Asian Whisky Revival: A Rose By Any Other Name…

by Curt

…would smell as sweet. Thus spake William Shakespeare. And if the sentiment is good enough for the Bard, it’s good enough for me. Of course, at the time Romeo was being talked off the ledge by our darling Juliet, whisky as we know it was still in its infancy. But this isn’t about time; it’s about place. Either way, the message is the same: It doesn’t matter where you’re from, so long as you’re perfectly put together. Okay…so my paraphrasing needs some work.

This Asian Whisky Revival tasting was a bit of a last minute affair for me. It sorta fell in my lap, as is our way at Kensington Wine Market. And as much as we like to roll our eyes at the fly-by-the-seat-of-pants nature to many things at KWM, the simple reality is that most of the staff would probably have it no other way. It’s what makes us family. What unites us. Just as shared drinks with new friends do. And for me, that’s the enjoyment in hosting whisky tastings in the shop.

This evening’s tasting was a unique opportunity to break down some preconceptions, shatter some biases and maybe, just maybe, enlighten a few thirsty souls as to how incredible some of the whiskies are that are only now being given their moment on the world’s stage.

Mention Asian whisky and the immediate connotation is Japanese whisky. You’ll get knowing nods and dreamy eyes from those that may have had the privilege of tasting the old Yamazaki 18 or maybe a brilliant Hakushu. Or if they were in the right place at the right time, maybe even a few drops of the lost and mourned unicorn distillery, Karuizawa. But while Japanese whisky may be the most widely recognized of the Asian drams hitting the market, we do a disservice to our tastebuds (and wallets!) by not expanding our horizons a bit and recognizing intrinsic quality wherever it may lie.

Case in point: India. Man…there is some incredible distillate flowing off the stills in both Bangalore and Goa. Amrut has spent the last decade or so blazing trails and smashing boundaries. Their contemporaries at Paul John, ditto. But we’ll come back to that. ‘Cause there’s much to say. But it’s important to understand the mission statement for a tasting like this: there’s more to what we know than meets the eye.

So, let’s talk about Japan first, and how a huge drop in interest for Japanese whisky in the 1980s led to drastically decreased production regimes, a decision that is now costing whisky lovers dearly. Especially those with a bent towards the more esoteric flavours that develop on sub-tropical climates like we’re focusing on here. Can we still get that kinda juice? Well…not really. Not without sacrificing the kids’ college funds anyway.What we’ve ended up with instead of those deep and tropical fruit notes, accented by exotic spices and a certain je ne sais quoi, are largely young blends and NAS offerings of questionable quality. It’s hard to be forgiving of non-age-stated whisky in principle, but when it comes to Japanese whisky, it’s pretty much a necessary evil. Granted, Japanese distillers are not being held to the inflexible mandate of the Scotch Whisky Association.

However, what we know today of Japanese whisky is unquestionably a case of being a wee protégé of Scotch whisky production. In the 1920s, when Masataka Taketsuru left Scotland to return to his native Japan (albeit Hokkaido, not Hiroshima this time), he did so armed with an unprecedented education in the art of Scottish distillation (and a lovely Scottish bride on his arm, I might add!). Taketsuru, known colloquially as the Father of Japanese Whisky, founded the Yoichi distillery in 1934 and his profound influence would immediately begin to spread across the tiny island.

But here’s a dirty little secret the producers of Japanese whisky nowadays don’t want you to know: an ever-increasing proportion of what we’re now able to buy as Japanese whisky is actually rebranded Scotch and Canadian whisky. True story. And for those of you who feel maybe slightly grifted by this ‘deception’, relax. Again…there are looser regulations as to what can fall under the appellation of Japanese whisky. At its heart, all that really matters in this case is a) is it good, and b) does the price suit? If you can answer yes to those questions, then drink up.

But let’s move on…

We started this evening’s tasting with a few of our favourite (somewhat) readily available Japanese whiskies. First up: Akashi White Oak Blended Whisky. The White Oak distillery celebrates its centenary this year, but whisky production at the distillery only began in 1984. Up until that point, most distillation on site was undertaken to produce sake and shochu. Even now, only a couple of months a year are reserved for whisky production. Hopefully, the team over there decides to up the ante a bit, as I think they have a dangerously drinkable little spirit coming off the stills. This neat little fruit-driven blend we partook in is probably only about three years old. It’s a sweet little number, matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in sherry. A summer afternoon (or morning?) dram if there ever was one, and a perfect ‘dip your toes’ kind of whisky for a night like this. As to flavour profile? This one is all hot cross buns, soft fruits and gentle grain notes.

Next, we tackled a bit a standby ‘round here, the Hibiki Harmony. This little gem in its 24-faceted bottle is a marriage of ten different malts and grains, including spirit streams from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. The result really is harmonious, though I always hate tipping my hat to the marketing teams. Hard to argue with results, though. They nailed it. The step up in complexity here was noted by all in attendance, and most heads in the room started nodding in appreciation. Orange fruits, soft cinnamon, vanilla and apple notes all over this one.

Number three was Nikka 12 year old. A leap forward in maturity and, unfortunately, a healthy climb up the ladder in terms of price too. But it shows in terms of quality. Deeper complexity, more balance between oak and spirit, and a more refined weaving of fruit and spice tones. None, however, overwhelm the clean and simple cereal tones that underlie it all. There was much love in the crowd for this guy.

But it was our fourth, and final, Japanese blend of the night that knocked some socks off. Another Nikka. This time a younger blend served up at a healthy 51.4% abv. Nikka From The Barrel was one of the top two of the night for most attendees. Rumour has it that this one is built on a higher malt to grain ratio. It shows too. There is a richness here that some of the others could only hint at. More malt = more flavour. And higher ABV means that there is a more tactile experience at hand. The finish is longer, the mouthfeel better. Rich dried fruit notes, faint hints of orange, and a heft of stone fruit meet the spice melange head-on (with just a faint whiff of smoke in there for good measure). No wonder this was Whisky Advocate’s Whisky of the Year last year.

But like I said, it’s not all about Japan.

The John distillery is just a baby in the whisky world. It was founded in 1992 in the coastal state of Goa, India, and only launched its single malts to the world in 2012. Since its inception, the team at Paul John has been striving to create an identity all their own. They distill six-row barley (known for producing a more oily distillate), produce several different styles of malt, and continue to mature their spirit in multiple climes in order to develop different flavours and yields. The whisky we tried tonight was Paul John Brilliance. Simple, clean and elegant. Brilliance is matured in ex-bourbon casks and served up at no more than five years of age. The barley sugars are clean and pronounced, the orange notes are subtle, and the white chocolate and vanilla backbone keeps everything light and creamy. Really nice stuff. This one made for some wide-eyed attendees who had no idea that India was producing malts of this calibre.

And then there were the big boys…

First up…Amrut. Still in India, but Bangalore this time. We’ve moved inland now, and much higher in elevation. The distillery was founded in the first half of the twentieth century, but they didn’t get tucked into proper malt production until 2004. And for those out there that are curious, Amrut means ‘elixir of life’. The tropical savannah climate of Bangalore does neat things to the robust Indian spirit they’re distilling. First of all…it steals about 10% per year in what we call the angel’s share! That’s a lot of loss to evaporation. I guess that makes the end product just that much more special. Second of all…it imparts an insane amount of cask influence very quickly, leading to an incredibly singular malt. Our bespoke eight and a half-year-old Amrut Jaggery Rum Cask is a perfect example. The distillery’s DNA is all over this one: orange zest and chocolate, sugar cookies and spices. But behind what we already know and love about Amrut, is a darker treacle-y note and some neat molasses threads. The flavours are spot on, but man…this one is a scorcher at 60% abv! As you can imagine, the reception for this one was unbelievable. In fact, it was one of the top two.

And closing it all out, we moved over to Taiwan, where King Car’s Kavalan distillery became our final malt of the night. The expression at hand? Kavalan Solist Peaty Cask. No, fear not. This is not peated whisky; just spectacular Taiwanese single malt left to slumber on in casks that once held peated whisky. That difference is important to note, as the subtle influence of smoke and earthy notes means this one still has almost universal appeal. Again…a few hands shot up proclaiming this as their favourite of the night.I can’t lie. Scotch whisky has my heart. It has for as long as I can remember. And will continue to do so until my liver packs it in and says ‘we’re done here, laddie’. But the truth is, there are some flavours coming out of the rest of the world’s distillers that are simply not to be missed. Especially when it comes to the complexities of single malt. If you’re ever in doubt, pop on in and have a chat with one of us. We’ll happily taste you through a few options. I can almost guarantee we’ll find you a fit.

As always, thanks to the good folks at Peasant Cheese next door who supplied all the delicious palate cleansers and snacks. But most importantly…thanks to everyone who came out and spent a couple of hours of their time with us. Hopefully, you look forward to a do-over as much as we do.

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