...where distraction is the main attraction.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An evening with Arran and Kilchoman single malts

(Note to the reader: I did not pay for this event nor these whiskies. I was not asked to write or review these products. But as this event was packed full of whisky, I have chosen to write about it. As I hope you will see below, I am providing honest reactions (and no grades) to this free stuff. Proceed how you prefer.)

Four weeks ago, I attended a casual evening with James Wills of Kilchoman Distillery and Louisa Young of Arran Distillery.  It was hosted by Los Angeles's own Whisky Redhead and attended by LA whisky folks (like Josh Peters and Linh Do) as well as a handful of people in the spirits and bartending scene.  Arran and Kilchoman are relatively new to the Scotch world, having opened in 1995 and 2005, respectively.  Though I usually write about how much better things used to be compared to how they are now, when it comes to quality these two baby distilleries are currently beating the snot out of distilleries 100-200 years their senior.

There was a lot of whisky available to be sampled on this occasion:

When one is confronted by a bevy of bottles, one MUST make a plan.  Otherwise no perspective is gained and everything becomes a blur.  Some pleasures are to have structure or we're rendered useless.  I've been doing my best not to be useless recently (unless I'm drinking Florin's whisky stash), so I created a strategy for this event and then stuck to it.


Because it's unpeated, Isle of Arran is where I elected to begin sampling.  Where better to start than with Arran's new make?  Yes, I began with 68.4%abv.  I done plan good.

Arran 2013 New Make, 68.4%abv
Color - Clear
Nose - Lots of coriander and grapefruit up front.  Then cardamom, lemon, and floral soap.  After ten minutes or so there are some apple skins, mint leaves, and orange peel.
Palate - All fruit.  See the nose's fruits, then add pineapple and (curiously) lots of raisins.  A whisper of mushrooms.  And NONE of the floral soap.
Finish - Mostly cinnamon and coriander
Thoughts and things: This was one of my favorite sips of the night.  Very pretty and drinkable at its full strength.  Arran does reduce their new make to 63.5%abv before pouring it into barrels.

Then it was time to compare Arran's 16 year old with their upcoming 18 year old.

Arran 16 year old, 46%abv
Color - Light gold
Nose - Vanilla, butterscotch, brown sugar, and cherry candies.
Palate - Starts off sweet and sugary.  Mint and cherry candies.  Lots of sherry at the beginning too.  Picks up some pepper and bitterness with time.
Finish - Sweet and sugary here too, with a mild nutty note.
Thoughts and things: An easy pleaser, this is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels.  It's all very clean and enjoyable.

Arran 18 year old, 46%abv
Color - Light gold
Nose - Much more citric than the 16.  A touch of sulphur.  A bunch of roses.  Picks up a nice herbal zip with time.
Palate - Mild sherry.  Lightly sweet and savoury.  A bit tannic.  Wee bite of sulphur again.
Finish - Tannic, mild.  Much less sweet than the 16.
Thoughts and things:  This one, 100% ex-sherry, hits the US market soon.  I was told it was to be around $150, though that seems weird because it's $100 in Europe.  Whisky-wise it's a little rougher than the 16, which is the reverse of what I'd expected.  While I prefer a challenge, I'd go with the 16 over this one.  I don't mind the sulphur but the tannins were more than my palate prefers.

Even after trying the 16 and 18, my favorite of Arran's line remains the 14 year old.  And......the 14 year old now has a new label.  When talking to Louisa, I brought up the fact that every time a whisky geek sees a new label on a whisky, he or she (rightly or wrongly) assumes there has been a change in the whisky itself.  *cough Talisker cough*  And in fact the 14 year old's makeup has changed.

As Arran's annual production has more than doubled since the distillery opened, there was a decision made to alter the cask management to manage the output.  The original 14 year old was from approximately 80% first fill bourbon casks, the rest from ex-sherries.  As per what I was told, James McTaggart (their master distiller) has elected to often use refill sherry casks for primary maturation and then later transfer that whisky into first-fill bourbon casks.  So that makes up a large part of the new 14 year old.  Also, I was told there are some older casks in the new 14 (and 10) to keep the whisky similar.  Again, that's hearsay, but official hearsay.  I lined up the the two 14s side by side to suss out the differences...

And, shoot, they're almost the same.  A little more sherry and spice in the new edition's palate.  The older 14's nose is slightly grassier, maybe more vanilla.  The new one's nose has more sherry and flowers.  Their finishes seem to be identical.  Though I had only a half ounce of each, it seems like a good transition.  I'll be posting a full report on the old 14 (via a sample swap with smokypeat) later this Spring.

Then it was time to go to Islay's young distillery...


As you may already know, Kilchoman uses two different types of malted barley which results in two different branches of products.  They have their highly-peated malt that's purchased from the Port Ellen maltings, and has the Ardbeg specs (peated at 50ppm).  This malt is used in the majority of their whiskies.  They also utilize a 100% Islay malt which is grown on the nearby farm and malted on site.  This stuff is peated around 15-20ppm and is the malt used in the "100% Islay" products.

Fun fact:  Another difference between the two malted barleys is the peat itself.  The peat used by PE is bulk purchased and loses its tiny roots during transport.  The 100% Islay malt's peat still has its roots intact.  Thus it's possible that the two peats burn differently and provide different characteristics.

I gave James Wills brief grief about the ages of their whiskies.  The distillery has been open for nearly ten years and yet almost all of their whiskies are still 3-5 years old.  Where the heck is the eight year old whisky?  The world wants to drink it!  Here's the answer.  In 2005 they didn't start casking their whisky until December.  In 2006 they only produced 40K liters.  They did have a 2006 Vintage release (a 5yo) and also sold many many single barrels to European retailers and individuals to get some revenue going.  In 2007, their production was 75K liters.  Again, they had a 2007 Vintage release, plus they started using some of the 2007 stuff in the 2012 edition of Machir Bay.  By 2008, they were up to full capacity.  And, according to their website, there will be a 7 year old 2008 vintage released this year.  So we'll have to wait until at least late 2016 to try an eight year old Kilchoman.

Fun fact: While the 2012 and 2013 editions of Machir Bay were briefly finished in sherry casks, the distillery changed things up for the 2014 release by removing the finish altogether and instead including sherry casks in 10% of the mix.

To the whisky:

Kilchoman 50ppm New Make, 63.5%abv
Color - Clear
Nose - Sugary mescal, rotting veg (but in a good way), soil-covered roots, ham, and tar.
Palate - Richly smoky.  Very creamy in texture and content.  Almost tastes aged already.  Red Hots candy.
Finish - Ham and sugar.
Thoughts and things: Another good new make.  Lovely texture on the palate.  I'd buy a bottle of this if the price was right.

Kilchoman Cask Strength, Batch 1, 59.2%abv
Color - Amber
Nose - (Neat) Take the new make then add vanilla, tangerines, pears, and a hint of manure.  (With water) More vanilla, more farm.  Band-aids and Peychaud's bitters.  Anise.
Palate - (Neat) Anise, sugar, honey, salt, green peat, and pineapple.  (With water) Gets woodier, but also more herbal.
Finish - Sweet + peat, mescal
Thoughts and things: This ex-bourbon matured new addition to Kilchoman's range is certainly young, but it also works in that curious way that many Kilchomans do.  The nose is the best part by far, with or without water.  While its price is high considering the whisky's age, it could be a good alternative to the single casks which cost even more.

Kilchoman Single Cask 394/2009 5 year old PX Finish, 59.2%abv
Color - Gold
Nose - Sugary raisins and nuts.  Mothballs.  Not much peat.
Palate - Sweet from the start and gets sweeter as it goes.  Sugary frosting.
Finish - A bit cloying.  Grape jam.
Thoughts and things: Kilchoman's regular single sherry casks are consistently excellent.  But this PX finish (after an ex-bourbon barrel maturation) does not work for me.  It is aggressive sugary and the PX finish covers up every element of its Kilchoman-ness.  The cask strength release is better than this by a leap.

As you may have noticed, I didn't sample any of their "100% Islay" products.  While the 100% Islay range sounds like the hipper craftier whisky, I don't really care for it.  I've tried two single casks and two of the annual releases in that range and found them all to be half-baked, three year old whisky that tastes like three year old whisky.  Some people adore it, and that's great.  More for them.  I'll stick to the PE malt for now.

Many thank yous to the Whisky Redhead, James Wills, and Louisa Young for their time and their whisky.

While Kilchoman is still, in my opinion, one of the top ten distilleries in Scotland, it is getting tough for me to recommend their single casks wholeheartedly since it is difficult to reconcile a $100-$120 price for 4-5 year old whisky.  Still, many of those casks show off some of the best whisky being made on Islay right now.  I do recommend their vintage releases (the 2007 is a cracker) and the very reliable Machir Bay.

While Arran continues to make very good whisky, I find myself always preferring their official 10 and 14 year olds over their older stuff and the (many) single casks coming from the indies.  Aw hell, I think I'm going to have to review some Arran whisky next week.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Single Malt Report: Yoichi NAS Japanese Whisky (180mL bottle)

Whew.  I did five consecutive posts last week, while traveling with child.  Ain't gonna do that again under those circumstances.  I’m scaling back to two this week and then work back up to three again soon.  Here's one last Japanese whisky post today, something a little different on Thursday, and then we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled reviews next week.

I started this string of one dozen Japan posts with some observations about the state of the Japanese whisky retail market.  One of the main points in that post was a complaint about the quality of the newer non-age-statement Japanese whiskies taking up most of the real estate on liquor store shelves.  Suntory’s Distillers Reserves were the focus of this gripe.  For a different look, here’s a review of an NAS single malt from Nikka's Yoichi distillery.

Ownership: Nikka
Distillery: Yoichi
Region: Hokkaido, Japan
Type: Single Malt
Age: Not stated
ABV: 43%
Bottle size: 180mL

The color is medium gold.  The nose leads with tart apples, unripe pears, paint fumes, and banana candy.  There’s some Lagavulin-style peating, but at half power.  With time, it all gets a little darker.  Steel wool, coal, dirty socks, rocks, and lime zest.  As for the palate, take Johnnie Walker Black Label**, then add peat and subtract caramel and sherry.  It’s lightly sweet, lightly peppery.  Maybe some coal smoke in there.  It’s mild in a blendy sort of way.  It finishes with sugar, salt, pepper, and a hint of peat ash.  It holds for a decent length considering its age and strength.  After a while, there are hints of both cardboard and raspberry candy.

Since this was bottled at 43%abv, while the Suntories were bottled at 40%, I reduced it down to that level.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
The nose picks up black licorice farts (a thing).  The peat gets dirtier, grungier.  The lime sticks around, and the apple note grows brighter.  A moment of chlorine shows up after a few minutes.  The palate gets pepperier and picks a little bit of herbal bitterness.  Some vanilla bean and granulated sugar.  It is noticeably thinner and the peat fades.  The finish is much briefer and seems to be mostly sugar.

My notes say, “Not terrible!”.  It is young whisky, likely coming from neither the best nor worst of Yoichi’s casks.  I can tolerate the paint fumes, but could do without the banana candy in the nose.  The cardboard note taints the otherwise acceptable finish.  Overall it could be interchangeable with a medium-range (and more expensive) blend, though it swims much better than many of those.  Meanwhile, the palate is more than okay and the whole package is two steps better than Suntory’s Distillers Reserves, even when the Yoichi is reduced to 40%abv.

Finally, the price and availability of this whisky in Japan is excellent.  This 180mL bottle could be found at every corner store in Kyoto and Tokyo while I was there and was priced at ¥665, or $6.  That would make it about $20-$25 per 700mL (though it tends to be sold by the 500mL bottle).  The Distillers Reserves are selling for more than twice that price.  Now, note the "in Japan" I put in italics in this paragraph's first sentence.  In Europe, the 500mL bottle of Yoichi NAS is selling for $35-$50, which puts it at a similar price per mL to the Distillers Reserves.  In any case, it carries much better quality for the price.

So while the age stated Yoichis are better, this NAS isn't a complete tragedy.  And if you're traveling in Japan and need a quick cheap casual drink for your backpack or computer bag, this is a reliable choice.  (Though, Nikka From The Barrel is the best for this purpose, often selling as low as $15.)

Availability - Every corner shop in urban Japan?
Pricing - ¥665 for the 180mL bottle (about $6 using current rates)
Rating - 79

**I would happily choose this over Johnnie Walker Black Label, despite the fact that this score is lower than the grades I've given JWBL.  That is because, over the past two years, the quality of the Black Label has plummeted.  Two years ago, I stated that my fourth Black Label review would be my last.  The whisky has changed so much that I may need to do another review before 2015 is over. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Single Malt Report: Springbank 30 year old 1972 Chieftain's

This was the fourth of my four pours at Bar Cordon Noir.  The only way I can properly preface this whisky is via bottle photos.

Distillery: Springbank
Bottler: Ian MacLeod
Series: Chieftain's
Age: 30 years (October 1972 - October 2002)
Maturation: Sherry butt
Cask #: 410
Bottles: 576
Region: Campbelltown
Alcohol by Volume: 57.8%

Its color is a blood orange-tinted dark gold.

I'm just going to fire out a bunch of words for the nose.  Plum wine.  Prune hamantaschen.  Cointreau.  Dark chocolate.  So much cocoa.  Baklava.  Marzipan.  Ben & Jerry's Heath Bar Crunch.  Orange oil.  Fresh cherry pie and cinnamon rolls.  A certain butterscotch budino.  More?  Yes there's more.  The peat content is very subtle, not showing up at first.  But when it does, it's a distant puff of smoke.  After an hour, the tropical fruits sashay in.  Brown sugar and cookie dough at 75 minutes.

It has a palate too.  As per my notes, "Oh dear."  Big old fat gooey pax-y sherry.  Roasty chocolate malt.  A slab of chocolate fudge chased with blood orange juice.  Chocolate with almonds and sea salt.  Mango and peach compote, but never cloying.  Hints of very old cognac.  The mustiness remains bold even after 75 minutes.

The finish delivers a shot of sherry syrup.  Milk chocolate truffles with orange zest.  More chocolate than chocolate.  Salt.  Fresh cherries.  Just that whisper of smoke.  Plenty of power after thirty years in a big butt and twelve years in a bottle.

I dub thee King, oh Springbank 30 year old 1972 sherry butt #410 from Chieftain's.

The only whiskies I've had that can compete with this unbelievable gem are the late-'60s / early-'70s Longmorns.  But it has been two long cynical years since I've had one of those.  Consider that I'm a damned Luddite, thus everything I had before was better than what I'm having now, and you (and I) will realize that I'm pretty serious about the greatness of this Springbank.

After finishing this treat, I glided from the bar as if I were Gene Kelly, as if I were Mikhail Baryshnikov, as if I were their love child Gene Baryshnikov, dancing as if he had two broken legs and blind dyspeptic ferrets for feet.  I couldn't drink anything after this.  No additional whiskies at Bar Cordon Noir.  No visits to the second whisky bar on my list.  I was ending my trip with this whisky.  I was ready to go home.

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 96

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Single Malt Report: Clynelish 1974 Modern Masters

This was the third of my four pours at Bar Cordon Noir.
This one is a bit more of a mystery than the other three.  Modern Masters is a series done by The Dalriada Whisky Company, an indie bottler for which there's little info online.  Researching the company's financial info, I see they may have gone out of business a year or two ago.  If anyone knows more about them, please let me know in the comment section.

I'm not sure what this whisky's age is, though the Dalriada Whisky Company seems to have done many of their bottlings in the mid-aughts.  So I'm thinking this is around 29-33 years old.  In any case, the back label spends half of its text discussing the moody, "masculine", "working class" illustration on the front label.

Distillery: Clynelish
Bottler: The Dalriada Whisky Company
Series: Modern Masters
Distilled: 1974
Bottled: ???
Maturation: Hogshead
Bottles: 199
Region: Northern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 55.6%

The color, like this week's previous two whiskies, is a light gold. As with the Caperdonich, that shade has me thinking it wasn't a first fill cask.  Let's see...  The nose is slightly mossy, not a big splash of peat, rather a light brush stroke.  Then comes hazelnuts, rosewater, and limes.  It's mostly (aged) spirit so far.  It opens up with time as licorice, bergamot, and a farmy note arrive.  The palate is intensely sweet at first burst, with lots of orange and lime candies.  But then the sugar subsides, leaving the essence of tangerine and small limes on the tongue.  The farmy note arrives next, followed by hot oregano and rosemary-flavored hard candy (is that a thing?).  It finishes loudly with seawater, citrus, salt, and miso, leaving a cooling sensation in the mouth for a long time.

The nose shifts, picking up tropical fruits and smoky residue.  The palate remains just as strong.  Nectarines coated in honey and cayenne pepper.  The finish loses no power, as well.  Loads of citrus and tropical fruit syrup.

The oak stayed on the sidelines for both yesterday's Caperdonich and today's Clynelish.  But where the Caperdonich was gentle and soft, the Clynelish was a hellion no matter how much water I added.  I'm sure that certain Malt Maniacs will say that it's hard to go wrong with 1970s Clynelish casks, but with my non-existent knowledge of said whiskies, I'll just say that this was a killer selection by the Dalriada company.  A hardy whisky, this Clynelish succeeds and powers through on every level.

Damn, the fourth and final whisky has its work cut out for it.

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 91

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Single Malt Report: Caperdonich 36 year old 1968 Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice (46%abv edition)

This was the second of my four pours at Bar Cordon Noir.

Distillery: Caperdonich
Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Series: Connoisseur's Choice
Age: 36 years (March 1968 - August 2004)
Maturation: "Refill sherry casks"
Region: Speyside
Alcohol by Volume: 46%

The color is a very light gold.  The first note I get in the nose is used hay in a barn in the middle of summer.  A gentle waft of sweet basil and pineapple mint.  Mango skin (not the fruit) and grapefruity sauvignon blanc.  It gets more chocolatey with time, also picking up toffee notes.  The palate is so elegant and gentle that it's almost (*cough*) erotic.  Yeah, I said it.  Now let me move on with other descriptors like mango, lychee, milk chocolate, and toffee pudding.  But all of that is feather soft.  With time it becomes a lightly bitter tropical cocktail with just a hint of lemon.  But then the toffee gets a second wind and expands.  The aforementioned cocktail makes up much of the finish.  And the toffee.  And chocolate malt balls.

While this is an undoubtably delicate malt and, you know, sexy-ish, I was expecting a little more from it.  No, not more than sex.  Rather all of its nose and palate notes can easily be found in similar configurations in other less rare, more familiar single malts.  Meanwhile its delicate nature may have been influenced by a low bottle fill point.

What I'm doing here is whining about a very good whisky.  It was pretty and delightful and very drinkable.  But I was still left with this lingering "Is That All There Is?" feeling after the finish.  Most of G&M's old CC Caperdonichs are bottled at 40%abv, but they clearly couldn't do that with this one.

I have a feeling many of these 1968-1972 Caps have or will become outrageously expensive on the primary and secondary markets.  If this one brings asking prices of $500+, I'd say skip it.  But $200-$250 wouldn't be unreasonable considering its quality, age, and historical import.

Availability - Probably the occasional auction
Pricing - ???
Rating - 87

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Single Malt Report: Glenlivet 12 year old (bottled in 1980s)

This was the first of my four pours at Bar Cordon Noir.

Distillery: Glenlivet
Age: minimum 12 years
Bottling date: 1980s
Maturation: Probably a mix of ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks
Region: Speyside
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Its color is light gold.  The nose begins with loads of barley and fresh whole wheat bread.  Then come the fresh loquats, followed by Oloroso sherry in a Campari-coated glass.  With time there's some new carpet and burnt pie crust.  The palate is pleasant and soft, but with some sticky thickness.  It reads as loads of baked fruits one moment, then fruit punch and orange peels the next.  A bit of anise and black licorice too.  Then it's capped by a wave of Talisker-like pepper.  The finish is lengthy but uncomplicated.  Citrus, papaya, and malt.

Orange, pear, mint, and soda bread now appear on the nose.  A lot of roses on the palate.  The pepper enters the finish, along with milk chocolate.

Something gruesome happened to Glenlivet's cask management over the past thirty years.  (Or maybe more recently because the early Nadurra batches were very good and occasionally the current 18 year old is too.)  On New Year's Eve 2007/8, I had my first negative run-in with Glenlivet 12.  I sipped and it was......not good.  The finish was short and awful and apparently memorable because the sense memory still exists.  And this was before my prima donna whisky snobbery.  I've tried the 12 annually ever since, and it's not getting better.  So when the rumors started coming in that Pernod's phasing it out for an NAS Founder's Reserve I shed not a tear.

Meanwhile, having twice tried the 1980s version of the Twelve, I find no similarity between it and the current version.  The Twelve as it existed thirty years ago was a lightly-sherried well-textured rich single malt that could stand proudly next to any (and above many) of today's twelve year old Speysiders.  I cannot say the same thing about the current version.  The three extra ABV points (43 versus 40) are nice but that wouldn't explain most of the change.  There was no extra peating going on at the time of this one's bottling.  Perhaps they have since changed barley varieties, sped up the fermentation time, and attempted to distill faster.  But I think the cask management is the main culprit.  The oak in the current 12 is bland, resinously bitter, and cardboardy.  None of those words can be used for either of the '80s bottlings that I've tried.  And just to add to the fun, the 1980s version swims very well, while the current addition is already very watery as is.

I'm not saying that this 1980s Glenlivet is A+ whisky, but it's damn good whisky.  And I wish Glenlivet still made stuff like this.

Availability - Probably the occasional auction
Pricing - ???
Rating - 86

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bar Cordon Noir is the bar of my dreams

I used to have a whisky fantasy of walking into that bar or that store that no one else had found and time had forgotten.  The shelves would be stacked full of old whiskies I'd never even heard of and with prices that were from before the "boom".  Having dusty-hunted between 100 and 200 stores in neighborhoods forgotten by the rest of society, I have ended the hope of ever finding that impossible store.  And, in reality, bars are even worse.  Those who have the product tend to think they can charge a great premium for the product.  And there are probably less than a handful of bars in California that have an interesting inventory.  I had no expectations of finding anything worthy of hyperbole when I went to Japan.  Bar Shot Zoetrope was a wonderful experience, and definitely the go-to Japanese whisky bar in Tokyo (and possibly the world), but I knew in general what I was going to find there.  I barely knew that Bar Cordon Noir even existed.  No one has written about it online.  Those who know have said nothing.  And now I'm going to spoil it.
Cordon Noir was not the first whisky bar I was going hit while in Kyoto.  Nor was I going to wait until the last night to search it out.  But, as I wrote on Friday, my trip was a physical challenge and left me craving rest rather than drink.  There were visits to regular bars to have a beer and a survey of the shelves during the day, but only at establishments that appeared on my path.  Night after night went by until I was left with the final one.

Though the sign clearly states that Bar Cordon Noir is on the third floor, the exterior stairs lead to an unmarked door underneath blackened windows.  The second floor business is also a bar, a bar that proudly serves Suntory products.  So I went back down to the elevator in front of the small building and took it to the third floor.  Sure enough, it opened to Cordon Noir's front door.  And at 7:30 I entered.

I have been to a number of bars that claim to have 200, 300, or 500 whiskies.  Yet upon arrival I always discover that they have, at most, a quarter of their claim.  Never have I stood in a bar that made good on an outrageous inventory statement.  Until now.

If you take a look at my terrible panoramic photo at the top, you'll see the shelves from end to end.  You may think, that doesn't look like 800 whiskies.  Well, dear reader, that is because those bottles are stacked three deep.  Yes, for every bottle you see, there are two completely different whiskies behind it.  And nearly none of the 800 whiskies are new releases, as almost everything on the shelves was bottled during previous decades.

The bar was empty of people, save for a man in a black vest wiping a glass (of course!).  He was looking at me, smiling, probably seeing me whispering religious declarations to myself.  His name is Makoto Ono, the manager and bartender of Bar Cordon Noir.  All I could say aloud was, "So much whisky."  He looked at the shelves and confirmed my statement.

A dozen old black Cadenhead dumpies over here.  Four, maybe five, Ladyburns over there.  Allied-era Glendronachs.  Independent Taliskers.  For some reason, I mentioned old Glenlivet; he put five bottles of 'Livet from the early '70s in front of me.  Late-sixties Longmorn?  Here are four.  How about Ardmore?  Four from the '70s.  Every label was old, but pristine.

Oh my god, I had to focus.  Don't look at the old bourbons.  Don't look at the blends.  Must ignore the Japanese whisky for now.  Have to make a plan.  Okay, I'll pick my favorite distilleries...

For a moment, I couldn't name a single one.  Okay, Ardmore.  There's one.  Old Caperdonich, another.  He brought down a '68.  I spied the 1980s version of Glenlivet that I'd tried a few months earlier.  I knew it was tasty and a good way to test the palate.  That could be my starter.  Then I'd go to the Caperdonich.  Then maybe the Ardmore?  I love Ardmore.  But.  I saw a 1974 Clynelish on the shelf, and I knew that the next time I'd be drinking 1970s Clynelish would be 40 years from now in the bullshit stories I'd tell about what we used to drink.  The '74 Clynelish would bat third.  What would hit cleanup?  My thoughts were blank, simple neural connections weren't occurring and I didn't have an internet connection to assist.  The shelves, what's on the shelves.  Of course.  Springbank.  He brought out a '72 Chieftains and a '69 Signatory.  I went with the Chieftains as it the whisky told tales of an old ruby-colored sherry butt existence.

My mates for the evening
During my stay, I watched Ono-san elegantly build cocktails for another customer, carefully pour a 1991-bottled Blanton's over a massive block of ice, and climb the shelves to pluck bottles from their exact hidden places.  He was an artist, exacting and precise, but never ostentatious.  And he knew every price off the top of his head.  As for those prices?  The four good pours listed below cost in total about the same price as, yes, two glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue Label at a Los Angeles bar.

1.  Glenlivet 12 year old, bottled in the 1980s
2.  Caperdonich 36 year old 1968 Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseur's Choice (46% abv version)
3.  Clynelish 1974 Modern Masters
4.  Springbank 30 year old 1972 Chieftain's

As I took that picture of the four bottles, my mind cleared and my eyes saw the moment.  This was really happening and it might never happen again, so I made sure to proceed carefully and document it fully.  There were four drams.  Three hours.  At least twelve glasses of water.

Starting tomorrow and ending Friday, I will post a review of each of these whiskies.  Four posts in four days.

Friday, April 17, 2015

One Final Evening in Kyoto

The cherry blossoms were just emerging, having kept themselves bundled tight for one extra week when the temperatures had dropped into the high 30s.  The early evening breeze was crisp but up in the 50s when I stepped down to the sidewalk that traced Shichijo-dori.  My shoulders were free from backpacks for the first time during my entire trip.  It made me feel free and somewhat nude in those first moments.  I was dressed up a little bit in my slacks and a long sleeve button-up that had somehow avoided getting crushed in my luggage.  I was looking to spend the evening at two bars that were rumored to have reasonable whisky selections.

For just this final night in Kyoto, I was staying at an apartment facing Higashi Hongan-ji, one of the largest wooden buildings on the planet.  Anticipating a tremendous view from the balcony, I instead found the massive Buddhist temple encased in an even larger gray construction shell as refurbishment continued within.  I followed Karasuma-dori north, with the temple gates on my left and the sakura newly flowering on my right.

Every footfall landed in pain.  I had walked over one-hundred miles during the previous five days, wearing shoes that were likely not appropriate for such travel.  They were slip-ons, certainly necessary for shrine and temple visits, with an insert supporting my heel and sole.  But none of that was designed for the distance I had covered, the hills I'd climbed, the forests I'd explored.  By the second night, the stabbing pain had spread from my lower back up into my skull and way down, stiffening my Achilles tendons.  On the third afternoon, the jabbing melted into a constant burn.  Each night when I returned to my previous residence, an old cold beautiful two room house, I would collapse onto the wooden floor, lying flat, my mid-back muscles spasming, causing my breath to exit my lungs involuntarily.  I had to pull my legs to my chest to gasp the air back in.  There were few liquid nightcaps because all I wanted was to be unconscious until the nine-month old infant in the room upstairs cried or the three chickens outside my window argued at dawn.  This was my seventh day in Japan, fifth day of pain.  By this point my mind went elsewhere when the nerve-endings began to fire.

When I was younger, I used to have great profound thoughts as I wandered cities alone.  Grand cinematic forms, sweeping climactic moments for heartbreaking novels, questions about eternity and consciousness.  But now I wondered, how long would I walk before I had to pee?  Had I dressed warmly enough?  Where were the garbage cans in this city?

That’s when I saw the blue heron standing at the temple’s south gate.  It tilted back and forth on its twiggy legs, gauging each passerby that impossibly never saw it.  It didn't seem real, more like an invention by one of those Japanese companies that build the creepy humanoid robots.  But there, four feet away, it was real, showing little interest in me, instead watching everyone else.  As a gust of chilly wind blew in from the North, I was reminded of the peacock that floated to the snowy ground in Amarcord.  Yes, that’s a different continent, a different creature, and a different season.  But it was a similar striking natural non-sequitur.  Then the heron loped away, taking flight.

The next gate was guarded by five cats, all either snoozing or cleaning themselves.  They drew a crowd, demanded cell phone photos, but really could not have seemed any less interested in the moment.  The nearest calico cat looked up from his arm-licking with unhidden disgust at the nearest amateur photographer, then lifted a back leg and commenced in the focused scrubbing of his white undercarriage.

My path led to the cross street near the Karasuma subway station, and I took a right.  Despite what many travel guides say, Kyoto is not an old city.  Most of its architecture looks to be from the 1960s or 1970s with the occasional modern blocky structure.  Once in a long while a building from another century appears, nestled amongst the new things, tight traffic creeping by.  The city center seemingly holds nothing but opportunities for luxury shopping.  As the night fell early, the gigantic department store signs, already lit, seemed to increase their voltage as the clouds above them turned purple, then navy blue.

Across the river, I searched Gion Shijo’s tiny streets for the one liquor store I couldn't previously find.  After eight or nine laps I realized that it would elude me forever.  By then night had tumbled fully and men in expensive suits were lingering in front of room-sized restaurants smoking cigarettes and mumbling into cell phones.  Small red lamps dimly lit the pavement that I was following back to the other side of the river.  Along the way four different small pretty women asked me, “MA-ssage?”  Goddess yes, massage.  But likely a different massage than what you’re offering.  So, no.  Thank you.

The tendons behind my ankles had hardened into rocks, so I shuffled flatfooted across the bridge that overlooked the lovely Kamo-gawa and its walking paths.  On the other side, Ponto-cho was a little louder, decorated with more tourists and spotlighted cherry blossoms.  Despite this two-hour walk, the restaurants didn’t call to me.  The broth-filled steamed pork dumplings that I had eaten earlier still powered me on, long after their calories had vaporized.  Flashes of cell phone cameras blinked around every nearby pink tipped tree and the rare English word occasionally popped out of the din.

Maneuvering around the tourists, I kept to my quiet counting of streets.  My map was rarely precise due to each little alleyway that counted itself a road.  The bar I was looking for could be anywhere, on any floor, within a three-block radius, if it were here at all.  Online, I had discovered a second location, in another part of town, where it could exist instead.  But then, up ahead, I could see the sign, from two streets away.  It was exactly where my analog street-counting said it should be.  There was another bar I had originally intended to visit first.  But this one, I didn’t know anything about this one.  My first Kyoto whisky bar.  My last night.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Notes from a tasting: Shot Bar Zoetrope

There are so many choices at Shot Bar Zoetrope.  So many whiskies one cannot find in the US.  I went to Zoetrope to at least have a glass of Yoichi 20 and the official Hakushu Sherry Cask before I attempted to buy either.  That idea was formed before I got to Japan and discovered that those whiskies were no longer found in stores.

The first thing I discovered was that Zoetrope was out of Yoichi 20.  Then, later in my tasting session, Horigami-san actually encouraged me to steer clear of the Hakushu Sherry Cask and try something bolder and better.  So with my original plan shelved and the late night adrenaline wearing off, I stared at the detailed menu.  I was overwhelmed by the Venture Whisky options and didn't have internet access to get some reference (though I probably could have just asked Horigami-san for suggestions).

Again, so many choices.  I knew how much I enjoyed Nikka's single malts (and their From the Barrel blend), so I decided to go for something I hadn't had yet.  How about a sherried Yoichi?  Nikka has a series called "Key Malts" that they sell at their distilleries and pour at their bars.  These bottlings let the drinker see what goes into their blends and vattings, and let adventurous folks try out their own mixes.  Two very good bits of news about the Key Malts is that they have age statements (12 years) and are bottled at 55%abv.  Let's see Suntory compete with that.

Yoichi 12 year old Sherry & Sweet (Key Malt), 55%abv
Nose - First whiff: rubber and burning carpet, surprisingly raw.  But after a couple minutes, it picks up beefy and nutty notes from its casks.  It opens up fully at twenty minutes with loads of toffee, chocolate, and marzipan.
Palate - Sweet indeed, but also very salty.  Yoichi tends get salty on my palate, here it intensifies.  Meanwhile, the little peat that shows up reads closer to its mossy form than smoke.  Pepper and soil notes move in after a while and help hold the whole package together.
Finish - So much sherry, as per the name, but also an herbal-liqueur-like bitterness.
Comments - The regular (or former regular) range's 45%abv bottlings have a grace and elegance that this one swaps out for sheer power.  Meanwhile, I'm not sure that much peated malt was involved.  So though it's a big winter malt, it's not as smoky as one may anticipate.
Grade Range: B-/B

While I was sipping the above Yoichi, I decided on comparing it to another one.  I went with a straw-colored 5 year old Genshu Single Cask.  These Genshu single casks used to be sold as exclusives at certain retailers around the country, but I'm not sure that's happening anymore.  One has to go to the Hokkaido distillery to get one now, if they have any in stock.

Yoichi 5 year old Genshu Single Cask, 62%abv
Nose - Not as rough or hot as I'd expected from the age and abv.  Definitely US oak.  Vanilla peat.  But it's the notes of sweetened bean curd and Ceylon cinnamon that are most memorable.
Palate - Little oak here, which lets the malty spirit shine.  Very herbal, like fresh basil and dried oregano.  Light on the peat influence.  Again, almost no ethyl burning.  It's not old whisky, but it could be mistaken for a 10-12 year old from a refill cask.
Finish - A soft wave of peat and caramel.  And, ah yes, here comes the heat.
Comments - Not terribly complex, but still very good for a 5 year old whisky. I wish there was an easier way to obtain a bottle.
Grade Range: B

Speaking of young whisky: Ichiro Akuto.  Horigami-san has obtained some of his own exclusive casks from Akuto-san.  I figured I'd go with one of those since I didn't know what I was talking about when it came to Venture Whisky whiskies.  He lined up a few of his exclusives in front of me and, since I like me some Rum cask action, I went with this one.

Ichiro's Malt 2000-2009 for Shot Bar Zoetrope's 3rd Anniversary
Cask #9800, finished in Rum Wood, 60.7%abv

Nose - Dessert whisky!  Brown sugar, molasses, caramel, toffee, and milk chocolate each take turns then come back again for seconds.
Palate - Loads of cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla.  Young, but not rough or sharp.  And not nearly as sweet as the nose lets on.  Some nuts and cocoa powder show up with time.
Finish - Identical to the palate, again not as sweet as one would think.
Comments - While I am so glad that the palate was less sugary than the nose, it is the nose that's the winner here.  And, not so coincidentally, it's where the rum finish sings the loudest.  I would have loved to have seen what this would have been like if it spent 12+ years in its original cask before getting poured into the rum barrel.
Grade Range: B-/B

One of Harold Lloyd's ill-advised but financially-necessary sound films (The Milky Way) was ending and a better silent one (Speedy?) was starting up on the film wall.  This was when I was going to end with Hakushu's Sherry Cask, but Horigami-san said that it would not go well with what I'd been trying.  And then he added that this one, the first malt's mate and at half the price of the Hakushu, was better anyway.

Miyagikyo 12 year old Sherry & Sweet (Key Malt), 55%abv
Nose - Roast beef, cherries, and roses.  Those exact three things, over and over again.  Then, after twenty minutes it shifts towards black pepper, seaweed, and a hint of wood smoke.
Palate - Very reminiscent of Glendronach's single oloroso casks.  So rich, grapey, and chocolatey, without losing its maltiness.  But this one here brings in a bright mint leaf note to keep it unique.
Finish - Sticky sweet and endless. Mostly sherry but some nice malt lingers behind along with orange peel.
Comments - My god, how sopping wet are these sherry casks before they're filled?  I'm serious, every sherried Japanese whisky I had on this trip was enormous.  Yet not out of balance.  This Miyagikyo got better as it went along, thus it was the finish that won me over, leaving it as my favorite whisky of the night.  A great recommendation by the boss.
Grade Range: B+

And on that high note, I thought it best to depart.  I was beginning to zone out (thus the grade ranges rather than number grades), already planning how I'd get back to the hotel, hoping I wouldn't get lost in Shinjuku.  Not this time, at least.  It had been a long travel day and there was more travel to follow in the morning.

If (or when) I return to Zoetrope, I would drift further from my comfort zone, going with a couple Mars malts, a Chichibu, and one of Kirin's Fujis.  I absolutely recommend Zoetrope as a stop to make if you (a whisky fan) are in Tokyo.  Don't go there looking for Scotch.  There's plenty of that elsewhere.  Go there looking for Japanese whisky.  You'll find some.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Shot Bar Zoetrope

Originally, there were extensive plans in line for the night I landed in Japan, plans that culminated in a Lost in Translation visit to Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Bar (whose online menu shows a '93 Springbank).  With the 18 hour time change, I was facing a 30 hour day -- dig that math! -- but I had figured that the sleep deprivation training I obtained from my new-parent trials would sustain me.  I was wrong.

I started having some doubts about my optimistic schedule a couple days before the trip, but I forgot that the first day of travel in a foreign county is about 75% more exhausting than a normal travel day.  And if one is already tired, stepping out into the Shinjuku evening, where every business's sign is required to be hyperbolic in tone, color, and wattage, will either lift a person up into an instant Red Bull adrenaline craze or grind the nerves down into a fine dust.  I hoped for the former, received the latter.  But I made sure I at least made the trip to Shot Bar Zoetrope Tokyo.

Shot Bar Zoetrope Tokyo (or Zoetrope for brevity purposes) is a big enough deal that it makes its way into Lonely Planet and Fodor's travel guides as well as Greatest Bars in the World lists.  Despite its large reputation, Zoetrope is located in a tiny room in multi-story building in a narrow alleyway.  But that's the way it goes for all of the bars in Shinjuku, Tokyo (with Golden Gai being the most extreme example).  Luckily Google Maps (which has a terrible time with Japanese addresses) does have Zoetrope accurately spotted a few blocks from the massive Shinjuku station.  (Also see Nonjatta's excellent map and their review.)

Once you find the building -- keep an eye open for the red logo which appears on two signs -- I recommend taking the elevator rather than the stairs to the third floor, since the doors open right where you need to be.
From the official website.
Sorry, all the pics I have from my night are bottle shots.
The owner, Atsushi Horigami, loves whisky and silent film.  I love whisky and silent film.  It was meant to be.  200+ Japanese whiskies line Zoetrope's left wall (from the entrance) and on the far wall silent films are projected all night.  Horigami-san speaks English very well, which is a good thing since almost everyone who showed up the night I was there was from the US.  In fact, half of us were from the LA area.  Yes, this is how far we have to go for some good whisky.  Horigami-san is refreshingly honest about the stuff on his shelves, at one point even talking me out of a more expensive whisky in favor of a cheaper one that would go better with my lineup.

Within Zoetrope's impressive inventory are dozens of distillery exclusive single casks (or cask strength bottlings) as well as a good number of whiskies that have long been sold out.  In fact, I'd say that most of the stuff on the shelf can't be found in stores.  In addition to the excellent Japanese whisky selection, Zoetrope has a couple dozen whiskies from other parts of the world, some alternate spirits, and a couple beers.

It's a cash only bar, but he'll provide a menu of his selections along with prices, which one doesn't always find in Japan.  Compared to whisky bars in American urban areas, his prices are reasonable.  My tasting included four very exclusive single malts, but for it I paid less than one would for two glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue in LA.  Though that may say more about Blue's prices and Los Angeles.

Next up for Wednesday:  Notes from my Zoetrope whisky tasting.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Notes from a tasting: The Yamazaki Tasting Room

After a disappointing tasting at the end of the distillery tour (see yesterday's post), I walked down to Yamazaki's Tasting Room.  The "Room" is a wide open space with a multi-tiered Whisky Library lining two sides.  The Library:

Those bottles were not for sampling as many of them were historic.  Some curiosities in the bunch, too, including mint, juniper, and lavender flavored malts in the photo above.

While the "library" was more of a "museum", the tasting table did have pages full of goodies to actually drink (for reasonable prices).  I had been prepared for the worst, but oh my goodness yes there were real whiskies to sample.  There were the different cask elements that make up Hibiki (mizunara stuff, peated things, etc.), older age-stated Suntory Japanese malts, and a slew of Beam and non-Beam whiskies.  But three things caught my eye immediately.

Yamazaki distillate - 58%abv
Yamazaki single cask 1995 - 62%abv
Yamazaki single cask 1986 - 51%abv

This was an opportunity to try Yamazaki's high strength new make next to two well-aged high strength whiskies aged in very different casks.  To say that this opportunity intrigued me would be a slight understatement.

Yamazaki new make / distillate, 58%abv
Color - Clear as water
Nose - Fruity/yeasty as all hell right up front.  Then green grapes, pineapple, and cassia cinnamon sticks follow.  After a half hour, a hint of animal fur peeks out but is hollered down by plum slivovitz.
Palate - Slivovitz with a mouthful of geraniums and dandelions and white sugar.  But a nice little herbal bite keeps it from getting too sweet or floral.
Finish - Eastern European fruity brandy, more tuica than slivovitz.
Comments - Dear Suntory: F*** the "Distillers Reserves".  Sell this at $20-$25 and I'll buy it and you'll save money.  You just need your marketing department to figure out how to sell it to someone other than me.

Yamazaki single cask 1995, 62%abv -- ex-bourbon, 19-20 years old
Color - Amber
Nose - Full of tropical and citrus fruits.  Sometimes reminiscent of an old Speyside.  Candied orange peel and jasmine in caramel sauce.  Still some cinnamon bite to it.  Grapefruit juice and vanilla syrup start to show up after 30+ minutes.  Maybe some violets and orange creamsicles.
Palate - Hot, which is not a surprise at this abv.  But very floral.  Confectioner's sugar and brown sugar.  Mild vanilla and caramel.  Milk chocolate.  Still feels young.
Finish - Sweet and peppery (corns and bells).  Again it's young but nicely so, if one prefers to avoid oak.
Comments - They probably couldn't sell this as is due to how bold the spirit is -- the flowers, cinnamon, and fruit from the distillate still shouts after two decades -- but I'd go for it had they bottled it and priced it right (as they had during previous decades).

Yamazaki single cask 1986, 51% abv -- ex-sherry, 28-29yo
Color - Reddened maple syrup
Nose - Obscenely sherried.  Leather and pipe tobacco.  Cointreau and blood oranges.  Toffee pudding.  Very rich grape syrup with a hint of mint leaf.  More toffee pudding.  Crumbling brown sugar between one's fingers.  After nearly an hour, a note of burnt hay arises, the mint and orange oil grow, and some molasses joins the party.
Palate - Subtler than the nose, but very musty.  Teriyaki (yeah, yeah, I know) with something right between Angostura and Peychaud's bitters.  It takes a few minutes to open up.  After 30+ minutes a big tropical fruit note emerges, followed by toffeed coffee beans (if that was a thing), and old furniture.
Finish - Toffee pudding, black pepper, and a blood orange cocktail.
Comments - Holyf***ings**t.  Suntory is losing money by serving this at the distillery.  Not only did it hold up for more than an hour, it improved.  If you go to the distillery and they still have this cask available (because they kicked me out before I drank it all) then have it.  When you hear/read old timers weeping romantically about old Glen Grant, this is it and a sample won't cost you your whole vacation.

I'm quite serious about the last one, except for the part about getting kicked out.  A 29 year old Yamazaki single sherry cask would cost 20x more per pour (thank you, Jim Murray Cult for demolishing the Yamazaki sherry cask market, hugs and kisses from us all) than what I paid for it.  It's one of the most gorgeous noses I've come across.  I realized after I finished my pour that nothing could follow it.  So I bought another pour of the sherry cask, chatted with a Guinness-loving Japanese couple, and felt very thankful to exist in that moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Visit To Yamazaki Distillery

The Yamazaki distillery is in Oyamazaki, a quick 15ish minute train ride from Kyoto Station via the Hankyu Kyoto Line.  And from the train station it's only a 1km walk.  If you choose to go there, do not do what I did by wandering around, lost in the pouring rain, following one's own handwritten directions for over an hour.  Instead, walk from the Hankyu Kyoto Line station to the JR train station, two minutes away.  The JR station looks like this:

There is an information booth there.  And toilets.  You can find relief in the restroom and assistance at the information desk.  Not the other way around.  The info person will start you in the correct direction and provide a map.  There are also signs.  If you follow the map and the signs, within minutes the distillery will appear up ahead.

The distillery has a Japanese whisky museum and whisky library (more on the latter tomorrow).  It also offers a free tour.  There are only a few tours a day, so you might need to book via the phone number on the distillery website.  Or you can hope for the best and stand in a short line near the entrance.  Either way, be sure to tell them that you require an English tour (via audio recording).  While I was there, none of the staff members spoke more than a handful of words of English, so you'll need to keep that in mind.  Also, I had no luck booking via the phone number as I was told that the entire week was booked.  Instead, I did find success the day I showed up.

To be honest, the tour offers not much in the way of new information for knowledgable whisky folks.  It's more of a beginner's tour through the whiskymaking process.  But it is free.  Something I did learn: Though I knew that Yamazaki and Hakushu make numerous types of whiskies in each of distillery for blending purposes, the differences in those whiskies didn't just have to do with peating/non-peating and distillation times, but were also due to the usage of different yeast strains.  It was nice to hear officially from a distillery that they were playing with yeasts.  I doubt you'll hear that from (m)any Scotch distilleries.

My favorite part of the tour was the many smells throughout, especially in the fermentation room with its super fruity/beery/bakery scents.  The barrel warehouse smelled nice and musty, though I sorta think the warehouse was for show because it was mostly empty.  (Another fact: Yamazaki does not climate control its warehouses, so the temperature and humidity is what it is.)

Some casks:

Not pictured: most of my sideburns
A lovely interior garden that seemed to be a modern take on some of Kyoto's temple gardens:

Just before the tour dropped us off (next to the gift shop, natch), we got to do a tasting of the new Yamazaki and Hakushu NAS malts.  As I mentioned in Monday's post, these products do not demonstrate the distilleries' whisky well.  They are hotter (at 40%abv), flatter, shorter, and blander than their age-stated siblings.  We received them as highballs first and then neat secondly.  While they may have been better in highball form, perhaps as a cool summer drink, more should be expected of a $50-$60 malt.  But they were free pours and certainly saved me a lot of money.

The gift shop had other Beam Suntory products, but also had some non-Beam-Suntory things like Macallan.  What it didn't have much of was......Yamazaki single malt.  There was the NAS (Distiller's Reserve) thing.  And I did pick up a distillery-only malt.  It had no information on it, but came in a cute bottle and was very inexpensive, 300mL for about $12.

Oh and yes, there was a tasting room.  Er, The Tasting Room.  On Friday: The Yamazaki Tasting Room.
Note: unrelated photo