Category Archives: Japanese Whiskey

The Japanese Whisky That Needs To Come To The US

While the northeast is apparently getting hit with a good winter storm, as my various feeds would indicate, we in southern California are suffering ourselves. It was only 47 when I went for my morning run. Weather that cold demands a light windbreaker. I almost questioned my choice to wear shorts! Fortunately, after a few minutes I warmed up and it was a non-issue. That’s pretty much the same thing, right?

I guess not.

Despite that, for my long-acclimated self, it’s been a bit cold. No, not northeast cold or northern Europe cold, but the kind that makes me wonder if I should swap the hoodie for a heavier coat. That’s the kind of weather that makes me think it’s peated whiskey time.

I thought of some of the Islays on my shelf, but nothing quite grabbed me. After looking around, I found what I’d been waiting to try for some time: Haukushu Heavily Peated. Hakushu is owned by Suntory (who are more familiar in the US as the owners of the Yamazaki distillery) and is located west-northwest of Tokyo, or a little southeast of Nagoya. We got Hakushu relatively recently in the US, but it seems to not have caught much of a reputation locally. It’s a shame; Japanese whiskies are some of the very best in the world and really stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the world has to offer. They’re a little bit different but generally I find them to be highly enjoyable.

Suntory has periodically released special editions of their whiskies which are released in Japan and sometimes Europe, but never see the light of day here. You may have seen photos of the Yamazaki Sherry Cask edition in the past; there’s also a Bourbon, Puncheon and Mizunara edition of Yamazaki every year. All four of those are going to be reviewed in the coming weeks. Hakushu has seen some as well – there’s a Hakushu Bourbon barrel release, and the whisky-sphere had occasional photos of Hakushu Sherry Cask floating around, but that sold out almost instantly last week.

Today though, we’re looking at release of Hakushu that isn’t as impossible to get if you’re not bashful about ordering from the UK. This is, of course, Hakushu Heavily Peated, and it’s the perfect thing for cooler days.

The name evokes something that has a full-on, aggressive punch to it; sort of a Japanese Octomore or a really punchy Lagavulin Cask Strength. I admit, I’d set it aside as the ultra-peated whiskies tend to be a special mood for me even though I enjoy them.

The nose on Hakushu is immediately full of nice, dense, but clean peat. It’s really easygoing in an uncommon way despite its density. Whereas I find some Islays can have a rubbery quality when heavily peated, this reminds me of the peating on some of the older Macallans I’ve reviewed – it has an almost pine forest quality to it: rich, lush and green, but not acrid or sharp at all. That said, it is definitely at the forefront of the nose. There’s a light sweetness that underpins the peat and some maltiness, with a real sense of very fresh barley. Way in the background is some light grassiness just to provide some balance.

The palate comes in a little surprisingly thin, and leads with a flash of wood and some barley, as well as malt sweetness. I was expecting a peat bomb, but it’s much more balanced. There’s a real sense of malt sugars on the palate, and it provides a fantastic balance to the lush, rich peat. Nothing is even slightly off to my palate. There’s some slight white pepper and gentle spiciness that builds late in the palate, and it’s a great dimension.

The finish dries a bit from the sweetness, and the maltiness is still there. A faint hint of caramel and white pepper dance around the peat. It’s a really satisfying, lasting finish that hangs around and resolves to malty sweetness.

From the name, I’d expected something that was brutally big and overpowering. Instead, it’s an incredibly well balanced whiskey that brings a phenomenal mix of sweetness and peat. I struggle to think of a reasonably priced peated whiskey that has such a fantastic balance of elements.

Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard from the K&L Davids in the past, importing whisky from Japan is a nightmare. This is a shame – I know it prevented Nikka from dipping its toes in the American market for a long time, and they also have some great whisky. However, not having Hakushu Heavily Peated in the United States is a real shame. If any buyers or local importers or brand representatives for Suntory happen to see this, please, consider this a request to bring this to the American market. It’s a fantastic, world-class whisky and unique among the Japanese malts that would be available to us.

Until then, we’ll have to order from abroad. But let’s hope that’s not a long time.

At a glance:

Hakushu Heavily Peated (48% ABV)
Nose: 
Nice, dense but clean peat – has a very easygoing way about it. Not too edgy and raw. Light sweetness underneath it, some good maltiness – a real sense of fresh barley. A touch grassy.
Palate:  A little thin on the palate, leading initially with wood and some barley; a little malt sweetness. The peat that was so abundant on the nose plays a more balanced role with malt sugars; it’s firmly present but doesn’t blast everything out of proportion. A little white pepper and gentle spice builds slowly.
Finish:  Dries up and is a little less sweet, but still has a reasonable malty presence, a faintly caramel touch, some white pepper, and some light peat. Very nicely lasting, satisfying and goes a bit malty-sweet towards the end.
Comment:  Despite the name, this isn’t a huge peat bomb that floods your palate. Yes, the peat is present but it’s not by any means overwhelming.
Rating: B+

More reviews of this excellent whisky can be found at the LAWS database.

New Year, Old Distilleries

With the holiday season behind us and my apartment building’s entry way with a thick layer of the debris of abandoned Christmas trees, it’s time to turn our eyes to a new year. For some, this is a time of reflection, a time of anticipation, vows for self-improvement and so forth. I don’t have any blog resolutions, per se, other than a promise to continue my low-grade jackassery and witless, incurious observations that firmly mark me as a member of whisky blogging’s chattering class. In other words, expect very little to change.

This year is going to be one of exploration, in part. Isn’t it always? Yes, but we’re enjoying some new opportunities here in the US. New Japanese whiskies are landing on our shores – the new Nikkas most notably – and I’ve managed to secure some other samples for this year, not to mention the flight of limited edition Yamazakis. From my discussions with David Driscoll and David Girard, it’s clear what a mess getting Japanese whiskies are into the US. Apparently the trade agreements aren’t in place with Japan as they are with other nations, which require a ton of lab analysis to approve a new whisky for import. This is a real shame: Japan has some absolutely top-notch whiskies that would be sure to please the palate of almost any aficionado of Scotch whisky. With the rising prices of Scotch whisky, it’s certainly worth a re-examination of the options available to see if there are substitutes available elsewhere. Beyond that, a little palate globetrotting is always a fun experience.

Anyone who has talked with me in person knows that closed distilleries are a passing passion for me. There’s something exciting about the opportunity to try something that may never be available again. My last year of extensive introspection, exhaustively woven into many blog posts, has only reaffirmed my interest in that experience. So what better to kick of 2013 than a closed Japanese distillery?

We’re talking, of course, about the Karuizawa distillery. I make no attempt to sound like an expert about Japanese whisky; aside from what’s crossed my palate, it’s much more of an unknown quantity to me than, say, Scotland or the United States. From what’s available out there, it’s apparent that Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and closed ten years later. Now, Karuizawas are reasonably easy to find (for Japanese whiskies, meaning you have to import them from Scotland*), but they frequently command £200 and more, meaning you’re looking at $350 for some of those single cask offerings after shipment. Certainly nothing outlandish, but just as certainly part of the price tier where some way to mitigate the risk is appreciate. I’ve had a couple Karuizawas in the past and while I liked them, I wasn’t necessary blown away by them, and not enough to risk $300 on them.  

Fast forward to late 2012: The Whisky Exchange tweets about the availability of the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama bottles. I check the link out, expecting no doubt to find another bottle above my personal threshold in this case, and am stunned. £45 and £50 after VAT is subtracted. I can’t believe it: an affordable Karuizawa. Spirit of Asama is a vatting of 77 casks, at about 12-13 years old (the casks were filled in ’99 and ’00). Though I’ve already got a checkmark by Karuizawa on my “closed distilleries to taste” list (cue the sound of David Driscoll harrumphing at my closed distillery scorekeeping. Sorry, David, I’m gonna do it), a reasonably priced expression is always worth checking out.

Several weeks ago, Serge reviewed these and gave them an 87 (48% ABV bottling) and 85 (55% ABV bottling). Expectations set: these are good but not legendary bottles. After wrestling with the corks – seriously, the corks on these are awful – I finally get the bottles open. My 48% bottle had a fragmenting cork – fortunately, I was splitting this bottle with a friend, so it was going to be decanted anyway.

I finally sat down to taste these recently after the holidays, curious to see what they had in common and what might be different.

The 55% was my baseline, being closer to a natural cask strength for the many casks involved. The nose on it immediately revealed thick sherry with an accompanying slight sherry funk to it. There was some underlying wood but it didn’t overpower – though it did show some age and seemed fairly tame. The top end had orange zest; it was slightly figgy with some red fruit and leather.

The palate was very leathery with tons of sherry. It had a fairly good dose of white pepper, some moderate heat as well. A little fig and plum gave some depth to the body and some thick molasses stickiness filled out the bottom end. A nice, rich palate (though I confess of late I find that heavy leathery note a little less alluring than the incredible nutty flavors you get from some sherry-matured whisky).

The 55% Asama finished warm, and had a bourbony, slightly citric top note that leaned towards orange zest. It gave way to a big sherry and fig combo, with a familiar musty, woody finish I’ve seen on previous Karuizawas (at times, I’ve thought this to be not too dissimilar from what a slightly dusty melon rind would taste like). Not bitter at all, but just a bit old.

The 55% Asama bears a massive sherry influence, and is certainly one of the least expensive Karuizawas I’ve seen, while still having something in common with the pricier versions.

The reduced bottling appears to have come from the same batch of casks. How does it compare?

The nose is slightly musty sherry, with an unfortunate straight alcohol/solvent note. It’s got light wood, a touch of oranges, and some dried fruit.

The palate is leathery again, with sherry, a very mild dose of white pepper (this has almost none of the heat of the 55%), and gentle heat. It’s slightly figgy with a far off molasses quality to add some depth, as well as a little light wood.

The finish is led by wood, and starts slightly warm like its higher proof brother, with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Unlike the 55% which goes a bit more musty and dusty on the finish, the 48% settles on dried fruit.

The 48% is a little gentler, but to my palate by comparison it almost seems timid and somewhat flat. It’s not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems to need a little more life to it.

Of the two, I prefer the 55%. You can reduce it to 48% if you’re so inclined (Serge was successful in this experiment), or you can have it at full strength and enjoy a little more zip. The 48% is unquestionably more restrained and easy-drinking, but I just prefer the 55%.

Fortunately, both of these whiskies are still available at The Whisky Exchange for the reasonable prices mentioned above – the 48% is £45 ex VAT and the 55% is £51 ex VAT (I don’t get any affiliate money for those links, so click and enjoy and don’t worry about putting any of your hard earned money in my pockets – your hard earned money solely goes to TWE on these).

* From above: A note popped into my mailbox this past week from Royal Mile Whiskies noting that they will be unable to ship to the US. Apparently the UK’s CAA has reclassified alcohol and as of today, RMW will be unable to ship to the US. This is a shame as Royal Mile has had some superlative single cask releases, most notably a stellar ’87 Glengoyne. Here’s hoping this is a misinterpretation and things will proceed as normal. Tim and Billy of TWE seem cautiously optimistic in this thread at the WWW forums - we in the US can only hope their interpretation is correct and we will soon see a return to normalcy. Otherwise, a major source of excellent whisky will be closed off to the US in short order.

Once again, here’s wishing you a happy new year. I have enjoyed the comments and interactions that Scotch & Ice Cream brought in 2012, and I hope to continue to entertain and interest in my own peculiar way again through 2013. Won’t you join me?

At a glance:

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 55% ABV
Nose: 
Thick sherry presence upfront that’s ever so slightly funky. Wood beneath it but it’s not overpowering, just a bit old and tame. A light orange zest hint on the top end. Slightly figgy with some traces of red fruit, a touch of leather.
Palate: 
Leathery upfront, tons of sherry. A fairly good dose of white pepper, moderate heat. A little fig, a touch of plum. Just a slight hint of thick molasses. 
Finish: 
Warm at first, with a little bourbony, slightly citric top note reminiscent of orange zest again. A big sherry/fig combo, giving way to a fairly familiar musty, woody finish I’ve gotten off previous Karuizawas. 
Comment:   
Very heavily sherry-influenced. It’s one of the less expensive Karuizawas you’ll find and still has something in common with more expensive versions. 
Rating:
B

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 48% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly musty sherry, a touch of a straight alcohol/solvent note. Light wood, a touch of oranges, some dried fruit. 
Palate: 
Leathery with sherry, very mild dose of white pepper, light heat. Slightly figgy and with a far-off hint of molasses. Light wood creeping in. 
Finish: 
Wood leads, slightly warm at first with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Settles in on dried fruit.
Comment: 
A little gentler, seems a little timid and flat. A good whisky; just needs a little more life. 
Rating:
B-

Nihon Dreamin’: Suntory Yamazaki 12y

I’d been wanting to review Suntory’s 12 year old Yamazaki expression for a while but never got around to it. Today, Josh over at The Coopered Tot reviewed Yamazaki 12 and reminded me of how much I love this one.

Most Americans seem to be unaware of Japanese whisky production (usually the follow-up question is “is it any good?“, as if it would be some sort of horribly-assembled okonomiyaki with a huge slather of mayonnaise) which is a shame. We’re starting to see more whiskies from Japan and they’re an excellent slightly different take on Scotch-style whisky. I honestly think Yamazaki 12 is one of the best value propositions among the imports – nicely developed flavor at a reasonable price.

Yamazaki is a special one for me. I’d been aware of it notionally for a while, but I’d never had it until I was – where else? – Japan. We were staying in Shinjuku, not far from Shinjuku station and looking at the absolutely stunning Mode Gakuen Coccoon Tower.

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (Yes, it's real)

Like a lot of US to Japan travelers, I found myself able to wake up around 4 AM, but staying up late was a real trick. We explored the various locales of Tokyo, starting early. Our fractured and basic Pimsleur-taught Japanese helped greatly and over the course of the week we got more confident exploring. However, I found myself absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, and usually dinner was only a short while before finally crashing for the evening.

One night, my wife convinced me to go to the skybar in our hotel at Keio Plaza. I grumbled about how tired I was but I conceded. We hurtled up to the 45th floor, entered Polestar, and grabbed a seat by the window. I ordered a Yamazaki 12 and took in the view of Shinjuku. Right in front of me was the Cocoon tower. I still remember taking in the view, the detached quietness that comes with being high off the ground, and the beauty of Tokyo at night. It’s one of those memories I can pull back with perfect clarity years later.

The moral of this story? Listen to your wife and hit the skybar after dark. You won’t regret it and you’ll never forget it.

Another major memory for me was a year ago when I left my job at the time. Several of my friends and I went to Nihon in San Francisco, a decent-to-good Japanese joint with a pretty ridiculous whisky selection. Since it was my sending-off and we had a large group, we decided to order a bottle of Yamazaki 12y for the table. This outing was memorable, filled with laughs and stories and tinged with that bittersweet feeling that comes with moving on. It was at that outing that I really had a strong impression of the taste of Yamazaki left on me and it became a favorite.

Yamazaki, as I said, is a Japanese whisky that owes a huge debt to the whiskies of Scotland in terms of taste and execution. The nose has a light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness, which is reminiscent of some older Scotch whiskies I’ve had. There were some hints of pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus influence. There’s also considerable but controlled wood influence, at a level of intensity not common in 12 year old whiskies.

The mouthfeel is slightly oily and has an immediate heat on the palate – it’s much like a strong dose of white pepper. There’s abundant maltiness, with the perceptible vanilla influence and a gentler, slightly spicy wood influence. The finish continues with sweetness and maltiness, and the wood seems bit drier and dustier. There’s more light vanilla and a mouth-feel not unlike Sichuan pepper. There’s also a slight vegetal note, like celery root.

Yamazaki is not one of the most showstopping, dramatic whiskies out there. It’s pleasingly sweet but with some spice to go along with it. It’s one I like to have on hand both for variety and for its easy introduction to Japanese whiskies.

Beyond that, it’s capable of taking me back to some special times and places. And it’s not a bad whisky to have mizuwari style sometimes.

Thanks for the reminder to hit memory lane, Josh.

At a glance:

Suntory Yamazaki 12y (43% ABV)
Nose: 
Light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness. Hints of some pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus. Considerable but even-tempered wood influence for a 12y whisky. 
Palate: 
Slightly oily mouthfeel with immediate heat – a good dose of white pepper. Maltiness in abundance, the vanilla influence perceptible and some gentle but slightly spicy wood.
Finish: 
Sweetness and some maltiness; a little bit of a dusty wood character. More light vanilla influence and some light hints of sichuan pepper. A vague, slightly vegetal note – a touch of celery root. 
Comment: 
A nice, even-tempered, gentle malt. Worth having around any time.
Rating: B