Whisky Exchange Show Part Two: Number One Drinks
Next up was Norfolk’s very own Number One Drinks Company. Headed by the proper lovely Marcin Miller, they were showing some of the equally lovely Japanese whisky they are responsible for importing into the U.K. On show were three bottles from Ichiro Akuto’s Chichibu distillery and four bottles from the sadly dismantled Karuizawa distillery. So something very new and very old at the same time. We’ve been lucky to sample Chichibu the First and Ichiro’s Malt and Grain but the Chichibu Own Floor Maltings we’ve read about about on sites like Nonjatta (essential blog for Japanese whisky) but never had the opportunity to sample.
Malting barley, especially by hand, is a labour intensive and ardious process. For consistenency and reliability it’s a lot easier to buy malt in from commercial malters – indeed only a handful of Scottish distillers malt their own and, with the exception of Springbank (also see Kilchoman review later on), the majority of it makes up the minority of their mashbill.
The only other craft distiller I know of (if you know others then let me know) who practises malting their own barley is Rick Wasmund from Copper Fox in Virginia, USA and apparently he’s the only one in America that does so. So it really is testament to the quality and the need to understand all parts of the distilling process that Akuto-san actually goes out of his way to do his own floor maltings. Hats off.
It produces a delightful whisky too. There’s an elegant dusty spice on the nose that leads to an almost baked bbq fish aroma. The palate has wisps of elegant smoke and a great depth of balanced, tingly spice. It’s light but ordered with spice arriving in very timely waves. Highly smooth and rounded.
Now it may be just vicious rumour but we also heard there may have been some of the Chichibu Peated kicking around that weekend. If there was then well done to those who got a sample – it’s meant to be amazingly good according to our sources.
We also got to meet whisky writer Domonic Roskrow, author of several whisky tomes and editor of World Whisky Review – possibly the best information source about whisky making around the globe. Having lost his pen within the first five minutes of the show we were only too hapy to give him our spare but before we could ask him about his recent trip to Sweden he had to dash off to meet up with someone. Next time then gadget.
Mothballed in 2001 and then dismantled, Karuizawa holds much reverance for drinkers of Japanese whisky in much the same way as Rosebank does for Scotch (I would have used Port Ellen but it’s well hyped these days!). Fortunately Number One Drinks managed to secure the remaining inventory last year and so will be able to continue releasing as mainly single cask bottles. Most of these hover around the £200 mark. So if you don’t happen to have that kind of cash how are you ever going to try it without rocking up to shows like this?
Well the answer comes in the form of Spirit of Asama (there’s a volcano called Asama and also there’s a kung-fu film called “Free Spirit of Asama” as well – not sure which one this takes it’s name from though.) A number of later period casks (77 according to the Whisky Exchange blog), filled in the 1990s have been blended/vatted together by a top Japanese blender to create one of the first large release of Karuizawa. Standard version is bottled at 46% but Sukhinder Singh, owner of the Whisky Exchange, wanted a higher abv and got it bottled at 55%. The 46% is great, with an oily texture, touches of smoke and a whack of leather amongst the toffee, nut and fruit. The 55%, produced from under the counter by Marcin, is a lot bigger with pretty much everything supersized. More smoke, more leather and a lot more tangy spice and a generally more intense ride overall. Certainly the pick of the two and the one we’ll be grabbing when it lands.
Onto the big guns. Two of the most recent bottles on the stand, one a bourbon cask and the other a sherry cask, I believe, were actually bottled in time for the show and this was one of their first airings.
Cask number 8497 was a first fill Bourbon, distilled in 1982 and bottled in 2012 (30 years then) at 46% and retailing around £180. Outstandingly ordered on the nose, the aromas lined up one by one to greet you. Spice with a freshness and vitality that was kind of shocking for something this old, wood spice like sandalwood and a greenness to it as well. The palate kicked in with an immediate delivery, spice fizzed away, layered with a touch of smoke snaking it’s way thorough. The green wood and spice contorts back in, followed by notes of leather and altogether less oil than the Asama bottle. Dry. The spice kicks down and slowly fades with a little killer of heat to remind, the wooded dryness follows downward with a freshness of green hay to bring it altogether. Simply quite staggeringly good. With the Bourbon cask giving it a bourbon edge.
Cask 4021, is its Sherry counterpart. Distilled in 1984 and bottled in 2012 at 64.5%. On the nose there’s a sweetness laced with a touch of Christmas smoke – a theme that is recurrent. There’s touches of citrus and a dash of orange. The palate is a roller-coaster of huge spice deliverance. Upfront, confident, assured and suave. The orange notes that appear on the nose, come back and then the smoke has a slight influence. It’s delicate and all stitched together like a handcrafted eiderdown. There’s an oiliness on the nose but it appears drier on the palate. A great balance between savoury and sweet. A huge whisky that confidently delivers on the palate and stretches out, consistently, all the way through to the finish.
It’s very hard, if not impossible, to choose between the two. They are both different whiskies with different attributes. Like a brother and a sister. I think if you choose one you need to choose the other, they kind of complete each other.
The last Karuizawa on the stand was a 28 year old Sherry Cask bottle from the Noh series, those beautiful labels with the painted masks on them. Distilled in 1983, bottled at 57.2% and retailing at just over £200. Revelling in a deep figgy and obvious sherry nose, there was also a herbaceous edge to it that came close to a clean menthol offering. On the palate the spice kicked in immediately but very ordered and processional. There were some subtle damp, autumnal suggestions – like a walk in the woods when the leaves start to fall – leading on to a leathery, almost tannic finish with the sherry oak and woody flavours gently descending. Even at cask strength the alcohol was never brash, but with a tiny addition of water all the red berry and black forest fruits suddenly opened up and burst into life, matching the spice on the delivery. Quite phenomenal. This is a whisky that you could, and should, spend a bit of time with and certainly one of the best on show that day.
Next: The Whisky Show and Buffalo Trace