Tag Archives: Japanese

Super Nikka (aka Nikka Super Rare Old)

This blended Japanese whisky has been around since 1962, in a distinctive glass bottle clearly meant to represent a whisky still. Created to commemorate the death of Masataka Taketsuru’s beloved wife Rita, I understand that the early batches were sold in hand-blown bottles.

In Japan, Super Nikka is generally perceived as being a higher-end NAS Nikka blended product – or, if you prefer, it is an entry-level premium blend. According to Nikka, Super Nikka is meant to represent a classic style of easy-to-drink blended whisky (i.e., “smooth and mellow”) with only slight touches of peatiness and sherry. The exact mix is unknown, but Nikka reports that this blend contains a “high proportion” of malt from the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. I have also seen it stated that Nikka Coffey Malt and Coffey Grain whiskies (from their Coffey column still at Miyagikyo) are also present in the blend.

By the way, the nomenclature for this whisky gets a little confused online. In Japan, most people tend to call it Super Nikka (although Nikka Super is also fairly common). But because the label says (on different lines, in different orders on different batches): Nikka Whisky / Rare Old / Super, many list this whisky as Nikka Super Rare Old, or some similar variant

In Japan, you will commonly find 700 mL bottles of Super Nikka for ~3500-4000 Yen, or $40-45 CAD. This is double or even triple the cost of true entry-level Nikka blends (only found in Japan). But this is still a discount compared to other well-known Nikka offerings like Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt or any of the Nikka single malt NAS bottlings. Again consistent with its premium blend status, Nikka sells miniature 50 mL bottles of Super Nikka – but for the entry-level price of ~350 Yen each, or $4 CAD. I picked up a miniature bottle for that price on a trip to Tokyo last year.

When I first start noticing full-sized bottles it in Canada a couple years ago (only in Alberta and BC), it typically retailed for a reasonable ~$70 CAD, about the same price as the 500 mL bottles of the well-respected Nikka From The Barrel. For some reason though, Super Nikka shot up to more than twice that price at most liquor stores in Calgary last year (with no change in the price of other Japanese whiskies). It has since come back down to its more typical lower Canadian price.

Super Nikka is bottled at 43% ABV. It is clearly coloured, to a classic medium amber whisky colour.

Here is how it compares to other Nikka whiskies in Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.53 ± 0.17 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.44 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.75 ± 0.40 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.36 on 25 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Gold & Gold: 8.18 ± 0.27 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.56 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.75 ± 0.24 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.31 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super Nikka: 8.13 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Yoichi NAS 8.59 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fairly basic, with honey and caramel. The fruit tends toward over-ripe banana and stewed apples. Touch of nuts. Vaguely herbaceous and mildly earthy (dry earth). Unfortunately, there is also a spirity aspect that I typically associate with grain whisky blends, along with some light acetone. Nothing offensive, but nothing very interesting either – mild and pleasant enough.

Palate: Similar to the nose, starts with light honey and caramel, with maybe a touch of chocolate. Apple, pear, and various tropical fruits. Some lemon citrus shows up. Peanuts. Rye spices (cinnamon and cloves). A good mix of malt and grain, aspects of both are clearly present. Mild, but with a bit of heat on the swallow.

Finish: Medium short. Oak asserts itself a bit. Some mouth-puckering astringency creeps in. An artificial aspartame note shows up at the end (and very little else).

As an aside, I purposefully didn’t look up the composition of this blend before sampling – and am thus (pleasantly) surprised that I accurately picked up on the faint peat and sherry notes on the nose and palate.

This is a good example of an easy-drinking, simple blend. Not offensive but not much character beyond the faint hints of peat and nuts. It also fizzles out quickly on the way out. While you could easily drink it neat, I think it is probably more suited for mixers. Not surprisingly, I find the similar-style but more expensive Nikka Premium 12yo, Nikka Pure Malt Black and Nikka Coffey Malt all better quality. Nikka Gold & Gold is probably the best comparable.

I think the Meta-Critic average for this one is very reasonable, and matches my own assessment. Among reviewers, the only truly “super” positive scores I’ve seen come from Jim Murray and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Most reviewers give it scores comparable to mine, including Oliver of Dramming.com, Serge of Whisky Fun, Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews, and Andre of Quebec Whisky. The lowest score I’ve seen come from Thomas of Whisky Saga and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review.

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky

This is an example of something I expect we will see more of: blended world whiskies.

Actually, this has been going on for a long time – but rarely disclosed previously. There are often significant loopholes in various country labeling laws that allow makers to import whiskies from other countries and either bottle it as a local brand without modification, further age it and bottle it, or even blend it with their own distillate and then sell it as if it were their own product.

For example, American producers have long been known to acquire quality Canadian rye whisky on contract, and then brand under their own name (e.g. Masterson’s and Whistlepig both use Alberta rye, etc.). And a lot of cheap Canadian corn whisky finds its way into low cost blends in a number of countries. This might help to explain how Canada is ranked as the world’s third largest whisky producer after Scotland and the USA, despite its much smaller global bottle brand footprint.

With the increasing global conglomeration of drinks producers, we are seeing more and more cases where multiple distillers are now actually owned by the same parent company. This is facilitating the overt blending of expertise, materials, and actual whisky across the world. I’ve begun to notice a definite trend with how often Canadian whisky is now increasingly coming up acknowledged in world blends.

Getting back to the actual whisky at hand, Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky is not actually a new release – and it has always been a “world blended” whisky (although that aspect has become more explicitly pronounced on the label in recent years). For those of you who are interested, I will cover the labeling history of this whisky in an addendum at the end of this review.

This whisky is from one of the leading independent Japanese distillers, Ichiro Akuto, founder and master distiller of Chichibu (and heir to the Hanyu family of distillers). He has been making malt whiskies at his Chichibu distillery for a number of years now, sometimes blended with older Hanyu stock. This Ichiro’s Malt & Grain whisky has been around for the better part of a decade, and has always included malt whisky from Chichibu (and potentially Hanyu originally, but not any longer), blended with whiskies from unidentified distilleries in the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland.

Note that that there are other variants of this whisky out there – including various Limited Editions, single cask-strength bottlings, and premium Japanese-only blends. But it is the standard “white label” Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky that is being reviewed here. Again, see my addendum below for how the label and title has changed over time. Online, Ichiro describes this blend rather poetically as consisting of the “heart of Japanese whisky complimented by the major whiskies of the world.”

According to my searches, the foreign whiskies are reportedly aged in casks in their home countries for 3-5 years, and then the whisky is shipped to Japan and aged for another 1-3 years at Chichibu distillery. The proportion of malt to grain in the final blend is unknown, as are the relative country contributions. The final blend is commonly bottled in 700mL bottles at 46% ABV – although some bottles have reported 46.5% ABV, especially the 750mL ones (again, see the addendum below). It is never been chill-filtered, nor coloured.

The current average world-wide price is ~$105-$110 USD per bottle, according to several online sites (which seems rather high for a blended NAS whisky of unidentified distilleries). I was fortunate enough to find this bottle in a little whisky shop in Kyoto for ~$50 CAD earlier this year. It has recently showed up at the LCBO for $115 CAD – which seems very reasonable, by global price standards.

Here is how it compares to other whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Compass Box Delilah’s: 8.45 ± 0.30 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Hedonism: 8.50 ± 0.60 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.54 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.47 ± 0.35 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kirin 50% Blend (Fuji Gotemba): 8.42 ± 0.42 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.75 ± 0.87 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.53 ± 0.17 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.07 ± 0.37 on 13 reviews ($$$)

Now for what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity, with peaches, bananas, apples and pears. Also a bit of lemon. Vanilla and a light caramel note. Cereal grain. Also has a spirity mineral quality that I sometime find on grain blends. Touch of acetone at the end. Pleasant enough. Water brings up the fruit and adds rye spices, so I recommend a touch.

Palate: Vanilla and tropical fruits similar to the nose. Light rye spices (cinammon and nutmeg) and caramel come up quickly. Hazelnut and chocolate. Candied ginger (gingerbread?) with some chili powder and black pepper. Tobacco leaf. An aromatic spirity note comes up again, but hard to place. Quite nice, except it is a bit hotter in the mouth than I expected. The graininess shows up in the swallow, as it spreads thinly across the tongue. Water enhances the caramel considerably, without affecting the burn.

Finish: Medium long. Honeyed sweetness at first, but with cinnamon and cayenne pepper building over time. Banana, hazelnut and ginger linger the longest. Puckering astringency on the finish, with lemon pith returning.

More interesting on the palate than the nose suggested, with some hidden depth (I really dig those nutty chocolate and candied ginger notes). It’s a bit like a Nutella-banana sandwich! Spicier than I expected as well, with definite heat.

While the sweetness will appeal to standard blend drinkers, the spiciness here is more in keeping with certain distinctive malt blends. A touch of water enhances the sweetness, but it really doesn’t need much – and water won’t help for the spiciness/heat. I expect the Canadian contribution to this blend was a flavouring rye, as opposed to a weak corn whisky!

This is not exactly an easy-drinking, relaxed blend. While it does have some typical sweetness to it, you have to like your whiskies spicy to really appreciate it.

I would give this an overall average score, which is maybe a point higher than the current Meta-Critic average shown above. That is quite good for a blend, even one in this price range (as you can tell from the other scores above). It has a surprising array of flavour notes on the palate, although it is still a bit spirity. Definitely a good buy for what I paid for it in Japan.

Among reviewers, the highest scores I’ve seen come from Thomas of Whisky Saga and Aaron of Whiskey Wash, who both rated it quite highly. My own average score is about comparable to Susannah of Whisky Advocate. Similar but slightly less positive are TOModera and zSolaris of Reddit. Devoz of Reddit and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review give this white label version lower scores.

Addendum for whisky geeks:

How the Ichiro’s Malt & Grain “white label” has changed over time

I am not sure when this whisky was first released, but I have found images of an early 750mL bottle that had the following label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Whisky
This whisky is matured by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his product
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
750mL                                                                      46.5% ALC by VOL

I don’t have copies of the back label, but later versions certainly indicated Canada, America, Scotland, Ireland and Japan as the source of the “worldwide” whisky.

By 2012, I have several examples of a new revised label for 700mL bottles that show a few differences, highlighted in bold below (my highlights):

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

You can see the words “blend” and “blended” now feature prominently throughout, replacing less clear terms. This is largely semantic however, since any whisky including both malt and grain whiskies is by definition a blend. Note the lower ABV of 46%.

Within a few years (I don’t know the exact date), a subtle change is added to the title:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Hanyu single malt and Chichibu single malt.
This is worldwide blended whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

This is quickly followed by a more substantial change:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
Chichibu
World Blended Whisky

This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

As you can see, the “Blended Whisky” title is moved to the a new line, and “World” is added before it. The label also drops any reference to Hanyu single malt, and now refers only to Chichibu single malt. This is hardly surprising, as I can’t imagine much (if any) of the highly-prized Hanyu barrels ever being used for this blend. Finally, the phase “worldwide blended whisky” has now become “World Blended Whisky”

I don’t have an exact date for the changes above, but I know by October 2017 you start seeing the current label:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46%vol

The only different here is that the “Chichibu” line in the title has been dropped, and this is now simply “World Blended Whisky.” The label is otherwise unchanged. Note that the label above is still exactly what is presented on my February 2019 bottle from Kyoto, and on the recent October 2019 release at the LCBO.

Before I close, I have noticed one unusual variant out there, on the version launched in Norway in November 2018:

Ichiro’s
Malt & Grain
World Blended Whisky
This whisky is blended by Ichiro Akuto, founder of the Chichibu Distillery.
He travels to find casks to perfect his blend
in addition to his Chichibu single malt.
This is World Blended Whisky.
Non Chill-filtered, Non Coloured
700mL                                                                                    46.5%vol

The “46.5%vol” was actually a sticker with red text placed over the original “46%vol”. Whether this was done by Chichibu or by Vinmonopolet (the Norway state liquor board) I don’t know. The LCBO here in Ontario does extensive testing of all products before it releases them (including measuring actual alcoholic strength), and I have seen signs of ad hoc label changes here for this reason. So it is possible Vinmonopolet assessed the strength as higher than what Chichibu reported, and forced the add-on sticker change.

Does that mean all versions of this whisky are actually 46.5%, but simply rounded-down and labelled as “46%” ever since the early label change in 2012?  Or was the Norway release atypical in some way, similar to earlier batches?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Ohishi Sherry Cask

I always appreciate the opportunity to try something different – and Ohishi is about as different as you can get in the whisky world and still be called “whisky.” Well, in some jurisdictions at least – I’ll get to that in a moment.

The recent boom in Japanese whisky has meant that a lot of Japanese sake and shochu producers have begun to start making Scotch-style whisky. Unfortunately, many of these at the moment are actually examples of “fake” Japanese whisky. While waiting for their whisky stocks to mature, these producers have begun by importing whisky from outside Japan, and then bottling and labeling it as Japanese whisky for resale in Japan. This highly deceptive practice is discussed on my recent Whisky in Japan perspective post.

Ohishi has taken a different approach. Rather than get into the malted barley game, they have stuck with what they know – distilling fermented rice grain, which is the basis of the sake and shochu they have been making for generations. But they have taken to aging this rice-distilled spirit in old world casks, predominantly Sherry, Brandy and whisky casks. In essence, they are making a single grain whisky – but with a very distinctive grain, rice.

However, it gets a little more complicated than that, since the rice starch needs to be broken down into sugar using a mold known as aspergillus oryzae, also called koji, before fermentation by yeast for sake or shochu production. This filamentous fungus has a long tradition of use in Asia (e.g., it is also used in the fermentation of soybeans for miso, etc.). For reasons I am not entirely clear on, Ohishi is not allowed to sell their barrel-aged, rice grain koji-saccharifying fermentation product as a “whisky” in Japan.

However, Japan does allow it to be exported as “Japanese whisky.” As country-level designations typically dominate for all named products of origin (due to reciprocity clauses in trade agreements), this means other countries will recognize it as “Japanese whisky” precisely because Japan allows it to be labelled as such for export. Ohishi is thus serving the export market exclusively with these products (i.e., you can’t buy these in Japan).

So, is it a whisky?  That really depends on your point of view. It certainly meets many of the classic requirements – except for the koji and rice grain. On that front, the Ohishi mash bill is is 30% estate-grown rice grain (various varieties), with the remaining 70% Mochi rice coming from the surrounding Kumamoto prefecture.

Another distinctive feature is that distillation occurs in a pot still made from stainless steel (instead of copper, used almost everywhere else).

I picked this bottle up on sale in Calgary, Alberta last year for $89 CAD. Bottled at 40.8% ABV. Note again that this is the generic “Sherry cask” version – not one of the more expensive single cask editions (that are often bottled at slightly higher strength).

I don’t have any other rice whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database, but here is how Ohishi compares to some other grain/blended Japanese Whiskies:

Ichiro’s Malt & Grain World Blended: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Brandy Cask: 8.27 ± 0.19 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Cask: 8.42 ± 0.45 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Ohishi Sherry Single Cask: 8.61 ± 0.46 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.47 ± 0.51 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.22 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.58 ± 0.73 on 9 reviews ($$$)

Also for comparison, here are some Canadian grain whiskies that I find similar:

Canadian Rockies 17yo: 8.30 ± 0.53 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (40%): 8.70 ± 0.09 on 3 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (46%, old label): 9.12 ± 0.28 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo (all editions): 8.98 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Centennial 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.44 on 6 reviews ($)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.21 on 11 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.05 ± 0.95 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 7.93 ± 0.80 on 8 reviews ($)

As always, the proof is in the pudding – let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour:  Very golden, with only the slightest hint of Sherry cask influence (see below). Based on colour alone, I would think this was a refill Sherry cask.

Nose: Very perfumy, with heather and honeysuckle notes. Slightly under-ripe earth cherries (gooseberries) and green bananas. Salty rice crackers and soy sauce. Anise (black licorice) and dried ginger. There is a very noticeably strong acetone smell, which detracts for me personally (and overwhelms the initial impression upon pouring a glass).

Palate: Very sweet and syrupy, with fresh fruit cocktail flavours. Reminds me of a generic cough syrup, with that acetone note from the nose turning into saccharine artificial sweetness. But there is also a delicate sake-like sweetness underneath that is more floral in nature (which I like). The classic Sherry nutty notes assert themselves on the swallow, along with some faint anise and a dry earthiness. Cinnamon builds over time with repeated sips, along with some earthy bitterness.

Finish: Artificial sweetener, but it reminds me more of bubble gum now. Rice Krispies. Dried fruits, but with just a hint of that fresh fruit cocktail again at the end (green grapes in particular).

This is a strange one for me – my initial impression on both the nose and the palate are not favourable (with acetone and saccharine leading off, respectively). But it grows on me over time, as the more subtle notes emerge on successive sips. Indeed, this is one you have to spend time with, to coax out the underlying distinctiveness – likely coming from the rice and/or the koji-saccharification (with those rice cracker/Rice Krispies notes). I also recommend some time in the glass to let it open up first.

The closest thing in my experience would be some of the single grain/corn whiskies coming out of the Canadian west (e.g., the various Highwood releases listed above, Canadian Rockies). Perhaps not coincidentally, I also get acetone notes from many of those. I wonder if the stainless steel pot stills may something to do with it, as I know these are in use in some distilleries in Canada (but I don’t know if Highwood is one of them). As an aside, I gave a sample of this to the_muskox of Reddit to review “blind”, and he thought it was a medium-aged Canadian corn whisky.

This is a hard one to score. The off-notes are significant enough for me that I would normally give something like this a below average score. But there are a lot of interesting subtleties under the surface, which make be happy to finish my glass over an extended period of time. As such, I think the current average Meta-Critic score of ~8.4 is reasonable. Definitely worth trying out for the distinctiveness, but you would want to sample it first before investing in a whole bottle.

For other reviews, the most positive I’ve seen for this generic Sherry cask version comes from Jason of In Search of Elegance (which is actually based on a sample from my bottle), and Josh the Whiskey Jug. More in keeping with my average score is Jonny of Whisky Advocate and the_muskox of Reddit (the latter also being a sample from my bottle, but as a blind “mystery” review). A very low score comes from Thomas of Whisky Saga. Note that the individual Single Sherry Cask editions tend to score higher, across all reviewers.

Kanosuke New Born 8 Month Old

Kanosuke distillery in Kagoshima, Japan, has a long tradition of making shochu – a Japanese beverage distilled from rice (or other starchy materials like sweet potatoes or buckwheat), broken down by Koji mold (a type of Aspergillus fungus). In recent years, a number of traditional Japanese shochu distillers have ventured into making whisky (with variable success).

Kanosuke previously released a limited bottling of their new make whisky spirit, and followed up late last year with “Kanosuke New Born” – a limited release of their whisky aged for eight months in American white oak casks that previously held shochu. This is an interesting reversal of the process. Shochu can aged in a number of ways – including in large ceramic pots, stainless vats, or oak barrels that previously held other spirits (just like whisky). Most shochu is not aged very long, but Kanosuke decided to use casks that previously contained Komasa Syuzo’s Mellow Kozuru brand of aged rice shochu for maturing their whisky.

Kanosuke New Born was sold directly from the distillery in 200 mL bottles for ~$45 CAD. I was given a bottle as a gift on my recent visit to Japan. It has been sold out for a little while now. Bottled at a whopping 58% ABV, it is not chill-filtered, and no colouring has been added.

There are few reviews of this new whisky, so I am not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Surprisingly rich light gold colour for such a young whisky.

Nose: Sweet, with honey and light caramel notes – but also dry, with a salty brine note. Apple juice. Very tropical, with green banana, papaya and pineapple. Golden raisins. Very floral, but in an unidentifiable perfumey sense. Slight touch of fresh glue. There is something very Japanese about it, reminds me of the old age-stated Nikka Taketsuru pure malts (but younger, of course). Surprisingly complex for the 8mo age – off to a good start.

Palate: Very sweet arrival, with lots of honey and caramel. Honeycomb. Candied fruit. Sweetened apple juice. Pear. The tropical fruits are less obvious now. Toasted marshmallows (that’s a new one for me). Light cinnamon. Some bitterness, with tree bark and ginseng (I’m getting a definite herbal energy drink vibe). Salty black licorice on the swallow. Definitely hot, with some mouth zing, but surprisingly drinkable for the high ABV.

Finish: A bit tame, but more than I expected for the age. Some of the tropical fruit notes return, which is nice. It ends with the tree bark, ginseng and apple juice notes lasting the longest.

With water, it gets sweeter on nose, with simple sugar added. I am also getting some sourness now (sour cherry in particular). In the mouth, the alcohol zing is reduced, with extra caramel and red licorice (candied strawberry). Oddly, the bitter tree bark and ginsent notes on swallow are enhanced too. Doesn’t need much water, frankly.

This is shockingly good for the age. I’ve had plenty if 3-4 year old malts that were far less complex and interesting – but I suspect the high ABV here is likely a key factor.

There aren’t many reviews of this one. Dramtastic gave it a very positive review and score, as did Richard of nomunication. Dave Broom of Scotchwhisky.com described it as very good, and showing “real promise.”

Personally, I think this is bloody impressive. On its own merits, I would rate it a ~8.7 on the Meta-Critic scale (which is simply outstanding for the age). Give it a few more years, and I am confident Kanosuke will be making a 9+ whisky for sure.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice

The discontinuation of the classic Hibiki 17 year old last year was a blow to fans of this classic Japanese blended whisky. But it was softened somewhat in Japan with the release of a new Japan-only “premium no-age-statement” Hibiki Blender’s Choice last September.

For newcomers to Japanese whisky, all the recent hype can seem a bit mystifying. It is not like most expressions from heavy-weights Suntory or Nikka (or the smaller players) have some unique flavour profile. They are mainly well done examples of lighter scotch-style whiskies (both malts and blends), with a focus on the integration of delicate flavours. While certain fruit and wood notes can be distinctive, it is less a question of kind than it is of consistent quality. As discussed in my recent 5-year retrospective, I’ve watched Hibiki 17yo rise from common availability (at 7,500 Yen), to near impossibility to find (at >40,000 Yen) – due to demand, and a relative lack of aged stocks.

While this new release lacks an age statement, word spread quickly that it consists of whiskies aged 12-30+ years of age, with an average age of around 15 years. As such, people naturally hoped this would be a replacement of sorts for the discontinued 17yo. But this was clearly not the intent, as a few wine cask-aged whiskies were also included in the blend, to produce a new and distinctive profile.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice was initially intended for interior bar sale only, through Suntory’s wholesale/industry distribution channels in Japan. Of course, it didn’t take long for bottles to find their way onto some store shelves – albeit at much higher prices than the rumoured internal bottle price of 10,000 Yen.  In my recent travels in Japan, I came across only 3 stores that carried it (one without a box for 17,800 Yen, and two stores with a box for 19,800 Yen and 29,800 Yen each). The boxes suggest they were intended for retail sale. I picked one up at the lower 19,800 Yen price.

There are not many reviews of this one yet, so I’m not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But here is how some other Hibiki expressions compare in my database.

Hibiki 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.24 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.76 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki 21yo: 9.14 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.37 ± 0.52 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.29 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Personally, I’d give both the 17yo and Harmony slightly higher scores than the average ratings above. The 12yo and Master’s Select average scores sound about right to me, and I find the 21yo score is a bit inflated.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for my bottle of Hibiki Blender’s Choice:

Nose: Reasonably sweet, with rich toffee notes and some vanilla. I get a distinctive rice pudding sensation, which is novel. Green apple, pineapple, and peaches. Also those same fruit flavours in Meiji Japanese gummies (the ones made with 100% fruit juice). Canberries and red currants. A dry bark note (woody), which is distinctive. A little rubber and a touch of glue. Something else I can’t quite place, likely from fresh wine casks.

Palate: The toffee, creamy rice pudding and green apples from the nose dominate. The cranberries come across more as dried now. Apple and pineapple juice. Wood spice picks up, mainly lighter all spice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Glue note turns slightly ashy (which I like). Very distinctive for an unpeated whisky. A touch astringent on the swallow.

Finish: The woodiness returns immediately on the swallow – not a perfumy Mizunara oak, but a softer and gentler tree bark type (if that makes sense). Caramel from the wood picks up too. Dry and astringent overall, keeps you sipping repeatedly. The fresh wine casks come through again, but subtly – reminds me of those Sweet Tarts candies from my childhood.

This is distinctive for a Japanese whisky. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it – it is very different from the old Hibiki 17yo. But it grows on you. Of note, my wife (who liked the old 17yo and is typically not a fan of wine cask finishes) quite enjoyed this one as well.

Probably the closest thing to Blender’s Choice in my experience is Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton. Both have a relatively gentle base spirit, with clear influence of fresh red wine casks. The Irish offering is a bit sweeter though, and not as drying on the finish as this Hibiki release.

Again, there are not too many reviews of this one, but you can check out Nomunication for a detailed review, and Forbes for a brief one. Personally, I’d score it one point less than the 17yo – so, say a 8.8 on my personal version of the Meta-Critic scale. A very nice whisky, I found it growing on me on successive tastings.

Fuyu Japanese Blended Whisky

It’s not every day a new Japanese whisky shows up at the LCBO here in Ontario, Canada – especially at $70 CAD for a 700mL bottle. Of course, when that whisky is a custom blend by a wine and spirits merchant based in Bordeaux, France (BBC Spirits), one also has to take a moment’s pause.

Japanese whisky is unquestionably all the rage right now. On a trip to Tokyo last month, I was dismayed by how much prices have increased (and availability decreased) for all the standard bottlings of the established distillers. There are many new entries on the shelves – but from Japanese spirit makers who either don’t distill whisky, or have just started operations (and are therefore sourcing their whisky from elsewhere for sale). At the moment, a lot Scottish and Canadian whisky is making its way to Japan to be bottled by these companies – in fancy-looking bottles meant to mimic the established distillers. Caveat emptor!

So what to make of Fuyu? The label doesn’t have a lot of detail, other than to state it is blended Japanese whisky, small batch (which is meaningless on a whisky), and a product of Japan. The former and latter statements at least give some reassurance that it is actually Japanese whisky in the bottle.

Here is what BBC Spirits website has to say about this blend:

FUYU means WINTER. Our handcrafted blended whisky comes from several distilleries, on Honshu island, that have been carefully selected by BBC. FUYU is a powerful and generous blend, true expression of the Japanese cellar masters’ blending know-how.

Right. FYI, Honshu is the main island of Japan – and eight out of the nine currently operating whisky distilleries are located there. So that’s not exactly a lot to go on. Given the incredible demand for Japanese whisky, I’m a little dubious as to what BBC Spirits would have been able to source at the moment. But for the sake of the local enthusiast community, I thought I’d take a plunge and buy a bottle. If nothing else, I love the label design.

Bottled at 40% ABV. Given the dark colour, I’m sure caramel colouring has been used. It bound to be chill-filtered.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel, vanilla and honey to start. Plum wine. Creamed wheat. Lemon candies. There’s a soft floral component (rosewater?). Surprisingly, I’m detecting signs of Mizunara oak. Unfortunately, I am also getting paint thinner (turpentine) and nail polish remover (acetone). Slight funk, suggesting a lightly peated element in the blend. Seems young overall, with its heavy organic off-notes – but there is definitely something very Japanese about it, with reasonable complexity for a blend.

Palate: Mix of sweet and sour in the mouth. Certainly not as sweet as I expected from the nose. Prunes and green grapes. Creamed wheat again. Ginger. Nutmeg. Has a umami character (soy sauce), and a continuation of that funk from the nose. Dry cardboard. Thin mouthfeel, consistent with the low 40%. Some bitterness on swallow, but mild. Better than I was expecting, honestly.

Finish: Medium. Light corn syrup notes. A butteriness develops now, which is nice. The bitterness persists, but it is more of a ginger type, and seems to fit the blend somehow.

Surprisingly, this has more character than a standard entry-level Japanese blend at this price point. To be honest, its kind of what I imagine Chivas Regal Mizunara might taste like (although I haven’t tried it).

Personally, I prefer Hibiki Harmony over this blend. But there is more going on here than I expected. I would rate Fuyu on par with the Meta-Critic average scores for Suntory Toki and Hibiki Harmony (i.e., ~8.3). It needs some time to open in the glass – but it’s a glass I’m happy enough to finish.

Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old

To complete my series of Taketsuru “pure malt” bottlings from Nikka, I am happy to present the Taketsuru 17 year old.

Like the 12 yo and 21 yo bottlings that I previously reviewed, the 17 yo is a long-standing member of the age-stated Taketsuru line.  As discussed in my more recent no-age-statement (NAS) review, the 12 yo was discontinued in favour of the new NAS bottling a couple of years ago. This was in response to the Japanese whisky boom, and Nikka’s need to preserve limited (and dwindling) stocks of aged whisky.  While the 17 and 21 year olds are technically still available, they are understandably quite hard to find “in the wild,” given the high demand and low availability.

I sampled this one recently at the Low Profile whisky bar and cafe in Athens, Greece. Incidentally, you might be interested to see the logo used by the bar on all promotional materials (i.e., signage, menus, coasters, etc), as shown on the right. That is the classic photo of Mastaka Taketsuru himself, just as shown on all the Taketsuru bottlings.

Masataka Taketsuru is one of the key people in the history of Japanese whisky production, and the founder of Nikka. The Taketsuru line is named after him, and is an example of what is known in Japan as “pure malts” (aka vatted malts or blended malts). These are malt whiskies blended together from multiple distilleries under Nikka’s control. This is largely a semantic distinction to “single malt”, which refers to whiskies that are blended together from a single distillery (see my Single Malts vs Blends page for more info).

Bottled at 43% ABV.  Here is how the Taketsuru 17yo compares to other Nikka whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.26 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.26 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.26 ± 0.32 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo 15yo: 8.69 ± 0.29 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Nikka Miyagikyo NAS: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blended: 8.49 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$$)

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very fruity nose – fruitier than the others in this family. Fresh fruit cocktail, with plenty of pear and apple, plus berries. Also citrus (lemon in particular). Honey. No real smoke (I detected more in the other age-statement versions). But there is a slightly funky sourness that I can’t quite place (and could be coming from the peat). A bit of minerality. Also seems a bit oakier than the others in this family.

Palate: Vanilla joins the light honey notes from the nose, and banana adds to the fruit. Sweet tart candies. Some caramel starts to build over time. Light wood spices, with a touch of pepper. Somewhat watery mouthfeel. That odd sourness returns on the swallow, suggesting to me that it is indeed from the peated element.

Finish:‎ Medium short. Again, the oaky wood spices increase in prominence. There is a lingering light sweetness, balanced by a touch of bitterness from the wood.

This is certainly another decent expression in the Taketsuru line – roughly in-between the old 12 yo and 21 yo expressions in terms of quality, in my view. I like the heightened fruitiness, but the that funky sour note and bitterness is a bit off-putting. As such, I would rate it slightly lower than the Meta-Critic average. But it is still well worth the pour if you can find it anywhere.

Jan of Best Shot Whisky is a big fan, with well above average reviews from  Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews, Uncle Tobys on Reddit, and Andre, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. Jim Murray gives it an average score, while Serge of Whisky Fun and TOModera and Texacer on Reddit give it below average scores.

Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select

Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select is a duty-free (aka “global travel retail”) special release of Hibiki Harmony blended whisky. Unlike some Japanese special-edition “travel exclusives” – which are simply re-labelled and marked-up versions of standard bottlings – Master’s Select is actually a different blend than the regular Harmony.

Master’s Select is reported to be a blend of 10 different Japanese malt and grain whiskies from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries, aged in 5 different types of casks, including American white oak casks, sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks. The stronger woody character – and use of Yamazaki sherry casks in particular – are emphasized in Suntory promotional materials, in an apparent effort to increase the cachet of Hibiki Master’s Select. As with regular Harmony, there is no age statement, and it is bottled at 43% ABV.

I bought a bottle in early 2016, but only opened it recently. I paid a little over $100 CAD at the time (on sale), which was about the same price as regular Harmony here in Canada. I have always been a big fan of the older Hibiki age-statement expressions (especially the Hibiki 17yo), and am relatively positive on the no-age-statement Harmony expression – although it doesn’t fare as well among most reviewers. So I was curious to see how this Master’s Select version of Harmony would compare.

Here are how the Hibiki whiskies compare to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Metacritic Databae:

Hibiki 12yo: 8.61 ± 0.25 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.32 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.54 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.19 ± 0.74 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.20 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.69 ± 1.03 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Maltage Cosmo: 8.56 ± 0.27 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.44 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.36 ± 0.39 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.24 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.60 ± 0.67 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Single Malt (NAS): 7.94 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Similar to regular Harmony, but with more dry oakiness up front. Not particularly fruity, but I do get light pears, plums, bananas and orange rind (plus some lemon curd). Floral, with some sort of fruit blossom. Lots of vanilla, as before – perhaps even more so. Toasted coconut, which is new. Wood spice. A slightly funky note, vaguely vegetal, which I don’t recall on standard Harmony. Definitely a bit more character here, but not all of it good. Also more acetone, which detracts for me.

Palate: Similar opening waves of vanilla and honey, with the arrival of prominent caramel now. Stronger orange citrus taste now than before. Dark chocolate (with that classic bitterness). Cinnamon and nutmeg. Something vaguely earthy, but I can’t quite place it (ginger? not quite). Simply put, it seems like a more heavily-oaked version of Harmony, especially with that lingering bitterness – which builds on each sip, unfortunately. Less of the delicate perfumy/incense notes than the regular Harmony (but they may be drowned out by the earthy wood tones). Decent mouthfeel, slightly silky in texture.

Finish: Short, but longer than regular Harmony. Nutmeg. Bitter apple. That ginger-like note from the palate is prominent, with a vague wet cardboard note. The oaky bitterness lingers the longest – rather unpleasant, frankly. Again, the complexity is up a bit, but this is the most disappointing part of the experience.

This “master’s select” version of the NAS Hibiki is no match for the age statement versions of old. It lacks the traditional subtlety of Hibiki, and seems to have gone for a flavour-shortcut, by exposing a younger blend to heavier wood influence.

If you like an earthy, oaky structure in your whisky (i.e. virgin wood), then this might be a blend for you.  But for most casual whisky drinkers, I expect standard Harmony would be preferred. For me, some of the more delicate characteristics of Harmony are lost here, and too much oaky bitterness has been added.

There are few reviews of this whisky, but Dramtastic gave it a positive review with an average score (compared to a very low score for standard Harmony). On Reddit, _xile also gave it an average score (and greatly preferred it over standard Harmony).  Josh the Whiskey Jug get it a slightly lower assessment than Harmony, and muaddib99 of Reddit gave it a much lower score than standard Harmony.

I’m in this latter camp, and give this a lower score than Harmony. That said, I think the Meta-Critic average scores are a little low for both NAS Hibiki expressions. In choosing between them, it really comes done to how much you like a woody presence in your whisky. But I recommend you start with standard Harmony – or the age-statement versions of course, if you can find them.

Nikka From The Barrel

Another omission on my part – I recently realized that I had not reviewed this staple of the Nikka no-age-statment (NAS) line, Nikka Whisky From The Barrel. The occasion of opening my second bottle seemed like a good opportunity to plug this obvious hole in my review catalog.

First thing to clear up is the rather odd name – this is not a select barrel single malt expression.  Instead, it is a blend of Japanese malt whisky from Yoichi distillery and grain whisky from Miyagikyo distillery, which has been married in oak casks (as opposed to the more common method of giant stainless-steel vatting tanks). Hence the name – it is coming from the blending barrel, not the maturing barrel.

Unusually, it is bottled at near-cask strength (51.4% ABV), which is rather high for a Japanese whisky). The source of casks used is not reported, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some refill sherry ones found their way into the mix.

This expression is a staple of the travel retail duty-free circuit. You won’t typically find it in the U.S. because it comes in the non-standard 500mL bottle size (although I’ve also seen the humongous 3L size in my travels as well). The bottle is distinctive, with its squat and stubby appearance – it looks like something you would have found in a pre-1950s apothecary. Not available at the LCBO, it is readily available in BC  ($64 CAD, plus taxes).

Let’s see how it compares to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.38 ± 0.59 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Kakubin (Suntory Whisky): 8.15 ± 0.85 on 4 reviews ($$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.45 ± 0.16 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.59 ± 0.49 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.80 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.79 ± 0.22 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.65 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super: 8.00 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Taketsuru NAS: 8.24 ± 0.38 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Suntory Old Whisky: 8.31 ± 0.33 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.21 ± 0.46 on 6 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.98 ± 0.43 on 6 reviews ($$$)

As you can see above, Nikka FTB is a top-scorer for this category, scoring higher than even more expensive premium NAS expressions like Nikka Coffey Grain and Hibiki Harmony.  My bottle comes from travel duty free.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Brown sugar sweetness, with a bit of honey. Fruity, with apricots, plums (light and dark colored), red grapes and a good amount of banana. Caramel and vanilla. Cinnamon and a little all-spice. Some ethanol heat, but not bad for the ABV. No real off notes. Adding water brings up the vanilla and caramel (but oddly not the fruit).

Palate: Very creamy, with sweet caramel and toffee notes. Brown sugar again. Fruits are there, but seem a bit tart (and joined by some lemon citrus). Oakier than the nose suggested. Great mouthfeel, creamy and granular at the same time (i.e., creamed sugar). Packs a punch though – ethanol fumes come back at the end, so you will want to try this with a bit of water. Gets drier near the end of the palate.  With water, you get some taming of the ethanol heat – but go lightly here, or you will also diminish the mouthfeel. If anything, it brings up the tartness more than the sweetness (which is unusual).

Finish:  Medium. The sweet caramel note is there, with some lighter spices now (nutmeg). Some oaky bitterness shows up over time, persisting longer than the sweet notes. With water, I get a very faint hint of smoke.

Nikka From The BarrelFrankly, I would not have immediately pegged this as a blend – it seems malt-heavy (although the higher strength may be contributing to that perception). This one really needs a little water (and I emphasize, little) to open up all the flavours and tame the ethanol burn.

It’s a great expression for the price, having garnered plenty of fans. Very positive are Dave of Whisky Advocate,  Nathan the Scotch Noob, Thomas of Whisky Saga, and Dramtastic of Japanese Whisky Review (depending on the batch). Indeed, almost all reviewers in my database give this expression an above-average score, except for a few like Jason of In Search of Elegance and Ruben of Whisky Notes. Certainly my top pick for NAS Japanese whiskies in retail travel duty free.

Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999/2000

Ah, the fabled Karuizawa distillery.  Established in 1955, Karuizawa was one of the early pioneers of Japanese whisky production. Unusually for a Japanese whisky maker, they focused mainly on sherry cask aging. It was always a relatively small operation however, and production was eventually mothballed in 2000 (with the distillery permanently closing in 2011).

Karuizawa was located in a small town on the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Asama. Coming from the end of production, this Karuizawa Asama expression is a multi-vintage bottling of 77 casks from the final 1999 and 2000 vintages. It was bottled in 2012 by the company that bought out all the remaining casks when the distillery closed, Number One Drinks in the UK. Sadly, this is the likely the last Karuizawa release we are ever going to see. Note that this edition is different from an earlier Spirit of Asama release, through The Whisky Exchange.

I believe Karuizawa Asama was mainly released in Europe. It is bottled at 46% ABV, and the casks used were predominantly sherry butts (although some bourbon casks may have been included). As opposed to the expensive final age-statement Karuizawas produced under their own name, this Asama expression was initially sold at a budget price (for Karuizawa stock, that is). Since then, prices for the few remaining Asama bottles have skyrocketed (which is why it currently earns a $$$$$+ in my database).

But somehow, the Dr Jekyll’s pub in Oslo, Norway, recently managed to get some in at the original low price. Rather than gouge their customers, they offered it at 137 NOK (just over $21 CAD) for a standard 4 cl (1.35 oz) pour.  That puts it at the same price point as an entry-level Scottish malt in the bar (note that liquor in Norway is among the most heavily taxed in Europe). I must say, even the bartenders were pretty surprised when they rang it up for me – all the other Karuizawas they have (including several OBs and a custom cask just for Dr Jekyll’s) are in the 400-800 NOK range (i.e., $65-$130 CAD a shot)!

I don’t track many Karuizawa vintages in my database, given their rarity and cost.  But here’s how Asama compares to some other Japanese whiskies (especially those with some sherry finishing).

Hakushu Sherry Cask: 8.96 ± 0.43 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt The Joker: 9.24 ± 0.22 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.27 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Karuizawa 1990 Sherry Butt: 9.00 ± 0.30 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Karuizawa Asama Vintages 1999-2000: 8.63 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve: 8.63 ± 0.32 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Yamazaki Puncheon: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Yamazaki Sherry Cask (all vintages): 9.07 ± 0.30 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Yamazaki 18yo: 9.14 ± 0.21 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)

There is clearly higher than usual variation in reviews of this particular Asama whisky (as there are with a couple of the other sherry cask finished Japanese whiskies).  That’s always an interesting feature to explore further, and I’ll come back to this point at the end of the review.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Now that’s a bit different! You get the obvious hit of sherry (with figs, raisins, and nuts), but with attenuated smokey notes (spent matchsticks, extinguished campfire) and just a slight touch of peat. Very much a rancio profile – how odd for a Japanese whisky. Layered, but in a really unusual way that is hard to describe (“atypical” was the first comment in my shorthand tasting notes). A touch of lemon. Some salt. Slightly floral (hint of apple blossoms). Really distinctive – the closest thing in my experience would be some independent bottlings of Highland Park.

Palate: Like the nose, complex and layered. Definitely a drier type of sherry here, with dried fruits dominating. I do get some sweet syrupy notes however (brown sugar mainly, touch of maple). Spent matchsticks again (I think some people describe this dry smokey note as “gunpowder”). Chewy texture, great mouthfeel.‎ No real burn to speak of.  Certainly leaves a very favourable initial impression in the mouth – you don’t want to swallow! Doesn’t need any water, but a small amount brings up the sweetness slightly without affecting the other characteristics.

Finish: Nice and long, with slow lingering smoke. No real bitterness to my taste buds (YMMV, see comments below). Citrusy, but not a lot of variety on the fruit front, just a lingering sweetness (i.e., more juicy fruit gum than actual fruits). A bit of tobacco and leather. A touch more complexity here would have made it outstanding, but it is still excellent for the Japanese class.

AsamaA quality‎ dram through and through. Its atypical-ness is something you are either likely to love (as I do), or feel frustrated by (i.e., it could seem “unbalanced” to some). I wish I could find a bottle for what the pub paid for it – but that’s highly wishful thinking. Instead, I made do with going back to Dr Jekyll’s the next night and having a second pour. 🙂

Never having expected to try it, I didn’t know much about this one ahead of time. As such, it is ironic that I had just finished the Mortlach 18 year old in the bar before trying Asama. Based on my earlier review of the Mortlach Rare Old, my description of the Asama here is similar to the profile that I would have expected from the Mortlach. But the Asama blew it out of the water on all fronts – nose, palate and finish. The Mortlach just seemed “closed” and toned down to me in direct comparison.

Those who are sensitive to sulphury notes may find the Asama a bit off-putting. As a discussed in the Mortlach Rare Old review, sensitivity to this “biological danger signal” is quite variable among different genetic populations. I suspect some of the sherry casks used here may have suffered from over-sulphuring. To me, that just introduced a distinctive character, but YMMV.

As you would expect give the above, variation among reviewers for this one is high. Like me, Serge of Whisky Fun loves it. Michio of Japan Whisky Reviews and My Annoying Opinions are conflicted on this one, and both give it lower than typical scores. The guys at Quebec Whisky are a good example the the range on this one: top marks from Patrick, above-average scores from Andre and Martin, and a low score from RV. If you get the chance to try it yourself, I highly recommend you give it shot.

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