Towards the end of 2014 Japanese whisky was once again pushed into the spotlight of main stream media when a 2013 Sherry Cask Yamazaki was crowned ‘World Whisky Of The Year’ by whisky writer Jim Murray.
It seems every time an award like this is issued to a whisky outside of Scotland (of which there have been many) it seems the public start to loose their minds and start to question everything they thought they knew about whisky (and even the universe). Asking us questions like…
Is this for real? How can a country like Japan beat Scotland at whisky making?
Who judges these competitions? Japan?
WHAT’S GOING ON??? Do we really orbit the sun? Is the world actually flat???
Now any serious whisky drinker will have known about Japanese whisky for a long time after all they’ve been at it since Yamazaki distillery was founded in 1924! And a truly advanced whisky drinker will be well aware of the evolving world whisky scene. But with such an enormous number of whisky-loving-people still in the dark we thought it was time to set the record straight… again, and revisit our Japan Vs Scotland series which we last ran in 2013 (results here). Giving us the opportunity to hit the whisky drinking public with the facts about Japanese whisky and show off some really tasty stuff from both countries.
1 month (March), 8 cities, c400 tasters and 6 whiskies.
3 whiskies from Scotland, 3 whiskies from Japan.
ALL tasted blind with no branding, tastings notes or pricing. ALL tasted in pairs and ALL tasted in the same order from venue to venue. By doing this the playing field was well and truly levelled, so the liquid does the talking, not the marketeers.
Here are the pairs, plenty of tie-ins here, especially between pairs 2 and 3 as Longmorn was one of the distilleries where Mastataka (founder of Nikka) trained in the art of whisky making, as well as in Campbeltown.
Compass Box, Spice Tree, 46%, Around £40-£45
Compass Box were set-up at the turn of the century by whisky maker John Glaser and make a collection of unusual blended malts and blends. John learnt the art of whisky blending with one of the largest whisky companies, and since starting Compass Box has put those skills to good use creating an innovative and diverse array of whiskies. As with many independent whisky companies Compass Box don’t chill-filter and no colouring is added to their whiskies. ‘Spice Tree’ is made using a combination of Highland malt whiskies which are roughly 10 years old and matured in first fill casks. The whisky is then re-racked into custom made casks fitted with heavily toasted French oak heads. The resulting whisky is rich, bold and a spicy treat.
Nikka Pure Malt Black, 43%, Around £40-45
Part of a collection of 3 blended malts made, in the main, from single malt whiskies from the Nikka stable. The other two bottlings are ‘Pure Malt Red’ and ‘Pure Malt White’. Due to the adversarial relationship between Nikka and Suntory – the two largest Japanese Whisky companies – they do not trade casks for blending, unlike Scottish distillers, and they therefore have to rely on their own ingenuity and innovation work to come up with their blended recipes.
Interestingly the term ‘pure malt’ and ‘vatted malt’ was abandoned by the Scotch industry quite some time ago, and was replaced by the term ‘blended malt’ due to the confusion it was felt could arise. But if anything it created more!
Anyway, Pure Malt Black is a blended malt built around whisky from Yoichi and is a rich and gutsy whisky with notes of dark fruit, and chocolate.
Miyagikyo 10 year old, 45%, Around £70-£75
The Miyagikyo distillery was built in 1969 and became Nikka’s 2nd Malt whisky distillery. It operates a more modern style of whisky production compared to NIkka’s other distillery Yoichi and produces roughly twice the volume of spirit – roughly 5 million litres a year. It has 8 pairs of stills and is also capable of making grain whisky using two pairs of Coffey Stills. The distillery is sandwiched between two rivers, The Hirosegewa and The Nikkawagawa. The location was selected by Masataka himself who was a firm believer that the terroir of a whisky distillery is vital to the final product. This expression is very easy going – soft sweet and fruity and certainly a less weighty whisky than Yoichi.
Longmorn 16 year old, 48%, Around £50-£55
Longmorn has long been a TWL favourite and expressions, both official and Indie, have appeared in dozens of our tastings over the years. We even bottled our own cask back in 2012, a 19yo which is now long gone. Anyway, Longmorn is relatively unknown to the wider whisky drinking public, but it is in fact one of the most sought after whiskies by blenders and plays a key role in the Chivas blends. It is this popularity amongst blenders that makes official releases so scarce and Indie bottlings so prolific. This official bottling is big, juicy, sweet, spicy with citrus and buttery, cakey qualities. This was also one of the original distilleries where Masataka was schooled in the art of whisky-making in April 1919.
Yoichi 12 year old, 45%, Around £85-£100
Yoichi is the most northerly distillery in Japan and the only distillery on the island of Hokkaido. The distillery was founded in 1934 by Masataka after he left the Yamazaki distillery and the fledgling Suntory. The distillery is the realisation of Masataka’s ideals of whisky-making and mirrors beautifully the methods he observed whilst learning the art in Scotland. The distillery operates three pairs of stills, all of which are direct fired. This means the stills are direct-fired using coal as opposed to indirect-fired stills which are heated by steam coils. This method was once common place in Scotland but over the years direct-fired stills like Yoichi’s have become extinct there, with the last coal fired stills being removed from Glendronach in 2005. Yoichi also produces whiskies with varying peating levels – from totally un-peated to heavily peated. As well as using these traditional methods the distillery has on-site coopers making casks. All these factors combine to make Yoichi the most traditional distillery in Japan and in many ways more traditional than most operating in Scotland today. This 12 year old is spicy, sweet and fruity with whisps of smoke.
ringbank 10 year old, 46%, Around £35-£40
Springbank is one of the last remaining independent distilleries in Scotland and one of only 7 that still operates a working malting floor. Traditional methods are rooted within every aspect of Springbank and it currently operates the last direct-fired still in Scotland, which is partially fired with oil. This unfaltering attitude towards creating whisky in a more hands-on, old fashioned way has helped elevate the whisky to a cult like status amongst whisky fans the world over. This Ten-Year-old is the starting point in the range and has been matured in a combination of ex-Bourbon and Sherry casks, plus it also has a twist of peat in the spirit. The combination is a superbly rich and complex whisky with bags of flavour and character.
This was a mighty series with some unexpected twists and turns. With such a strong line up some of the rounds were incredibly close, often coming down to just 1 or 2 votes either way. From the word go Scotland were off to a flying start but were quickly beaten back by Japan. But this didn’t last long as Scotland got back in there with a mighty effort, so much so that we thought they had it. But then all of a sudden a 3 nil victory for Japan in Leeds, smashing Scotland into submission.
Round 1 was by far the closest round with only a few votes between them. Round 2 was mostly being claimed by the Longmorn, which most felt had the edge over the Miyagikyo. Whisky of the series could only go to one whisky, the Yoichi 12, beating the Springbank 10, and every other on the line-up time and time again. However it’s worth pointing out that during the tasting there is no mention of price, and once these were discovered many opinions shifted.
But it’s not about price with a blind tasting is it? It’s about the liquid. So well done Japan and Yoichi you nailed it! Here’s how it shaped up from venue to venue.
Sheff, 2-1 Scotland. Winners Spice Tree, Longmorn, Yoichi
Liverpool, 2-1 Scotland. Winners Spice Tree, Longmorn, Yoichi
London 1, 3-0 Japan.
Manchester, 2-1 Japan.Winners Pure Malt Black, Longmorn, Yoichi
Newcastle, 3-0 Japan.
York, 2-1 Japan. Winners Pure Malt Black, Longmorn, Yoichi
London 2 -1, Scotland. Winners Spice Tree, Longmorn, Yoichi
Brighton, 2-1, Scotland. Winners Spice Tree, Longmorn, Yoichi
Leeds, 3-0, Japan
Just shy of 400 of you made it out for this series and it seems some of you turned to twitter to voice your opinions… here’s a handful of tweets below. You can see the whole picture by checking out the hashtag #JpnVsScot
Thanks to all our lovely customers who turned out and big thanks to Nikka, Compass Box, Springbank and Pernod Ricard for making this series possible. Collectively we all made for an amazing series.
— Stephen Ackers (@Beefynets) March 18, 2015
— Tim Forbes (@TimFFS) March 27, 2015
Although I should mention that on each occasion a majority of people thought that the Scottish winner was in fact Japanese whisky #JpnVsScot
— Tim Forbes (@TimFFS) March 27, 2015
— Ben Sherry (@Sherry_Ben) March 26, 2015
— Zoe (@TWLZoe) March 25, 2015
— The Mobile Optician (@mobileoptics) March 20, 2015