Karuizawa 30yo 1983/2013 (55.8%, OB, Geisha Label, for The Whisky Exchange, Bourbon Cask #8606, 350 bottles)

Every time someone in the world dares to open a bottle like this, an earthquake occurs amongst collectors. Up ’till now lots of old bottles of Scottish Whiskies, particularly from closed or classic Speyside or Islay distilleries, fetched the highest prices. Today it may very well be Karuizawa, a Japanese Whisky, which is delicious and becoming extremely rare. These bottles are bottled, and hardly anyone opens them anymore. Well not Master Quill! I’m very happy to open my less than-half sample of this Karuizawa and share my thoughts with the world!

Karuizawa 30yo 1983/2013 (55.8%, OB, Geisha Label, for The Whisky Exchange, Bourbon Cask #8606, 350 bottles)Color: Vibrant full gold.

Nose: Wow, this emits heaps of aroma. Nice rubbery notes and extremely waxy. Fresh and vibrant and highly aromatic. It oozes a typical Japanese nutty kind of smell and cask toast. Fragrant green tea combined with the more obvious creamy vanilla note we know from casks made of American oak that once held Bourbon (or Tennessee Whiskey). There is some kind of sweet sensation underneath that reminds me a bit of hot sugar-water. The wood emits fresh oak and fresh tree sap, with whiffs of powdered coffee creamer. Quite floral and fruity. The fruity part are hints of fresh (thus not over-ripe) plums. The floral part is more about fruit trees in bloom rather than any kind of flowers. Elegant stuff.

Taste: Quite hot with ashes and an old oaky bitterness. Pencil shavings and some sort of hidden fruitiness. Lovely dusty nuttiness comes to the forefront too, making this a woody Whisky. Dark bitter chocolate and (ear) wax. If you can get past all the furniture and dark chocolate, there is some candied fruit behind all that.

Never owning a bottle myself I had some kind of luck having tried this one several times. Once from a freshly opened bottle, but also the last few drops from a bottle that had some time to let the Whisky breathe. I have to say that this particular Karuizawa is stellar when freshly opened, but with that the oxidation starts. Usually oxidation is not a bad this in Whisky, but sometimes oxidation changes or even ruins the Whisky. Here we have an example where oxidation really can change the Whisky. When this Karuizawa oxidizes the focus shifts more towards the (especially in the taste), whereas the freshly opened bottle is way more fruity. I don’t have a freshly opened bottle at hand, so this review is written tasting the last drops of the bottle, but I do remember the Whisky well when it was freshly opened. The score is for the freshly opened bottle. The last drops would score around 87 points so beware!

Points: 95


Chichibu 3yo 2009/2013 (53.5%, OB, Ichiro’s Malt, Chibidaru, Quarter Cask, 3900 bottles)

Chichibu is the first new Japanese distillery since the seventies, built near the city of the same name by Ichiro Akuto. Akuto started building the distillery in 2005 and in 2008 the first spirit ran off the stills. But 2005 is not the start of this story. No, this story starts in Chichibu in 1626 when the Akuto family started brewing Sake. In 1941 Ichiro’s grandfather, Isouji Akuto, built another distillery near the town of Hanyu, for making Sake and Shochu. Five years later a licence was obtained for distilling Whisky, initially a continuous still essentially making Grain Whisky. This still was eventually replaced by a copper still.

In 1980 Ichiro’s father, Yutaka Akuto, started to make Single Malt Whisky instead of the more common Blended Japanese Whisky (Scottish Malt Whisky blended with Japanese Grain Whisky). In 1983 the first spirit became Whisky but by 2000 Hanyu stopped making Whisky due to the severe lack of profitability. Ichiro, who worked at Suntory at the time, was brought in to save the company. He had to sell Hanyu to do just that. Hanyu was dismantled in 2004, but Ichiro bought the remaining Whisky stock as well as the distilling equipment. The equipment is still stored at Chichibu, but was never used since Ichiro´s new distillery was fitted with new equipment.

Chichibu Chibidaru 2009/2013Color: Full gold.

Nose: Fresh entry, elegant and flowery. Toned down, dried Jasmin leaves (tea and soap). Slight hint of powdery and spicy oak, alcohol and quite fruity. Pear and a hint of menthol and red fruit jello. Old dried ginger and sawdust. It smells pretty mature and complex for a 3yo Single Malt.

Taste: Quite woody, good aroma and even a bit sweet. Vegetal and much less fruity than the nose. It tastes even less complex than the nose, and with this it shows its youth. It’s easy to “see” that this one does needs its higher strength. Creamy vanilla, some candied yellow fruits enter the mix after (a lot of) air. Fabulous creamy custard paper pudding aftertaste with proper length. Lovely stuff especially considering its age.

This is an excellent 3yo Japanese Whisky, but it will only show its full potential if you let it breathe a lot. This is the kind of bottle you open and leave in the closet for a week or two without its cork. In the glass just let it sit around for half an hour before you even nose it. This needs air.

Now all the Karuizawa’s and Yamazakis are gone and Nikka struggles to release even a Whisky with an age statement I give you a glimpse of the future of Japanese Whisky. This is high quality stuff with massive potential, but as long as Ichiro is releasing Malts at barely the minimum age, that taste as well as this, it will tie us over as we wait for the Japanese Whisky to mature. My only fear will be that when a Whisky will reach its adulthood, it will be extremely expensive as the Karuizawa’s and the Yamazaki’s of today.

Points: 87

Nikka Pure Malt Black ‘Smoky and Mellow’ (43%, OB, 50 cl, 08J12C)

Well yes, why not have a go at another Japanese Whisky. This time a true Pure Malt or Blended Malt. It is not very hard to guess from which distilleries the Whiskies originate that make up this Blended Malt. Yes you’ve guessed it: Yoichi (for the peat) and Miyagikyo (for the fruit). Black is one out of a series of three. The other two are Red (predominantly Miyagikyo, Rounded and Smooth) and White (predominantly Yoichi, Smoky and Peaty). Red is supposed to be blended with Malt Whisky from Scotland, as White is supposed to be blended with peated Whisky from Islay.

Nikka Pure Malt BlackColor: Light orange gold

Nose: Lots of vanilla, smoke from burning of branches with leaves and a lot of moisture. Also some red fruits. Fat peat and custard. Excellent combination. Children’s clay, strong and spicy wood. When given the time to breathe the nose stabilizes. Seems like young Whisky to me.

Taste: Vanilla with a peppery attack, transforming into a Whisky from a Cream Sherry cask. Hard fruity candy. Full, likeable and strong flavor for instant gratification. Actually not very refined. Not bad, but like the Akashi reviewed earlier, the finish is not the strongest point of this Japanese Whisky. Some kind of peppery heat (smoke) stays on the roof of my mouth, but at the same time you have a pretty short finish down my throat. Curious. There is a fruity sugar-water coating that stays behind in the mouth. Needs air to develop.

It seems to me this product is made with a lot of young Whisky from first fill casks. First refills are needed for longer maturation to make a better Whisky. Interesting. As I said before. Whisky not for analyzing and to fuss over. Just sit back and enjoy. It will grow on you. Probably also good Whisky for cocktails!

Points: 82

Akashi 5yo ‘White Oak’ (45%, OB, 500 ml)

Next up a Japanese 5yo Single Malt Whisky from the Eigashima Distillery. Please don’t confuse this with the 5yo Akashi “Blended Whisky”. This peculiar blend is not a blend as we know it. The Malt Whisky isn’t blended with Grain Whisky but with a Spirit. The Malt Whisky itself is not only Malt Whisky from Eigashima, but also contains imported Whisky. Altogether there is 34% Malt Whisky in this Blend. The Spirit part (66%) is made with Spirit from molasses, partly barrel aged. There is some controversy about the Spirit used, and calling this a Blended Whisky. Alas no controversy about our 5yo Single Malt. Besides both 5yo Whiskies, there is also a 12yo Akashi Single Malt. Code on the inside of the front label is: 112102.

Akashi 5yo 'White Oak' (45%, OB)Color: Gold, with a tinge of ocher (dandruff)

Nose: Worcestershire sauce. lactic acid and right after that virgin oak and cigarette tobacco. Cooled off warm milk. Extremely funky and yeasty. This Whisky oozes aroma, and you have to sniff it all out to get to the woody part and the feeling you are nosing a Single Malt Whisky. Warm dry forest floor and the fruitiness comes from ripe apple skins. This apple note is connected to a powdered sugar sensation. For best results let this breathe for a while. Small hints of menthol and spicy wood tends to play a greater role.

Taste: Extremely malty and after that paper and oak. Dried leaves. Some sweetness from sweet tree sap (I imagine). Very naturally occurring sweetness like stevia. The wood becomes slightly bitter and next comes a slightly peppery attack. Tiny hint of burnt plastic and the bitterness stays. It tastes a bit like sake. The finish disintegrates leaving you with the bitterness and a funky kind of acidity, in part cow dung. The finish is definitely the weakest point of this Whisky.

Very simple, immature and straightforward Whisky, that doesn’t come to us without flaws. Some strange aroma’s in here that to me seem like distillation faults. Having said that I don’t dislike this, but I most definitely like the first half better than the last half.

Points: 71

Hakushu “Heavily Peated” (48%, OB, Suntory)

I’m writing this review just after finishing The Irish Whisky Week, so in my mind I will be comparing this Hakushu to the peated Irish Connemara’s. I see that this is the first review I write about a Japanese Whisky outside of the Japanese Whisky Week, so it has been a while! Japan reminds me a bit of Ireland. Not a lot of distilleries, but bottles abundant. More exotic to the western world. Yet there is a big difference. You hardly encounter a very expensive Irish Whiskey, or it is from a bottle that was bottled B.C. Yes the occasional Bow Street bottle can cost you a pretty penny. Japanese Whisky, however do cost you an arm and a leg. Just look at the craze with Karuizawa and Hanyu for instance. Here we have a widely available NAS Japanese peated Single Malt Whisky. It’s Suntory Time!

Hakushu Heavily PeatedColor: Light gold.

Nose: Oily and fatty peat, but not really upfront. Perfumy, elegant and floral. Sweet edible flowers. Vegetal. Hai, it seems to be more about flora than peata and smoka if you ask me. When it breathes for a while it gets less oily, and more sweeter and fruity (and thinner). When you let it breathe for a while, it develops into a more smoky type of Whisky, again showing it needs air (or some drops of water). Besides this all it also gives off some greenish and vanilla like notes. Young Whisky matured in American oak. The fruitiness develops into yellow fruits, that are becoming more and more “smellable”. Smoke, check.

Taste: Sweet, very tasty, fatty and young. Distant bonfire and again warming. Nice stuff. Hai, fruity, and nice slightly bitter peat. This couldn’t have come from Scotland. Scottish Whiskies are usually peatier and combined with an underlying sweetness and ashy smoke. This Hakushu is sweet all right but it isn’t hidden, the sweetness is there from the start. What’s very nice it the combination of upfront sweetness, very light peat, nice smoke is also its floral bit. Complex in the nose, and highly drinkable. Excellent. Heavily Peated? Maybe in a Japanese kind of way.

Very drinkable, I like it, but to my amazement, again a Whisky that is hardly available, and it wasn’t cheap to boot. Absolutely a young and very good Whisky of high quality, that again seems to be unobtainable. Bugger!

Points: 87

Japanese Whisky Week – Day 7: Yamazaki 1984/2005 (56%, OB)

Wow, how quickly a week passes by. Already the last day of the Japanese Whisky Week. The last entry will be another Vintage Malt Yamazaki. This time a 1985. Will this be the best? But before I start reviewing this one, first a little comment.

This Japanese Whisky Week was a little ‘narrow’ All entries were from just three distilleries. Nikka’s Yoichi (in the Taketsuru’s) and Miyagikyo, and Suntory’s Yamazaki. But there is so much more. So please have a look at the others. Hanyu is great, so is Karuizawa, and many others, like the new Chichibu that already shows great potential. So enough material for another Japanese Whisky Week I would say.

By the way, not a lot of good pictures available, so the picture is for another Yamazaki from the same series, just from other distillation and bottling years. Sorry.

Color: Dark mahogany

Nose: Sherry, probably Oloroso. Dry, powdery and woody. Nice soapy smell, that adds to the elegance of it. Typical oak. Pencil shavings. Sugar candy. Paper as in old books. The nose is very balanced.

Taste: Sweet (at first) and spicy wood. Syrupy, thick, with cough syrup and black fruits. The initial sweetness soon gives way to oak. Burnt sugar with some mint. This isn’t 25yo yet, but it’s already on the brink. This is already pretty woody, and ageing this any longer ,would have made this extremely woody. Now it’s elegant and quite bitter, but a bitterness that can still be handled. There is also some Beer, or hoppy bitterness to this. Altogether half sweet. Burnt sugar and it has a woody, hoppy, bitter finish. The other Yamazaki Vintage Malt didn’t oxidize to well, but this one can handle air with ease.

This goes into Yamazaki 25yo territory, but it isn’t there, its definitively younger, a lot younger. I guess there are much older components that go into Yamazaki 25yo, than only 25yo casks. There you have old wood that isn’t present in this Vintage Cask.

I like it. It is sort of extreme, but for me the best of the Japanese Whisky Week. Still, it’s not for the faint at heart. All in all I have to say that all seven Whiskies were pretty good. Just have a look at the amount I scored 87 points. So this is the best, but with 89 points it’s barely the best. It seems that mean quality is high and therefore Japanese Whiskies, If you choose wisely, are very good. Recommended.

Points: 89

Japanese Whisky Week – Day 6: Miyagikyo 1989/2006 (58%, Nikka, C# 108645, Warehouse 24)

On the third day of the Japanese Whisky Week, I tried a fairly standard Miyagikyo 15yo at the reasonable strength of 45% ABV. That one turned out to be very good. Today we’ll have another look at this distillery, but this time a single cask at the more samurai strength of 58% ABV. As I said before, Miyagikyo is one of my favorites from Japan, ánd I’ve stated before that Japanese whiskies need to be cask strength to show their…ehhh strength. So here we go!

Color: Copper

Nose: Musty sherry. Malty, muddy and sweaty. Smells a bit like your local ditch on a good day. So it doesn’t stink, but smells… organic. Mushrooms. Dry. Sea spray freshness and something burnt. Probably from a Fino Sherry cask. The nose isn’t typical Miyagikyo.

Taste: Strong. Yellow jam with apricots. Chewy. Lots of wood spice. It’s a whisky that wants to be sweet, but isn’t. It’s half sweet, half dry. Sherried. Not completely a Miyagikyo profile but very nice! Clay. Slight imbalance in the finish, due to the sour wood. It’s not very woody, but still it dominates the finish.

Yes these bottles come in a blank and ugly box. Just think the box protects the bottle and the whisky from scratches and light. The good stuff is in the bottle and luckily is not in the packaging. Still I like the smoke glass bottle Nikka also uses for Ben Nevis Whiskies.

I have a feeling this one doesn’t like to breathe too much. Ok, bad example, or there goes a prejudice? It’s Miyagikyo and it’s cask strength, still it scores the same as reduced and standard or even pure malts… We’ll see what happens with the next one…

Points: 87 (yes again 87).

Japanese Whisky Week – Day 5: Yamazaki 1991/2005 (56%, OB)

Lets stay with Yamazaki and Suntory for a while and have a look at a more younger version that is bottled in the vintage malt series. I would guess that it is cask strength, but both versions, the 2004 and the 2005 are precisely 56%. Coincidence or design? The version reviewed here is the 1991 bottled in 2005. The picture below is for the 2004 version, but both look the same. Now we can finally see how a cask strength japanese whisky will be, since I always claimed Japanese whiskies do need their strength, since I feel the reduced versions strike me as watery.

Color: Gold

Nose: Peaty clay. Musty, but also fresh. Radiant wood. Rotting leaves. Just the right spices. Salty grass, dry grass (not hay). Bonfire, fresh smoke. Yes it’s fruity too. Peach. Candy like sour fruityness. Very special.

Taste: Spicy, smoky and half sweet. Hardly any upfront peat here, at least not as much as expected. Licorice with clay.Fruity, just more pineapple than peach. Also the grassy notes emerge here too. Otherwise it’s clean and not overly complex. Warming. Ah, there is the peat, it comes very late in the finish. Welcome. Just a tad of imbalance in the finish though. The sour elements are fighting the sweets and they don’t go together well, because of the peat. Not an elegant Yamazaki this is, more rough around the edges. Likeable, but has it’s flaws taste-wise.

This smells like a Brora! It’s unbelievable, but in Japan they know how to make a whisky that smells like a Brora now! Isn’t this a hidden secret! Keep this in mind when going into a blind tasting… Just two big let-downs. The taste is a simple Brora at best and they charge as much for these kinds of Yamazaki as they do for a Brora. Bummer! Still, well done Suntory.

Points: 87

Japanese Whisky Week – Day 4: Yamazaki 25yo (43%, OB, 75 cl)

Leaving Nikka for a while and now visiting Suntory’s Yamazaki. Yamazaki is the oldest working distillery of Japan being founded by Shinjiro Torii in 1923. It lies between Kyoto and Osaka. Shinjiro Torii also founded the Suntory company. As with Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru, both men were pretty influential in the rise of Japanese whisky. Taketsuru also first worked for Torii as a distillery executive before embarking on his own adventures.

Color: Mahogany

Nose: Furniture wax and burnt sugar. Before I go on, I have to say it’s a very thick and rich smell. It’s barely recognizable as a whisky. It could have been rum, but also smells like a PX Sherry. A truckload of raisins and prunes. Cacao with oak, minty oak actually. Glue, sugar and gravy. Well this is a pretty complex Japanese whisky.

Taste: Very dry and oaky. Toast and a hint of soap. The soap returns in the texture that otherwise is pretty thin. Sherried. Seems old. Red & black fruits, mocha and coffee. Dry teeth. Unfortunately this has a short slightly burnt, oaky finish. In this case it’s probably a good thing it got reduced, because if this would have been 55% ABV or even higher, with all these thick aroma’s and all that oak, it probably would have been very hard to drink. It’s a syrup (just not in the texture).

To my amazement, this is almost sold out everywhere. Don’t they make this anymore? If you think this is just the next standard Yamazaki after the 12yo and the 25yo, think again. This is very pricey stuff. If you want it today, be prepared to part with 600 Euro’s (800 USD) at auctions or 800 Euro’s (1000 USD) from a store. Wow, what an experience. So if you can get a dram in a bar, please do, you’ll have to try this, if it’s only just once in your life.

Points: 88

Japanese Whisky Week – Day 3: Miyagikyo 15yo (45%, Nikka)

Next up in our Japanese Whisky Week is one of the two components of the previously reviewed Taketsuru Pure malts. Miyagikyo. Miyagikyo was built by Masataka Taketsuru in 1969. Miyagikyo is also known as the Sendai Distillery and is located in northern Honshu. Quite close to the Fukushima nuclear power plant (30 minutes by car).

Equipped with only one pair of stills in 1969, a second and third pair were installed just six years later. All stills are steam-heated. Miyagikyo also has Coffee stills that were moved here from Nishinomiya distillery in 1999. With these stills Nikka Coffee Malt is made. The coffee malt is made with 100% malted barley.

Color: Orange gold.

Nose: Fat, muddy, spicier than Taketsuru. Very nice smoke. Meatier too. Almonds, vanilla ice cream, fern and sherry. Perfumy wood. Balanced and clean. Elegant with the spice coming late. Complex and balanced. There’s more to it…

Taste: Thick. Sweet clay. Sherry and it has substance. Vanilla ice cream. Spicy wood. It’s quite woody. Green, cardboardy but still great altogether. (I have to say the nose was slightly better).

I’m a big fan of Miyagikyo. Every time I taste one of its expressions it always ticks all of my boxes. It just clicks with me. Even this ‘standard’, large batch and reduced whisky. This is great stuff! Even though I scored this the same as Taketsuru 21yo. Both do deserve the same score. But if asked to choose, I would choose this. It has just two more points in ABV, and it shows (a little), but I still feel that Japanese whiskies are at their best at cask strength. We should find out if that’s true…

Points: 87