Thursday, 29 November 2012

Suntory Whisky Tasting

This was a real treat. I had tried some Japanese whiskies before but it was a few years ago in a bar a friend was running, and I didn't really have a chance to do in-depth tasting notes - although it was nice to get an initial feel for them. My over-riding memory was the light, floral style, which seemed to strike a familiar chord when the first whiskies were poured and Suntory's whisky ideal was described as 'subtle, refined and complex', a mantra returned to throughout the presentation. I'll post a write-up in two parts, first up to talk a little bit about the whiskies' points of difference, and then some tasting notes.

First up was the Yamazaki 12 along with a little history of Suntory, its founder, Torii Shinjiro, and the Longmorn and Hazelburn trained man he recruited to start whisky distillation in Japan; Masataka Taketsuru. On a technical note, the Yamazaki distillery operates two mash tuns (one stainless steel, one wooden), six pairs of differently-shaped stills and uses five different sorts of cask. Multiply all that together and you can end up with sixty different whiskies from the one distillery. If it's complexity you're after, then that is certainly a way to get it.

Next was the Hakushu 12, from Yamazaki's sister distillery, which was at peak production the largest single malt distillery in the world. Unlike at Yamazaki they don't use any Mizunara, or Japanese oak, for maturation of the Hakushu. A few years ago Michael Jackson suggested that Japanese whisky didn't really have its own separate identity as yet,1 but it could be argued that the judicious use of the Mizunara really is starting to separate Japanese whisky from its Scottish roots and traditions. As I understand it it is the addition of a small component aged in casks made from the tight-grained, slow-growing Mizunara that imparts the floral and sandalwood notes to the other whiskies in this tasting.

Next came the Yamazaki 18, a whisky with a rather large reputation! Yamazaki is one of the most decorated distilleries in the world, having won competitions wherever you care to look, and this whisky in particular is a previous winner of many a global spirits competition.

The final pair of whiskies were two Suntory blends, Hibiki 12 and 17. Unlike in Scotland there are no real business relationships between whisky companies in Japan, and so to make a blend, with all the implications of consistency that that implies, is correspondingly more difficult. Unless, of course, you have access to the multitude of whiskies that the blenders at Suntory do for Hibiki - hence why this can be a 100% Suntory blend. The grain component comes from a third Suntory-owned distillery located near to the Yamazaki distillery; Chita.

Lastly, many thanks to Tatsuya Minagawa of Suntory whisky for visiting us in Nottingham and hosting a great evening; fun, flavoursome and informative! I'll post some tasting notes on the whiskies when I get a chance.

1. Michael Jackson, Whisky - The Definitive World Guide, DK, London, 2005

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Saint Aubin Rhum Agricole

Rhum? What's the matter, spell-checker not working? Trying to sound like Stewie from family guy? I'll have some rHum with my cool wHip please.

OK, so, lame jokes aside. Rhum Agricole is different to rum in that it is made not from molasses but from sugar cane juice, and generally comes from French-owned islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, RĂ©union as well as Mauritius; which is where St. Aubin is from. Distillation seems to owe something to the French influence over the area, in single column stills similar to those in Armagnac. A low-strength distillate suggests there should be a good amount of character left in there after the process, but let's see.

It's clear as you'd expect a light rum to be, and it's only once you get your nose in there that the difference becomes apparent. It's no shrinking violet of a light spirit, no rum that could easily be confused with a vodka. If you were to confuse it with anything it's more like a tequila it's that vegetal. There's some floral notes there and what I can only imagine is the aroma of cane juice. On the palate it's off-dry and there is a spirity burn, with estery banana lurking in the background. It's a rough and ready style of spirit and I ended up putting a little more water in just to break out the flavours a little.

In conclusion I can only suggest it's a pretty good example of its type because it really has that point of difference to conventional molasses based rum. I went back after trying this and tried it alongside a sample of Bacardi and it was near enough impossible to pick up any flavours from the Bacardi, all I got was its sweetness, the rhum is that powerful - if lacking in subtlety. A fully deserved extra letter I suppose!

The whisky exchange are selling it for £27.25 for a 50cl for a bottle. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Talisker 10

A colleague of mine has been writing for a while about whiskies that are, in a way, ubiquitous but forgotten. I won't got into too much detail because you can have a look for yourself over at The W-Club blog, but it's an interesting point and I think it applies across many drinks blogs. The beers, wines, whiskies that originally flicked the switch in your mind when you went from thinking 'this tastes OK, it tastes like beer' (or insert beverage of your choice) to 'Wow! THIS is what it can do, THIS is why people rave about it.' often end up forgotten. I think we're all guilty of it, and while comments such as those made by Jamie Goode are perfectly valid, there are an awful lot of in different products on the market, it's easy to forget that without them many people would never start drinking those drinks we love in the first place. It's also why derogatory comments after articles like this excellent one from Fiona Beckett in last week's Observer, someone who has to write about drinks her readers can get hold of, are so galling.

Whiskies like the 'standard bottlings' (hardly a ringing endorsement in itself) from big companies like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie are met with comments like 'it's OK for a pub malt' and seasoned drinkers forget that it was impeccably made whiskies like these that really switched them onto malts in the first place. For me, Diageo's Talisker was that malt and, credit where credit is due, I have Nick at the Old Worthy brewery up there on Skye for giving me an excuse to re-visit an old friend - I wanted to try it in tandem with their peated Skye beer. It wasn't without trepidation; when people ask me what my favourite whisky is Talisker is up there on the list but in the quest to try something new and interesting I haven't had it in a long time. Would my tastes have changed?

It's clear and bright, amber coloured and the addition of a little water shows some of the oils present in the whisky. On the nose it's clean and pronounced, the malt is noticeable , backed up with smoke, spices and a little toffee. On the palate there is a hefty alcohol kick, but because of the intensity of the flavours and the body the whole package works out well. The phenolic peat comes through a lot more on the palate along with (rather appropriately for today) bonfire smokiness, biscuity malt and some charred oak notes. The finish lingers, a gentle, re-assuring dry-oak caress after the initial power, lulling you into a false sense of security before the next mouthful.

My tastes may have changed, and I'm admittedly on the other side of some magnificent whiskies so I'm less likely to get as blown away as I was years ago, but this is still a magnificent powerful whisky. I love it when peat plays as part of an orchestra of flavours rather than soloing, and this is one of the better examples of it doing this. Hello old friend, glad to have you back.