Local v Global. Where is Whisky going?
With the growth in whisky demand in the last two decades, ‘craft’ distilleries are carving out their niche in the whisky market. Many have now established themselves as truly competitive commercial enterprises, with State or Regional distribution as opposed to just supplying the local area.
One common approach to their promotion is advertising their use of local ingredients. “All our grain is grown by local farmers” for example. This provides the equivalent of a wine style ‘terroir’ that promises the customer a quality product. Whether it is the local ingredients, small batch sizes or just the attention to detail that provides the quality is difficult to say. Perhaps all three.
However, in the world of big distillers (think, say, Suntory) there is something of an opposite trend going on……a global influence on the product. In this blog I am going to talk about a couple of ‘global’ whiskies, both linked to a disruptive force... Japanese whisky.
First, there is not a widely accepted legal or trade definition for Japanese whisky. Indeed, the Japanese interest in whisky grew out of a desire to drink high quality imported Scotch Blends which formed part of the western world’s influence on Japan post WWII. It was and still is, despite an emerging interest in single malts, pretty much all about the ‘blend’. Indeed, the assumption is that the nation mentioned on the bottle is where the blending took place. The distillation is a secondary consideration. So, in Japan, it is the Master Blender that is held in highest esteem.
Whisky #1: Legent. 47% ABV, $35/750ml bottle.
So, this has been out a while now, and has created some buzz. What we have is a bourbon produced by Jim Beam (owned by Beam Suntory) under the ‘supervision’ of Master Distiller Fred Noe. After four years of maturation in American Oak, some of the bourbon is then additionally finished in sherry and red wine casks. After the finishing we arrive at the blending. You guessed it. This is where legendary Suntory Master Blender, Shinji Fukuyo, steps in. He takes the three different bourbons and creates a blended product. I am assuming none of the whisky ever leaves Kentucky until after it is bottled. As a fan of Jim Beam bourbons, I was intrigued.
Color: 1.0 Deep Copper. (Whisky Magazine Scale).
Nose: Little mistaking the bourbon backbone with sweet corn aroma up front, some sherry is overlaid, suggestion of mint, and some distracting dry, aromatic aromas. Pleasant enough. (Looks quite thick and oily when swirled and some big tears roll down the glass)
Taste: Heat hits quickly, with red wine being the main up front flavoring. Underneath the wine flavor it is rather astringent with some bitter spices. Hints of some dried berry or other dark fruit emerge along with some oak.
Finish: Medium but with little change in character.
Verdict: Not a bad bourbon, particularly for the price, but it fails to properly integrate the ‘finishing’ flavors. Does it need another year in oak to mature or ‘marry’ after the blending?
Whisky #2: Hatozaki Small Batch. 46% ABV, $60.00/750 ml bottle.
Described as a small batch 100% malt whisky ‘produced and bottled’ by the new Kaikyo distillery, owned by the Akashi Sake Brewery.
A little research (some details from Whisky Richard, a Tokyo based whisky writer) reveals a more complex picture. Turns out that Akashi Sake Brewery is owned by Mossburn Distillers and Blenders, who are the company behind the new Torabhaig distillery on the Isle of Skye. There are suggestions that they are ‘sister’ distilleries with some information exchanges going on between the two. Mossburn Distillers is, in turn, apparently owned by Marussia Beverages which in turn is apparently financed by a private investment company in Sweden (?). Global enough for you?
As to the whisky itself this could be a blend of some scotch malt whisky, maybe some North American malt and if there is any Japanese whisky in there it may not have been distilled at the Kaikyo distillery as their own stuff can only be about 3 years old at this point. The maturation of the components is also a bit of a mystery, but that is OK, because it’s all in the blending right?
Color: 0.1 White Wine. (Whisky Magazine Scale). Very light in color.
Nose: Light, subtle and dryish, but with a hint of tropical fruit and a floral aroma. Faint overtones of paraffin or something like it emerge.
Taste: Aromatic and mineral tones hit first. Dry but with some faint citric fruit in the background. Nice slow heat development. Some plain or bleached almonds appear. Little wood influence. Again, some faint hint of a distillate or medicinal flavor.
Finish: Short, with a quick dissipation of the flavors on the palette.
Verdict: Interesting. The second time around gave a better impression than the first. May want to let this breathe for a few minutes after the pour. If you enjoy, say Cragganmore or Dalwhinnie (I know I do) you may want to try this. A lunch whisky with a cheese board?