...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Drinking in Ikebukuro, Part 1

Tokyo guidebooks don't give Ikebukuro much love. They'll lavish praise on the hip Shimokita, or swanky Roppongi, or even the Ueno Zoo more than they'll talk up Ikebukuro.

One part of town the books always expend much ink on is Akihabara. And that's understandable. Some tourists will think, "Man, I gotta go to that super anime spot!" even if they don't know the first thing about anime. It's been about 16 years since I was really into anime, video games and other otaku stuff, so I found Akihabara to be operating on a different plane that my current state of consciousness. There's also a dearth of decent bars there. Yeah, one can find plenty of maid cafés, but they're not cheap and submissive girls ain't my thing. Maybe next time.

If you're reading this post, you're likely more into drinks than otaku, so you may want to visit Ikebukuro if you're on the west side of the city. There's a different flavor of quirk, more bars and less of a commercial assault than in Akihabara (which is on the center-east side). And if you're staying in Shinjuku or Shibuya, Ikebukuro is a quick zip up the Yamanote Line.

I enjoyed a rather extensive night in Ikebukuro, so I'm going to chop the recap into two posts, for your benefit and mine.



After spending the morning and afternoon getting vaporized in the Kamakura heat, I came back to my apartment in Shinjuku to take a disco nap. I was planning on meeting up with Will, owner of Buffalo Tap and a good guy (and more about him as we go), at his bar in Ikebukuro around 11pm. It was going to be a long night, and I'm older than I should be, thus this system needed a rest. The sweaty nap went on an hour longer than planned, which meant I was going to miss out on some of my scheduled stops. But man, I was exhausted and this rest was restorative.

By the time I got to Ikebukuro, the cat café was closed. The owl café was closed. Gyoza Stadium was closed. And I had to resign myself to the fact that I wasn't going to make it to Penguin Bar, something I do regret a bit.

Food was a must. My plan was to go to Ichiran, but that location, like every other Ichiran I saw during my trip, had a line out the door. So I wandered around dizzily until stumbling into a ramen place without a phoneticized English name. And no English menu.
What most ramen restaurant kitchens look like.
But there were pictures of dishes! So I went with a bowl of noodles with a remarkable fish broth, and some crisp gyoza on the side.
Blood sugar regulated. Life was good.



Abbot's Choice, Ikebukuro

I had about a half hour to kill, so I stopped into Abbot's Choice to start my whisky night. I'd spied a few of these bars on Google Maps when researching destinations. There's one in Golden Gai, Roppongi and Shibuya, but I never saw this branch on the map.

Abbot's Choice is designed to appeal to Westerners or those with a Western hankering. The Ikebukuro Abbot's was very roomy (for a Japanese bar) with a number of bar tables that wouldn't look out of place at Buffalo Wild Wings. HD sports lit up the many TV screens and American pop music floated down from ceiling speakers.

I took a seat at the bar, opened up a whisky menu and quickly spotted something of interest. Yoichi 2000's. I'd seen the 1980's and 1990's selling for small fortunes, and I adore Yoichi, so this seemed like the perfect start.

Yet, though there was only one other customer at the bar, it was impossible to get the attention of the two bartenders. You see, my fellow patron was an American woman in her 40s or 50s slugging shot after shot of Fireball, slurring and shouting her way through terrible approximations of Japanese. Both bartenders found it hilarious. Even putting ¥2000 in cash on the bar and calling out sumimasen didn't make me worthy of their business until she stumbled out of the bar, trying to drag one of them with her.

At first I thought, "Damn, that's a terrible way to begin her night." But then I realized it was 10:15pm. The first shift of drinkers was clocking out. The second shift was clocking in.

Yoichi 2000's, OB, 57%abv

Its color is a medium gold. The nose is fruitier than expected, with lots of bourbon and new American oak influence. Caramel and butterscotch hard candies. Pears and grains. No peat. The palate leads with root beer and anise. More pepper than peat. Quite sweet with a silky mouthfeel. Very buttery too. After 10+ minutes a bitter bite slips in, providing a little bit of balance. More herbs with more time. It finishes with sweet vanilla and caramel. Malt. Minimal peat. Adding water makes it all much too sweet.

Wow, what a let down. American oak secures the front of the stage and never steps back. The herbal bitterness helped the palate out a little bit, but the whole thing needed less sweetness and more of something earthy or smoky to give it dimension. It's not the worst Yoichi I've had—their new NAS is embarrassing—but such a stellar distillery should be able to put out a special release better than this.
Rating: 76

I departed Abbot's Choice ten minutes behind schedule.



I'm going to skip ahead about 1.5 to 2 hours. I'll return to the missing section in Part 2.

The Crane Bar -- Ha! Just kidding.

One of the bars I was most looking forward to was The Crane. Located a few blocks from the train station, the bar was known to have a tremendous whisky selection, while being a bit on the fancy side. But early in the Ikebukuro experience, I learned that The Crane HAD CLOSED. Wat? Yep. In the middle of the Era of Crazy Whisky Prices, Tsurumi-san left the business. Of course my first question was, "What happened to all the whisky?!" We may never know.



After helping Will close up his bar, and by "helping" I mean sip some of his whiskies and not helping him at all, I requested we go to...

Quercus Bar

Quercus Bar was highly recommended in Chris Bunting's Drinking Japan book, but that was published six years ago. The two ratings on whiskybase are more recent and much less enthusiastic.

The good news about Quercus is its design is the exact opposite of Abbot's Choice. It's small and personal. The wood design is simple. The mood is quiet.

The entire right shelf behind the bar is full of dusty stuff. Most of the other bottles on the other main shelves can be found at other great bars around the city. Unfortunately the most exciting bottles on premises were off-limits, as they were private bottles belonging to members.

The bartender was nice enough, though Will is a much better bartender. And on a final note, Quercus's prices were the highest of all the bars I've visited in Japan. So Will and I each ordered only one drink while we discussed Fukushima and death and other baubles.

Teacher's Glendronach 8 year old single malt, late '70s or early '80s, Italian import, 43%abv

Its color is light amber. The nose is very much dusty old Teacher's-ish. (Apologies for the terrible description.) Bushels of oranges and lemons and apricots meet layers of dunnage and musty cask funk. More earth than peat. Curiously, the palate is more alive. Similar fruits to the nose, with McIntosh apples added in. Soil + metal meets cotton candy + lightly smoky peat. The peat moves far into the finish's background. Otherwise, it's mostly moderate levels of apples and earth.

The opposite of the Yoichi 2000's: very little oak, lots of spirit character; pleasant peat levels, a good balance and an impressive amount of dimension for its age. It's a type that's sorely missing from modern whisky, though I think Benromach comes pretty close to it at times. I do recommend this if you have a chance to try it, though I don't think it's worth the ¥3000 I paid for an ounce.
Rating: 87



It wasn't yet 2am when we left Quercus. There was more to explore. I'll return to the better components of that evening in Part 2, next Monday.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Bourbon and Rye Day Friday: Corbin Cash Merced Rye Whiskey

I knew nothing about Corbin Cash rye when my buddy Brett handed me a 2oz sample of it, more than a year ago. It sounded like yet another craft rye, probably two months old, something that will face the Market Correction Reaper in a few years.

THE TALE


Turns out, Corbin Cash has a pleasant story, and it's not one with Al Capone or George Washington or Ron Jeremy or John Wayne or Brooklyn water. Instead, the Souza family grows sweet potatoes up in Northern California and makes vodka out of the excess tubers. And, per K&L and D&M:
"It turns out that Corbin hasn't only been distilling sweet potato vodka over the past few years; they've also been growing, harvesting, fermenting and distilling their own rye ... The sandy soil of Atwater leeches a lot of the nitrogen deep into the earth and a cover crop is needed to help remove some of the nitrogen before another round of sweet potatoes can be planted. It just so happens that rye is the perfect cover."
That's legitimately interesting to me. But, is the whiskey good? That's the important part, especially when a bottle costs $50+. As for its age, I've seen "up to 4 years" and "3.75 years". Yet, I don't believe they list an age on the bottle itself. So I went into my tasting with low expectations.

THE PICTURE

THE INFO


Distillery: Corbin Cash
Type: Rye Whiskey (no straight designation)
RegionAtwater, CA
Age: see notes above
Mash Bill: 100% rye
Maturation: new American white oak 53-gallon barrels
Alcohol by volume: 45%

THE REVIEW


At first the nose has a nice combination of apples, honey and cinnamon. Then a candy cane and some malt (yes, I know there's no malt in it). There's a wave of something green, like green onions and pickle brine. But it's subtle. Later on it mellows out into vanilla bean, toffee and cream soda. Lots of spice in the palate, both of the rye and oak variety. Every other note is in the background: stone fruit, bubble gum, fizzy minerals. A little bit of alcohol heat creeps up late, making it a bit sharper. The finish is a rye bomb, like Collingwood 21 but American style. By that I mean yooge. Plenty of pepper, rye bread, a little bit of tartness and fresh ginger.

WORDS WORDS WORDS


Much much better than expected. It's got a bite to it, but it drinks well neat. And the nose is very good. I can't help but think this is due to the rye spending some real time in a full-sized barrel. I'd even be willing to accept the 3.75 year story. While I'd love to see what happens with 4+ years (maybe 6?!), as it is this feels like a product ready for the market, unlike the vast majority of craft whiskey.

The price does give me pause. Three years ago, I'd be saying "You can get Willett at this price." Two years ago, I'd be saying "You can get Smooth Ambler at this price." Today, I can't say that. In fact, cheaper good rye options are dwindling. Rittenhouse BIB's quality isn't what it used to be. High West Double Rye's quality swings widely from batch to batch. Wild Turkey 101 rye is decent, if you can find it. Other MGP ryes are available here and there, but most cheap ones are very young ones. Pikesville 110 Proof and Russell's Reserve Small Batch might be the second and third best options at the under-$60 range, with Lot No. 40 (yes, the Canadian) leading the way.

So—I can't believe I'm typing this—but Corbin Cash might crack the top five sub-$60 rye list. That's partly due to the product's quality, but also inspired by the market itself.

Availability - California only (I think)
Pricing - $48-$58
Rating - 83

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Highland Park 22 year old 1991 SMWS 4.190

I'm not going to vent about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society again, don't worry. But if you're looking for my take on it, click here. I've had a two SMWS Highland Parks other than this one and they were both great. And while sherry cask Highland Park may be the sexy thing, I've really dug almost every bourbon cask HP that I've had the pleasure to sip. So my expectations are high for this one.

Distillery: Highland Park (SMWS 4)
Ownership: The Edrington Group
Region: Isle of Orkney
Independent Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
"Funny" name: Big boys smoking in the sauna
Age: 22 years
Distilled: May 31, 1991
Maturation: refill hogshead
Cask#: 4.190
Bottles: 246
Alcohol by Volume: 53.9%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(Thank you to Monsieur Brett for the sample!)

NEAT
Its color is straw. The nose has two perfectly balanced sides to it. First there's the lean beige (if you will) side: barley, burlap, hay and clay. Then there's the pretty side: orange zest, cilantro, canned peaches, cherry liqueur and a hint of rose. Its palate loads up on the herbal, mineral and earthy notes. There's also some limes and lemons. Yellow peaches, salted caramels and malt. All of this with an oily mouthfeel. Lots of limes in the long finish. Then brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and barley. A slight medicinal note in the background.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose gets more floral. Then apricots and key lime pie. Also some hay and soil. Meanwhile, the palate has all sorts of things going on, but again in balance. Dried herbs and bitter herbs. Lemons and limes and sweet malt. Baking spices, along with a savory note. Still very mineral(ly). The finish is spicier and sweeter than the neat finish. It's also sweeter than the palate. Baking spices, cayenne pepper and salt.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Those of you seeking out Highland Park in its sherried form, can go ahead and keep doing so. Gimme these refill ex-bourbon hogsheads. This cask has done its job over the two decades without ever overtaking the crisp Orkney spirit within. Or to put it another way, this is well-matured whisky that is not oaky. Hell, it's excellent.

It's also not smoky. The phenolics register more like earth and minerals. There are a lot of other things going on with it, but no single element tramples the next. I'm sure this thing sold out upon its outturn three years ago. Sorry folks. :(

Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 90

Monday, July 24, 2017

Bar Argyll - Shinjuku, Tokyo

I went to Bar Argyll having reading positive reviews by more seasoned Japanese bar-goers like Chris Bunting, the Nonjatta folks and David Broom. But I wound up being underwhelmed by my experience there. Perhaps my existing great bar experiences in Japan set up unrealistic expectations. Yet, I can name at least six better Tokyo spots just off the top of my head right now (and my memory sucks). Also despite what its whiskybase entry says, I sincerely doubt they have 100+ whiskies. It's possible the bar had its glory days, but they have passed. As it is in 2017, the place is not without its charms, but it's also not a must see for whisky fans.

Its wood design is lovely, but I have no photos of it because it was the darkest bar I've ever been in (and I've been to MANY underlit joints in LA). I have no idea what the bartender's name was because his card doesn't list it and he never offered a word in either English or Japanese. He spent the entirety of two hours hacking away at ice cubes. The results were beautiful, but for two hours? It took me those two hours to consume all of three pours while there because the icetender wouldn't make eye contact with me.

Bar Argyll also had a grand total of three whiskies from Argyll. Springbank 10yo, 12yo CS and one Hazelburn. Perhaps it would have been better named Bar Spey.

There were four other customers during my visit, a pair of whom appeared to be on a date. Either things were going very well or very poorly for those two. The young woman went through at least seven cigarettes in the first hour. Because of that smoke, I'm going to give grade ranges to these whiskies rather than assigning a specific score.



Not much on the shelf was really calling out to me, plus it was difficult to see what was available. But I did see some Flora & Faunas, so I decided to start the session with an F&F I'd never tried.

Blair Athol 12 year old Flora & Fauna - 2012 bottling - 43%abv

Color - Very dark gold, though again the bar was hella dark
Nose - Almonds and cashews. Whole wheat bread and a simple constant malty note.
Palate - A very pleasant creamy, buttery flavor. A little bit of raisins, a little bit of heat. Blendy, though more Johnnie Walker than Bell's (which utilizes Blair Athol). It picks up the nose's good nutty note with time.
Finish - Lightly sweet. Cracked pepper, butter and cashews.

Commentary:  A simple drink with no technical issues. Though there are sherry casks in the mix they stay mellow, lending mostly nutty notes. It's a good transitional whisky, for those who are moving from blends to single malts — if people are still doing that — and it certainly beats the heck out of the Singleton series in that part of the market. In fact, if I could find a bottle of it for less than $50, I'd consider getting it. (There were probably many such bottles in Japan.)
Rating: B-/B (81-84)



Ardmore 15 year old 2001 Cooper's Choice - bourbon hogshead - 51.5%abv

Color - 5 beer piss. Yay!
Nose - It's almost entirely cereal grains, with hints of stone fruits and charred meat. Nude stuff.
Palate - It leads with a substantial almost-Islay-level of peat. Moderate sweets and salt. Sweet basil. A mint leaf note couples nicely with the peat. After 20+ minutes in the glass it goes full mezcal.
Finish - Some bright bitterness. A little heat, salt and peat.

Commentary: I'd almost bought a bottle of this whisky blindly on a few occasions (because Ardmore), but I'm glad I didn't. It's not bad whisky, but damn if it ain't worth $90-$110. That hogshead must have been a fourth fill because it barely did its job. The result is a whisky reminiscent of all those baby (4-8 year old) indie Ardmores that are barely selling right now. Its big peat and oak-free nature is good, to a point. And that point may be at the finish where it flops.
Rating: B- (80-82)



So here's Bar Argyll's only Argyll-produced single malt that one can't buy all over the whisky drinking world. The Maltman can't legally use the name Hazelburn, so they go with the enigmatic "Hazelgrove".

Hazelgrove 16 year old 2000 The Maltman - cask 11078 - PX finish - 47.1%abv

Color - Dark gold
Nose - Luckily the PX hasn't totally taken over the nose. There's a good mint and nut combo. Toffee and cherries. Despite what the back label says, we're a long way from Campbeltown.
Palate - Here's the PX. Raisins in agave nectar. Grape jam. Lemon candy and ginger candy. It gets sweeter with time, though a bitterness lingers in the back.
Finish - The PX continues. There are prunes and currants. Maple syrup, salt and apple butter.

Commentary: This is both curious and forgettable. It has a super low ABV for a 16yo whisky, which makes me think the original cask or the PX cask had something odd going on. Probably the original cask, because the PX totally dominates whatever existed before the finishing. Why else would you give the Glenmorangie treatment to a Springbank product? Ultimately, it's not crap, but it's interchangeable with any other generic PX-finished single malt. And that's sinning against Argyll.
Rating: C/C+ (76-79)



The fact that I was able to try three single malts that are unavailable in the United States kept this experience from being completely disappointing. But between the unwelcoming atmosphere and service, and the surprisingly lackluster selection, I left wishing I'd tried out one of the several other bars recommended to me by you good readers. As I mentioned at the start, whisky geeks can skip this spot, especially when pressed for time.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Bourbon and Rye Day Friday: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014

Time for some more burban. This time it's the annual Four Roses LE small batch bourbon which magically hits the secondary market before anyone has opened a bottle. Though back when this edition was released, people actually drank it. One of those people was Ryan from NJ who tossed in this sample when we did a swap. Thank you, Ryan.

Designed by the beloved former distiller Jim Rutledge, the 2014 limited edition small batch is made up of 13 year old OBSV recipe bourbon, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF and 9 year old OBSK. So it's a 9 year old, for those keeping score. It does include my two favorite Four Roses recipes, OBSV and OBSK, both high-rye.


Distillery: Four Roses
Ownership: Kirin
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Lawrenceberg, Kentucky
Maturation: new white oak barrels with char #3 and #4
Age: 9 years and older
Recipe: see notes above
Bottle Count: 12,516
Release Year: 2014
Alcohol by Volume: 55.9%

NEAT
The nose is much gentler than I'd expected, with no alcohol heat. Cherry bubblegum, clementines, Grand Marnier and cardamom. Some roses and Nutella too. The palate is hotter, woodier. Very spicy and tannic. Cayenne pepper and ginger powder. Sticky simple syrup in the center. A savoury note in the background. The hot finish holds bitter chocolate, wood smoke, wood tannins and wood spice. Notes of Frangelico and bananas arrive late.

Feels a bit tight. Adding a little water...

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose picks up a big charred marshmallow note. Vanilla fudge. Clementines and lumber. The palate has become bitterer and sweeter, both being wood driven. It's both slightly floral and nutty. With sweet corn and tangy citrus. The finish has new notes of caramel and vanilla. It keeps the palate's bitterness and tang. The bananas remain.


WORDS WORDS WORDS
Though the nose is a pleasure, I'm a bit underwhelmed by the mouth. The harsh oak shuts everything down. It's more approachable with water, but the oak still reads like there's more 13yo than 9yo in the mix. To some that's great! To me, not so much. It's a palate thing. Past a certain point, pending age and warehouse conditions, the wood overwhelms all else.

It also seems like every time I have a limited or well-hyped barrel/batch Four Roses, it falls short of my expectations. In fact, I always prefer their regular $40 single barrel release (like this one). I'm not saying this limited edition is bad whiskey. It's good. But I'm okay with never drinking it again.

Back in the day, reviewers (such as here, here and here) said this was "good, but..." or it wasn't as great as the 2013 edition. I've never had the 2013 edition, but I did compare this one to Heaven Hill 6yo BIB. The $11 bourbon was much more fun.

Availability - Secondary Market
Pricing - $185-$225
Rating - 82

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Highland Park 19 years old 1991 Signatory UCF, cask 15115

I'm going to sprinkle some regular whisk(e)y reviews amongst the Japan bar writeups. There are plenty more of the latter coming. Of the former, I'm going to stick to Bourbon and Rye Day Friday. Otherwise I will be reviewing Highland Park single malts. Because Highland Park is yummy. Usually. Also, this blog has an odd lack of Highland Park reviews.



A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (early 2012 and Los Angeles), I was stuck trying to choose between Highland Park 18yo and a 19 year old HP by Signatory. HP18 was $89.99 (really) and the Signatory was $84.99 on the K&L Wine Merchants website. So I called the K&L help line and was connected to some guy named David Driscoll. I asked the man, later known as DD to some, known as a genius to others, known as various expletives to others still, what the difference was between the two HPs. He said they had their similarities, but the sherry cask influence would read much higher on the Signatory. I was a big sherried whisky fan at the time, so I chose the Signatory version.

This bottle then sat in my whisky cabinet for four years, continually getting pushed to the back. With a cross-country move approaching, I decided to open a bunch of my bottles for whisky events in 2016. Upon finally trying this Highland Park, I wondered why the hell I'd waited so long. Thankfully I saved a good sized sample of it before the bottle was emptied at the events. And here's the long awaited review.



I got yer data right here:
click to embiggen
nudge, nudge, wink, wink














NEAT
The color is a dark gold, so no this was probably not a refill cask. The nose has a dark side (leather, manure, burnt plastic and mushrooms) and light side (apricot jam and raspberry fruit leather) tied neatly together with well-integrated sulphur and ground mustard seed. If that sounds like rubbish to you, then this whisky is probably not for you. A surprising hit of peat (both mossy and ashy) on the palate. Orange marmalade, honey and barbecued prunes? Then there's the darker side, again. Sulphur and a spry peppery nip. It takes on a smokier edge with time, also picking up a mineral note. Orange marmalade and lemon candy meet minerals and grass in the finish. A combo of tannins and sulphur make it puckery at times.

WITH WATER (~35%abv)
Ah, that early burst of manure in the nose. Then comes the sherry cask's dried fruits. The sulphur has been toned down. Some salty air and moss. A new bag of gummi bears. The palate is peated orange marmalade with limes, honey and brown sugar. Some smoky residue lingers on into the finish, where there are also tart limes and a whiff of burnt tobacco.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
This is the sort of dirty whisky that divides folks. If you can't take farmy or peppery sulphur notes then avert your nose. But for others, and you know who you are, this is good.

Mr. Driscoll was correct about the sherry cask's prominence, but this is also one of the peatiest Highland Parks I've had. It almost leans a little closer to Mull than Orkney at times. Or maybe some particularly filthy Benromach. It's the violence in the finish that keeps me from declaring the whisky a near perfect representative of the type.

But I'll stop the dirty talk, because it's the whisky's fruit notes that lend it balance and dimension. Water brings out the fruit out further, and mellows the darker side, bringing it closer to a more familiar Highland Park style.

Availability - 
Happy hunting!

Pricing - It was $84.99 in 2012. It won't be $84.99 now.
Rating - 89 (for specific palates only)

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Return to Bar Cordon Noir

Two years ago I walked into Bar Cordon Noir in Kyoto and lost my damn mind. (I encourage you to read my posts on Cordon Noir if you haven't yet!) My stay in Kyoto this year was much briefer than that of 2015: 2 nights versus 5 nights. But nothing was going to keep me from returning to "the bar of my dreams". So, on my first night back in Kyoto, I filled up on some relatively healthy food from Ootoya and then set off for the bar.

I'd gotten to the point that I can navigate that part of town without a map. Or at least I thought I had. But the Gion-Shijo / Sanjo area can get a bit disorienting at night. Ootoya is pretty close to Bar Cordon Noir, but it still took me 45 minutes to find the bar. Luckily there were a pair of liquor stores to peek into while I got my bearings.


But I found the glowing sign, then took the tiny elevator to the third floor. And there it was. Behind the bar, Ono-san (or Ono-sensei to me) was 'tending like the pro he is. This time there were a half dozen other customers. And, as I learned, quite a dent was put into his bottles since I was last there. Yet all was well. The selection remained overwhelming, and it took me forever to pick my poison.




Two years ago I didn't even look at the old dusty blends. This year, I inquired about them first. Sure enough, there were many. He had three different old Old Parrs. I went with the dustiest.

Grand Old Parr, 1950s, probably 40%abv
The nose really is from another era. It's all old dusty shoes, old baseballs and motor grease. A simple time machine. The palate is quite dusty indeed. It has a hint of the nose's leather, as well as a wee herbal bitter bite. There are medium-size notes of tar and soil, which meet up well with the raisins and smoke. The warming finish is all bitterness and earth. Very dry nutty sherry. Coal smoke?

This is a great starter, though like many dusty blends it does fade after thirty minutes in the glass. So I don't recommend dallying over a pour of this stuff. The texture feels it a bit fragile, but it has held fast to its leathery, tarry, earthy style over all the decades. It's a very different creature than the current version, and much better for it.
Rating: 87




One of things that blew my mind about Cordon Noir last time was the collection of old Cadenhead green dumpies. Sadly, the really old stuff had been polished off in the two years since. But the next generation of dumpies (bottled in the '80s) remained. In fact, I think there were at least eight bottles to choose from.

Though there were sexier names amongst these bottles, Tullibardine was my choice. Ono-san mentioned that was the only one of the bunch which was definitely from a sherry cask. And since I'm always game for some old school sherry cask action (as you will see with the other selections), the Tulli was my choice.

Tullibardine 18 year old 1965 - sherry cask - Cadenhead - 46%abv
The nose is full of stone fruits. Apricots and plums, plus Rainier cherry juice. Rich toffee pudding and lots of roasted almonds. The palate is......oh, dear. Here goes:  Milk chocolate. Toffee pudding. Hard toffee candy. Mint candies. A rumble of bitter chocolate. And wad of Big League Chew bubblegum. The finish is all chocolate and cigars, with a minty sparkle. Rich cask-strength armagnac.


It's fair to say this is the best Tullibardine I've ever had, but then again it has no competition. Even the 48yo 1962 official bottling, which I had the pleasure of trying a few years ago thanks to a LAWS member, was just so-so. But this Cadenhead was excellent, and never faded unlike the Grand Old Parr. The 46%abv was a perfect bottling strength for it. The cask registered louder in the palate, while the fruity Highland spirit shone brightly in the nose. I doubt that Cadenhead dumpies appear much in auctions, and there's even less of a chance that Tullibardine dumpies show up, but if this one does (and knowing the limited Tulli fanbase) the perhaps this could be a relatively good deal.
Rating: 90



A wise man once told me that if I had an opportunity to try a pre-1980 sherry cask Glen Grant, "then seize that shit".

Glen Grant 30 year old 1976 - sherry hoggie - Old Malt Cask - cask 3745 - 50%abv
Whew, the nose is densely populated. Stewed and dried cherries and berries. Eucalyptus. Toffee pudding. Jelly donuts. Hot chocolate. Cinnamon pastry and citrus zest. This is too good. I'm afraid to drink it. The palate has everything, man. Pipe tobacco and LOADS of fudge, yet also wonderfully bitter. Dried cherries and berries. A hint of citrus and salt. It picks up a serious umami note after 30 minutes in the glass. The finish leads with bitter chocolate, blackberries, and raisins. Some black peppercorns too. And there's that long savory note.

Seized it. And it was an utter pleasure. (Serge didn't mind this stuff either, FWIW.) It's a thick whisky, gooey in its mouthfeel, rich in the palate and wonderfully loaded in the nose. Even at the abv, this whisky is never hot. The power is in the delivery instead.
Rating: 92




Two years ago at this very bar, I turned down an opportunity to try a well-aged version of my dear Ardmore. I was not going to skip it this time.

Ardmore 30 year old 1977 - refill butt - Old Malt Cask - cask 3514 - 50%abv
The nose has a shocking amount of herbal violence up front. A minute later bushels of apples, pears and plums give it great dimension. Then comes the honey. Then dark chocolate and raisins. Then toasted oak spices, lemon zest. Oats and quinoa! The palate surprisingly dirty and raw for its age. Herbal and vegetal. Then some nutty pastries. After 30 minutes, the cask wakes up with dark chocolate and tobacco. But it's never sweet, and remains a brawler after all these years. Soil and cigarettes in the finish. Salt and pepper. Milk chocolate, honey and bitter grapefruit.

Commentary: I'm glad I made this one the capper for the night. I've never experienced a direct-fired-era Ardmore that punched like this. While it's not as honed as the Glen Grant, it's a hell of a thing in its own style. Its sharpness may turn away some at first, but give it some time. Treasures await within.
Rating: 89



As I was editing the reviews above, I suddenly realized I may never get an opportunity to return to Bar Cordon Noir. This trip was special and it may likely be my last to that part of the world, at least for a couple of decades. At first the realization of never returning to this great place felt sad and bittersweet. Then, while looking at my photos, I remembered how I'd felt when I entered Cordon Noir the first and second time. Euphoria in 2015 and gratitude in 2017. When I was there I was always present in the moment. If I'm not mindful and thankful as great things are happening, then I'm missing out on life. I'm glad I was present for these experiences.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Bourbon and Rye Day Friday: Evan Williams 12 year old 101 proof, for Japan

Despite the occasional weird bottle, I like the Evan Williams bourbon range. They're priced very reasonably. Hell, I'll say it. They're cheap. Yet, they're often a good measure better than bourbons 4x-5x their price.

At the Heaven Hill distillery shop, a customer can find Evan Williams 12 year old 101 Proof. That's the only (legal) place in the US one can buy a bottle of it. And it costs at least $130.

Or one can buy it at most liquor stores in Japan for $25-$30.

Guess where I bought mine!


I considered getting a second bottle, but my luggage was already full of other fine things. Like dirty laundry and travel toothpaste.

My uninformed guess is Heaven Hill doesn't make EW12 a regular American release because the demand would far outstrip the supply, and we'd kill it off in under a year.

Anyway—to keep jumping back and forth between thoughts—I opened my bottle the very night I came home from my trip.


Distiller: Heaven Hill
Brand: Evan Williams
Type: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Bardstown, Kentucky
Age: at least 12 years
Mashbill: 75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley (I think)
Bottle Code: B126 614 37
Purchased in: Tokyo, Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 50.5%
(from the top third of my bottle)

REVIEW

Though the nose shows plenty of oak, it reads very pretty and fragrant, rather than massive char or sawdust. There are also big notes of peach skin and brown sugar. Some sherry cask-like dried fruit. Hazelnut liqueur. A mellow vanilla and Cow Tales candy undertow. In a tumbler glass, the oak notes move to the background. The palate leads with fresh cherries, orange soda and a warming heat. The sweetness stays around the edges, wood spice in background. A burst of ginger beer. NO vanilla. It develops an intense saltiness with time. The tannins remain surprisingly mild in the finish. The sweetness stays mellow too. Limes, clementines and fresh ginger. A hint of the palate's salt.

The bourbon stands strong in a Manhattan, giving it a real punchy boozy edge. There's also a cherry bubblegum note. Bit of a peach+cinnamon thing. I'm sipping one of these cocktails between sentences and enjoying it immensely.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

This one is growing on me. It is NOT worth anyone's $130 (plus tax). But I'd be happy to keep this regularly stocked if it sold for $30 or less here. Which will never happen.

While it doesn't have the finesse of Elijah Craig 12yo (R.I.P.), it manages to keep the oak in check. I really enjoy the fruit notes. And it sticks the landing well. Plus these Manhattans are mighty hardy. Yum. If you're drinking it neatly I recommend you consume it from a tumbler as opposed to a Glencairn.

So if you're in Japan, and still have room in your luggage because you haven't already found a dozen other wonderful things, Evan Williams 12 year old 101 proof is a pretty fun thing to bring home.

Availability - this particular bottling was from Japan, this bourbon is also sold at the distillery shop
Pricing - $25-$30 in Japan, $130+ in Kentucky
Rating - 84

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Highlander Inn Tokyo: Part 2, More Pours? More Pours.

Part 1 was on Monday.
Part 2 is today!

The stash, each shelf three or four bottles deep...

After I completed the Ben Nevis Quartet, Suzuki-san produced this single PX Puncheon of '04 GlenDronach and asked if I had tried it yet. Before I could complete the word no (or iie, if I attempted Japanese at that moment), he'd already poured me a good drop.

*!free pour!*
GlenDronach 12 year old 2004 - for BarShow 2016 - cask 5527, PX Puncheon, 58.6%abv

To my surprise there was a substantial combination of green herbs (in the palate) and baking spices (in the nose) balancing out the usual PX grape jam attack. I'm normally not a PX cask fan but this was a good drink with its sweetness at a moderate level.
Rating: B-/B (82-85)





Next, Suzuki-san produced this whisky that was selected by the Japanese owner of Highlander Inn Craigellachie (and, I think, Tokyo). It's a full strength batch of 36yo blended scotch whisky (though whiskybase says it's a blended malt).

BLOGGERSPLAIN:  Oishii means "delicious" in Japanese.

*!free pour!*
Oishii Wisukii 36 year old small batch blended whisky - 51.1%abv

Its nose is gorgeous. Gentle sherry notes merge with mild peat, along with moments of stone fruits and citrus fruits. The palate is lightly sweet with an earthy peatiness. Then a blast of grapefruit. Dried fruit, tobacco and grapefruit in the finish.

This is great, very complex and easily consumed, and only available at the two Highlander Inns. Oishii indeed.
Rating: B+/A- (89-91)




I was unable to purchase the most recent Springbank Local Barley, or should I say I was unamused at its $160+ American price. But... having spied Highlander Inn's bottle on the shelf, I knew it would be one of the final drinks of this visit. I'm thankful to say I received the bottle's inaugural pour.

Springbank 11 year old 2006 Local Barley (Bere) - 53.1%abv

Color - Amber
Nose - Medium peating and a mild float of oak. Notes of maple syrup and pecan rolls.
Palate - White fruits and white peaches on top. Mild peat in the middle. Richer here than on the nose, almost candied. Water brings out a fresh herbal bitterness.
Finish - Medicinal and sweet.

Commentary - There's no denying this is good, but it's missing the complexity, balance and (important!) sheer deliciousness of the 16yo Local Barley. I'd also take either of the Springbank Greens over it. So, if you were kicking yourself over not getting this bottle, stop kicking yourself. If you're now kicking yourself for getting this bottle, stop kicking yourself. It's still good!
Rating - B (85-86)



This bottle sat in front of me the whole time, so it was inevitably going to make its way into my glass. I've found Port Askaig 19 year old to be a real pleasure, so I was interested to see how this (SPOILER ALERT) Caol Ila spirit works within a sherry cask. (UPDATE: Or maybe not Caol Ila. See the comment section for more info.) Here's my final drink of the night:

Port Askaig 15 year old Sherry Cask - 45.8%abv

Color - Gold
Nose - The sherry is very mild here. Instead CI's beach, salty ocean and seaweed notes lead the way.
Palate - Caol Ila + melon + chocolate. Then mint and a subtle note of vanilla bean. Then a mild bitterness keeps things honest.
Finish - Mint, chocolate and a slight white fruit note, but mostly Caol Ila 12yo with more stamina.

Commentary - Another success from Port Askaig, mostly because the sherry steps out of the way to let the good stuff through. Though I prefer the 19yo, that one's price has gone up nearly 50% in the 3 years since I bought it. This 15yo's price hasn't changed much since its debut 2 years ago and retails about $30 cheaper than the 19.
Rating: B/B+ (86-88)


If you're looking for the sort of place that won't make you feel disrespectful for wearing short sleeves, if you're looking for a spot to listen to some Scottish music (and no I don't mean Frightened Rabbit, who aren't half bad though) while sipping on beer and whisky, if you're looking for a cozy place to explore some single casks, then I recommend spending a couple hours at Highlander Inn Tokyo. It's one small block north of the Nakanosakaue station, about 5 minute metro ride from Shinjuku. Toshiyuki Suzuki will likely be the man slinging the drinks, and he's very honest and knowledgable about the bottles on the shelf. Kei Kimura also provided great service to everyone at the bar, and he's the more internet savvy of the two, so hopefully he's reading this. Thank you, gentlemen.

No, this was neither the first nor last of my bar visits in Japan, but I knew it would be a joy to recall. Many more bar posts will follow in the coming weeks...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Highlander Inn Tokyo: Part 1, a brace of Ben Nevis

Things went mostly according to plan throughout last month's Japanese trip, which is someting I can't say holds true of many (or any?) of my previous international trips. On Night Three, I scheduled a trip to Nakano to attend a pair of bars. And attend a pair of Nakano bars I did.

But instead of taking the train out there, I walked it. The temperature had dipped just below 90ºF that day, and this was an opportunity to see a mile and a half of the city I'd otherwise miss. Having put in over ten miles on foot earlier in the day, I found this stroll much to my liking. Start in the dusklight, end at a pub in the streetlight.

Highlander Inn Tokyo is a casual homey place, which is a welcome surprise in a city full of shiny impersonal drinking establishments. Everyone at the Highlander seemed to know each other. Lots of laughter. Lots of beer. Lots of Scottish busker music on the stereo.

Though it's not the sort of place that has 1000 whiskies behind the bar, Highlander Inn's selection is very well curated. And is probably north of 200 bottles anyway. Speaking the international language of single malt at any Japanese whisky bar is a pleasure, but the staff spoke enough English that two hours of chat flew by quickly. Plus I was able to squeeze in a few mizu o kudasai and arigato gozaimasu without embarrassing myself too much, I think.

The beers on tap sounded pretty swell after a humid day, but I was there for the whisky.

Yes.
Asking a bartender for his supply of Ben Nevis is some genuine whisky hipster shit anywhere else in the world. But not in Japan. Thanks to Nikka's ownership, Ben Nevis has had plenty of presence in Japan for more than a decade. The desirable official 15 year old single casks used to be plentiful out there. The 10 year old is everywhere. Nikka's Pure Malt Black has long had some Nevis in it. And the country's indie companies have been bringing in single casks of it for some time.

So when I asked Suzuki-san (aka Toshi) for their Nevii, he quickly hauled out six indie single casks. He even recommended that I not select the oldest, most expensive one. Imagine a bartender doing that in The States! I selected three Benz and then was given a gratis pour of a fourth. (More bonus pours in part 2.)

Note: Because there was occasional cigarette smoke in the air, and because of all the socializing, my tasting experience wasn't precise enough to give exact scores, so I'm listing a rating range for all the stuff I tasted there.



THE BEN NEVISES

Ben Nevis 18 year old 1998 - The Whisky Agency and Three Rivers Tokyo - 50.9%abv

Color - Light amber
Nose - Oh funk, so much BN funk. A good way to start. Also loads of maltiness. Fresh apples and milk chocolate.
Palate - Roasted malt and toffee. Apricots. Almost stout-y. Lightly sweet and almost no oak.
Finish - Barley juice. Milk chocolate. IPA bitterness meets the sweets and fruits.

Commentary - Very crisp and well balanced. Perfect ABV too. I'm sure if I had a whole bottle I'd find more complexity in it, but it's a great drinker as is. That hypothetical bottle wouldn't last long.
Rating: B+ (87-89)



Ben Nevis 19 year old 1996 - The Auld Alliance and Three Rivers Tokyo - Sherry cask - 50.2%abv

Color - dark gold
Nose - Bigger cask action. Dried stone fruits, dill and honey. Teriyaki and seaweed. Some good cereal grain notes in the back.
Palate - Here the cask calms down a bit. Apricots, fresh and dried. A rumbling bitterness that reads more herbal than oak. Brown sugar and malt. Wonderful mouthfeel.
Finish - Vanilla toffee, apricots, and that IPA bitterness again.

Commentary - If you can't make it The Auld Alliance, then it's best to bring The Auld Alliance to you. Though, you have to fly to Asia first, I guess. This BN is louder and a little oakier than the previous, but the massive spirit keeps the cask in check. It's more of a thinker than the 1998 TWA, something to puzzle over in cooler seasons.
Rating: B/B+ (86-88)




*!free pour!*
Ben Nevis 19 year old 1996 - Three Rivers Tokyo, Dance series - cask 2, sherry hogshead, 50.1%abv

Nose - Farmy as a horse barn in the heat. Milk chocolate. Maple syrup.
Palate - Bye bye horse farms, hello peach, plum and apricot orchards. A wisp of sherry cask and a dribble of herbal liqueur.

Commentary - Sherry hogsheads usually run right over the spirits they hold, making many of them plenty rich but also quite similar. Not this time. Again the Ben Nevis spirit pirouettes atop the oak throughout the experience.
Rating: B+/A- (88-90)







Ben Nevis 19 year old 1996 - The Maltman for Shinanoya - cask 1673, sherry butt - 51.8%abv

Color - medium gold
Nose - Very toasty. Notes of fruity ceylon cinnamon, butterscotch, white fruits and stone fruits. Mmm, and an industrial greasy edge.
Palate - Peaches. Peach candy. Watermelon Jolly Ranchers. Oh but then there's tobacco and dark chocolate.
Finish - Here comes the herbal bitterness (gorgeous!) rounding out the fruity sweetness. A maltiness lingers in the back.

A Story - I was ready to buy this bottle blindly from the Shinanoya store in Shinjuku upon my arrival in the country. But two weeks before my trip, their site said they'd sold out. Arrrrrrgh! But also, whew, I'd save some money. Then I saw it at Highlander Inn. And I drank it.

A Story continues - I now own a bottle.

Commentary - See above Story. I didn't know what to expect from this whisky. Thought maybe it'd be a sherry bomb with Nevis flair. But it was so much better than that. The fruit, the chocolate, the bitterness, the grunge, all in balance. What a thing. Possibly the best Ben Nevis I've had.
Rating: A-/A (92-94)



Yes, there's a part 2! Maybe it'll be a little shorter. Maybe it'll include a Springbank. I mean, I had to pause this tale somewhere. To be continued on Wednesday.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Killing Whisky History: Ep. 2 - Ambassador Deluxe (bottled 1964-1976)


It's the first Friday of the month. That means Killing Whisky History returns!

Episode 2 digs into a one quart bottle of Ambassador Deluxe that I unearthed in San Pedro, CA a few years ago. It's all very thrilling, complete with a dramatic last minute correction right in the middle of the episode! I guarantee it's the best video about Ambassador Deluxe you will watch all day.

Click here for my burgeoning YouTube channel if you so desire!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Glenfarclas 105, 2016 bottling (NAS, 1 litre)

I used to love luv luff Glenfarclas 105, but when I bought a bottle last year I didn't luff it. The 2016 bottling seemed hotter, thinner, less rich and (redundant adjective) younger than previous versions. And I had a whole heaping litre of it. So I brought it to an event, wherein the attendees had never tried the 105, and the remainder of the bottle vanished without any complaints.

Just for kicks, here's the link to my first review of the 105, from more than 5.5 years ago. My how this mighty whisky has fallen.


Distillery: Glenfarclas
Ownership: J&G Grant
Region: Speyside (Central)
Age: NAS, no mention of age anywhere on the label
Maturation: ex-sherry casks
Bottling year: 2016
Alcohol by Volume: 60%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(Sample from my bottle, about 1/3 of the way down)

NEAT
The nose is very floral and sugary. A bit of an earthy note combines with cinnamon sticks. But that's it for a while. After a half hour, there's some brown sugar, mint syrup and dried cherries. The palate is massively hot and drying. Lots of raw edges. Bitter oak. Some nuts and vanilla. It finishes bitter and sharp. Drying and peppery. Some sour vinegar and metal.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)
The nose remains floral, but picks up some malty notes. Hints of cherry candy and soil. No more dried fruit. A bit of wet cardboard. The palate remains drying and bitter. But it's sweeter and maltier, and it picks up a wee smoke note. The finish is also sweeter, while being less bitter and sharp. Still a bit sour and drying. Less peppery.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
To be blunt, its palate and finish are pretty awful at full power. It's reminiscent of American craft whiskey, violently incomplete with loads of oak. The nose is pretty good though, once it's aired out. Diluting the whisky saves the whisky. Its sweetness and maltiness come out to play, adding some balance to all the raw notes.

But even with added water, this version of the 105 doesn't even remotely appeal to my palate. Then again, I've been a bit of a grump lately. I just watched Pixar's Inside Out and said "meh".

MAO reviewed a 2014 bottle of 105 and was unimpressed with that one, though he seemed to find more character to it. I sincerely hope future bottlings of 105 improve. In the meantime I'd go for Tomatin CS, Glendronach CS or A'bunadh far ahead of this one.

Availability -
The litre bottles are available in Europe and Japan

Pricing - One litre: $30-$50 (Japan), $35-$55 (Europe, ex-VAT)
Rating - 79 (with water only, low 70s when neat)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Glenfarclas 15 year old, 2016 bottling

Before I bore or horrify you with my Japan whisky tales, I'll plop a couple more scheduled reviews in the blogwater. Both of these posts will be updates of reviews that were done some time ago, but this time the samples pulled from full bottles(!) that I'd utilized for recent whisky events. Two Glenfarcli, to go.

Today, it's a review of the 2016 bottling of Glen First Class, Blairfindy, Probably Speyside's Finest, Ballindalloch Glenfarclas 15 year old. It was almost unanimously the favorite at my most recent event, even though it was the second cheapest out of the six malts presented. And, for whatever it's worth, most of the people who attended the event were bigger fans of bourbon than scotch.

The 15 year old holds the distinction of being the only member of Glenfarclas's regular range that is bottled at 46%abv. Even the 30 year old is diluted to 43%. And though I haven't tried the 30, I've historically preferred the 15 over the 17, 18, 21 and 25. Either those three points and lack of filtration add a substantial richness to the whisky, or 15 years is the honey spot for 'Farclas. In any case, it is available in Europe and Asia, but not in the US of A.

I reviewed Glenfarclas 15yo more than 4.5 years ago. Jeebus. Things were different then. Anyhoo, let's see how it do.


Distillery: Glenfarclas
Ownership: J&G Grant
Region: Speyside (Central)
Age: minimum 15 years
Maturation: ex-sherry casks
Bottling year: 2016
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(Sample from my bottle, pulled the day it was opened and finished at an event, last month)

NEAT
The color is a basic gold, lighter than my bad memory remembers the 15 to be. The nose starts with citrus, walnuts, shortbread and brine. Very little sherry cask action so far. Hints of peach and flowers. After a while in the glass, the whisky develops a solid sambuca-style anise note. Big on prunes and raisins in the palate. Yes, here are the sherry casks. Roasted coffee and caramel sauce. Those cheapie handheld apple pies that are sold alongside single-pack Twinkies. You know the ones. Toasted oak spices and black pepper in the back. It finishes with bitter coffee and prunes. Lightly salty and spicy, with that oakspice.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
The nose is all McInotsh apples and raisins. While the palate gains some dark chocolate, sweet and sour berries, prune juice and a floral note. Still plenty of black pepper. It finishes with prunes, chocolate milk and a mild sweetness

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Though I'd be happy to recommend this whisky over all the Macallan products under 18 years of age, and many batches of the Mac 18, my enthusiasm about the Farclas Fifteen has dampened slightly. It's a good example of well-matured sherry cask whisky with a good presentation and a good price. I don't think one can get a better sherried whisky at the $50-$60 range. But...

...the thrill is gone. It's gone away. Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the whisky. In fact *gasp* I liked it better diluted to 40%abv. The chocolate part reveals itself there. Perhaps I should have paired the whisky with Nutella.

I'm kinda glad I didn't bring home a bottle of it from Japan. Whisky bottles violate the laws of physics, becoming remarkably heavy, once they enter one's luggage.

Availability - Everywhere except here
Pricing - $45-$65 (ex-VAT), hasn't changed in four years
Rating - 84