malt, Chichibu floor malted, distilled 2009, bottled 2012, 50.5% A+

chichifloorNose - Goodness me, the cheap vanilla ice cream fun returns with more exciting wood and class. There's more old Springbank in here than in nearly all modern Springbank. Some wine filth provides top cover. Seductive and delicious.

Body - Much sweeter, lovely old cask and tobacco, dark fruits and toffee.

Finish - Shorter and cleaner, ice cream and wafer.

What's not good about it - A little polite perhaps.  Not as interesting in the delivery as on the nose.

What's good about it - A lovely nose, balanced and considered throughout yet it's sweet, vanilla'd and punchy. Not just a drinker either.

Ichiro's Malt, Chichibu Port Pipe, distilled 2009, 54.5% A⊕

chichiportNose - Deep purple (funky raspberry and boiled sweets), floral and highly perfumed. Essence of sweet oak. Neapolitan ice cream, forest floor and old potpourri. Then some wine underneath that zesty, herbal top coat - the wine is old, red and oaky. The whisky is, however, young and zesty. It's a good combination but the integration is a bit awkward. Water brings better integration to be honest, and there's dirtier wine coming through too, and burnt oak. Grapefruit in the empty glass.

Body - Deep, dirty and spicy. Soft toffee, ripe apple and chilli oil. Perhaps a little hop and Belgian yeast too. More apple and beer with water- perhaps even approaching a Lambic.

Finish - Tannic, some fried chilli, lots of bitter hardwood. Soft wine alongside this though.

What's not good about it - Lacks a little soul.

What's good about it - But it's a bright, seductive blockbuster. Delicious with water, with plenty of challenging herbal and floral notes to balance out the spicy hardwoods and deep wine.

Ichiro's Malt, Chichibu Chibidaru, 2010-2014, 53.5% B

Chibidaru (Japanese for 'cute casks') are quarter casks that give accelerated maturation through a higher ratio of contact with wood.

10620327Nose - Redcurrants and marker pens, but very young cereal, malty and meaty and catch in the back in the nose. Toffee, chocolate and some fried rosemary. With water, back into good-but-austere territory. Flinty.

Body - Surprisingly easy drinking - soft, fruity with soft toffee and milk chocolate. But boringly woody.

Finish - Medium, bitter, young. Uneventful.

What's not good about it - Surprisingly strict, lots of youthful flaws. One dimensional. Altogether the character of a cheaper whisky. No hint of the immediate super aging of small casks (for example Springbank Rundlets & Kilderkins, or Laphroaig Quarter Cask)

What's good about it - Some nice jewelled fruit in the nose. Meh.

Time to get back to some awesome stuff.  This next one is well known and very, very good.

Ichiro's Malt, The Joker, Hanyu casks 1985-2000, 57.5% A⊕⊕

ichiro-joker-bsNose - Dark, winey and dreamy. Ribena, deeply sweet oak, wasabi (really) and black, bright sherry. Putting aside the colossal premium this commands at auction at the moment, this is a fully stunning, bright, massive cask nose. Fountain pen ink, acrylic wall paint, sorrel and blackberries. Extremely juicy. Waxier, more toffee and mint with water.

Body - A rollercoaster. Darkly sweet, then bright, then peated, then wooded and herbal. Dusty and alien like an old Bowmore. Then lolly sticks and fags, then refreshers and polos.

Finish - Then juicy, oaken, numbing with peat and then back to enormous fruit juice and tannins. This is enormous. It sounds jumbled but it's not, it's complex and changing. The finish is extraordinarily long, very sweet and toffeed and complex throughout. After (literally, honestly) minutes, it's still a big sherried whisky with balancing peat playing out on the tongue.

What's not good about it - Nothing. Overly complex if you really must pick something – so you probably wouldn’t do much talking while drinking it.

What's good about it - The nose is huge, bright, complex, juicy and balanced with red fruit, sherry and lots of high casks. The delivery is massive, bruising but luxurious, fruit, sulphur, petrol and age in perfect harmony. The finish is perhaps the longest I've ever sampled, and never puts a foot wrong. I bought a bottle of this at the whisky show last year and (looking at auction) always assumed I'd sell it. I'm not sure I will now, I'm beginning to think it's worth even that.

Also, I know you, and I for that matter, wanted this to be over hyped, I'm afraid it isn't. And yes I tasted it at TWS last year and didn't think all this of it, but that's context for you. I just say it how I find it.

Chichibu Peated, 2011-2015, 62.5% A⊕+

japan_chi2011Nose - Lovely. Berries and solvent, marker pens and sweet peat, retronasally quite buttery. Very herbal too, almost a garlic bread richness in here behind that toppy solvent. With water it's even better; lemon juice, sage, tarragon, and beautifully, brightly savoury peated. Herbal and earthy and buttery and rich and bright and well peated - so far this is like one of the great committee Ardbegs - damn this had better deliver.

Body - Yes this is like a big old Ardbeg from a few years ago - more buttery though, there's some serious diacetyl come through in the spirit or something. New plum and ripe apple. Thick, intense and chewy, but much less of a bruiser.

Finish - And seriously rich and tasty in the finish. Long but resolutely savoury throughout. I guess those committee Ardbegs and this have youth, a desire to be the best and impress and great, small scale cask mentality in common.

What's not good about it - it's quite brash. And I will have to ignore the fact that it's £100 for a 4yo. There's some jarring bitterness in the mid-palate.

What's good about it - but the nose is just sublime, musky and fruity but savoury and very complex and balanced. There's wood and spice in the delivery that belies its tender years and the whole thing is just fabulous. Worth every penny.

That one is still available to buy, and I would go for it while you still can.  But let’s end on an even higher note!

Ichiro's Malt – Phoenix (houou-uhi), 46.5% A⊕⊕

This is another one from Bret’s collection.  It’s a blend of Hanyu and apparently legendary Kawasaki which was released for Isetan department store in Tokyo and contains 12, 21, 30, 32 and 35 year old components.  By all accounts it’s pretty special.  Kawasaki was a grain distillery owned by the Mercian corporation (who also owned Karuizawa).  Mercian was bought by Kirin and as a result of a shift in focus away from whisky and the state of the market, both Kawasaki and Karuizawa were closed.  Ichiro Akuto bought the remaining stock of Kawasaki and Karuizawa (and inherited the Hanyu stock) and so blends like this exist!

20151015_200208Nose - Beautifully fruity. More bright marker pens, fresh green apples, tobacco and melon, Sauternes and varnish. This is beautiful. Caramel glaze. The greenest, elemental fruit, with maraschino cherry….

Body - and a beautifully manhattan. Beautiful tobacco and floral melon. Spicy and oaky too, enormous tobacco wood, and dry fino - mushroomy flor and sherry.

Finish - Long, winey and epically tannic spices and lots of wood. Phenomenally satisfying. Tobacco tannins at the end.
What's not good about it - unattainable.

What's good about it - A symphony of Japanese perfection. Wood and red fruit, beautiful balance between tobacco and melon (that was unexpected). Amazing.

Last up is Mars and some other stuff.  Cheers!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Japanese Whisky 4: Karuizawa

Karuizawa was a small distillery (4 pot stills, mind you Auchentoshan only have the 3!) which mainly used Golden Promise barley and sherry casks (very Macallan) and closed in 2000. It has become, as you know, phenomenally famous in the last few years for the quality, depth and complexity of the liquid and has passed almost fully into collectable territory. There is no more. Originally Karuizawa was intended as quite an ordinary malt to provide sherried depth to blends, and the eight year old sold while the distillery was open is apparently unremarkable.  But just as with Port Ellen, when they found the unwanted casks 20-30 years later something magic had happened… collectable whisky magic!


Karuizawa Distillery, reproduced without permission from Bret Boivin

The recent Karuizawa masterclass at the whisky show was £6,000 a ticket and came with a bottle from a cask outturn of only 60 (and sold out). Last year the Karuizawa released at the show had an hour long queue and saw people buying a ticket to the show just so they could get the bottle (and in some cases immediately sell for £1,000+ profit). I've tasted a small number, I even own a bottle from an SMWS outturn a couple of years ago. I don't really care too much about the investment grade stuff as it's out of my league (the £350 bottles sold at the whisky show last year are too much for me to spend on a bottle) but I'm pleased to try it when I can. I've found what I’ve tried to be universally excellent.


The black whisky fungus is at home in Japan as Scotland

SMWS 132.4, Karuizawa, Rich, brooding and suggestive, 17 years old, 61.7% A⊕

8th July 1996, refill sherry, 346 bottles.

132.4Nose - Surprisingly bright, with cranberries, blonde wood and menthol. Waxed fruit and a lovely ripe, floral, alien plastic character. Perfectly poised between lewd fruit and hard oak. With water, fruitier with hazelnuts, chocolate and raisin.

Body - Lovely and winey, fresh oak sawdust, sweet fruit and sour beer. Dusty and numbing. Very compelling. Slightly spicy at the back of the throat with water.

Finish - Medium, great wax development, long and drawn-out tannins. Lots of wax. Tropical burps.

What's not good about it - A touch unbalanced and a little too much spice at the end with water, but quite wonderful neat.

What's good about it - Intensely complex and explorable, balanced and fruity. Patience is a virtue.

SMWS 132.2, Karuizawa, Stunning Panorama of Exotic Fruits, 62.4% A⊕+

4th September 1992, refill sherry butt, 335 bottles.  Reviewed previously.

132.2Nose - Lots more deodorant than I previously remember but then that deep red lacquer is back, and the fruit and nut bar is still there. Behind the sweet fruit is old, authoratitive cask. Still epic. With water, slightly winier but even fruitier.

Body - Deep rich chocolate, red fruit and spicy perfume. Complex and complete. With water, even better - cask, wax and Asian fruit matched to excellent cask and a long maturation.

Finish - Incredibly oily and chocolatey, extremely long. Like good milk chocolate at the end. Tropical burps again (I love that).

What's not good about it - Nothing, still.

What's good about it - Fruity, exotic, ripe, very complex, extremely long and well balanced. A truly epic whisky.

Karuizawa 1984 Sherry Cask #3663, The Whisky Exchange, 56.8% A⊕

Opportunities to buy this were by lottery last year.  I wasn’t selected but Sjoerd was and we split his bottle.

Kar1984Nose - Sweet, dark (and bright), waxy but raisiny but with intense (but polite) old cask and something like rum soaked prunes and lighter fluid. Behind this, fruit and nut bar and a very little cereal, but that intense, old, HD sherry cask is perfect. After tasting, the nose is noticeably more petrolic.

Body - Unexpectedly wooded, next to the sherry. Like sawdust from a repair of some old furniture; dark red wood. Extremely fruity too, cherry tobacco (numbing on the front of your tongue hanging off that rollup), and big sour plum at the top of the palate.

Finish - Very long, very spicy, very virgin oak? More sawdust and joss stick. Damn, this is compelling though.

What's not good about it - a heavy hand with the raw wood, big bitterness, although it certainly does hang together.

What's good about it - Beautiful nose, extremely intense but bright, sweet and sour sherry, loads of fruit, and almost unexplainable juxtapositions that seem to work, including being a tasting and a drinking whisky. Big in every sense of the word.

I have a couple more, both from Franck but I only just found one of them (you should have seen my samples/bottle shares before I tidied them this weekend) and if I don’t post this blog I’ll be adding to it forever.  So I’ll save them for after Christmas. Next time, Chichibu and Hanyu.