Kura The Whisky

Kura The Whisky ReviewDistillery: Helios
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 40%

First things first: Kura The Whisky wasn’t actually distilled in Japan. So why does this bottle bear the label Japanese Whisky I hear you ask? Well, while many countries have strict regulations that govern the distilling and labelling of whisky, Japan is notoriously lax when it comes to such matters. To take just one example, Japanese whisky makers can get away with including up to 70% generic blending alcohol in their “whiskies”. But back to Kura The Whisky. Suffice it to say, the raw spirit in this dram was produced in Scotland. Okinawa-based rum distillery Helios then shipped it to Japan, stored it in their rum casks for a while, and proudly proclaimed it “Japanese whisky”. If this feels like Helios is jumping on the bandwagon of Japanese whisky’s success story, well… that’s because it is. Not that Helios hasn’t been in business for some time, having produced quality rum and awamori (a rice-based liquor) since 1961. While Helios did distil some of their own whisky in the past, they seem to have stopped production since 2001, half a decade before Japanese whisky started becoming liquid gold. Anyway, let’s not judge a bottle by its cover, it’s time to give Kura The Whisky a try!

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Bar Kage in Tokyo's Ginza district

Bar Kage

I’m sure we’ve all experienced these little twists of fate that inexorably draw us towards a place we hadn’t intended on. So it was when I found myself in Tokyo’s Ginza district, ready to immerse myself in the local bar scene. Before coming to Japan, I had read Stefan van Eycken’s excellent Whisky Rising, which features a chapter on the best whisky bars in town. Clearly Bar High Five was the place to go, or so I thought. Alas, I’ll never know (or at least not until my next trip to Tokyo), for High Five was jam-packed, with a line stretching all the way to the elevator. Fortunately, another of the book’s recommendations was just around the corner. We almost missed the entrance (a sliding door in a dim alley), but once inside we were able to descend the stairs into the bar.

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Arran Amarone Cask Finish

Arran Amarone CaskDistillery: Isle of Arran
Region: Islands
Age: No age statement
abv: 50%

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really enjoy Arran’s Cask Finishes range. There’s something about Arran’s fresh, fruity profile that just lends itself very well to an additional few months in ex-wine or port casks. For this bottling, Arran used oak that previously held Amarone, a rich Italian red wine. And oh my, has it left its mark on this whisky. Dark of colour with sweet, nutty flavours, a silky mouthfeel and a long, lingering finish, Arran Amarone Cask is a dram to savour. For the past few years this bottling has been in a bit of a limbo, being discontinued and reintroduced several times over. Let’s see if the Amarone Cask sticks around, but surely a dram this good has earned its place in Arran’s core range..?

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Laphroaig Lore

Laphroaig Lore Review 01Distillery: Laphroaig
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 48%

Lore
Noun. a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth.

Laphroaig is no stranger to a bit of Gaelic here and there, but today’s bottling is in plain good old English. Which means it’s possible to look up a definition, and as always the folks at Oxford Dictionary were happy to oblige. So if you consider that the particular group are distillers, blenders and craftsmen, and that the subject is distilling Laphroaig, then the name Lore is really quite fitting. For indeed this bottling is meant as a celebration of the knowledge passed on through the ages, all the way from 1815 until the present day. Somewhere along the line someone must’ve passed some knowledge on the virtues of NAS whiskies, because Laphroaig has very much followed this trend. But enough has been said about this, for it’s quality that counts, not age statements. And on this front Laphroaig Lore is certainly not holding back. Current distillery manager John Campbell claims that Lore is the richest Laphroaig ever made, and given that it’s composed of 7 to 21 year old whisky, including some aged in sherry butts and quarter casks, there may be some truth to this statement. Certainly Lore has picked up plenty of awards, and was named as best NAS Scotch in Jim Murray’s 2019 Whisky Bible. While I far from always agree with Jim Murray, I certainly did enjoy this luxuriously spicy Laphroaig!

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Oban Distillers Edition

Oban Distillers Edition ReviewDistillery: Oban
Region: Highland
Age: Distilled in 1997, bottled in 2012
abv: 43%

When legendary whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited Oban in 1887, he described the distillery as “a quaint old-fashioned work”. On the face of it, not much has changed, with Oban distillery employing the same traditional production methods. In the meanwhile though, owners Diageo have invested significantly in both hardware and marketing, and Oban has become one of their flagship Classic Malts.

As a town, Oban is known as the Gateway to the Isles, and indeed many a ferry departs from here to the Hebrides. Perhaps it’s unsurprising therefore that Oban’s distillery character holds the middle between a Highland and an Island whisky. Fresh and fruity but with plenty of briny notes and a whiff of smoke, Oban is the quintessential coastal malt. I count Oban amongst my favourite distilleries, but somehow never end up drinking much of their whisky. Perhaps it’s the fact that there aren’t many expressions on offer. Or perhaps it’s the fact that Oban is never truly outstanding, but never lets you down either, like that dependable old friend you really ought to pay a visit more often. This particular expression has received a second maturation in Montilla Fino sherry casks, providing a nutty richness on top of Oban’s sweet, coastal profile.

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Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve

Yamazaki Distiller's ReserveDistillery: Yamazaki
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

Popularity always comes at a price. This is certainly true for Japanese whisky, where overwhelming demand and sluggish supply have put immense pressure on stocks of aged spirit. The result has been predictable: a move towards no age statement (NAS) bottlings, with whole ranges of age statement whiskies getting the axe. Sure enough, it’s always sad to see beloved whiskies disappear, but when done right, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NAS bottlings. For some proof in the proverbial pudding, look no further than Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve. Launched in 2014 as Yazazaki’s entry-level whisky, the Distiller’s Reserve fills the gap left by the now hard-to-come-by 12 year old.  And for a first foray into NAS whiskies, owners Suntory have certainly not been stingy on the composition of this dram. Featuring whisky finished in ex-Bordeaux casks, older sherry matured spirit and even some of that precious mizunara oak, this Distiller’s Reserve is a captivating concoction. Perhaps all this justifies the hefty price tag – although having said that, this whisky sells for as little as €30 in Japan. And while this bottling is unlikely to make Yamazaki fans forget about the 18 or even 25 year old, the Distiller’s Reserve bears all the hallmarks of a worthy addition to the range.

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Whisky Walks: Scrambling across Skye

Whenever I’m asked for a recommendation on where to go in Scotland, the Isle of Skye is without fault the first thing that comes to mind. While there’s plenty to see and do on the island, its the beauty and diversity of its landscape that is undoubtedly Skye’s biggest draw. From the lush green hills near the Storr to the jaw-droppingly sheer cliffs of Neist Point, with the dark, foreboding presence of the Cuillins a continuous backdrop, Skye really does have it all. And whisky fans won’t be disappointed either. While Skye stalwart Talisker has been producing quality whiskies since 1830, with Torabhaig distillery there’s a new kid on the block too. In short, plenty of reason for another visit! Of course I’m not the only one with this bright idea, and in fact Skye has been paying a price for its popularity. In order get away from the crowds and to experience the island as it was meant to be enjoyed, I set out into the wild with two friends. Armed with a tent, waterproof clothes and plenty of whisky, we would be spending some quality time on this handsome Hebridean isle.

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Macallan Amber

Macallan Amber

My glass may be half full, unfortunately the bottle is fully empty…

Distillery: Macallan
Region: Speyside
Age: No age statement
abv: 40%

Macallan Amber forms part of the distillery’s 1824 Series, named for the year in which Macallan took out a license to distil. The 1824 Series is a range of four whiskies, each exclusively aged in ex-sherry casks. Nevertheless, there is a clear gradation in colour and intensity, from the light, citrusy Macallan Gold to the dark, lavish Macallan Ruby. Amber is the second bottling in the series, balancing the obvious sherry influences with Macallan’s fruity, spicy profile. Although Macallan’s website already lists 1824 under “past releases”, its whiskies are nonetheless still widely available. If you do feel like snapping up one of these drams I wouldn’t wait too long though, they’re not bound to get any cheaper…

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Glen Garioch 12 year old

Glen Garioch 12 year oldDistillery: Glen Garioch
Region: Highland
Age: 12 years old
abv: 48%

First things first, let’s get those pesky phonetics out of the way. For with Gaelic nothing is ever quite what it seems, and Garioch is actually pronounced Geerie. Its namesake glen earned fame as The Granary of Aberdeenshire for its rich, fertile fields and top quality grain. With barley in such plentiful supply, its perhaps not surprising that Glen Garioch distillery established itself here as early as 1797, making it one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Indeed, the barley profile is still very much present in Glen Garioch’s house style, with malt, honey and toffee shining through in many bottlings. Given all this, you might be surprise to hear that the distillery faced severe input shortages, but – unusually – the limiting factor was not barley, but water. Glen Garioch was mothballed in 1968 due to “chronic water shortages and limited production potential”, and subsequently sold off to Stanley Morrison, who also owned Bowmore distillery. He intiated a search for a new water supply, and struck liquid gold when a well was found on a neighbouring farm. The new water source was so good that production increased to ten times its previous level, facilitated by a new pair of stills.

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Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Distillery: Ardbeg
Region: Islay
Age: No age statement
abv: 57.1%

When it was announced that the 1990 release of Airigh Nam Beist would be the last in the series, a collective sigh went through the Ardbeg fanbase. But of course every end leaves room for new beginnings, and fortunately Ardbeg chose to release Corryvreckan as a replacement. It’s safe to say the new bottling has been a great success, enjoying huge popularity and squarely earning its place in Ardbeg’s Ultimate Range.

Corryvreckan displays all of Ardbeg’s usual peaty, coastal characteristics, but with an amped up alcohol content. Aged primarily in bourbon barrels, there’s also some virgin French oak thrown into the mix (and even Burgundy casks it is rumoured), lending a spicy freshness to Corryvreckan. The result is an intense, eye-watering dram that’s a real feast for the senses.

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