...where distraction is the main attraction.

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 could 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 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 fades after thirty minutes in the glass. So I don't recommend dallying over a pour of this stuff. The texture feels 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. 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.