Monday, November 26, 2007
A few weeks ago I asked readers if they could help identify Nikka whisky`s iconic "King of Blenders"? To those not living in Japan this may seem an abstruse topic but the logo is ubiquitous in Japanese liquor stores. I need to know whose icy blue eyes are staring at me from every bottle of Nikka Black.
Well, Taylor Smisson has written in with a definitive answer. Nonjatta has mentioned Taylor before. I`m not sure he would thank me for saying this, but he is the doyen of whisky drinking foreigners in Japan. Until earlier this year, his "Malt Drinkers Diary" website tracked a "bottle-by-bottle journey through the city that is the Scotch single malt drinker's heaven on earth: Tokyo." He finished that project this April but not before he had tasted more than 4,000 malts. 4,000!
I am just going to dump his very thorough bearded man research straight onto the site because this information has not been brought together anywhere else, either in Japanese or English. Click here for the full beardy brief...
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Ginkgo leaves in Autumn
I have probably talked enough about Ichiro Akuto's new pure malt Ginkgo (Nonjatta review) but David Croll at the Number One Drinks Company sends us a postscript about the naming of the blend. I find it interesting because it offers a little insight to the growing influence of the export market on Japanese producers, particularly indy producers like Akuto. David tells Nonjatta:
The naming is a bit of a long story. Originally the idea was for the product to be sold 50% in Japan and 50% overseas (which has been the case). Akuto-san was developing Chrysanthemum as a working title in Japan and looking at various label designs, but at No.1 we felt this wasn’t quite right for the overseas market. Our UK designers came up with several options and Ginkgo was the one we went with. Akuto-san then, not having yet found exactly the right formula for Japan, decided he liked the Ginkgo name and label, and opted to run with that domestically as well.Incidentally, further to another query in my original post:
The precise make-up of the blend is a trade secret, closely guarded by Akuto-san. I think it is fair to say that it contains whisky from the old Hanyu distillery, but he keeps the identity of the other whiskies very close to his chest! Given the complete lack of a traded bulk market between producers over here, it is an amazing concept and one that would be almost impossible to replicate.All of which makes the Ginkgo name seem sort of appropriate. The Ginkgo tree, like its whisky namesake, is a very odd specimen, a living fossil in fact. Just now in Japan, its leaves are turning their beautiful golden yellow.
Thanks to EYLC for the photo.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Ichiro Akuto's new pure malt, Ginkgo will start appearing in Japanese shops over the next few weeks. It was a privilege to get an early taste.
Nose: a thick caramel smell at first but this was gone before I could say "Ichiro Akuto", giving way to something intensely floral. There was sweet bread dough in there and even a distant whiff of a packet of pink marshmallows.
Mouth: Surprisingly uncompromising. A black treacle, almost Bovrilish start. It rises to a green twig chewing astringency but there is a rounded sweetness through it all. Before a slightly bitter end, I got a delicious taste of sugary melted butter.
I followed this one with a nip of Suntory's more expensive premium blend Hibiki 17 and Ginkgo stood up very well in the comparison.
Reviews by more reliable typesDave Broom of Whisky Magazine is quoted here. He describes it as a "well-balanced light fresh aperitif". Palate: "Pure and clean and though light-bodied it has a succulent sweet centre. Spicier and more acidic than the nose suggests which gives a liveliness to the creamy mushed up fruits in the centre."
Alcohol46 per cent
Price (April 2007)700 ml - Europe: £52. Japan: c.5,000 yen (here, here or here)
A declaration, or rather an exclamation: this was my first freebie! It was sent to me by the Number One Drinks Company. Very nice of them and without that sort of generosity we just won`t be able to keep up with these Japanese whiskies. Nonjatta subscribes to the Drink Bloggers` Code of Conduct, which means we try not to be influenced by such free samples. Not sure this relentlessly positive review will convince you of that, but I am trying.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Bit of a mom and pop store, this one. It's great to be out of those stifling department store halls and walking down the overhead wire festooned side streets of Osaka!
This is a small shop which claims to sell over 500 kinds of whisky. Although I have not been there, they do seem to have a small selection of interesting Japanese malts. Only three types of Japanese malts were listed in their online store when I last looked. However, what they lacked in quantity they made up for in rarity: all were Ichiro's Malts, not just the usual Nikka and Suntory. This sort of small store interest in Japanese premium whisky needs to be encouraged. Sake Shop Sato came to my attention by being first off the mark in Japan, as far as I could see, with the Ginkgo pure malt. They were advertising its availability in their store the day after I posted.
3-5-10 Okamachi Minami
View location on Nonjatta map of single malt stores.
Address in Japanese 佐藤酒店
Friday, November 9, 2007
Ichiro Akuto, the man behind Ichiro`s Malts, has made his own pure malt. His card series has put an electric shock through the Japanese single malt world in recent years. Perhaps this "Ginkgo" pure malt will start to do the same for the rest of the market?
Half of the bottling is for export and the Number One Drinks Company in the UK is handling distribution in Europe. They have a notice on their website saying Ginkgo is now available.
Ginkgo calls itself a "blended malt" on the label and others would call it a "vatted malt" but basically what all these terms mean is that Ichiro has gone round several different Japanese distilleries and concocted his own blend.
While it is quite normal in Scotland to have different groups' distilleries contributing to one blended whisky or pure malt, the Japanese market has traditionally been divided on company lines: Suntory doesn`t blend with Nikka, Nikka doesn`t blend with Karuizawa and so on. This is therefore a bit of a coup for Ichiro and, although a relatively small bottling (6,000 bottles, I think), it is quite an interesting development for the Japanese whisky market. I wonder which distilleries contributed? Does Ginkgo include Suntory or Nikka whisky? Or is this a ganging up of the smaller players? Intriguing questions to which I will be trying to find the answers.
Anyway, the Number One Drinks Company have a nice marketing line for the new pure malt: "Ginkgo’s intriguingly complex nose and spicy palate make it an ideal accompaniment to Japanese and other Asian foods." Clever! Like the "Kingfisher lager" of whiskies? Not to be knocked back with a cheap biryani though: one bottle is going to set you back around £52 if you are in the UK.
I'm eagerly awaiting my own taste of this but the well known Whisky writer David Broom has described it as a light, well balanced pure malt with spicy, acidic notes. His tasting notes are here.
Incidentally, I understand Ginkgo will be marketed under the brand name "Chrysanthemum" in Japan. I don't know whether it will be displayed in the Japanese "Kiku" or "Kikunohana" or perhaps in the English. Why the difference? I understand that the change was at the European end: "Chrysanthemum" didn't look right on the label and didn't carry the same positive associations it does in Japan (where it is associated with poetry, the Imperial family etc.)
Update (17 November): It seems the "Chrysanthemum" name has been dropped. For more on this, see this post.
The British designer Michael Young has just posted a sneak preview on his website of some new bottles he has been making for Nikka whisky.
Young has trotted the world (this seems to have come out of his Hong Kong studio) building up a reputation for finding original avenues for major brands. He has designed barware for Schweppes, polo shirts for LaCoste and bikes for Giant. Recent projects include a "techno-splendid sex toy in opiate free plastic" ... erm, anyway, let's get back to the whisky. That new bottle:
I like it a lot. It's a great break from the fuddy-duddy old Scotch bottle imitations that are the norm in the Japanese whisky world: a bit Spidermany and (dare I say it) just a hint of the Kakubin about it:
Michael Young Nikka (2007) vs. Kakubin (1937)
The Kakubin, for those who are not Japanese whisky dweebs like myself, is the iconic bottle of Nikka's bitter rivals Suntory [1,2]. I am slightly surprised that the Nikka executives appear to have given this new bottle the nod. Michael Young's website claims a launch is imminent. The hue of the bottle suggests that it might be used for the Nikka Black range of blended whiskies [1,2]. If so, it will be going head to head with Suntory's classic brand. Perhaps those flying shards symbolise Kakubin smashing?
A tugged forelock to thecoolhunter.net for the tip.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Enter any Japanese alcohol seller and, as likely as not, you will meet the insouciant, blue eyed stare of the "King of Blenders". He is the face of Nikka whisky and features on all of their Nikka Black range. Who the heck is he?
There are numerous theories: Henry VIII was my favoured candidate before I started looking into this, but I've also heard mention of Walter Raleigh on the Japanese web and even the founder of Nikka Masataka Taketsuru himself, simply because the latter had a relatively unambitious copse of facial hair on his top lip. (Taketsuru's standard retort was that he wasn't so vain as to put himself on his brands and, anyway, "Do I have blue eyes?")
Not a blue eye between them: Henry, Raleigh and Taketsuru
Who knows what goes into a brand logo? The first bottles of Nikka Black didn't feature the "King of Blenders" at all and when he did appear in the mid 60s (see illustration below), the brief given to the designer was probably "something old and something British." There may well have been a touch of Henry or a dash of Raleigh in the red bearded, Tudor cap wearing gentleman he/she came up with.
However, the official Nikka explanation has it that the logo was actually modeled on a certain "Sir W.P. Lawrie". He is supposed to have been prominent around the time that Andrew Usher created the first commercial blended whisky in the 1850s but I can find neither hide nor hair of him. The Japanese characters used by Nikka could have at least two English spellings - "Lawrie" or "Raleigh" - but, even allowing for that, I have drawn a blank. Who is this mysterious whisky monarch and why was he going around in Tudor garb in 19th Century Britain? Can anyone help?
Update: Taylor Smisson helped in a fairly definitive email to Nonjatta.
Imagery taken from the Nikka.com website