Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2018

Hey, look who’s not breaking his foot this year! Last year’s Whiskies of the World Expo was cut extremely short for me, but this year, safety was the name of the game. (Reminder: Don’t text while on the stairs, kids!)

I spent a lot more time than usual on American whiskeys this year, reflecting an amazing surge of craft distilleries appearing at WotW as well as a relative dearth of Scotch. That said, some of the Scottish drams I sampled were some of the best whiskies I’ve ever had — particularly Glencadam’s glorious 25 year old, to which I gave a spot rating of A+, thanks to its delightfully bright texture and fruit-forward palate. There was plenty of whiskey to like in America and beyond, too, but if I had to pick one product I’d like to sample in more depth, it’d have to be Healdsburg-based Alley 6’s bitters made from candy cap mushrooms they forage themselves on the Sonoma Coast.

Thoughts on everything tasted follow, as always.

Scotch

GlenDronach 12 Years Old – Bold sherry, nutty, with spice, but vegetal on the back end. B
GlenDronach 18 Years Old – Richer and better balanced, with big spices and some chocolate notes. A-
Ancnoc 24 Years Old
– A surprising amount of grain here for a 24 year old, with some orange peel notes; perfectly approachable but not overwhelming. B+
Balblair 1983
– Some smoke, barrel char, vanilla and chocolate. Nice balance. A
Glencadam 25 Years Old
– Bright and fresh, with a Sauternes character to it; some coconut, a little chewy; very lush and rounded. Best of show. A+
SIA Scotch Whisky – This has clearly been refined a bit over the years, now showing a youthful but silky caramel and vanilla notes; quite elegant for a blend. A-
The Exclusive Grain Cameronbridge 1992 25 Years Old
– One of the best single grains I’ve experienced in years; chocolate dominates, with a big sherry finish. A
The Exclusive Malts “An Orkney” 2000 17 Years Old
– I’m guessing Highland Park, then; traditionally built, but quite oaky. B+
The Macallan Edition No. 3
– A disappointment; a huge, bold body for Macallan, but surprisingly hot. B+
Highland Park Dark 
– HP in first-fill sherry barrels; the name is no lie, but the sherry takes it so far it ends up medicinal; overdone. B+
Highland Park Full Volume
– Chewy, with gunpowder and grain notes. A bit dull in the end. B
Alexander Murray Bunnahabhain 28 Years Old Cask Strength
– Lightly peated, with a solid Madeira note; gently floral. B+
Tobermory 21 Years Old Manzanilla Finish Cask Strength
– Blodly spice up front, but a bit raw and vegetal on the back end. B+
Deanston 20 Years Old Oloroso Finish Cask Strength
– Big grain base, with notes of cotton balls. B-
Ledaig 1996
– Punchy, with lingering grain and plenty of sweetness. B+

American

Belle Meade Mourvedre Cask Finish – A very rare offering that sold out in 2 days, it’s a beauty of a blend of wine and wood influence. A-
Belle Meade Imperial Stout “Black Belle” Finish – Bold and hoppy, notes of peanut butter, tons of fun. A
Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye
– Soothing menthol notes, but a little mushroomy funk. B+
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 2
– Wheated. Silky but rustic at times, with ample spice. A-
Sonoma County Distilling West of Kentucky Bourbon No. 3
– High-rye. Youthful, some vegetal notes peeking through, showing promise. B+
Old Forester Statesman
– Special bottling for that Kingsman movie last year. Big chocolate notes dominate, with vanilla and clove. Classic Kentucky. B+
Amador Double Barrel Bourbon
– Quite sweet, with candied pecan notes, vanilla finish. A-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Czar
– A burly whiskey made from imperial stout. Lots of smoke here, which would be fine but for the very green character. Overly malty and unbalanced. B-
Seven Stills of San Francisco Frambooze
– Racy berry notes in this whiskey, which is distilled from raspberry ale, plus notes of walnuts and dark chocolate. Lots of fun. A-
High West Bourye (2018)
– A classic whiskey, gorgeous with deep vanilla, spice, and chocolate notes. A
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 5.4
– The deep raisin profile remains a classic, showcasing both power and grace. A-
Do Good Distillery California Bourbon
– Very rustic, gritty with pepper and raw grain. C+
Do Good Distillery Cherrywood Smoked Whiskey
– Pungent, mainly showcasing pet food notes. D
Widow Jane Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old
– Absolutely massive, with notes of minerals, orange marmalade, creme brulee, and milk chocolate. A-
Widow Jane Rye Oak & Apple Wood
– Youthful, the apple really shows itself. B
Alley 6 Single Malt Whiskey 
– Rustic, pungent, but showing promise. B
Alley 6 Rye Whiskey
– Pretty, quite floral. A-
Mosswood Corbeaux Barrel Bourbon 6 Years Old – A private bottling for a SF retailer; a rustic style whiskey. B
Mosswood Sour Ale Barrel
– An old favorite, gorgeous with apple spices and a delightful, deft balance. A

Japanese

Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt – A young malt, gentle but simple, florals and biscuits. B+
Kurayoshi Matsui Whiskey Pure Malt 8 Years Old – Surprisingly a bit thin, though more well-rounded. B
Fukano 12 Years Old
– Heavy greenery notes, drinking overblown tonight. B

Other Stuff

Alley 6 86’d Candy Cap Bitters – Insane mushroom intensity, really beautiful stuff. A
Mosswood Night Rum Scotch Barrel
– This is a rum, finished in Ardbeg whisky barrels. What!? The combination of sweet and smoke is almost impossible to describe; working on a sample to paint a bigger picture of this madness. A-
Mosswood Sherry Barrel Irish Whiskey
– A 3 year old Cooley Irish, sherry finished in the U.S. Fairly classic. A-
Amrut Double Cask
– Port finished Amrut from India; peat overpowers the sweetness it wants to show off. B

Review: Ohishi Kaito’s Cask, Islay Cask, and Tokubetsu Reserve Whisky

Ohishi made a splash in 2016 when it arrived in the U.S. after over 140 years of producing rice-based whisky. We reviewed its inaugural offerings at the time. Today we turn our attention to three new releases, each more exotic than the last.

Ohishi Kaito’s Cask Whisky – This is a special selection of Ohishi’s Sherry Cask, which we reviewed previously, hand selected by Chris Udhe of GRC Imports in celebration of the birth of his son Kaito Uhde. A nose of sandalwood and ash keeps things close to the vest, but on the palate, things change considerably. Here, notes of butterscotch and vanilla are amplified by sherry-driven orange blossoms and cloves. The finish is sharp, with lingering notes of almond, nutmeg, and more mixed florals. It’s engaging and intriguing through and through, but all filtered through a light and lively body. 83.6 proof. B+ / $80

Ohishi Islay Cask Whisky – No big surprise here: This is Ohishi’s Brandy Cask whisky, fully matured then finished for 8 months in a former Islay Scotch cask. This combination presents an immediately curious combination of aromas and flavors. The nose is immediately smoky, but also sweet, with a barbecue sauce kick and notes of slightly muddy river vegetation. The palate is a different animal, offering a meaty character up-front followed by notes of raisins and plum wine. The smoke becomes more evident as the finish develops, which brings a lighter hand of peat to bear on the fruitier elements of the palate. A little weird, but quite a fun little spirit. 83.4 proof. B+ / $90

Ohishi Tokubetsu Reserve Whisky – This is Ohishi’s highest-end spirit to date, and its first U.S. release with any sort of age statement. 36% of the spirit is bottled from 7 year old casks, 35% from 10 year old casks, and 29% from ancient 27 year old casks. All of these appear to be sherry barrels. A nose of old sherry is immediate here, nutty foremost, with notes of wood oil, some funky petrol character, and a hint of beef bouillon. The palate is heavy, despite the relatively low abv, loaded to the gills with notes of roasted chestnuts, furniture polish, and old Amontillado-style sherry. What develops over time are notes of old, well-ripened fruit, leather, and a bit of old spice… like, literally, Old Spice cologne. Somehow this works fairly well, coming across a lot like an old single grain Scotch whisky, still redolent of the earth but slowly finding its uniqueness. 81 proof. B+ / $220

grcimports.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2017

This year’s Whiskies of the World was shaping up beautifully, but a tragic tumble down the stairs (PSA: Don’t text and navigate staircases!) cut my evening very short. I had time to taste only a handful of spirits before leaving for treatment — shout-out to the crack ER team at Kaiser San Rafael! — but I did make it out with my tasting notes, at least.

I promise to make it up to you at WotW 2018. Until then, thoughts…

Scotch

Highland Park Fire Edition / A / drinking beautifully, light and supple, with lively floral overtones
Deanston 18 Years Old / A / a big surprise; bold and heavy with caramel, with shocking depth
Glengoyne Cask Strength / B+ / ample youth and cereal notes, with a light, sweet lemon finish
Compass Box Three Year Old Deluxe / B / nothing fancy, young and mushroomy; what’s the fuss about?
Glencadam 25 Years Old / B+ / quiet, with light vanilla and fruit notes; subtle
anCnoc 24 Years Old / A / chewy, loaded with raisins and cherry notes, plums on the back end

America

Low Gap Bavarian Wheat Whiskey Sauternes Finish / B+ / exotic, tropical fruit, dark toasted bread, and golden raisins
Low Gap 2013 Port Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / A- / chewy Port notes, with lots of heavy raisin and toasty oak notes; 4 years old now — no bottling decision made yet
Low Cap 2012 Cognac Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / B+ / hotter on the nose, with less barrel influence; needs more time; 5 years old now — to be bottled at age 8
High West Rendezvous Rye / A / always a standout; old rye with lots of apple and spice, classically structured
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 4.6 / A / mint and cherry notes, with some chocolate — a lovely rendition of the modern classic MWND

Japan

Fukano Whisky / B / single-distilled rice whisky; big cereal character surprises, slightly vegetal
Fukano Whisky Single Cask / B+ / a step up, with bolder apple and raisin, citrus oil notes
Ohishi Whisky Single Sherry Cask / A- / bold sherry  character with the lightness of a rice base; lovely combination

Book Review: Whisky Rising

Obsessive Japanese whisky fans are no doubt familiar with the writing of Stefan Van Eycken via his website, Nonjatta. It was one of the first and most comprehensive resources on Japanese whisky available on the internet, and Van Eycken and his intrepid staff diligently scour the island for the rarest of bottles. They have even curated a few highly coveted limited editions of their own.

The product of over a decade’s worth of intensive research and scholarship, Whisky Rising is an immersive, nearly intimidating 400 pages of reviews, recipes, history and infographics beautifully presented with considered layout and design choices. Van Eycken’s writing style makes it easy to get lost in the rich amount of information provided. Each chapter is informative without relying heavily on the stylings of academic prose.

The biggest obstacle of Whisky Rising is the relatability of its content. Not any fault of Van Eycken’s, but the collective availability of these rare and precious bottles stateside presents a massive degree of unintended difficulty to anyone actually hoping to taste these spirits. Many of these gems only pop up via auctions or private sales. Even basic entry-level expressions are scarce in public supply, especially when compared to the availability of single malt, bourbon, and other whiskies. Demand for Japanese whisky is currently at fever pitch, and there appears to be no remedy to meet market cravings anytime in the foreseeable future. Unless reading while overseas or the beneficiary of an amazing retail resource, Whisky Rising reads less as a reference guide and more like a holiday wish catalog, future vacation planner, or adventurous bucket list.

Probably the most in-depth almanac on Japanese whisky ever committed to the English language, it is everything you would ever possibly care to know about Japanese whisky, but didn’t know to ask. Between this and Dominic Roskrow’s excellent Whisky Japan, there are few stones left to overturn. Both would serve well on the bookshelf of any hobbyist, casual or serious.

A / $25 / BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON

Tasting Report: WhiskyLIVE Washington DC 2017

With so many whiskeys out there to try, from distillers big and small, whiskey festivals can easily be overwhelming. WhiskyLIVE offers a good balance of options, showcasing industry heavy-hitters along with up-and-coming American (and several international) craft distillers. It’s small in comparison to events like WhiskyFest, in both attendance and vendors, so your options are a little more limited. The size, however, does remove some of the annoyance that can come with wading through crowds of people, many of whom are just looking for their piece of the only bottle of Pappy at the Buffalo Trace table.

There was no Buffalo Trace table at this year’s WhiskyLIVE in Washington, DC. In its place, however, were many standout offerings from craft distillers, including Smooth Ambler, Westland, and Sonoma County Distilling Co., as well as a few surprisingly good bottles from regions of the world not known (yet) for their whiskey.

Brief reviews follow.

Scotch

Craigellachie 17 Years Old / B+ / buttery and chewy with honey and anise on the palate
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / B+ / light for an older sherried whisky; warm cereal notes with raisin and citrus on the palate
Aberlour 18 Years Old / B+ / well-balanced with dried fruit and a little dark chocolate on the palate
Aberfeldy 21 Years Old / B+ / malty with a good helping of vanilla
Royal Brackla 16 Years Old / B+ / spicy for a 16 year old with cocoa and raisin on the palate
Talisker 18 Years Old / A- / a perfectly balanced single malt; notes of smoke and ginger with a subtle spice

Irish

Glendalough Double Barrel Irish Whiskey / B+ / ex-bourbon- and oloroso-finished; a little hot with layers of vanilla bean and dried fruit
Glendalough Single Malt Irish Whiskey 13 Years Old / A / a fantastic sipper; the ex-bourbon cask gives this one tons of caramel and toffee
Kinahan’s Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Years Old / A- / incredibly fruity with citrus and apple on the palate; a biscuit-like finish

American

Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon / B+ / thin but flavorful for such a young wheater with notes of buttered popcorn and caramel sauce; looking forward to its older brothers
Smooth Ambler Old Scout American Whiskey / B+ / good heat with notes of caramel corn and toasted marshmallow
Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel 11 Years Old / A / the latest gift shop release; thick and honeyed; full of brown sugar and cinnamon with a great chew
Breckenridge Distiller’s High Proof Blend / B+ / molasses on the nose; spicy and oak-forward with subtle baking spice notes
Westland Garryana Native Oak Series 2016 / B+ / a little thin but well-balanced; sweet on the palate with dark red fruit, smoke, and faint sea salt
Westland Winter Release / A- / light but silky with good heat; smoked bacon, pepper, and red licorice on the palate
Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Bourbon 9 Years Old / B+ / hot for 110 proof; caramel apple and clove on the palate with a somewhat short finish
Sonoma County Distilling Co. Cherrywood Rye Whiskey / B+ / bright red fruit on the palate and a nice, warming rye spice
Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye 10 Years Old / B+ / minimal rye spice and very little heat; oily and fruity but with a lingering medicinal note I can’t quite place
Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Cask Strength / B- / grassy with loads of menthol and a drying finish; the youth really shows at a higher proof
Bainbridge Battle Point Whiskey / B / cereal nose; very sweet and a little hot with notes of mint and fudge

International

Paul John Classic Select Cask Indian Single Malt Whisky / A- / rich and flavorful; honeyed palate with great baking spice notes
Paul John Peated Select Cask Indian Single Malt Whisky / B+ / balanced and enjoyable; classic peat smoke and sweet cereal
Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky / B+ / noticeably young but full of light sherry and bright citrus flavors
Lark Single Malt Whisky Cask Strength / A- / big for such a youthful whiskey; thick and sweet with wonderful notes of ripe peach and dried fruit
Nomad Outland Whisky / B+ / the Pedro Ximenez finish is all over this one with raisin notes and a little smoke

Review: Nikka Pure Malt Black

Japanese whisky producer Nikka has an impressive range of offerings highlighting different styles of whisky from single malts, to various blends, and two different grain whiskies. For their blended malts, Nikka offers the Taketsuru Pure Malt and an additional line of Pure Malts labeled by color (corresponding to their particular blend) and packaged in a unique, smaller (500ml) laboratory-style bottle. Some in this line are getting harder to find, but Nikka Pure Malt Black (the best of the bunch, in my opinion) should still be easily found overseas and in travel retail markets. Like the Taketsuru Pure Malt, Nikka Pure Malt Black is a blended malt, made from a combination of whisky from both Nikka distilleries: Miyagikyo and Yoichi. Technically a vatting of only malted whisky, it is not like most traditional Scottish blends, which mix in grain whiskeys with the single malts.

The honey-colored Pure Malt Black struggles a little to reveal much complexity on the nose. But with a little time, the initial smoke, peat, and cereal notes develop into peach and plum with a very slight grassiness. It’s mild but inviting. The palate is less subdued and showcases toasted oak, more wood smoke, and toffee with a balanced peat underlying it all. A slight citrus, almost lemon quality, is muted but it’s there too. The finish is medium length, sweet, and leathery with a gentle heat and fading black pepper notes. There’s clearly more of the peaty Yoichi in this blend than the fruitier and brighter Miyagikyo, but the flavors are exceptionally well integrated.

Nikka Pure Malt Black achieved some fame back in 2014 when Jim Murray gave it a Liquid Gold Award in his annual Whisky Bible. I’m not sure I would call it “liquid gold,” but it is superior in many ways to the Taketsuru Pure Malt.

86 proof.

A- / $50 (500ml) / nikka.com 

Review: Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt

Japanese whisky has not been spared from the trend among distilleries of coping with high demand by transitioning to No Age Statement (NAS) offerings. Nikka’s Taketsuru Pure Malt now joins the likes of Miyagikyo, also in the Nikka portfolio, as well as Yamazaki, Hibiki, and Hakushu (from rival Suntory) to transition formerly 12-year-old offerings to NAS for those buying at the entry level.

Taketsuru Pure Malt is named in honor of Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky, and like the former age-stated version, it is made from a combination of whisky from both of Nikka’s distilleries: Yoichi and Miyagikyo. The whisky is matured in a combination of sherry butts, bourbon barrels, and new American oak. It is considered a blended malt, but unlike classic Scottish blends which mix different types of whisky, Taketsuru Pure Malt is technically a vatting of exclusively malted whisky. But enough about all of that.

The color on the Taketsuru Pure Malt is very light amber, bordering on gold. On the nose, initially bland cereal notes quickly give way to stronger aromas of green grape, freshly cut grass, and lemon peel. Although it’s not wholly apparent on the nose, the palate immediately shows evidence of the sherry cask maturation with a gentle spice and subtle, ripe plum, followed by layers of toffee and butterscotch imparted by the used bourbon and new American oak casks. Overall, the palate is light but the mouthfeel is surprisingly syrupy, with a medium-to-long finish that fades into notes of pear and orange blossom honey.

The NAS version of Taketsuru Pure Malt lacks some of the balance and complexity of the 12-year-old Pure Malt; particularly its subtle smokiness. Still, if this is the price the drinking public must pay to see more of this Japanese whisky on the shelves, we’re not giving up much.

86 proof.

B+ / $60 / nikka.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!

Review: Ohishi Brandy Cask and Sherry Single Cask Whisky

ohishi-whisky-large

The southern Japanese island of Kyushu is home to the Kuma River, and it’s here that the Ohishi distillery, founded in 1872, turns rice into whiskey. Much like Kikori, Ohishi eschews the traditional barley for something that Japan knows well: rice, which is partially malted before fermentation. This ain’t Uncle Ben’s, mind you: Says GRC Imports, which is now bringing Ohishi into the country, “In addition to mochi rice from Kumamoto, they also use gohyakumanishi which is grown with an organic farming method that involves koi carp to control weeds in paddy fields.”

Sounds fancy!

Today we look at two of the company’s newly imported expressions, both NAS offerings.

Ohishi Brandy Cask Regular Whisky – This is a vatting of a small number of casks that were formerly used for brandy (unknown which or from where) for an indeterminate amount of time — though based on the pale color, not for long at all. This is a light and fragrant spirit, with a nose reminscent of very dry sherry, filtered through a bit of sugar and anise. The palate features marzipan notes, the lightest touch of sweet caramel, and another wispy hint of licorice on the back end. This expression has a much lighter touch than Kikori, with a milder body, less sweetness, and less of a distinct fruit character. While some of the aromatics invite a comparison to sake, it isn’t nearly as direct a connection as it is with Kikori. 83.2 proof. B / $75

Ohishi Sherry Single Cask Whisky Cask #1257 (pictured) – This is a single cask release from a first-fill sherry butt, a brilliant copper in color and a dramatic departure from the light gold of the Brandy Cask release. Nutty and a bit chocolatey on the nose, it offers a big oloroso sherry aroma — lighter on the citrus and heavier on the baking spice. The body pushes forward with the motif, striking the palate immediately with notes of spiced and roasted nuts, coffee, and dates. After a time, it moves on as the finish develops, showing a somewhat more exotic, eastern characters of incense and spice bazaars. All told, it’s really engaging stuff that takes what we’ve come to expect from a heavily sherried profile and totally makes it its own. 86.6 proof. 506 bottles made. A- / $75

grcimports.com

Review: Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt and Nikka Yoichi Single Malt

miyagikyo_750ml_export

Japanese single malt whisky fans, the end is here. Age statements are vanishing faster than polar ice, and in their stead are arriving a series of NAS releases to replace them. Nikka is the latest distillery to do the deed, replacing a variety of the age-stated whiskies from its Miyagikyo and Yoichi distilleries, which are long since sold out, with these no-age versions, the new reality for Japanese whisky for the foreseeable future.

Both are 90 proof and aged in a variety of cask types, including bourbon and sherry barrels.

Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt – Miyagikyo is based in Sendai, fairly north on the main island of Japan. This lightly peated malt is simple but pleasant and easygoing. The nose offers some wispy smoke plus gentle grain, along with hints of fruity apricot (plus some more pungent dried apricot). The palate largely follows suit, adding on more citrus, torched banana, and nougat, all laced throughout with salty, smoky seaweed notes. There is a great balance here between sweet and savory, but the whisky lacks much in the way of depth to back that up, giving way to a relatively short, though perfectly pleasant, finish. B+ / $80

yoichi_750ml_exportNikka Yoichi Single Malt – From Hokkaido, a distillery on an island to the north of the Japanese mainland. This is a somewhat more heavily peated whisky, its smoky character rather more blatant and hamfisted from start to finish. Wood smoke dominates the nose, some black pepper character hidden in there somewhere. On the palate, again the muddy smoke notes tend to dominate, dominating some light bubblegum character, hints of citrus and green apple, plus less fleshed-out granary notes. A little Madeira on the finish. Overall, this is a straightforward, peated whisky that just doesn’t seem to have had enough time to develop, both to temper its more raw smoke elements and to build up the fruit to create a more nuanced core. Fair enough, but it’s just too immature to command this kind of price. B / $80

nikka.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016

032

WhiskyFest is always a great opportunity to get a look at new releases — and pre-sampling products I won’t be able to formally review for a few weeks or month is my favorite part of the show. WhiskyFest 2016 was shaping up to be a windfall for these kinds of releases, including Ardbeg Dark Cove, Redbreast Lustau, Glenmorangie Tarlogan, and Writers Tears Cask Strength, among others. Alas, none of these whiskies (and more) ever made it to the show floor. The Writers Tears broke in transit, I was told. The Lustau was sitting on the back bar, unopened and would only be served at the masterclass session. As for Dark Cove and Tarlogan, well, no one seemed to know a thing. They just weren’t there. Making matters worse, more than once attendees complained to me that vendors had long ago run out of certain whiskies, only to have me tell them I’d just sampled the very same spirit minutes earlier.

I can’t and don’t fault the festival for these issues — and I hope it was just bad luck this year — but I also can’t help but feel disappointed to have left without trying all of these spirits.

Anyway, I did manage to suss out a few new and unusual bottlings, including some all-stars, though I opted not to stand in the 150-person strong line for a sip of Pappy Van Winkle this year. Very brief thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2016

Scotch

Glenfiddich 26 Years Old / A- / a classic expression of old Glenfiddich; malty and biscuity, with a sugar cookie finish
031Usquaebach An Ard Ri Cask Strength Flagon / B+ / a 57.1% abv release of this vatted malt; bold and herbal, with lemon peel notes
The Deveron 12 Years Old / B- / Dewar’s-owned; restrained to the point of being muted on the palate
Royal Brackla 16 Years Old / B / quite malty, rough around the edges
Old Pulteney 21 Years Old / A- / a classic, but surprisingly sweet, its maritime note dialed down; just a touch of smoke on the back
Wolfburn Aurora / B / chewy with woody overtones; a bit youthful
The Macallan Reflexion / B+ / a $1200 monster from Macallan, aromatic with dried fruits, but a bit hoary on the back end; I’d have trouble mustering up this kind of coin
Highland Park 18 Years Old / A / always worthwhile, rich and malty with plenty of dark fruit notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask / B- / not getting much wine character; restrained and thin at times
Auchentoshan 21 Years Old / B- / heavy with grain, much more youthful than expected
Gordon & MacPhail Linkwood 15 Years Old / A- / notes of burnt bread and biscuits; lots of malt and wood influence
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / highlight of the show; remarkably gentle but studded with golden raisins and a lovely simple sweetness
Alexander Murray & Co. Dalmore 15 Years Old / B- / oddly smoky, dull on the finish
Alexander Murray & Co. Benrinnes 19 Years Old / B / malty, with big nougat notes and some savory spices
Alexander Murray & Co. Monumental Blend 30 Years Old / B / rounded with ample grain character; somewhat grassy

American

Westland Garryana / B / a bruising whiskey, smoky with meaty, pork rind notes; full review in the works
Wild Turkey Decades / B+ / ancient Wild Turkey, and it tastes like it – wood on top of wood
Stranahan’s Snowflake Batch 16 / A- / Port notes shine here; very sweet but drinking beautifully now
Parker’s Heritage Collection 24 Years Old Bottled-in-Bond / A / another highlight of the show that I’m looking forward to reviewing in full; initially surprisingly fruit, which fades to a drying finish with notes of camphor
Jefferson’s Ocean-Aged Bourbon / B+ / finally a chance to see what the fuss was about, which turns out to be tons of wood and some toffee notes; not even a hint of the sea

033Japanese

Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / smoldering with burnt sugar and lingering sweetness; sultry

Irish

Redbreast 21 Years Old / A- / lovely pot still character, punchy yet balanced

Other

Dos Maderas Luxus / A- / a very high-end rum aged 10 years in the Caribbean, then 5 years in Spain in sherry casks; the results are extremely powerful with fruit and sweetness, notes of figs, raisins, and cherries

Review: Suntory Whisky Toki

SuntoryWhiskyToki_Beauty2

Japan’s Suntory is well known for its single malts, but it also blends whisky from time to time. With Toki (“time” in Japanese), it’s trying something a little different. Specifically, Toki is a blend of a number of Suntory’s other whiskies, including spirits from Hakushu Distillery, Yamazaki Distillery, and Chita Distillery.

Some addition information from the distillery:

While Suntory Whisky Toki respects tradition, it also challenges whisky convention by rethinking the hierarchy of its components. Suntory blends often use Yamazaki malts as their key component. Inspired by the spirits of innovation, the House of Suntory’s fourth Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo took a fresh approach with Suntory Whisky Toki, selecting the singular Hakushu American white oak cask malt whisky — with its unique freshness, mellowness and spectacular green apple notes — as one of the blend’s two pillars. To complement that selection, Fukuyo chose Chita heavy-type grain whisky as the blend’s second pillar, adding a clean taste with notes of sweetness and vanilla. By pairing these seemingly dissimilar but deeply accordant whiskies, Fukuyo’s insight overturned the old relationship between malt and grain and created a blend that is both groundbreaking and timeless.

Traditionally in Suntory blends, grain whiskies have played merely a supporting role, acting as a broth or dashi to accentuate key malts. But the unrivalled sophistication and wide range of grain whiskies produced at Suntory’s Chita distillery led Shinji Fukuyo to rethink that role. He saw these whiskies, with their exquisite balance of complexity, subtlety and refinement, not as a scaffold for the heroic malt to ascend but as true heroes in their own right.

This unique encounter between Hakushu malt and Chita grain whiskies gives Suntory Whisky Toki its silky taste and vivid character. To give the blend greater depth and complexity, Fukuyo carefully selected two Yamazaki malts. Yamazaki American white oak cask malt whisky harmonizes the Hakushu and Chita components, while bringing roundness and reinforcing the sweetness of Chita heavy-type grain whisky with peach and custard aromas. Finally, Yamazaki Spanish oak cask malt whisky adds woody and bittersweet notes to the blend.

Well, color me curious. Let’s give Toki a try. Here’s how it comes across.

Toki is surprisingly light in hue, reflecting what must be significant youth at its core. The nose is also quite light and spry, fragrant with mixed grains, a whiff of smoke, bouquets of fresh flowers, and notes of incense and jasmine. It’s all very clean, a gentle counterpoint to some of the world’s more intense single malts.

The palate is equally light and fresh, offering sweetened cereal notes, green apple, brown sugar, and a touch of spearmint. On the finish, it’s more of the same, though the sweeter notes tend to dominate along with touches of ginger and cinnamon.

There’s nothing fancy about Toki, but Suntory has put a lot of care into blending a very light and gentle spirit that surprises with its level of success. This lightness reminds me quite a bit of the recently-reviewed Kikori, again proving that intricate and complex flavors need not come from heavy-handed production methods.

86 proof.

A- / $40 / suntory.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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