...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ledaig 20 year old 1997 Alexander Murray & Company

Alexander Murray & Company's bottlings flooded the California whisky retail scene almost overnight in 2015, appearing in beloved specialty retailers as well as Costco. The distillery variety was impressive, the the 40%abvs were not. A year later a pair of cask strength bottlings (Dalmore and Highland Park) appeared but I wasn't particularly thrilled with either. Then I moved out to Ohio — whose liquor control department that doesn't believe in independent bottlings — and promptly forgot about Alexander Murray. At some point the company reinvigorated their brand and began offering additional cask strength single malts from Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain and this Ledaig. Let's see if this is a step up from that Highland Park.

Distillery: Tobermory
Brand: Ledaig
Owner: Distell International Ltd.
Region: Isle of Mull
Independent Bottler: Alexander Murray & Company
Age: minimum 20 years (distilled 1997)
Maturation: "multiple refill Bourbon barrels" per the official site
Outturn: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Chillfiltered? ???
Colorant added? ???
(from a bottle split)

NEAT
The nose begins very sugary, think circus peanuts and orange candy. Blue scented marker (a fave) and roasted corn. The peat reads toasted as opposed to outright smoke. The palate's sweetness is milder than the nose led on but the peat is heavier, starting off as dark industrial smoke, then tilting towards moss. Lots of salt in the foreground, though less than Monday's monster. Some mellow tropical fruit punch hints in the background. It finishes with tart and tangy fruit, ocean-y peat and a hint of tobacco.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or ½ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Just this little bit of water does indeed bring change. Now the nose shows manure, black walnuts and chalk dust up front, grilled pear with fruity cinnamon in the back. The palate gets fruitier: apples and pears, as well as a lemony smoke. Then plenty of salt and a hint of those black walnuts. The finish mirrors the palate but with a little more herbal bitterness.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
A few steps up, in fact! This is a proper peated drink, to my palate, that even lets some fruits sneak through. Because I'm a sucker for black walnuts (except for that damned tree in my backyard), I may have enjoyed the diluted version even more. As this was a mix of "multiple" casks, I think the blending did it a lot of favors, sanding down raggedy edges and providing structure, while also probably salvaging at least one very low ABV cask. The price was a bit steep and the whisky has sold out, so once again, you're welcome.

Availability - Sold out, I think
Pricing - $170-$190
Rating - 87

Monday, November 23, 2020

Ledaig 17 year old 1998 AD Rattray cask 800036 (my bottle)

The Mull Monster


I wasn’t even in the mood to buy anything when I saw this bottle in late 2015. (My comrades with this same disease know what happened next.) A year later I realized I’d never actually enjoyed super-high ABV single malts. A year after that I opened my awful sherry cask Auchentoshan from this same bottler, and began to wonder if something terribly wrong happened to this sherry cask too. Buyer’s Remorse set in.

When 2020 decided to be all 2020 about everything, I figured if this Ledaig was indeed demon piss then this was the right year to find out.

Cheers.

Distillery: Tobermory
Brand: Ledaig
Owner: Distell International Ltd.
Region: Isle of Mull
Independent Bottler: AD Rattray
Age: 17 years (3 April 1998 - 1 Sept 2015)
Maturation: Sherry Butt
Cask number800036
Outturn: 528 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 65.8%
Chillfiltered? No
Colorant added? No
(from my bottle)

I tasted this whisky at three ABV levels, side by side, for the purposes of this review:

FULL STRENGTH, 65.8%abv
There's no alcohol burn to the nose, but there are three peat levels trading fours: Farm, Moss and Ocean. Chalk dust and stones fill in the midground. Black plums, dried cherries and toffee chips perch in the background. And occasionally a cashew hint ekes out. The palate is VERY approachable for this ABV. Black walnuts, manure, and a salty, savory broth sit up front. Sweet citrus, nectarines and baking spices are in the back. The monolithic finish is all stones, earth, salt, herbal smoke and bitter chocolate.

DILUTED TO ~50%abv, or 2 tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose goes medicinal, with lots of iodine and band-aids. But there are also candied pecans, orange peels, seaweed and manure. The palate becomes intensely salty, like ocean water and kelp. It grows sweeter and more aromatic with time, gaining a good selection of citrus fruits. It finishes salty and savory. Some mossy smoke, dark chocolate and limes appear after a while.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or >2½ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Much more variety in the nose now. Industrial smoke and elephant manure. Walnuts, dried herbs and hay. Dark chocolate and cherries. The palate remains very very salty and a herbal bitterness develops around the edges. Bits of brown sugar and raspberry jam in the background. Bitter chocolate and dried stone fruits finish it up.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Immediately upon finishing my first pour from this bottle I was convinced that the 65.8% abv was a typo. It drank much too easily. Perhaps the label was supposed to read 56.8% (which was the ABV of the previous Rattray I reviewed, coincidentally), or 55.8%. I was convinced there was something fishy going on, and not the usual Weird-Era Ledaig fishiness.

But after this tasting my doubt has decreased. In fact after the tasting I was utterly hammered and my mouth was numb. And at ~46%abv, the whisky was still gigantic. Had the original ABV been 56.8%, and I'd added the same amount of water, the dilution would have dropped it to about 39%abv, and that was no 39%abv whisky.

Ignoring all the numbers, I must say this is a terrific whisky. Its sheer brutality keeps it from ascending to the 90+ point team. Heaps upon heaps of sea salt and bitter chocolate fill the palate, and Octomore-levels of peat punish the nose. And also manure. It's a manure monster. You can add water, but it won't save you.

Availability - Possibly still around on The Continent
Pricing - I bought it for $120 four years ago, now it appears to be closer to $150-$200 (pending exchange rates)
Rating - 89

Friday, November 20, 2020

Tormore 33 year old 1984 Cadenhead Authentic Collection

It's difficult to find 1980s-distilled single malts, it's even more difficult to find 1980s-distilled single malts for prices lower than a mortgage payment. Luckily, independent bottlers like Signatory, Cadenhead and the Laings have released a few dozen 1980s Tormore single casks in the $150-$250 range over the past few years. I often eyed those offerings but never wound up committing to any, so I don't know what to tell you about their actual quality. Today's sample, from a bottle split, will be my first try of a 1980s Tormore, and I don't know what to expect.


Distillery:
 Tormore
Ownership: Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard)
Region: Morayshire, Speyside
Bottler: Cadenhead
Range: Authentic Collection
Age: 33 years old (1984 to Autumn 2017)
Maturation: bourbon barrel
Outturn: 132 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 51.7%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(from a bottle split)

NEAT
The nose begins with a nice combination of cinnamon custard, heavily toasted cashews and walnuts, and pine sap. Then twigs and dead leaves. Cinnamon rolls and toasted marshmallows. A little bit of naked barley still remains after more than three decades. The palate goes a different direction. Cantaloupes, lemons, nectarines and Lucky Charms "marshmallows" show up first. Then toasted salted almonds tossed with rosemary. Oak gradually settles in, until a bitterness begins to register at the 45 minute mark. It finishes very sweetly with some tart fruit and toasted nuts in the background. A little bit of that bitter oak sneaks in after a while.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose doesn't open up. In fact it feels muted. Boston cream, baby powder, citrons and a hint of wood smoke are all I can find. There's less fruit in the palate, though as whole it all reads sweeter. Then there's some toasted coconut and oversteeped black tea. This feels like it's closing up as well. It finishes tangy, tart and tannic.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Puzzled to see how highly this Tormore was rated by the Whiskybase community, I was thankful to see Angus had experienced the same limited enthusiasm as I. The whisky's fine. It's perfectly drinkable when neat and the nose is the overall highlight. That the oak has started to get its hooks into the palate isn't surprising at 33 years, so this may have been a better cask five years earlier. Adding just a little bit of water squelched the best parts. It's a nice drink, but one can't fault a buyer for expecting more from a whisky at this age and price.

Availability - May still be available at some Cadenhead shops
Pricing - ~€265 w/VAT
Rating - 84 (neat only)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Tormore 14 year old Connoisseurs Choice

As I mention in nearly every review of a Gordon & MacPhail whisky, I appreciate the pre-2018 Connoisseurs Choice range more than I actually enjoy its whiskies. For nearly two decades it offered lesser-seen single malts at reasonable prices, unfortunately the results were rarely interesting. This was partially due to low abvs, 40% then 43%, but even after it moved 46%abv I didn't find a CC whisky I actually enjoyed. This was also wasn't due to the quality of blander blendier distilleries, as a 46% sherry cask Caol Ila demonstrates. One wonders if the casks are the culprits. I have no problem with milder, almost-neutral casks, but there's a dullness to so many of the CC whiskies that perhaps their wooden vessels tended to be (figuratively) flat.

With that in mind, here's a Tormore aged in first-fill bourbon barrels. Who woulda thunk it?

Distillery: Tormore
Ownership: Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard)
Region: Morayshire, Speyside
Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail
Range: Connoisseurs Choice
Age: minimum 14 years old
Maturation: first fill bourbon barrels
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? No
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose begins bready and minty, with small notes of walnuts, figs and dried grass clippings. Some dried lavender and thyme. Some apple peels. There's something mossy and organic in the background, but it isn't quite peat or smoke. The palate immediately offers the caramel and vanilla cream combo that always reminds me of Cow Tales candy. At the same time it's very malty in a Westland way. Some barrel-aged stout. Then a bit of bitterness and a few limes. It finishes with a peppery heat, some vanilla and malt (in that order). Chocolate stout, dried oregano and a mild bitterness.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

This shows an oak wallop surprising for this series, though it never gets out of hand because the whisky maltiness grounds the palate. Heck, it's probably one of the most loudest pre-2018 Connoisseurs Choice whiskies I've had. It's also neither particularly complex nor interesting after the second sip. So the casks are probably not the problem this time. Again, one can see why this Tormore would be a good base for a blend, as one builds a better whisky on top of it. Yet one can find many worse single malts from sexier distilleries, even within CC's range.

Availability - Possibly in the US? Though possibly sold out.
Pricing - ???
Rating - 81

Monday, November 16, 2020

Tormore 16 year old (2018)

You've been waiting all decade for this:

TORMORE WEEK.

You're welcome.

One of the main ingredients in Ballantine's blended whisky, Tormore has been around for all of 62 years and has already passed from Long John Distillers to Whitbread to Allied Lyons/Domecq to Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard). The distillery's product been blend fodder for most of its life, showing up sporadically as a 5 or 10 year old single malt during earlier decades, then as a 12 year old during the Aughts. In 2014, a 14 and 16 year old formed a new official range, with the latter malt bottled non-chillfiltered at 48%abv. Though that setup sounds promising the malts are only released in less than a handful of European countries. Thus Pernod Ricard doesn't seem to take the Tormore single malt that seriously. Gotta bottle more Ballantine's.

Today I'll be reviewing the 16 year old from what I believe is a 2018 batch. All sarcasm aside, I've been looking forward to this one, hoping to find promise in a lesser-loved distillery.

Distillery: Tormore
Ownership: Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard)
Region: Morayshire, Speyside
Age: minimum 16 years old
Maturation: "American Oak" per labels
Bottling year: 2018 (I think)
Alcohol by Volume: 48%
Chillfiltered? No
Colored? Probably
(from a purchased sample)

NOTES

Honey, roasted grains and roasted nuts on the nose, in fact there's a lot of honey in this one. Some white peaches and date rolls. Orange peels and cloves, slightly reminiscent of mulled wine. It becomes earthier with time. The palate is very malty, with an oily mouthfeel. It's loaded with citrus: think limes, yuzu and clementines. A touch of bitter herbal liqueur around the edges and some earthiness in the background. It finishes with a balance of sweet and tart citrus fruits up front, with the bitter liqueur lingering in the back. Plenty of malt fills the middle.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

In addition to enjoying the malt assault, I could have sworn there was some sherry cask action in the mix but perhaps that's just a combination of rich oak and a bold spirit? While it's neither subtle nor intellectual, Tormore 16 is a thick, bold whisky, and one I wish was more widely available. One can see how it would fit in a Compass Box-style vatting or as a flavoring malt in a good blend, but still it does work as a single malt, one with more flair than I'd expected from the Tormore factory.

Availability - A few European countries, and possibly Japan?
Pricing - around €60 - €80 with VAT
Rating - 86

Friday, November 13, 2020

Two teenage actual Japanese blended whiskies

Harrumphs continue over contemporary Japanese whiskies that are not fully made out of Japanese whiskies, and the harrumphed whiskies continue to be made. I expressed my vital opinion on this matter three years ago and that hawt take hasn't changed.

This Japanese week ends with two lesser known blends (no apologies for the rhyme), both of which are very likely probably kinda sorta totally 100% Japanese, and both of which I'm fairly geeked about. The first is a recent blend, the second is a random dusty that I know nothing about!


Kirin's gigantic whisky factory, Mt. Fuji Distillery (formerly Fuji Gotemba), sits near the eastern base of the wee hill, producing dozens of blends, grains and malts we don't hear much about in The States. Over the past decade, several editions of an 18-year-old blend have been released in its home country. Imma try one.

Fuji Gotemba (Fuji-Sanroku) 18 year old
2018 Small Batch blended whisky

Brand: Fuji Gotemba / Fuji-Sanroku
Distillery: Mt. Fuji Distillery (previously Fuji Gotemba)
Ownership: Kirin Distillery Group
Type: Blended whisky
Region: Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan
Age: minimum 18 years old
Maturation: ???
Outturn: ???
Release year: 2018
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The oak moves in waves through the nose. At first it's shy, allowing lots of grains (barley and otherwise) to hold the fore. There are also oranges, out-of-season peaches and a whiff of glue. Toasty aromatic oak, toasted coconut and white chocolate move to the front after 20 minutes, then recede again at the 45-minute mark, allowing the fruits to return. The palate begins with fresh ginger, tart oranges and sawdust. Then something plummy takes over after 20 minutes. At the 45-minute spot, the plums are joined by whole cloves, wood smoke and more citrus. The ginger and orange finish gets sweeter and smokier with time, with a hint of the palate's plums.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

This comes across as a bit of a generic blend until 45 minutes pass by. At that point the oak and spirit find their best balance. The mouthfeel is very thin, perhaps the victim of heavy chill-filtration, but I really enjoyed the fresh plums and the finish is quite pleasant. The whisky's overall quality is comparable to the major Scottish 18yo blends, with the plums perhaps giving it a slight edge. But Johnnie Walker 18 averages $85. This averages $600. I don't know, man.

Availability - It can be found
Pricing - $500-$850
Rating - 81


Rarely do I have a whisky sample that's so random that I can only shrug and say, "I dunno, here's a thing," but I'm short on facts here.

It's a 17 year old Suntory blend with Takashimaya and Yokohama Club listed on the label. Takashimaya is one of Japan's chains of ten-storey super-duper department stores. I've been in a few, and I highly recommend travelling to the basement level and eating yourself to death. Once upon a time, these department store chains' basements sold exclusive single casks and small batches of Suntory's and Nikka's famous distilleries. Today their whisky selection isn't much better than a Duty Free shop. Perhaps this specific Suntory blend was a bottling for the Takashimaya store in Yokohama, or maybe there was a whisky club in Yokohama and they had a blend made for them which was then sold via Takashimaya? There's very little information about this bottling online, so if you made it here via a Google search and you know more about this whisky please let us know in the comment section below. Thanks!

Otherwise, I dunno.

Here's a thing.

Suntory 17 year old blended whisky, Yokohama Club, Takashimaya

Brand: Suntory
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Type: Blended whisky
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu for malt, Chita for grain (probably)
Age: minimum 17 years old
Maturation: ???
Exclusive to: see above
Alcohol by Volume
: 43%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose triggers an intense sense memory of the white Kosher wine served at Kiddush at the synagogue I attended in my childhood. But the nose also shows polyester, dried paste, Dijon mustard, plum wine, ocean water and raspberry candy. And, no, none of those notes can be bothered to work together. The palate delivers some serious OBE: dust and must and metal. Lots of sweet grain whisky. Some paper. Raw almonds, malt and whole wheat toast. It picks up some peaches after a while, and has a gingery fizziness running throughout. It finishes sweet and malty, though also bitter and papery. Some peach sweetness eases in after a while.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

Had I tasted it blindly I would have guessed it was an early '70s scotch blend, like Ambassador or Passport. Not the healthiest compliment on the surface, but I do like the dirty oddities that 40-50 years brings to those cheapies. The nose is truly strange and not of the clean, rounded quality of later Suntory blended products. That could also be read as a positive, because I think I'd rather drink this than Hibiki Japanese Harmony. I'd still take Toki over them both.

Availability - Somewhere. Or not.
Pricing - Damfino
Rating - 77



FINAL THOUGHTS

Thank you for joining me on this week's twirl through Japanese whisky. These were the last of my Japanese whisky samples. Yes, the last. I even finished the heel of my Yoichi 15 bottle. Next week the blog returns to Scotland for three reviews of one very sexy distillery's single malt.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Two Mars Komagatake single casks

While Chichibu gets the lust, Komagatake gets......noticed. Fashioned in Mars Shinshu distillery, the Komagatake single malts have not yet reached 10 years of age, and many of their early bottlings had single malt from the previous Shinshu production era (1985-1992) mixed in. So like Chichibu their whiskies are very young and very expensive, though many of the regular Komagatake releases stay below $200. I'm still not going to call this stuff cheap.

For more on Mars's whisky, I recommend checking out my Mission: Mars series from 2018. Here's the intro and here's the closer with the review links.

Today I shall compare two official Komagatake single casks -- one bourbon barrel and one sherry butt -- which I enjoy courtesy of bottle splits. Expectations set to medium well.


Mars Komagatake 4 year old 2012
cask 1453, USA release

Brand: Komagatake
Distillery: Mars Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Age: 4 years (February 2012 - July 2016)
Maturation: bourbon barrel
Cask #: 1453
Outturn: 175 bottles
Bottled for: USA
Alcohol by Volume: 58%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose is full of cereals (think wheat bran and oats), as well as lemons, rosemary and witbier. It's sugary and pretty, a little bit worty. It develops notes of rosewater and dried grass clippings with time. It reads younger once it's reduced to 46%abv. More sugar, more malt. Grassier and toastier.

It's even younger on the palate, with yeast, wort, barley and a wheated bourbon-like sweetness. Pears and smoky peppercorns. The sweetness mellows with time, and some simple citrus notes appear. It's never too hot. Diluting the whisky to 46%abv narrows it a bit. Malt, grass, bitter herbs and a slight tart bite.

Tart lemons, black pepper and sugar in the finish. Once the whisky is reduced to 46%abv, the finish matches the palate with the tartness lasting the longest.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

There's no mistaking this for an older whisky. A blessed lack of oak allows one to get very very close to the spirit which feels novel in this whisky era. So though there's nothing remarkable about the whisky, I appreciate that direct barley hit. Though I'm tired of damned bloggers like me writing "I can't wait until this is ten years old", I can't wait until this is ten years old. In a refill cask. At a bargain price. *wink*

Availability - Probably sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 83 (when neat)


Mars Komagatake 3 year old 2013 ePower
cask 1704

Brand: Komagatake
Distillery: Mars Shinshu
Ownership: Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd.
Region: Nagano Prefecture, Japan
Bottler: ePower
Age: 3 years (March 2013 - September 2016)
Maturation: sherry butt
Cask #: 1704
Outturn: 594 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 56.9%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose on this one is more expressive than that of cask 1453. Apricots, eucalyptus, vanilla fudge and honey are the first to greet the sniffer, followed by toasted barley, mesquite and cinnamon syrup. It picks up notes of amaretto and almond extract with more time in the glass. When reduced to 46%abv, the nose becomes simpler: flowers, lychee and barley.

For the palate my notes read, "Malt and almond things". Then there's a distinct new make note, almost like rye white dog. It opens up further after 20+ minutes, revealing walnuts, agave nectar, wheat bread toast crust and dried apricots. It has a nice thick mouthfeel. Again, reducing the whisky to 46%abv really does water it down. It becomes sweet, bitter and almond-y with a little bit of cherry candy on the corners.

The sweet and nutty finish sticks around for a long time. Notes of cinnamon, salt, dough and dried apricots linger. Diluted to 46%abv, the whisky's finish matches the palate.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

As with cask 1453, cask 1704 does not hide its whisky's youth. Though the sherry cask lends some character, it shares bright fresh fruit and nuts rather than oak and raisins. And, like its sparring partner, it performs much better when neat. I enjoyed this one a teeny bit more, while also realizing that at 10 years old this cask would likely have smothered the spirit.

Availability - Probably sold out
Pricing - ???
Rating - 84 (when neat)


FINAL THOUGHTS

Aside from an excellent Komagatake I enjoyed in Japan (but have since forgotten which edition it was) all the Mars Shinshu single malts (from the current production period) I have tried fall into this general age and rating range. Though that totals just five whiskies, I do wonder how much more can be done with this single malt at this extreme youth. Though I continue to root for Hombo Shuzo Co. and its whiskies, I do hope they can push the age up without raising the prices much more.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Two Chichibu

One is tempted to see Chichibu single malt as the Kavalan of Japan, with their Oh-My-Shit prices for five-year-old whisky and buoyant reviews by the whisky machers (not a Japanese word), but unlike Kavalan there was never a full-court media press for every early Chichibu single cask and the brand's owner Akuto Ichiro has long been a known quantity in the industry. Though I don't foresee owning a bottle of Chichibu due to the cost, I have been trying to get in on some bottle splits. Thankfully two such opportunities landed this year. Previous to this tasting, my lone Chichibu single malt experiences occurred during my 2017 trip to Nihon, and they were all very positive. Though I'm very excited about this opportunity, I am moderating my expectations. Because 2020.


Chichibu "The US Edition 2019"

Distillery: Chichibu #1
Ownership: Venture Whisky
Type: single malt
Location: Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Age: ???
Maturation: Seven mystery casks
Bottling year: 2019
Outturn: 1556 bottles
Exclusive to: These United States
Alcohol by Volume: 55.5%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The nose is stop-what-you-are-doing lovely, like a pristine 20yo bourbon cask Speyside. Swirls of yellow cherries, yellow nectarines, yuzu peels and key lime pie meets crushed rock dust and steel wool. Diluting it to 46%abv doesn't soften it one bit. It gets earthier while holding onto its tropical and stone fruits. Some gentle wood smoke drifts in, followed by more citrus and flowers.

The palate matches the nose's remarkable fruitiness. The yellow cherries and nectarines up top, then peaches + yuzu + limes, then lychee and crisp sake. Clouds of smoke and earth linger beneath. Reducing it to 46%abv makes it maltier and more herbal, and perhaps younger? More flower blossoms, more citrus.

Lots of peaches (yellow and white) in the finish, along with tangy chiles, soil, flower blossoms and a mineral bite. Diluting the whisky to 46%abv shifts the finish to match the palate.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

How do they do this? Seriously. The whisky's age is in the mid-single digits, yet it can do things that single malts from the home country struggle to do at thrice that age. And unlike Kavalan, there's no cask aggression. May I also note that despite the piles of fruit I mention above, the whisky is never sugary. It's just essence upon essence. Meanwhile there are enough minerals and soil to give it grand weight and dimension. It's flabbergasting.

Availability - It's around
Pricing - $300 when it first came out, now it's being slung for $600-$800
Rating - 91


Chichibu The Peated (2016 edition)

Distillery: Chichibu #1
Ownership: Venture Whisky
Type: single malt
Location: Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Age: 3-4 years (2012-2016)
Maturation: ???
Bottling year: 2016
Outturn: 6350 bottles
Alcohol by Volume: 54.5%
(from a bottle split)

NOTES

The fruit is here too, specifically baskets of peaches and apricots in the nose, followed by sandalwood and incense (very mizunara). There seems to be a multitude of peated things going on: smoked seaweed, smoked fish, cured meat and burning hay. Diluting the whisky to 46%abv brings out more farm, incense and smoked seaweed, with the stone fruits moving into the background.

The palate runs sweeter and sootier than I'd expected, but remains balanced with stone fruit skins. A bitter peach pit, cherry popsicles. Smoked cloves (if that's a thing) and flower blossoms. The palate remains smokier than the nose when the whisky is diluted to 46%abv. Plumes of dark sooty stuff, herbal bitterness, black pepper and a hint of peaches.

It finishes with wood smoke, minerals, stone fruits and sugar cookies. There's also something like a clove, cinnamon and cardamom-laden chutney going on. Reducing it to 46%abv turns it almost monolithic, a slab of stone, smoke and bitter herbs.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

It's difficult to get one's head around the fact that this is 3-4 years old. When neat, the whisky makes me think of teenage pre-LVMH Ardbeg. When diluted it's more like the better batches of early-LVMH Ardbeg Ten. I can only continue to guess at how they whip up barely legal whisky like this. Is it the spirit? Saitama has warmer weather than Scotland, but not the heavy sweat of Bangalore or Taipei, so perhaps the climate is Goldilocks-style just right, just like the whisky.

Availability - Very scarce
Pricing - $500-$600
Rating - 88


FINAL THOUGHTS

With single malts that any of the world's distilleries would be jealous to possess, Chichibu may represent Japanese whisky's future, quality-wise, I also wish for something priced below $200. For now it remains tremendous whisky at massive prices. With Chichibu #2's production beginning last year, supply will soon increase, so perhaps we're allowed a glimmer of hope.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Suntory Toki versus Hibiki Japanese Harmony

Though Kakubin is likely their biggest seller, due to its budget pricing in Asia, Hibiki has long been positioned as the king of Suntory's Japanese blended whiskies, its luxury blend with big prices and gorgeous decanters. Not too long after Suntory phased out their single malts' age statements, the company followed suit with Hibiki. The 21, 17 and 12 faded out and Hibiki Japanese Harmony faded in by 2016.

As Hibiki Japanese Harmony arrived in the US, so did a new Suntory blend, Toki. "Toki" means "time". So yes, it is in fact Suntory Time. Though I'm usually not seduced by marketing fluff, I really enjoyed the erotic highball videos on Toki's official site. So I bought a bottle. And finished it in three weeks. Normally I don't even finish a bottle in three months. I'm not going lavish Toki with superlatives regarding its quality. When neat it's very sippable (likely designed for relaxing times), but it seems well-engineered for its actual advertised purpose, the highball. If you're wondering what I mean by "well-engineered", may I refer you back to the fact that the whisky vaporized down my gullet in record time.

What I didn't do during the bottle's brief life was conduct an official tasting. Luckily I saved a sample. 

Meanwhile, I sourced a sample of Hibiki Japanese Harmony just this month. I've been underwhelmed by Suntory's NAS single malts and found Japanese Harmony Master's Select to fall short of the old 12's quality.

It's time for the two blends to meet in the Thunderdome that is my hermetically-sealed whisky tasting cave.



Brand: Suntory
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Type: Blended whisky
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu for malt, Chita for grain
Age: ???
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

NEAT NOTES

I normally don't comment on color, but this stuff is as pale as straw. The nose is peachy and grassy with mellow notes of walnuts and orange Smarties. It's all very light with neither ethyl nor The Turps. The palate begins with crisp limey citrus, hints of malt and salt, then almond cookies and cashews. It starts tilting grainier after 30 minutes. The simple, warm finish shows salt, limes, toasted grains, a hint of graphite and touch of sourness in the back.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

As I inferred above, this works very well in highball form, all crisp, citrussy and refreshing. You may blanch at the idea of spending $40 on a mixing whisky, but do keep in mind this is the cheapest whisky Suntory has in The States and it's (probably) 100% Japanese whisky. It also works pretty well neatly, especially in late summer months. The nose is light and pretty; the palate is cuddlier than the major 12-year-old scotch blends. The finish is its weakest element, showing signs of considerable Chita grain, but it still beats most of those scotch blends. I'll buy another bottle of Toki when spring comes around.

Availability - Widespread, even at supermarkets or state liquor shops
Pricing - $30-$50, though usually around $40
Rating - 82


Brand: Hibiki
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Type: Blended whisky
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu for malt, Chita for grain
Age: ???
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

NEAT NOTES

While Toki was the color of straw, Japanese Harmony is gold. The whisky, I mean. At first the nose is loaded with Elmer's glue and paint VOCs. After 10 minutes those notes recede bringing lemons, grains, vanilla and new carpet. A few musty sherry casks appear after 30 minutes, as do hints of canned peaches, soap and metal. In additional to being lightly sweet and tangy, the palate offers up a note that sits somewhere between ground pepper and coal dust. Some orange juice as well. Compared to Toki, it has a harsher alcohol bite. The brief finish has oranges, flowers and toasted oak. It's also much more cloying than the palate would lead one to believe.

WORDS WORDS WORDS

While it's not a particularly great drinker when neat, Japanese Harmony does make for a good malty, nutty highball. But it's ninety-freaking-dollars. Should we not expect a little more for our money than "It goes well with a little club soda"? Like Suntory's NAS single malts, this Hibiki falls substantially short of its 12-year-old predecessor.

Availability - Most specialty retailers
Pricing - $75-$120(!)
Rating - 77 (lifted up a few points by its highball)



FINAL THOUGHTS

Suntory's blenders have done good work on Toki which beats a lot of scotch blends at its price point, both as a sipper and mixer. It was $34.99 in my state, so I took a risk on it and was pleased by the results. Hibiki Japanese Harmony is $99.99 here, but I wouldn't pay half that. The only Hibiki premium I can see is its nice decanter, though Toki's rectangle isn't half bad. If you spy Toki at a bar (whenever you do go back to a bar again) give it a try in a cocktail or highball or straight up. I do not encourage you to do the same with Harmony, especially if you're a Hibiki fan from years past.

Monday, November 9, 2020

I miss Japan

From a year's distance, I can still feel the thrill of the night I started to plan my third trip to Japan. Though my original trip in 2014 was triggered by whisky inspiration, the more time I've spent in Japan the more it becomes about everything that isn't whisky. Each moment, each stop, becomes more intense, more personal than the previous. From a half-finished basement in Ohio, I longed to visit the tea fields in Uji during the harvest, drift through the Inland Sea, linger in every Shinto shrine and find quiet in Hiroshima in April 2020. For three months, every non-blog moment I could steal for myself went into aligning this experience. Two weeks of PTO was saved. I increased my cardio routine, as I prepared for the 100+ miles I'd walk. I even scheduled when I'd start growing my lumberjack beard to top the one I'd fashioned for my second excursion, three years earlier.

January 2020 brought the news of a new virus that had hit Wuhan, China. My wife's Asian business travel was cancelled. But my trip planning continued cautiously and hopefully. I had to go to Japan, because what else would fill that space?

Then people started dying. Then the virus came to America. Then I cancelled my plans.

I won't get into how wrong things have gone in my personal life in the months that followed because in light of the tens of millions of people who have contracted Covid-19, and the millions who have (or will) perish from it, my problems are small. My struggles will continue into 2021 because nothing stops after December 31st, other than writing a '0' in the fourth digit of the year. And I won't venture out to Japan in April 2021, firstly because the virus won't have vanished by then, and secondly there are things to tend to here.

2022 may bring better days, and whenever I make it back to Japan I will still peek into whisky bars. Maybe all the dusty bottles on those methodically lined shelves won't be emptied. And perhaps Suntory and Nikka will have some decent single malt by then. But there are other paths leading to other places, and they're all mysteries, and my heart is there.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Johnnie Walker Blue Label versus Johnnie Walker Oldest

Nearly everything I've been directly told about Johnnie Walker Blue Label has turned out to be horseshit. It was Jack and Bobby Kennedy's drink? Off by three decades. Nixon drank it over the rocks in the Oval Office? Two decades too eager. That its contents are at least 30 years old? I'm closer to 30 than it is.

Via some googling one may read about Brora and Port Ellen being in the Oldest version, or that Oldest and/or Blue was/is an average of 25 or 28 years old. I don't believe a word of it, but I will admit the whisky's packaging has always been very handsome, something necessary for the sort of status symbol bottle one buys for clients, vendors and fathers-in-law.

Here's some history that is probably close to being true. United Distillers designed an ultra-luxury blended whisky from some old low ABV whisky during The Whisky Loch, and released it as Johnnie Walker Oldest in 1987. The notation "Aged 15 to 60 years" conspicuously vanished from the labels after the first couple of batches. Keeping its label and packaging design, it became Johnnie Walker Blue Label in 1992. The standard Blue Label's bottle has gotten a little bluer and more angular with time, while the whisky itself has never been provided with an age statement.

I have had the luxury of drinking Blue Label on more than a dozen occasions thanks to very generous friends. It was always a drinker, never a thinker, with "smooth" being the first word coming to mind. But in 2015, my opinion of it took an abrupt turn. I hosted two separate four-bottle private tastings that included Blue Label as the final, and most expensive, bottle. One tasting was blind, one was not. It was the least liked whisky in both instances, which simultaneously disturbed and delighted the guests. It had one of the thinnest mouthfeels I'd ever experienced, and tasted of nothing but grain, caramel, sugar and smoke. It was like "making love in a canoe" as the saying used to go. It was approaching Coors Light territory. It was kinda shit.

At a Columbus Scotch Night event two years ago (November 2018, in fact), Johnnie Walker Blue was lined up next to a Clynelish and a Glen Ord, and it finished dead last again. The event felt like a public service for the attendees. Many got to try Blue Label for the first time, and not one was motivated to spend $200 on his own bottle afterwards.

I bottled a Blue sample from that tasting. This year I had the pleasure of taking part in a bottle split of Johnnie Walker Oldest. And now's as good a time as any to compare the two.



Johnnie Walker Blue Label, 40%abv
Batch AV1, bottle AV105049

NOTES
The nose begins with whole wheat bread, nectarines and lychee candy. Some light grassy notes and mint extract gradually sneak in. 30 minutes in, a floral perfume note develops and pushes forward. Toasted nuts, tangy lemons and woody bitterness lead off the palate. Then come the burnt raisins, salt and pencil graphite. It grows bitterer and more burnt with time. A hint of cigarette smoke and lemon juice join the mildly short sweet finish. Though the burnt and bitter notes linger longest, even they don't stick around long.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
While the nose is quietly pleasant, the palate starts mediocrely then descends from there. It's "smooth" no longer, just watery, over-filtered and heavily dyed. I don't think a 46%abv strength would help it much more. Had Black Label not taken a recent unfortunate turn, I'd recommend that over this. I'm almost afraid to try the current version of Green Label. As for Blue Label, you can buy it for a loved one, but you'll be better off investing in a vibrator or Cialis. You know, something that lasts.

Availability - Widespread
Priced - $160-$225
Rating - 75



Johnnie Walker Oldest, 43%abv
Batch E, bottle E24152JW
(thanks to YY for making this happen!)

NOTES
The nose begins with a mix of cask iron skillets, mothballs and musty basements. It opens up after 20 minutes, revealing white chocolate, apples, white peaches and a hint of pipe tobacco. The palate is simple, grainy, grassy. A little herbal and dusty. Small notes of yuzu, almond brittle, bran muffin, black pepper and cigar tobacco float about. It finishes sweet and almond-y, with golden raisins and thyme.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
It's......fine, clearly two steps above Blue Label but absent anything memorable. It does have a slight dustiness, but that may be influenced more by 30 years in a bottle as opposed to old dunnages. Minus that element, this whisky doesn't deliver much more than a reasonable 12-year-old blend. Even though I found the rumors of its contents suspect, I expected more.

Availability - Secondary market
Priced - $300-$400
Rating - 82



This tasting confirmed my experience two years ago, the quality of this Blue Label isn't even worth discussing. Meanwhile, the odds there's any Brora, Port Ellen or Rosebank in the Oldest are very very very small. Like Trump-winning-Vermont small. If any old malt is present it's likely from severely underproof casks. I can't believe I'm still surprised by this. One begins to wonder if the entire Blue Label brand is based on an illusion. One naked-ass blue emperor.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Quintuple Springbank Local Barley Taste Off

As I told the Columbus Scotch Night crew last Monday, there ain't much Scottish about Scotch whisky. Most distillery owners are not Scottish, and the SWA makes sure those owners pay as little tax back to the local area as possible. Fewer and fewer locals are hired by those owners as automation takes over. The casks are from America or continental Europe. And a considerable portion (or majority?) of the barley used by the distillers is not sourced from Scotland.

With their Local Barley series, Springbank brings Scotland back. The owner is Scottish, the low-tech distillery's employees are from Campbeltown and the barley is sourced from Kintyre Peninsula farms. And, for what it's worth, local microflora may find its way into the whisky thanks to the distillery's open mash tun.

The CSN event referenced above was indeed a Springbank Local Barley night with four LBs side-by-side-by-side-by-side. I took samples home so I could live though the evening (also I was masked-up for two hours).

As a huge added bonus, Secret Agent Man (brandy, whisky and espionage extraordinaire) provided me with a sample of Local Barley new make.

I am happy to report my liver made it through the home-based Taste Off intact. And here is the sensory experience in full:


Local Barley New Make, distilled 6 Jan 2010
63.4%abv (barley and farm unknown)

Nose - It really is barley eau de vie, leaning close to kirschwasser and apricot brandy. A little bit of yeast, a little bit of rubber cement (❤). Sugary peat, toasted seaweed and toasted sesame seeds.

Palate - Loaded with citrus, herbs, cinnamon, cocoa(!) and slight mossiness in the background. Very very very easy to drink.

Finish - Cinnamon and tangy lemons up front; stones, herbs and peppercorns in the background.

Comments - Oh my goodness. As I've said about Yamazaki, Springbank should bottle new make like this. It's lovelier than most of the whiskies I've consumed this year, and easier to sip than anything else I've had at this ABV level.

Rating - 88


Local Barley 6 year old 2009, refill bourbon hogshead, rotation 268
57%abv (barley and farm unknown)

Purchased at Campbeltown's Cadenhead Shop, via THE CAGE, by the 748th most popular whisky blogger in his area code. Said blogger had been waiting to share this bottle for four years.

Nose - There's a burly mix of farm, industry, seaweed and Hampden muck on top, briny shellfish in the middle, brown sugar at the bottom.

Palate - It's sweet and citrussy, like lime popsicles, but with a wallop of herbal liqueur. Notes of charred beef and tart berries emerge after 30 minutes.

Finish - Herbs de Provence + lime juice + wet wool.

Comments - The cask hadn't yet realized there was spirit inside it when it was emptied. The nose leads one to believe the palate will be very raw, but it's not. The new make's fruit and herbs live on, while the alcohol remains calm. It's a bit more difficult than the rest of these single malts, but still very good.

Rating - 85


Local Barley 9 year old 2009, 80% bourbon cask / 20% sherry cask
Optic barley, High Cattadale Farm, 57.7%abv

Nose - Citrons and eucalyptus dominate at the start, with damp mossy peat and band-aids lingering behind. Burlap, lemons and darker smoke emerge with time.

Palate - It shows the rawest peated spirit of the bunch, with fresh ginger, tart oranges, fabric and roots in the mid-ground. It gets brinier and savorier with time.

Finish - It balances salty, smoke, savory, pepper and citrus very well.

Comments - At times this 9 year old small batch reads younger than the 6 year old single cask, but it finishes very well. While those sherry casks (and bourbon casks) were no match for the Local Barley brawn, I would have loved to try this stuff at twice its age.

Rating - 84


Local Barley 10 year old 2007, 70% bourbon cask / 30% sherry cask
Belgravia barley, West Backs Farm, 57.3%abv

Yep, I reviewed this whisky eight months ago, calling it "an adorable little baby whisky", but with limited enthusiasm. Trying it again...

Nose - It's like a creamy mango and rose pudding. And toffee pudding. There are also notes of spearmint, roasted corn, sugary smoke, mustard seed and musty basement.

Palate - The maltiest of the whiskies, this also unfurls layers of lychee, nectarines and flowers. Molasses and wood smoke balance out the fruitiness.

Finish - Peppercorns, limes, lychee and flowers. Sweet and tangy.

Comment - Okay, now I dig it. Though it's the prettiest of all the Local Barliez I've tried, it never goes overboard thanks to its darker Springbank heart. I remember this being one of the two favorites during the event, and I understand why.

Rating - 88


Local Barley 16 year old 1999, 80% bourbon cask / 20% sherry cask
Prisma barley, Low Machrimore Farm, 54.3%abv

Yes I've reviewed this before, and yes I loved it.

Nose - It's sooty and greasy and medicinal (almost South Islay-esque). Notes of hookah smoke, toasted barley, citrus, musty dunnage and machine shop keep funneling forth.

Palate - Intensely salty and earthy......Oh and the minerals......herbs, lemons, limes......dunnage and something very dusty. A whisky from another time.

Finish - All the good things. Stones, soil, herbs, salt, dust and limes.

Comment - HOT TAKE. This is the best official bourbon cask batched single malt distilled at Springbank since the place reopened 31 years ago. Yes, there are sherry casks in the mix but they've clearly run and hid, letting the (likely refill) bourbon casks and beautiful spirit have all the glory. Heavy but graceful, this will be the modern Local Barley by which all future Local Barleys will be judged.

Rating - 91


Thank you to the leadership of CSN for making this happen. This Taste Off was an utter joy and I feel spoiled rotten. The blog will need to take a break for a few days while I recover.