...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, April 17, 2015

One Final Evening in Kyoto

The cherry blossoms were just emerging, having kept themselves bundled tight for one extra week when the temperatures had dropped into the high 30s.  The early evening breeze was crisp but up in the 50s when I stepped down to the sidewalk that traced Shichijo-dori.  My shoulders were free from backpacks for the first time during my entire trip.  It made me feel free and somewhat nude in those first moments.  I was dressed up a little bit in my slacks and a long sleeve button-up that had somehow avoided getting crushed in my luggage.  I was looking to spend the evening at two bars that were rumored to have reasonable whisky selections.

For just this final night in Kyoto, I was staying at an apartment facing Higashi Hongan-ji, one of the largest wooden buildings on the planet.  Anticipating a tremendous view from the balcony, I instead found the massive Buddhist temple encased in an even larger gray construction shell as refurbishment continued within.  I followed Karasuma-dori north, with the temple gates on my left and the sakura newly flowering on my right.

Every footfall landed in pain.  I had walked over one-hundred miles during the previous five days, wearing shoes that were likely not appropriate for such travel.  They were slip-ons, certainly necessary for shrine and temple visits, with an insert supporting my heel and sole.  But none of that was designed for the distance I had covered, the hills I'd climbed, the forests I'd explored.  By the second night, the stabbing pain had spread from my lower back up into my skull and way down, stiffening my Achilles tendons.  On the third afternoon, the jabbing melted into a constant burn.  Each night when I returned to my previous residence, an old cold beautiful two room house, I would collapse onto the wooden floor, lying flat, my mid-back muscles spasming, causing my breath to exit my lungs involuntarily.  I had to pull my legs to my chest to gasp the air back in.  There were few liquid nightcaps because all I wanted was to be unconscious until the nine-month old infant in the room upstairs cried or the three chickens outside my window argued at dawn.  This was my seventh day in Japan, fifth day of pain.  By this point my mind went elsewhere when the nerve-endings began to fire.

When I was younger, I used to have great profound thoughts as I wandered cities alone.  Grand cinematic forms, sweeping climactic moments for heartbreaking novels, questions about eternity and consciousness.  But now I wondered, how long would I walk before I had to pee?  Had I dressed warmly enough?  Where were the garbage cans in this city?

That’s when I saw the blue heron standing at the temple’s south gate.  It tilted back and forth on its twiggy legs, gauging each passerby that impossibly never saw it.  It didn't seem real, more like an invention by one of those Japanese companies that build the creepy humanoid robots.  But there, four feet away, it was real, showing little interest in me, instead watching everyone else.  As a gust of chilly wind blew in from the North, I was reminded of the peacock that floated to the snowy ground in Amarcord.  Yes, that’s a different continent, a different creature, and a different season.  But it was a similar striking natural non-sequitur.  Then the heron loped away, taking flight.

The next gate was guarded by five cats, all either snoozing or cleaning themselves.  They drew a crowd, demanded cell phone photos, but really could not have seemed any less interested in the moment.  The nearest calico cat looked up from his arm-licking with unhidden disgust at the nearest amateur photographer, then lifted a back leg and commenced in the focused scrubbing of his white undercarriage.

My path led to the cross street near the Karasuma subway station, and I took a right.  Despite what many travel guides say, Kyoto is not an old city.  Most of its architecture looks to be from the 1960s or 1970s with the occasional modern blocky structure.  Once in a long while a building from another century appears, nestled amongst the new things, tight traffic creeping by.  The city center seemingly holds nothing but opportunities for luxury shopping.  As the night fell early, the gigantic department store signs, already lit, seemed to increase their voltage as the clouds above them turned purple, then navy blue.

Across the river, I searched Gion Shijo’s tiny streets for the one liquor store I couldn't previously find.  After eight or nine laps I realized that it would elude me forever.  By then night had tumbled fully and men in expensive suits were lingering in front of room-sized restaurants smoking cigarettes and mumbling into cell phones.  Small red lamps dimly lit the pavement that I was following back to the other side of the river.  Along the way four different small pretty women asked me, “MA-ssage?”  Goddess yes, massage.  But likely a different massage than what you’re offering.  So, no.  Thank you.

The tendons behind my ankles had hardened into rocks, so I shuffled flatfooted across the bridge that overlooked the lovely Kamo-gawa and its walking paths.  On the other side, Ponto-cho was a little louder, decorated with more tourists and spotlighted cherry blossoms.  Despite this two-hour walk, the restaurants didn’t call to me.  The broth-filled steamed pork dumplings that I had eaten earlier still powered me on, long after their calories had vaporized.  Flashes of cell phone cameras blinked around every nearby pink tipped tree and the rare English word occasionally popped out of the din.

Maneuvering around the tourists, I kept to my quiet counting of streets.  My map was rarely precise due to each little alleyway that counted itself a road.  The bar I was looking for could be anywhere, on any floor, within a three-block radius, if it were here at all.  Online, I had discovered a second location, in another part of town, where it could exist instead.  But then, up ahead, I could see the sign, from two streets away.  It was exactly where my analog street-counting said it should be.  There was another bar I had originally intended to visit first.  But this one, I didn’t know anything about this one.  My first Kyoto whisky bar.  My last night.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Notes from a tasting: Shot Bar Zoetrope

There are so many choices at Shot Bar Zoetrope.  So many whiskies one cannot find in the US.  I went to Zoetrope to at least have a glass of Yoichi 20 and the official Hakushu Sherry Cask before I attempted to buy either.  That idea was formed before I got to Japan and discovered that those whiskies were no longer found in stores.

The first thing I discovered was that Zoetrope was out of Yoichi 20.  Then, later in my tasting session, Horigami-san actually encouraged me to steer clear of the Hakushu Sherry Cask and try something bolder and better.  So with my original plan shelved and the late night adrenaline wearing off, I stared at the detailed menu.  I was overwhelmed by the Venture Whisky options and didn't have internet access to get some reference (though I probably could have just asked Horigami-san for suggestions).

Again, so many choices.  I knew how much I enjoyed Nikka's single malts (and their From the Barrel blend), so I decided to go for something I hadn't had yet.  How about a sherried Yoichi?  Nikka has a series called "Key Malts" that they sell at their distilleries and pour at their bars.  These bottlings let the drinker see what goes into their blends and vattings, and let adventurous folks try out their own mixes.  Two very good bits of news about the Key Malts is that they have age statements (12 years) and are bottled at 55%abv.  Let's see Suntory compete with that.

Yoichi 12 year old Sherry & Sweet (Key Malt), 55%abv
Nose - First whiff: rubber and burning carpet, surprisingly raw.  But after a couple minutes, it picks up beefy and nutty notes from its casks.  It opens up fully at twenty minutes with loads of toffee, chocolate, and marzipan.
Palate - Sweet indeed, but also very salty.  Yoichi tends get salty on my palate, here it intensifies.  Meanwhile, the little peat that shows up reads closer to its mossy form than smoke.  Pepper and soil notes move in after a while and help hold the whole package together.
Finish - So much sherry, as per the name, but also an herbal-liqueur-like bitterness.
Comments - The regular (or former regular) range's 45%abv bottlings have a grace and elegance that this one swaps out for sheer power.  Meanwhile, I'm not sure that much peated malt was involved.  So though it's a big winter malt, it's not as smoky as one may anticipate.
Grade Range: B-/B

While I was sipping the above Yoichi, I decided on comparing it to another one.  I went with a straw-colored 5 year old Genshu Single Cask.  These Genshu single casks used to be sold as exclusives at certain retailers around the country, but I'm not sure that's happening anymore.  One has to go to the Hokkaido distillery to get one now, if they have any in stock.

Yoichi 5 year old Genshu Single Cask, 62%abv
Nose - Not as rough or hot as I'd expected from the age and abv.  Definitely US oak.  Vanilla peat.  But it's the notes of sweetened bean curd and Ceylon cinnamon that are most memorable.
Palate - Little oak here, which lets the malty spirit shine.  Very herbal, like fresh basil and dried oregano.  Light on the peat influence.  Again, almost no ethyl burning.  It's not old whisky, but it could be mistaken for a 10-12 year old from a refill cask.
Finish - A soft wave of peat and caramel.  And, ah yes, here comes the heat.
Comments - Not terribly complex, but still very good for a 5 year old whisky. I wish there was an easier way to obtain a bottle.
Grade Range: B

Speaking of young whisky: Ichiro Akuto.  Horigami-san has obtained some of his own exclusive casks from Akuto-san.  I figured I'd go with one of those since I didn't know what I was talking about when it came to Venture Whisky whiskies.  He lined up a few of his exclusives in front of me and, since I like me some Rum cask action, I went with this one.

Ichiro's Malt 2000-2009 for Shot Bar Zoetrope's 3rd Anniversary
Cask #9800, finished in Rum Wood, 60.7%abv

Nose - Dessert whisky!  Brown sugar, molasses, caramel, toffee, and milk chocolate each take turns then come back again for seconds.
Palate - Loads of cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla.  Young, but not rough or sharp.  And not nearly as sweet as the nose lets on.  Some nuts and cocoa powder show up with time.
Finish - Identical to the palate, again not as sweet as one would think.
Comments - While I am so glad that the palate was less sugary than the nose, it is the nose that's the winner here.  And, not so coincidentally, it's where the rum finish sings the loudest.  I would have loved to have seen what this would have been like if it spent 12+ years in its original cask before getting poured into the rum barrel.
Grade Range: B-/B

One of Harold Lloyd's ill-advised but financially-necessary sound films (The Milky Way) was ending and a better silent one (Speedy?) was starting up on the film wall.  This was when I was going to end with Hakushu's Sherry Cask, but Horigami-san said that it would not go well with what I'd been trying.  And then he added that this one, the first malt's mate and at half the price of the Hakushu, was better anyway.

Miyagikyo 12 year old Sherry & Sweet (Key Malt), 55%abv
Nose - Roast beef, cherries, and roses.  Those exact three things, over and over again.  Then, after twenty minutes it shifts towards black pepper, seaweed, and a hint of wood smoke.
Palate - Very reminiscent of Glendronach's single oloroso casks.  So rich, grapey, and chocolatey, without losing its maltiness.  But this one here brings in a bright mint leaf note to keep it unique.
Finish - Sticky sweet and endless. Mostly sherry but some nice malt lingers behind along with orange peel.
Comments - My god, how sopping wet are these sherry casks before they're filled?  I'm serious, every sherried Japanese whisky I had on this trip was enormous.  Yet not out of balance.  This Miyagikyo got better as it went along, thus it was the finish that won me over, leaving it as my favorite whisky of the night.  A great recommendation by the boss.
Grade Range: B+

And on that high note, I thought it best to depart.  I was beginning to zone out (thus the grade ranges rather than number grades), already planning how I'd get back to the hotel, hoping I wouldn't get lost in Shinjuku.  Not this time, at least.  It had been a long travel day and there was more travel to follow in the morning.

If (or when) I return to Zoetrope, I would drift further from my comfort zone, going with a couple Mars malts, a Chichibu, and one of Kirin's Fujis.  I absolutely recommend Zoetrope as a stop to make if you (a whisky fan) are in Tokyo.  Don't go there looking for Scotch.  There's plenty of that elsewhere.  Go there looking for Japanese whisky.  You'll find some.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Shot Bar Zoetrope

Originally, there were extensive plans in line for the night I landed in Japan, plans that culminated in a Lost in Translation visit to Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Bar (whose online menu shows a '93 Springbank).  With the 18 hour time change, I was facing a 30 hour day -- dig that math! -- but I had figured that the sleep deprivation training I obtained from my new-parent trials would sustain me.  I was wrong.

I started having some doubts about my optimistic schedule a couple days before the trip, but I forgot that the first day of travel in a foreign county is about 75% more exhausting than a normal travel day.  And if one is already tired, stepping out into the Shinjuku evening, where every business's sign is required to be hyperbolic in tone, color, and wattage, will either lift a person up into an instant Red Bull adrenaline craze or grind the nerves down into a fine dust.  I hoped for the former, received the latter.  But I made sure I at least made the trip to Shot Bar Zoetrope Tokyo.

Shot Bar Zoetrope Tokyo (or Zoetrope for brevity purposes) is a big enough deal that it makes its way into Lonely Planet and Fodor's travel guides as well as Greatest Bars in the World lists.  Despite its large reputation, Zoetrope is located in a tiny room in multi-story building in a narrow alleyway.  But that's the way it goes for all of the bars in Shinjuku, Tokyo (with Golden Gai being the most extreme example).  Luckily Google Maps (which has a terrible time with Japanese addresses) does have Zoetrope accurately spotted a few blocks from the massive Shinjuku station.  (Also see Nonjatta's excellent map and their review.)

Once you find the building -- keep an eye open for the red logo which appears on two signs -- I recommend taking the elevator rather than the stairs to the third floor, since the doors open right where you need to be.
From the official website.
Sorry, all the pics I have from my night are bottle shots.
The owner, Atsushi Horigami, loves whisky and silent film.  I love whisky and silent film.  It was meant to be.  200+ Japanese whiskies line Zoetrope's left wall (from the entrance) and on the far wall silent films are projected all night.  Horigami-san speaks English very well, which is a good thing since almost everyone who showed up the night I was there was from the US.  In fact, half of us were from the LA area.  Yes, this is how far we have to go for some good whisky.  Horigami-san is refreshingly honest about the stuff on his shelves, at one point even talking me out of a more expensive whisky in favor of a cheaper one that would go better with my lineup.

Within Zoetrope's impressive inventory are dozens of distillery exclusive single casks (or cask strength bottlings) as well as a good number of whiskies that have long been sold out.  In fact, I'd say that most of the stuff on the shelf can't be found in stores.  In addition to the excellent Japanese whisky selection, Zoetrope has a couple dozen whiskies from other parts of the world, some alternate spirits, and a couple beers.

It's a cash only bar, but he'll provide a menu of his selections along with prices, which one doesn't always find in Japan.  Compared to whisky bars in American urban areas, his prices are reasonable.  My tasting included four very exclusive single malts, but for it I paid less than one would for two glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue in LA.  Though that may say more about Blue's prices and Los Angeles.

Next up for Wednesday:  Notes from my Zoetrope whisky tasting.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Notes from a tasting: The Yamazaki Tasting Room

After a disappointing tasting at the end of the distillery tour (see yesterday's post), I walked down to Yamazaki's Tasting Room.  The "Room" is a wide open space with a multi-tiered Whisky Library lining two sides.  The Library:

Those bottles were not for sampling as many of them were historic.  Some curiosities in the bunch, too, including mint, juniper, and lavender flavored malts in the photo above.

While the "library" was more of a "museum", the tasting table did have pages full of goodies to actually drink (for reasonable prices).  I had been prepared for the worst, but oh my goodness yes there were real whiskies to sample.  There were the different cask elements that make up Hibiki (mizunara stuff, peated things, etc.), older age-stated Suntory Japanese malts, and a slew of Beam and non-Beam whiskies.  But three things caught my eye immediately.

Yamazaki distillate - 58%abv
Yamazaki single cask 1995 - 62%abv
Yamazaki single cask 1986 - 51%abv

This was an opportunity to try Yamazaki's high strength new make next to two well-aged high strength whiskies aged in very different casks.  To say that this opportunity intrigued me would be a slight understatement.

Yamazaki new make / distillate, 58%abv
Color - Clear as water
Nose - Fruity/yeasty as all hell right up front.  Then green grapes, pineapple, and cassia cinnamon sticks follow.  After a half hour, a hint of animal fur peeks out but is hollered down by plum slivovitz.
Palate - Slivovitz with a mouthful of geraniums and dandelions and white sugar.  But a nice little herbal bite keeps it from getting too sweet or floral.
Finish - Eastern European fruity brandy, more tuica than slivovitz.
Comments - Dear Suntory: F*** the "Distillers Reserves".  Sell this at $20-$25 and I'll buy it and you'll save money.  You just need your marketing department to figure out how to sell it to someone other than me.

Yamazaki single cask 1995, 62%abv -- ex-bourbon, 19-20 years old
Color - Amber
Nose - Full of tropical and citrus fruits.  Sometimes reminiscent of an old Speyside.  Candied orange peel and jasmine in caramel sauce.  Still some cinnamon bite to it.  Grapefruit juice and vanilla syrup start to show up after 30+ minutes.  Maybe some violets and orange creamsicles.
Palate - Hot, which is not a surprise at this abv.  But very floral.  Confectioner's sugar and brown sugar.  Mild vanilla and caramel.  Milk chocolate.  Still feels young.
Finish - Sweet and peppery (corns and bells).  Again it's young but nicely so, if one prefers to avoid oak.
Comments - They probably couldn't sell this as is due to how bold the spirit is -- the flowers, cinnamon, and fruit from the distillate still shouts after two decades -- but I'd go for it had they bottled it and priced it right (as they had during previous decades).

Yamazaki single cask 1986, 51% abv -- ex-sherry, 28-29yo
Color - Reddened maple syrup
Nose - Obscenely sherried.  Leather and pipe tobacco.  Cointreau and blood oranges.  Toffee pudding.  Very rich grape syrup with a hint of mint leaf.  More toffee pudding.  Crumbling brown sugar between one's fingers.  After nearly an hour, a note of burnt hay arises, the mint and orange oil grow, and some molasses joins the party.
Palate - Subtler than the nose, but very musty.  Teriyaki (yeah, yeah, I know) with something right between Angostura and Peychaud's bitters.  It takes a few minutes to open up.  After 30+ minutes a big tropical fruit note emerges, followed by toffeed coffee beans (if that was a thing), and old furniture.
Finish - Toffee pudding, black pepper, and a blood orange cocktail.
Comments - Holyf***ings**t.  Suntory is losing money by serving this at the distillery.  Not only did it hold up for more than an hour, it improved.  If you go to the distillery and they still have this cask available (because they kicked me out before I drank it all) then have it.  When you hear/read old timers weeping romantically about old Glen Grant, this is it and a sample won't cost you your whole vacation.

I'm quite serious about the last one, except for the part about getting kicked out.  A 29 year old Yamazaki single sherry cask would cost 20x more per pour (thank you, Jim Murray Cult for demolishing the Yamazaki sherry cask market, hugs and kisses from us all) than what I paid for it.  It's one of the most gorgeous noses I've come across.  I realized after I finished my pour that nothing could follow it.  So I bought another pour of the sherry cask, chatted with a Guinness-loving Japanese couple, and felt very thankful to exist in that moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Visit To Yamazaki Distillery

The Yamazaki distillery is in Oyamazaki, a quick 15ish minute train ride from Kyoto Station via the Hankyu Kyoto Line.  And from the train station it's only a 1km walk.  If you choose to go there, do not do what I did by wandering around, lost in the pouring rain, following one's own handwritten directions for over an hour.  Instead, walk from the Hankyu Kyoto Line station to the JR train station, two minutes away.  The JR station looks like this:

There is an information booth there.  And toilets.  You can find relief in the restroom and assistance at the information desk.  Not the other way around.  The info person will start you in the correct direction and provide a map.  There are also signs.  If you follow the map and the signs, within minutes the distillery will appear up ahead.

The distillery has a Japanese whisky museum and whisky library (more on the latter tomorrow).  It also offers a free tour.  There are only a few tours a day, so you might need to book via the phone number on the distillery website.  Or you can hope for the best and stand in a short line near the entrance.  Either way, be sure to tell them that you require an English tour (via audio recording).  While I was there, none of the staff members spoke more than a handful of words of English, so you'll need to keep that in mind.  Also, I had no luck booking via the phone number as I was told that the entire week was booked.  Instead, I did find success the day I showed up.

To be honest, the tour offers not much in the way of new information for knowledgable whisky folks.  It's more of a beginner's tour through the whiskymaking process.  But it is free.  Something I did learn: Though I knew that Yamazaki and Hakushu make numerous types of whiskies in each of distillery for blending purposes, the differences in those whiskies didn't just have to do with peating/non-peating and distillation times, but were also due to the usage of different yeast strains.  It was nice to hear officially from a distillery that they were playing with yeasts.  I doubt you'll hear that from (m)any Scotch distilleries.

My favorite part of the tour was the many smells throughout, especially in the fermentation room with its super fruity/beery/bakery scents.  The barrel warehouse smelled nice and musty, though I sorta think the warehouse was for show because it was mostly empty.  (Another fact: Yamazaki does not climate control its warehouses, so the temperature and humidity is what it is.)

Some casks:

Not pictured: most of my sideburns
A lovely interior garden that seemed to be a modern take on some of Kyoto's temple gardens:

Just before the tour dropped us off (next to the gift shop, natch), we got to do a tasting of the new Yamazaki and Hakushu NAS malts.  As I mentioned in Monday's post, these products do not demonstrate the distilleries' whisky well.  They are hotter (at 40%abv), flatter, shorter, and blander than their age-stated siblings.  We received them as highballs first and then neat secondly.  While they may have been better in highball form, perhaps as a cool summer drink, more should be expected of a $50-$60 malt.  But they were free pours and certainly saved me a lot of money.

The gift shop had other Beam Suntory products, but also had some non-Beam-Suntory things like Macallan.  What it didn't have much of was......Yamazaki single malt.  There was the NAS (Distiller's Reserve) thing.  And I did pick up a distillery-only malt.  It had no information on it, but came in a cute bottle and was very inexpensive, 300mL for about $12.

Oh and yes, there was a tasting room.  Er, The Tasting Room.  On Friday: The Yamazaki Tasting Room.
Note: unrelated photo

Monday, April 6, 2015

Whisky Observations from Japan (or Where the Hell is the Japanese Whisky?)

I'm starting my two weeks of Japanese posts on a sobering note, but I promise that things will get much brighter and boozier as the days progress....

In hindsight, I should have consulted with The Japanese Whisky Review and WhiskiesRUs before I left for Japan.  But I didn't.  Originally, Japanese whisky was the catalyst for my voyage, but as I planned my itinerary, and other matters came to the surface, whisky became a secondary aspect to my travel.  Nonetheless, whisky made a number of important appearances while I was in Japan.  I drank infrequently while I was there, but what I drank (and what I found) was memorable.  For a comprehensive examination of the current whisky industry from a more knowledgable person, see Dramtastic's, "Japanese Whisky – Where to From Here?".  He talks about the smaller producers as well as the larger ones.  What I'm writing below are my observations from the ground, from the street level (because that's where I'm from, yo), during my seven-day stay.

Before this trip, I thought that the Japanese made the best single malt in the world.  That may sound strange coming from someone who has reviewed 350+ Scotch whiskies and less than a dozen Japanese malts.  But the consistency, the elegance, the richness in the whiskies from Japan's two main players (Nikka and Suntory), demonstrated much greater attention to quality control, and much less corner-cutting, than what has been coming from the Scotch industry's major members over the past half decade.  Perhaps I was misattributing it to a stereotype, but it seemed as if the Japanese distilleries held a greater sense of pride in the product they were bringing to the market.

After this trip, I no longer feel the same way.

As mentioned, Japanese whisky was one of the reasons I went on this trip.  Yamazaki was one of the reasons I scheduled most of my time in Kyoto.  Spending time at the distillery was indeed a lot of fun (as will be detailed in my next two posts) and I am very thankful to have had the opportunity.  But the whisky that Suntory's distilleries are now bringing to the market is not good.  No longer are they putting a 10, 12, or 18 year old on the shelves.  Instead, non-age statement whiskies (called, I believe, Distiller's Reserve) have taken their place.  I tried the Yamazaki and Hakushu NASes twice during my trip, but found them so underwhelming that I decided against buying small bottles to bring home to review.  They're both flatter and hotter than their 12yo predecessors and have nearly no finish.  While the 12s were consistently mid-80s (or grade B) whiskies, the NAS are low-70s (about a C- grade).  And this is all that Suntory is putting on the shelves from what I saw in Japan.

Let me clarify.  Between my time in Shinjuku and Kyoto, I visited 16 liquor retailers.  Out of those sixteen, one had a pair of Yamazaki 12s and Hakushu 12s.  Four had Hibiki 12.  Everything else from Suntory (malt and blend) was NAS.  Nikka fared slightly on their side of things.  Half of the stores had Yoichi and Miyagikyo 10 or 12 year olds.  One had a 15.  The rest, including all of its Taketsuru "pure malt", was NAS.  (Regarding the smaller producers, about half of the time there's one White Oak, one from Ichiro, and one of Kirin's around.)  Of those 16 retailers, seven were large department stores (like Isetan) who as of a couple years ago, not only had Japanese whiskies with age statements, but also often had exclusive single casks.  At this point none of them even had a Japanese whisky product with an age statement.  The duty free stores in Narita had almost no Japanese whisky at all.

It appears as if the lead Japanese whisky company (Suntory) is no longer putting age stated whisky on the shelves of liquor stores in two major wealthy urban areas in its home country.  Do Osaka and Yokohama have all the AS (age stated) whisky instead?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  Yamazaki, Suntory's larger distillery, is just minutes south of Kyoto.  And if the bottles don't make it to Kyoto or even Yamazaki's gift shop......?  Meanwhile, my local Costco here in Southern California has at least three cases of Hakushu 12 on the shelf for a low price.  So is the US getting all of Suntory's AS malt, or are we now seeing the last of it?  I don't know.

One of my Kyoto neighbors
I've been told by a couple of fellow whisky curmudgeons that Suntory "f**ked up" when it came to underproducing and underpricing their AS whiskies as well as anticipating the market's movement.  As you may have noticed, I am suspicious about the claims and motivations for the Scotch industry's descent into NAS releases.  Thus I was somewhat doubtful about the claims about Japan's aged stock shortage.  But now, I think it has to be at least somewhat true.  I can't envision the same companies who had released gems such as Yamazaki 18 and Yoichis 15 and 20 now having much pride in the uninspiring, almost generic, NAS products whose labels hold the corporate name.  These new products certainly have their place as sub-$30 starter whiskies, but they are taking the same price spot as the old 10/12s.  Suntory's and Nikka's malts may still have the consistency, but I no longer see the elegance, the richness, or the quality control.  (To be fair to Nikka, the Yoichi NAS is better than both of Suntory's Distiller's Reserves and is priced lower.)  Whether or not someone did f**k up or there was an unforeseen volume boom, consumers are losing out.  Customers have a lot of choice in the world whisk(e)y market right now.  How much loyalty will they feel towards the large Japanese brands?

If any of you have found similar or different whisky circumstances in Japan this year, please let me know in the comments below.  It was disorienting to walk into shop after shop after shop and find only a small corner of NAS Japanese whisky every time.  I'm hoping that I was only caught up in a synchronicity that left everything from Takashimaya to Yamazaki to Lawson's to the corner liquor shop devoid of the same things for a small window of time.

But if you're traveling in Kyoto or Tokyo you may be comforted to know that many of the bars still have the old Suntory and Nikka AS malts we've come to know and love.  And the bars, dear god the bars, the whisky in the bars.  I won't spoil the upcoming posts here, but......there is whisky in the bars.  Will the bars still have the Japanese classics next year?  I have no idea.

BUT!  And I shall end on another but.  There is sooooooooooooo much Scotch whisky to be found in Japan right now.  Holy moley.  Most of the hole-in-the-wall liquor shops (not to mention the bars) I visited had a slew of Scotch single malts (some of which have been on the shelf for more than 5 years) at very good prices.  A few shops had staggering (not hyperbole) selections.  While there, I thought to myself, "So this is where the Scotch has gone."  Had I not been carrying my home on my back like a bespectacled turtle, I would have returned with a case of goodies.
So, take heart whisky explorers, you can find all of the Scotchy gems (from indies to officials) that I left behind in Japan.  Just don't expect to find much, you know, Japanese whisky.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

How was your week?

I just flew in from Kyoto and boy are my arms tired.  Some whisky things happened during my stay, and I'm changing all of the posts I had planned for the next two weeks so that I can promptly share my experiences.

In the meantime I highly recommend Dramtastic's post "Japanese Whisky – Where to From Here?", from a couple weeks ago.  Also, Jordan had a great piece about Whisky Blending last week.  And if you haven't seen Serge's NAS post from yesterday, you should give it a read.  While it's definitely an April Fool's joke, there's a dose of vitriol within it that, joking or not, is pretty refreshing to see coming from whiskyfun.