Words: Aly Mathers
With so much attention being paid to the Japanese Whisky industry of late, we thought it was about time that we included a selection at our monthly #WhiskyClub. Having been lucky enough to try a good range of Japanese drams in the past, I knew the type of tasting I wanted to put together. For me, the style of spirit produced in Japan is detailed and precise with flavours revealing themselves slowly and subtlety.
That said I had also heard about one decidedly unusual expression imported by Whiskies du Monde that proved not all Japanese whisky was subtle…
HIBIKI JAPANESE HARMONY – BLENDED WHISKY
COLOUR: Pale gold
NOSE: Initial sharpness to it but opens quickly and loses its edges to offer up orchard fruits, caramelised apple cores and vanilla. There also a nutty quality to it in the background to round things out with hazelnuts and oat crumble biscuits. Yummy and inviting.
TASTE: Clean, warm vanilla custard coming through in waves. It’s quite a crisp start – like the nose – but things soften again into roasted nuts and homemade fudge. Drier over time though with its sweeter aspects turning from round vanilla into dusted icing sugar.
FINISH: The dryness takes over in the finish with oak spices and floral tannins leaving a slightly astringent quality on the tongue. There’s a lip tingle and a slight punch but it’s never overpowering and doesn’t hang around too long.
VERDICT: As an introduction to Japanese whisky this serves its purpose well. What we have is a blend of interesting casks (Ex-bourbon American oak, Ex-sherry European Red Oak and Mizunara), subtle flavours and intricate detail. This might not provide a rush of excitement or convert you to World Whisky in a sip, but it will open your eyes to a greater level of detail in your whisky. Given time, it’s mixture of flavours slowly merge into a pleasing and comforting dram.
YAMAZAKI SINGLE MALT – DISTILLERS RESERVE
COLOUR: Mellow yellow
NOSE: Initially the Distillers Reserve is very light and subtle in its character and there’s a salty element present that reminds me of Playdough! As with the Hibiki this needs time to open up, and eventually we find a wonderful concoction of lemon peel, white grapes, juniper and green tea. The sweetness here is light but always present though, providing a solid background to the dram as a whole.
TASTE: Really soft and easy. No kick of alcohol, although always crisp and fresh and eventually there’s a dryness that takes over. It’s only in the taste that its cask maturation shines through. Having used Ex-sherry, Mizunara and Bordeaux red wine casks the dram becomes a very complex mixture of oak spices, fresh citrus, salted peanuts and desiccated coconut. Lots going on!
FINISH: A simple hint vanilla and cinnamon. The finish hangs around for a wee while although, disappointingly, that wonderful mix of flavours dies out pretty quick leaving you pondering the style and body of the whisky as opposed to its taste.
VERDICT: A layered whisky that requires a lot of time to open up and appreciate although ultimately it’s style over flavour that shines here. This isn’t the kind of dram to throw back because it’s full of bold recognisable flavours, instead, take it slow and appreciate the waves of ever-changing flavours.
HAKUSHU 12YR OLD SINGLE MALT
COLOUR: Pale yellow
NOSE: Very light and grassy to begin with which eases you in to the dram nicely. That lightness slowly turns into a bitter edge of lemon rind, green apple and roasted malts. After a while, once you’re more accustomed to that citrus, it’s the malts that start to build on the nose creating a much richer, earthier aroma. Eventually there’s an appearance from peat, wet bark and leaves.
TASTE: More of a pinch than a punch. It opens nicely with a round earthy palate, reminiscent of the final stages of the nose. Herbaceous notes, almond and hazelnuts in there too creating some pretty tasty, delicious flavours. To say that it’s peaty would be wrong because it’s never intense or savoury but there is a recognisable hint of spent matches, birthday candle smoke and banana skins.
FINISH: More smoke wafting across the tongue here. Laid back in style though with a crisp zing of medicinal peat balanced with more green apple and roasted malts.
VERDICT: A really nice and balanced dram for those of you looking for something with a bit of an earthy heart. Style-wise the Hakushu is still Japanese through and through. It’s soft and precise with layers of both fruit and peat.
NIKKA COFFEY MALT
COLOUR: Sharp orange
BODY: Medium / Heavy
NOSE: Like a kid in a sweet shop. Rich caramel, crème brulee and burnt sugar jump from the glass before the sharpness of alcohol and wood glue (!) hit hard. If I didn’t know better I’d have said it was an American rye whiskey as it’s sweet and spicy all at once. There’s also banana skins and heavier nutty aromas here too. Popcorn and malt, like a chocolate covered Hobnob, although a tad too spirity.
TASTE: Again, similar to a rye whiskey. It’s sharp, dry and spicy with notes of clove, nutmeg and powdered ginger. Heavier on the tongue than expected with an oily coating that envelopes the mouth. I get banana again before the nuttiness and popcorn take over turning it into a much heavier affair.
FINISH: With its oily character you might expect this Nikka to hang around longer than it does. It’s a fairly short and simple finish although sweet and rather pleasant.
VERDICT: Fans of American whiskey should definitely give this one a go, although if it’s smooth and complex you’re after you won’t find it here.
FUJIKAI 10YR OLD – WHISKIES DU MONDE
NOSE: WT actual F. Brand new Adidas Superstar trainers straight out the box (and that’s no exaggeration). This is one of the strangest noses I’ve ever come across in whisky. Burnt rubber, acrid smoke, sawdust and new wood – it’s more like a mescal or sake than anything else. It’s incredibly pungent and certainly not for everyone. Eventually though, there are notes of dark chocolate brownies.
TASTE: Here goes nothing… Crisp sea salt, smoked fish and damp cardboard. Throughout there is this massive undeniable flavour of burning rubber which probably drowns out any of its more appealing flavours. Everything about this dram is unusually savoury: grilled aubergine, fried sage, intense herbs. There is no presence of the cask, no sweetness or spice which is disappointing. Imagine you’re drinking sake in a bustling fish market and you might be able to get on board with it.
FINISH: For such bold flavours the Fujikai is actually a very soft dram, no burn from the alcohol or spiky edges to round off. There is a recognisable hint of medicinal peat here and an ever so faint suggestion of sweetness, but not much.
VERDICT: There’s no messing around with this, it’s plain batshit crazy and you’ll either enjoy it’s savoury tones or find them horrendous. Personally, I’ve actually grown to quite enjoy it and although it’s hard to imagine this is a single malt at all you have to admire its sheer balls for being so different.
If you’re interested in seeing what these drams are like for yourself then they are now resting behind the CASC bar waiting for you.