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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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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Miyagikyo Single Malt

Miyagikyo Single MaltDistillery: Miyagikyo
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 45%

Freshly rebranded, Miyagikyo Single Malt replaces the previous Miyagikyo NAS bottling, as well as the distillery’s 10, 12 and 15 year old expressions. The reasons why are obvious, as skyrocketing demand continues to put pressure on aged stocks of Japanese malt. In fact, Nikka’s other stalwart Yoichi has received identical treatment, with the entire range being replaced by a similar NAS bottling.

Having said that, all signs point to the fact that Nikka has included some older whisky into Miyagikyo Single Malt. This is very much a good thing, and reverses a trend whereby Japanese NAS whiskies were becoming ever younger. A large portion of this dram was aged in ex-sherry casks, complementing the delicate distillery character with sweet, nutty undertones. This whisky was my travel companion during a recent camping trip in Japan, and sure kept me warm and cheerful on some cold Hokkaido nights. So while for me this Miyagikyo scores points for sheer nostalgia, it’s also objectively a very pleasant, rewarding dram that I can confidently recommend to anyone taking their first steps in Japanese whisky.

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Nikka From the Barrel

Nikka From the Barrel 01Producer: Nikka
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 51.4%

Launched as far back as 1985, Nikka From the Barrel was quite a novel concept at the time. In those days, Japanese whisky consumption was in steep decline and people were more concerned with price rather than quality. Most spirit being sold contained less than 25% actual whisky, with the rest of the mix being made up of blending alcohol. In this sense, From the Barrel was a strange fish in the pond, a whisky full of  flavour at a time when Japanese consumers preferred their whisky light and smooth. The bottling strength of 51.4% was almost unheard of in those days.

Nikka founder’s son Takeshi Taketsuru’s vision was to give the consumer a taste of how a master blender might experience a whisky in the lab. This perhaps explains the unconventional way of blending, and the somewhat confusing name of this whisky. Because Nikka From the Barrel is not in fact a single cask expression, but a blend of which grain spirit from Miyagikyo and malt from Yoichi distillery are the main components. Rather than blending the liquid in a large stainless steel vatting tank, Nikka From the Barrel is placed in… you guessed it: barrels. These previously used casks help to marry the spirit for about 3 to 6 months, after which it is bottled straight from the barrel.

The result is a rich and flavourful expression at a blistering alcohol percentage. Nikka From the Barrel has withstood the test of time, and remains an immensely popular bottling. The packaging is extremely classy, and I love how understated this Nikka looks. The chaps at Master of Malt have referred to Nikka From the Barrel as one of the best value for money whiskies in the world. Given the general price level of Japanese whiskies these days, that’s quite a statement. Is their claim justified? Let’s find out!

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Suntory The Chita

Suntory The Chita 01Distillery: Chita
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 43%

The SunGrain Chita distillery is – what’s in a name? – a grain whisky distillery owned by Japanese drinks giant Suntory. Since 1972, Chita has produced the raw materials for Suntory blends such as Hibiki and Kakubin. With the current shortage of Japanese malt whisky though, Chita has taken on a more prominent role. Over the past decade, sales of Japanese whisky have skyrocketed. With stocks of aged malt dwindling quickly, distillers have been unable to keep up with the sudden spike in demand. Much like in Scotland, Japanese whisky has therefore seen a shift to NAS (No Age Statement) bottlings, but single grain has also entered the scene to fill the gap in supply. Nikka Coffey Grain was the first example of this, and The Chita followed quickly as Suntory’s answer.

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Hakushu Heavily Peated

Hakushu Heavily Peated 01Distillery: Hakushu
Country: Japan
Age: No age statement
abv: 48%

One of only nine Japanese whisky distilleries, Hakushu is located on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Often dubbed the ‘Forest Distillery’, Hakushu can be found at the foot of Mount Asayo in the Southern Alps. Unsurprisingly, this gives it access to some of the highest quality water sources in Japan. Hakushu opened its doors in 1973 and is owned by Suntory, one of Japan’s oldest and most famous whisky producers. The Heavily Peated expression was released as a limited edition in 2013 and is now hard to come by. I for one hope it will be relaunched soon, as this is wonderful dram that offers subtlety, complexity, and a very pleasant waft of peat smoke.

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