...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Something Weird: Suntory Royal SR Japanese blended whisky (early '80s)

At some point this year, my selection of open whisky bottles turned into Kravitz's Cabinet of Curiosities.  While I do enjoy having an occasional oddball bottle to share, there are too many of these open right now.  I lugged a box of them to a whisky friend's house last week and felt like I should have donned a top hat and commenced carnival barking.

From the Cabinet of Curiosities, I present The Bearded Lady.

Yes, that's a champagne cork in its whisky hole.

I found this sitting by itself on the shelf at a local liquor store, selling for $25.99:

As you can see, the immediate appeal is the rockin' bottle.  The bigger appeal for me was that it's a Japanese whisky that's been out of US circulation since the first Reagan administration.  After completing the sale, the woman behind the counter said that her husband would call in to get it restocked.  I said, good luck with that.

As I drove home with the bottle wedged upright behind my seat, I suddenly noticed that my car smelled like whisky.  As in, a lot of whisky.  As in, I-probably-don't-want-to-get-pulled-over-by-the-fuzz a lot of whisky.  When I got home and lifted the bottle, vapors of warm malt oozed forth.  I noticed when I had bought the whisky that the fill level was a little low (see pic above) but What The Hell?  There were little whisky bubbles forming around the closure.  Yet with its intricate rope-bound top, it was still technically sealed.

Normally, I don't open a bottle immediately upon purchase, but this year has been anything but normal.  And this bottle never qualified as run-of-the-mill itself.  So I twisted open the rope-sealing thing and noticed that the T-shaped top was basically resting on the bottle, providing no actual sealant.  I pulled it off to reveal this:

The cork had been almost entirely eaten away.  There were some crumbs around the bottle neck, but nothing appeared to be inside the bottle.  It had become part of the whisky.  And then I drank it.  And I was reminded of the time that Homer Simpson was told that he'd just drunk a sample of dish detergent and he responded with a shrug, "Yeah, but what are ya gonna do?"

The Details, or lack thereof:

There's an almost total absence of information about Suntory Royal SR online.  There are some auction and collection photos.  Nonjatta has a post regarding a different blend called Suntory Old, as does The Coopered Tot.  Here's Peter Lawford pimping a bottle in 1978:

But that's about it.  Pete Lawford's bottle shows a measurement in quarts, mine has metric.  Thus my bottle is post-1978 and probably post-1980 when metric measurements became used for US booze.  The listing of proof rather than ABV, the paper seal, and the lack of government warnings shows it to be from the early 1980s.

Regarding the ingredients, the label only says "Distillery at Yamazaki, Near Kyoto, Japan".  Could this be a blended malt?  That technical nomenclature didn't exist 30 years ago.  Did Japanese whisky companies use the term "Pure Malt" back then, or was any sort of blend just called a "blend"?  I know that Suntory currently has a grain facility called Chita, but I've been unable to find out when it was built.  If anyone knows, please share!  If Chita wasn't built at the time, and if there is grain whisky in the SR, could it have been distilled at Yamazaki too?  I honestly don't know.

So how is it?  How does this partially-oxidized, possibly cork-enhanced, mystery Japanese blend, bottled back when Brezhnev and Suzuki were neighbors, actually perform?  Here it goes...

Brand: Suntory Royal
OwnershipSuntory Whisky
DistilleriesYamazaki, maybe Chita?
Age: ???
Maturation: ???, my guess is a blend of ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and Mizunara casks
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 43.4%

The color is a medium gold with a reddish tint.  The nose starts with watermelon candy, cherry candy, and tropical fruit candy.  Not the actual fruits, but the manufactured flavors.  Then an Abba-Zaba but with more vanilla.  Sherry takes a while to show.  As do some mothballs.  It still has bit of an ethyl nip even with time and oxidation.  Something papery lingers throughout.  Finally, there's an occasional rotten strawberry note that peeks out then vanishes quickly.  The palate goes from paper → tobacco → malt → bitterness.  Also a piece of tart citrus-flavored saltwater taffy (if that's a thing).  It gets very sweet over time.  And then there's that occasional bizzaro note that makes the drinker's face purse up; somehow it's both synthetic and rotten at the same time.  Luckily, it remains in the background.  Some moldy sherry appears in the finish, as does some tartness, the nose's fruit candies, and something like smoky paper.  After a while it gets cloying like a really sweet liqueur.

The nose starts with a cross between orange oil and locker room.  Then caramel, vague raisins and prunes.  The watermelon candy and mothballs are still here.  And maybe some of that moldy sherry?  The palate has hints of sherry, some bitterness, some brown sugar, malt, and vanilla.  The texture is nice and thick.  But then there's that synthetic-yet-rotting note.  The finish ends up tart and bitter, mostly modulated, but not always pleasant.  Prunes, vanilla, and caramel.  And a little plastic.

Well, I'm still here.  And I've tried a bit of this stuff.  No calls to Poison Control.  Are those odd notes due to the cork?  My guess is, probably.  What's impressive is that even with untold years of oxidation, the whisky is still very flavorful.  Without those rotten synthetic thingies, this could be a solid B-grade whisky.  I don't think water does it any favors, but it makes an acceptable mizuwari [Correction: mizuwari bad].  All things considered, this could have been much worse.

One final thought.  A dusty hunting tip.  Before you buy a dusty bottle of booze, take as good of a look at it as the store owner will let you.  Check out the seal, the information on the label, and the fill level.  Even though that old whisk(e)y you've found is cheap, it's still something that becomes yours.  It'll be in your cabinet and, eventually, in your mouth.  If you can smell whisky from across the counter, and that scent isn't coming from the cashier, then maybe you should just buy a lottery scratch-off ticket and call it a day.

Availability - Happy hunting
Pricing - ???, I found mine for $25.99 but who knows what it sells for elsewhere?
Rating - 75, though it could be an 84 had it been a normal bottle ... (score dropped to 71 in a 2nd review, then down to 69 in a 3rd review)