Monday, May 6, 2019

Adventure 11/50 : Japanese whisky tasting

Full disclosure: I know nothing about Japanese whisky. But, apparently, I'm not alone.

We went to a Japanese whisky tasting class at the Barrel Thief a couple of weeks ago and really didn't know what to expect, so we arrived a little early and took a comfy 2-top table at the back, and waited. Over the course of the next two hours we would taste 6 different whiskies and learn about the history of whisky in Japan.

the well-stocked bar at the Barrel Thief
As he poured our first half-ounce taste, instructor Christopher Gronbeck told us that Japanese whisky is still pretty mysterious in the U.S., despite growing popularity. There was a bump of interest, of course, after 2003's Lost in Translation.

"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

That was the first time I had ever heard of Suntory, and to be honest I had often wondered whether it was any good, or whether that was part of the joke. So it made sense to start with Suntory Toki. Toki means "time", or more specifically, "a collection of time". It's the mildest, simplest whisky we would be tasting that night, and, unsurprisingly, it was one of my favorites.

Suntory marks the beginning of commercial distilling of whisky in Japan. In 1918 Masataka Taketsuru, son of a family with a history of sake brewing, was sent to Scotland to study organic chemistry and learn how to make whisky. Returning to Japan a few years later -- and with a Scottish wife -- he went to work for the distillery that would become the Yamazaki Distillery, one of three owned by Suntory.

There are only eight commercial distilleries in Japan; of the five not owned by Suntory, Nikka owns two. The largest distillery in the world is Fujigotemba, which is owned by Kirin. But for comparison, there are more whiskey distilleries in Seattle than there are in all of Japan.

But the range of whiskies is still vast -- Suntory has 60 bottlings out of the Yamazaki distillery alone. Single malt whisky -- that is, made from malted barley -- is much less popular than blended whisky in Japan. (Just like here.) But the most coveted whisky is single malt.

Suntory Toki is made of a blend from all three distilleries owned by Suntory, and features two malts and one grain. There's no year on the bottle, so they can mix ages and grains. And because Suntory is a company, not a distillery, this whisky is just labelled as "Suntory" rather than naming a distillery. There are no rules in Japanese whisky like there are with Scotch whisky or American bourbon.

Some Japanese whisky is "teaspoon whisky" -- you may be drinking whisky from Scotland imported to Japan with a little Japanese whiskey added and relabeled as Japanese.

Suntory Toki is 80 proof, which is on the milder side. In Japan it's often served in a cocktail, or 50/50 with water over ice -- a very common way to drink whisky in Japan. I liked Suntory Toki because it was mild, and not fancy. It also happens to be easily available in the U.S. Overall I gave it 7.5/10

Our next pour was Eigashima Akashi, which is a "sourced whiskey" -- mainly imported Scotch whisky, "finished" in Japan by Eigashima, also known as the "White Oak" distillery. Japan didn't have the agricultural base to make enough whisky, so sometimes the grain or even malted grain is sourced from abroad.

Akashi is a blended whisky, probably corn and barley. Given its amber color, Christopher speculates that it probably spent some time in a sherry cask. This one tastes sweet and rich -- which is probably due to the sherry.

In the 1980s the market for whisky dropped -- people started drinking vodka and vodka-based cocktails. Whisky distilleries cut production, and many went out of business. But in 2003 Japanese whisky started winning awards, which raised their profile. The Yamazaki 12-Year was named Best Single Malt and won the gold medal at a big international competition. (Sadly, it's really difficult to get Yamazaki 12-Year, so we weren't able to taste it.) To make an aged single malt you have to make a big investment of time -- three years to create the whisky, plus the 12 years (or more) to age it.

In 2015 Jim Murray rated the Yamazaki Sherry Cask the best whisky in the world -- 97.5 points out of 100 -- in his Whisky Bible. Because of that, there are a growing number of Japanese whiskies available in the U.S. market.

The third pour was the Mars Iwai Tradition, a blended whisky from a small distillery. They make a couple of different "Iwai" whiskies; Tradition is the higher-end version of the family. Christopher said he's not sure how much of this is Scottish, but Mars does a lot of distilling so it may be a more even blend. This whisky had a spicy finish, and a lot of sherry influence.

In Scotland it's a law that whisky must be aged a minimum of three years. In Japan it's a tradition, and another way that Japan models their whisky industry on Scotland. I think it's interesting that Japan is the third largest whisky producing company in the world, behind Scotland and the US. Even so, Japan is only producing 5% of the world's whisky.

Neither of us were particularly fond of the Mars Iwai Tradition. I gave it a mere 6.5/10, while Wil commented "it tastes of wood" and gave it 3/6.

Next up was my favorite of the night: Nikka Coffey Grain. Why "Coffey"?

In 1830, Aeneas Coffey patented a distillation device that could continuously distill spirit. It was an adaptation of existing columnar stills, but allowed a greater portion of the spirit vapors to recirculate. The result, saith Wikipedia, was more efficient, producing a lighter spirit at a higher alcohol content.

The Nikka Coffey Grain is a grain whisky, primarily corn, but it's actually distilled in Japan at the Nikka Distillery, using two Coffey stills at the Miyagikyo distillery, which were imported from Scotland to Japan in 1963. The whisky has a sweet edge, and a buttery mouth feel. I gave this 9/10; Wil gave it 5/6. I'm already sad to discover that this is going to be a difficult bottle to acquire.

The fourth whisky was Matsui Kurayoshi, a single malt whisky.

This is an 8-year that they are probably getting from Scotland and then finishing / aging it in Japan, as this isn't from one of the eight working Japanese distilleries. The Kurayoshi is 48% alcohol, but not very "bitey" due to the sherry finish. It's very aromatic, probably because it's been aged longer than the other whiskies we tried that night. It's slightly peaty, but almost certainly because it came that way from Scotland, but aged in sherry casks in Japan. I gave it 8/10.

Matsui isn't really a brand -- the mane is very close to the name of a fancy distillery that closed decades ago. There are a lot of coveted whiskies from closed distilleries that one can still buy... for very high prices.

Our final whisky was the Yamazaki 12-Year, from the oldest distillery in Japan. (Full disclosure, it's not *really* the oldest distillery; but it is the oldest whisky distillery in Japan. Many other things are distilled in Japan.) This is an authentic Japanese whisky -- distilled and aged in Japan -- and it tasted like a really nice whisky from northern Scotland. Christopher said something about "heady brioche notes" and it made me laugh. This was Wil's favorite, and tied for the top spot on my list though a smidge behind. I gave it 9/10, Wil 6/6. Sadly, at $275/bottle, I'm not sure we'll have it again.

Thanks to Christopher Gronbeck, the Barrel Thief, and North Seattle College for a fun evening!

No comments:

Post a Comment