Monday, October 22, 2012

Yamazaki 18yr

stats: Japanese single malt whisky, 43%, $135

I find it surprising that I’ve been writing this blog for a year and a half and haven’t yet broached the subject of Japanese whisky – it’s something I’ve had a mild fascination with for several years.

Of the five major whisk(e)y producing nations, Japan’s whisky industry is the youngest and the only one whose history can be traced back to just a few men. One of those men, Masataka Taketsuru, is generally regarded as the father of Japanese whisky.

Born in 1894 to a family which had owned a sake brewery for many generations, Masataka went to work for the spirits producing company Settsu Shuzo, after graduating from the Osaka Technical High School. Just three years into his career there, he was chosen to go to Scotland and learn the secrets of that country’s whisky industry, toward the end of 1918.

He enrolled in chemistry classes at Glasgow University, and by April of 1919 had landed a brief internship at the Longmorn distillery. After marrying a Scottish native in January of 1920, Masataka and his new wife moved to Campbeltown, where he began working at the Hazelburn distillery. By November of 1920, the couple had made their way to Japan.

Whisk(e)y from the Europe and North America made its way to Japan after the 1850’s, when the country started to engage in trade with the West. In the early 1900’s many firms in Japan were trying to emulate these whiskies by producing spirits flavored with herbs, spices and perfumes. Unfortunately, the post World War I economic depression caused Masataka’s employers to continue on that path, and give up their plans to use his newly acquired knowledge to produce proper whisky. He left the company out of frustration in 1922.

But not all was lost. In 1899 Kotobukiya, a wine and liquor importing business was started by Shinjiro Torii. He was fascinated by whisky and aspired to start a whisky distillery in Japan. In 1923, Shinjiro hired Masataka Taketsuru to oversee the building and operation of his Yamazaki distillery, near Osaka.

Authentic whisky was finally being made in Japan in 1924, but Torii and Taketsuru could never agree on a house style. Masasaka remained true to the Scotch Whisky flavor profile he knew from his formative years abroad, which was powerful, robust and smoky. Shinjiro favored a much lighter style of whisky that would have mass appeal to the Japanese consumer. The two men parted ways in 1929.

Masasaka’s wife, Rita, had been teaching English for many years and it was through her connections that he was able to secure investors in his new firm, Nikka, and build his Yoichi distillery in 1934 on the island of Hokkaido. Nikka added a second distillery, Miyagikyo, in 1969.

Shinjiro Torii’s firm, Kotobukiya, became Suntory in the 1960’s. In addition to the Yamazaki distillery, they opened the Hakushu distillery in 1973.

These are the four major whisky distilleries in Japan today, although several smaller, less significant outfits also make Japanese whisky. For many years Yamazaki 12yr and 18yr were the only Japanese whiskies exported to the U.S., but that has started to change in recent years.

Enough of the history lesson, let’s get on to the tasting.

The color is a dark, rich amber, almost mahogany.
The full, complex nose has nutty, floral and malty sweet aromas.
It is full bodied, complex and evolving on the palate. It starts of nutty and slightly floral (just enough to add depth) with a malty richness, before giving way to the dark, cooked fruit flavors typical of sherry cask maturation.
Then it moves into the warming, slightly spicy, long finish with some of the earlier flavors lingering gently.

I really like this whisky, it’s well made and nicely balanced, but it has a sense of intrigue about it. Even though it could pass as Single Malt Scotch in a blind tasting, there’s still a certain uniqueness to it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Oban, 14 Year vs. Cask Strength

Oban 14yr, single malt scotch, West Highlands, 43%, $71
Oban cask strength limited edition, single malt scotch, West Highlands, 55.2%, $100

I’ve made an effort to correctly pronounce the names of single malts from early on, and with the likes of Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain it’s safe to assume one’s got it wrong without some research and practice. But with a name as seemingly simple as Oban, I never even gave so much as a second thought as to what to proper pronunciation might be. Yet it turns out that this is probably one of the most commonly mispronounced single malt names, at least here in the U.S. Fortunately, I was politely informed of my phonetic error by a kindly Glaswegian six weeks before I left for Scotland, saving me the embarrassment of saying it incorrectly while I was staying in the town of the name. So, for the record, it is not oh-bahn, but owe-bin, coming across almost as one syllable.

14 yr Oban is the almost singularly ubiquitous distillery bottling. But there are other expressions out there. As with many other Diageo owned single malts, there is also a Distiller’s Edition. 300 casks are set aside each year for this bottling, which is finished in Montilla Fino sherry casks. A special release of 18 yr Oban proved popular recently, and now 300 casks are being set aside annually for that expression as well. Back in 2002 there was a very limited release of 32 yr Oban, and over the years several different releases have also been put out under the Manager’s Dram title.

While visiting Oban, my father picked up a bottle of a distillery exclusive, cask strength edition. At the time, we were told that although it has no age statement, it was primarily 14 yr with some older whisky in the mix, and possibly some variety of cask types. I decided to compare this to the standard 14 yr, which is aged exclusively in 2nd fill bourbon barrels. There were two or three months between the tastings, so it’s not exactly a direct comparison, but close enough.

Oban 14yr 43.0%
Fruit aromas dominate the nose, primarily orange, but supported by a malty backbone.
It almost seems too mild up front, but the flavors build up quickly. Medium to heavy body. Nice depth, with fruit (primarily orange, maybe some apple and pear too), a little oak, a little spice, just a whiff a peat smoke, and a pinch of sea salt all playing nicely together. After peaking, the flavors fade slowly through the long finish. Well balanced throughout.

Oban Cask Strength Limited Edition (bottled in 2010)
The nose is intense but smooth, with creamy fruit aromas. Fiery up front on the palate, but the heat gives way to intense flavors (maybe “is joined by” is a more appropriate term than “gives way to”). Lots of body, quite viscous on the tongue. It’s kind of hot, but it’s entertaining to experience the burning heat and the intense, evolving flavors battle for dominance on the palate, pretty much from start to finish. Classic Oban balance of fruit and oak with just a hint of peat, and some very mild floral notes. Like the 14yr on steroids.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bulleit Bourbon

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof, no age statement, $25

I was given a bottle of Bulleit bourbon a few years ago. I’ve lost track of how long it’s been, but my best guess is that it came my way some time in 2008. I had a fairly low opinion of it, even after sampling on several occasions, and it’s been sitting on the whiskey shelf partially consumed ever since.

A couple of weeks ago I was working behind the bar on a particularly slow day and decided to taste a few things, strictly for educational purposes, of course. For some reason I nipped into the open bottle of Bulleit, and much to my surprise it seemed significantly better than I had remembered. I was going to have to smuggle my bottle from home into work one night for a proper head-to-head comparison.

Before I get to that comparison, I need to cover a topic that has been on the back burner for quite a while. That topic is an examination of how whiskey can change over time in the bottle. This is a subject that I may revisit in future posts as well, as the opportunities arise.

Distilled spirits are quite shelf stable, and if changes do occur in an unopened bottle, it would be over a time period on the order of at least a decade, if not several. For practical purposes, I think it is safe to assume that a full bottle of whiskey will not see a change of flavor over many years, as long as it is not exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods and/or subjected to unusually high temperatures.

But once the bottle is opened changes do happen, albeit still at a relatively slow rate. This is something that I have had first hand experience with, having a collection of bottles that grows far faster than I drink. The rate of change definitely depends on the amount of headspace (the volume of air in the bottle relative to the volume of liquid) – a bottle minus one drink will change more slowly than a bottle with one drink left in it. Either way, I wouldn’t expect a significant change if the bottle has been open for less than a year.

I believe evaporation (especially different components of the whiskey evaporating at different rates) and oxidation are the main culprits, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other processes played a roll. On rare occasion, I do spray a mix of inert gases (primarily nitrogen and argon) into my open whiskey bottles to prolong their shelf lives.

I have actually noticed that some whiskeys get worse while others get better as this process occurs. I’m generalizing a bit, but I have seen delicate whiskeys lose aroma and flavor, falling flat eventually, while at the same time I have observed some whiskeys, having started off too hot, that have toned down and come into balance after being given some time to breath.

My point here is that this comparison needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as I’m tasting a bottle that was only opened a few months ago against on that has been opened and half consumed for at least four years. That being said, the tasting notes for the older bottle do generally match my recollection of how that bottle tasted when I first opened it.

And here is how they stack up:

Old Bottling
Reddish-amber in color.
Nose of grain and spice, but with a slight chemical-like undertone.
A little hot up front, followed by some promising grain and spice flavors, but it quickly turns astringent, then pretty much falls flat on the finish, ending hot, which might be okay if there was more flavor for balance.

New Bottling
Basically the same color, but noticeably darker.
The nose is also similar, but much fuller and lacking the off notes of the older version.
Smoother up front, with a little more body. Warming cinnamon spice is the main flavor component, but mild oak and floral notes come in to assist. It’s well balanced and finishes nicely, but could improve further with more complexity.

Seeing this contrast led me to research online discussions about Bulleit to see if others had made similar observations, or if any major changes in the production or specifications of the whiskey had occurred during this time period. I didn’t find much, short of a post on a bourbon forum from 2008, where someone remarked that current (at the time) samples of Bulleit paled in comparison to earlier bottlings.

The color difference that I saw between the two bottles I compared suggests that the newer one has a good bit more age on it. In 2008, Bulleit bourbon that was made for export to Australia and the UK was dropped from 90 proof to 80 proof. Add more water before bottling and you instantly have more whiskey.

This all adds up to pretty solid evidence that demand for Bulleit exceeded supply in 2008, and I’m sure they must have lowered the age of the whiskey (or more likely vatted some very young whiskey into the existing stocks) for a period of time while increasing production levels. Reports of some sharp price increases for Bulleit in 2008 were also uncovered. This would have tempered demand a bit while the increased supplies had some time to age properly.

When faced with a similar situation, other brands have taken different approaches to dealing with the problem. Knob Creek was unavailable for a few months earlier this year, the Van Winkle whiskeys are only available during limited annual releases, some brands are restricted to selling only in key markets, and the majority of the Scotch whisky industry has followed a model of dramatic price increases. I would think that compromising quality, even if only for a short time period, to ensure availability would be a risky strategy. Bulleit seems to have gotten away with it, their reputation and popularity coming through unscathed.