Well, albeit slightly later than intended, we continue our Japanese themed December with a few more delights from the Orient. As well as four brand new reviews for you over the next few posts, we caught up for a civilised chat with Marcin Miller, the man behind No 1 Drinks Company, who had the enlightened idea of bringing some sensational single casks to our shores from the likes of Karuizawa and the Hanyu ‘Card Series’.
As Marcin sits down with Caskstrength for a refreshing afternoon tea at the Wolseley on Piccadilly, A cheeky grin can be seen emerging from ear to ear. The nature of this is perhaps the fine array of loose-leaf teas and impeccably crafted Florentines on offer here (which also has me smiling and slavering in anticipation…) but it soon becomes clear that at the moment, Marcin is a man in demand. As well as winning our inaugural Best in Glass Awards, The Karuizawa 1971 single cask, which Marcin was responsible for bottling, has won just about every award going this year– including a Malt Maniacs’ thumbs up and plaudits from numerous whisky writers all over the world.
So what prompted Marcin’s first forays into fine Japanese whiskies?
“About 10 years ago, I was the editor for Whisky Magazine and (with my business partner David Croll) we were busy setting up the very first ‘Whisky Live’ event, which happened to be in Tokyo. So I started to think ‘what’s the score’ with Japanese whisky! I was fascinated by the whiskies I initially tried on that first visit- Yoichi 10 Year Old, as well as bottlings from Yamazaki.”
It seems that until a few years ago, there was only a relatively small UK interest in Japanese whisky?
“There happens to be a very strong domestic market for these whiskies but they weren’t that aggressive in the UK, so I started to think about how to get some of the less well known brands into the hands of the public. The ethos of most whisky bars in Japan is that Japanese whiskies are usually more expensive than Scotch malts, which in turn is very clever for their branding- there’s a certain pride and prestige in what they produce. Ironically, a bottle of Yamazaki 18 Year Old is actually cheaper to buy in Norwich than it is in Tokyo!!"
So this prompted you to seek out the finest casks from a number of sources?
"The first bottlings No.1 developed were the Hanyu ‘Card Series’. Originally built in 1946, the Hanyu Distillery began producing whisky in a Scotch single malt style from two pot stills in 1980. It closed in 2000 but there were small amounts remaining, which was very well received.” With Karuizawa, there were around 49 casks, some dating back to 1965, which we started bottling in 2006. "
The Karuizawa single casks we’ve tasted all share similar characteristics of big intense fruit, mixed with a really distinct clarity and wonderful woodland freshness. Why do you think this is?
"Well, the Karuizawa distillery was developed in the foothills of Mount Asama, which is some 850 feet above sea level, so the high altitude certainly has an effect of the condition of the casks and the climatic humidity. "
The 1971 bottling was 64.1 % abv, which is astonishing, considering it’s a 36-year old whisky.
“The casks are mostly Spanish sherry butts and are all excellent quality, with some dating back from the 1960’s which gives Karuizawa its really concentrated rich fruity notes. The distillery experiences very hot summers and really cold winters, which gives the whisky a different maturation profile to that of other Japanese whiskies.“
What’s next on the agenda for No 1 Drinks then?
"They’ll certainly be a cask from 1972 released, but this is likely to be part of the No 1 range, as opposed to a straight Karuizawa bottling. There’s a few really exceptional casks that we’ll bottle under our own label. There will also be a continuation of the 'Card Series' with a '2 of Diamonds' and a '7 of Clubs' and possibly the ‘Joker’ as the last release in the series!
Marcin and David have also entered into collaboration with the Akuto family who, have traditionally been making Sake since 1625. Ichiro Akuto, from the 21st generation of the family and Innovator Of The Year at the 2008 World Whisky Awards opened the Chichibu distillery in 2007 and the first spirit ran from the stills in March this year. Stay tuned for an exclusive new-make tasting!
So, time to try some more of this Karuizawa stuff:
Karuizawa - 1992 - Bottled 2007 - Cask No. 3330 - 61.5%
Nose: Old polished wood, pews and biscuit. A touch of pastry, vanilla, mint (fresh) and menthol. Some soot. After time some raspberry ripple ice cream, Strawberry syrup.
Palate: Sherried, summer fruits (Strawberry jam), pepper, dark chocolate. Hint of smoke.
Finish: Boiled sweets, menthol. Big sherry finish.
Overall: I enjoyed this and thought it was well balanced with enough sweetness and summer fruits.
Karuizawa - 1991 - Bottled 2007 - Cask No. 3318 - 62.5%
Nose: Strong and affirmative with the alcohol punching through more than the 1992.
Lots of dough, roasted cereals, pie pastry.
Palate: Very sweet, coffee; like builders coffee! Dates. Soot again and burnt sugar.
Finish: Dry with a big hit of Christmas cake. Apricots and a touch of smoke.
Overall: A very pleasant dram, less sherried than the 1992 and it comes full circle from biscuits in the nose to biscuit in the finish, via sweet coffee and dates. Nice.