Whisk(e)y Otaku! A sampling of Japanese and Pacific Ocean malt whiskies, and the basics of whisk(e)y tasting.
Whiskey (I’m in America so I’m going to go ahead and just use the “E”) is easily the most loosely defined of all spirit categories. When you get right down to it, whiskey is basically booze made from cereal grains, normally aged, but not in the case of white dog (my favorite, call me Andrew ”white dog” Bohrer) or moonshine and is also distilled lower than other more neutral grain spirits. Specific types of whisky however are incredibly specifically defined by laws, governments and by angry consumers and lawyers. For example, bourbon is at least 51% corn, but less than 79%, aged in ash fired new American oak barrels for at least 2 years as defined legally by 1 year and 1 day for tax purposes, but if younger than 4 there must be an age statement on the bottle, if blended with other ages, the youngest age must be the age statement on the bottle, can not be distilled above 160 proof, but can not be introduced into the barrel at higher than 125 proof, nor filtered before entering the barrel and lastly is a uniquely American product, though not necessarily from Kentucky. Bourbon has been defined in that way since 1964. But if it seems like bourbon is a stickler for the laws, try calling anything made outside of Scotland “Scotch,” or put a tartan on a bottle and you find a man in a kilt at your door with a punch in the face for you and a lawsuit.
But because scotch is so great, we must make it the world over, and when not from Scotland, we call it malt whiskey. Malt whiskey the world over has 1 thing that makes it the same: peat. Almost all of the time, peat that is used in the malting process is from Scotland, so if you are having a dram of malt whiskey, you are drinking in a taste of mineral rich, heather flavored, Scottish dirt. What is different is everything else. Scottish water is the opposite to Japanese water. Whiskey breathes the air of the land in which it rests, thus Laphroaig 15 is like nibbling smoked seaweed and while you’ll never have an can exhaust flavored New York city whiskey. The barley is different everywhere you go, but then again like in the case of McCarthy’s from Oregon, Scottish barley is used, sp we really just taste the water and air of Oregon. Thusly Steve McCarthy’s whiskey tastes like hippies and liberal politics. Steve, I’m going to make fun of you more later but understand, that I want us to be friends.
What follows is a sampling of Japanese and Pacific Ocean malt whiskies, and the basics of whisk(e)y tasting. All of these whiskies have been breathing the same air as me, way out here at least 6,000 miles from Scotland and most of them for longer than the 8 years I’ve been here (which is good because this would be lame to taste like 3, 7 year old whiskies). I’m not going to go very in depth into the histories of these unique bottlings for a few reasons. 1. I want to focus on what their flavors are like because they are rare for Americans to get and we all need practice in training our palates. 2 Eight of the bottles are in Japanese, a language which I can not read. 3. My buddy other Andrew over at Alcohology, Whisky Magazine (several great back issues about Japanese distilling) and this dude Ulf Bruxard know way more than me, you should ask them. Also, I heard on Whisky Cast a new Japanese whiskey is coming to America, the Hibiki 12, so you guys can tell me about that later. Shout outs are done, lets move on to the basics of tasting.
The first rule of whiskey tasting is wash your hands. I cut a lot of fruit, shake a lot of hands, spill a lot of coffee and ride my bike (cities are dirty) and it makes my hands smell like, well, more than just hands. When you are tasting whiskey, you only want to smell one thing, the whiskey in your face, don’t wear perfume, or be eating tasty stinky cheese and cured meats either. And while you are at it, any whiskey you aren’t drinking at present, keep it covered. Whisking tasting suppliers sell little glass discs for this, or a coaster will also work. Otherwise you are tasting one whisky whilst smelling 4 others. Glassware is also important, the Glencairn glass is recognized as the best for tasting though I am also a big fan of the Riedel single malt glass or dessert wine glasses. Avoid snifters because they over focus the nose, or any glass that just allows too much air to be in contact with the whiskey.
The four basics that people refer to when tasting whiskey
Color –Lighter for example means younger, or perhaps bourbon barrels or in the case of Bruichladdich and Ardbeg, not artificially colored. Darker means richer woods, older, perhaps sherry and non-flavored caramel additives. Younger whiskies will have thin fast, ”legs, “ the lines that form when you swirl the glass. Whereas the increased sugar content in richer older whiskey will produce thick slow legs running down the glass. Take note of these as you place a hand over the glass and swirl it. Open your mouth and begin to inhale through your nose as you slowly move the glass to your face.
Nose-Keep your mouth open, if have it closed you’ll not fully experience the nose of the whiskey. Furthermore, inhaling high proof alcohol will likely make you cough and appear as what whiskey drinkers call a, “dumb ass.” Scent is most of taste but most be accounted for in a very different way. I always like to explain it as, scents are light, they float through the palate, taste are heavy, they roll on the tongue. This is a good way to think about descriptions too as you will smell a thousand things in whiskey that you’ll be happy you never taste. For example, my girlfriend hates it when I drink ,“tire store,” whiskey.
Palate –Finally, now you are on your way to being drunk, but wait, not so fast. The 2 main rules are, there are, but aren’t limited to: use all of your tongue and hold the whiskey in your mouth one second for every year that it has been in a barrel. It is generally agreed than different parts on the tongue taste different notes, those being, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory). Those these specific taste receptors are all over your mouth, there are more concentrated in different parts and you need to move the whiskey through your entire mouth to get the full flavor.
Finish-Shut up. Stop talking. Your whiskey is still working. Drinking whiskey is like playing golf, fishing or gambling at poker: the point is not the point, frequently the point is drinking, dirty jokes and comradery. If you think fishing is about catching fish, you are doing it wrong. BUT, whiskey TASTING is about tasting the whiskey. And this takes time. Depending on the after taste, you can easily think about it and taste nothing else for a whole minute. I recently heard a guy talk about the after taste of a 50 year old scotch in the same wistful detail one talks about losing one’s virginity. And I felt gross after hearing it. I am tasting the 11 whiskies in this blog post over several hours to give my palate recovery time, but see if you can pick that up by the end of this writing.
Water is not something I really add to whiskey when tasting it, unless I can’t taste it, specifically if its cask strength or so heavily peated I’m crying tears of smoky joy. The Ardbeg Super Nova for example made me it’s bitch at a mere 116 proof, a proof I normally enjoy but with all that peat it looked like I had just finished an 8 hour shift of dicing onions and watching “where the red fern grows,” over and over. But otherwise, I drink cask whiskey often an I’m used to it, but if you aren’t, keep a bit of water on the side. And don’t underestimate what water does. At a recent trip to the Buffalo Trace distillery I tasted 5 barrels at cask strength and the same 5 at 60 proof and I was surprised by not only picking up different flavors bit also liking 1 bourbon closer to bottle strength than cask strength.
Don’t talk into someone else’s backswing. Meaning, don’t blurt what you are thinking right off the bat because then that’ll be all other people can think of and you will again be a, “dumb ass.”
The booze world is a small world so the last rule is: if you don’t like the whiskey, shut up. There are tons of bourbons and scotches I don’t like but they represent other people’s life work, or favorite flavor, or if you are talking to a whisky maker, quite frankly their neighbor. In Kentucky you can’t speak ill of someone’s bourbon because they live right next to you and are likely related to you, so, do what mom says, say nothing.
Again, I’ve chosen these whiskies because they are different and have been tasted by so few when my notes are examined, you can’t make fun of me. I’m also showing off my collection so “in your face others with lesser collections of Pacific whiskies except those who want to share their collections of expensive rare single malts.”
St George Single Malt Whiskey-Alameda California, 43% alc, no age statement, but its less than 8 (they’ve only been doing for 8 years) and tastes like 5 or 6. A reddish tan malt in color. Smells of bartlet pears, young cereal, prominent oak and lightly of pine. The finish has a light nutmeg flavor and a sweet soft cereal flavor. A gentle introduction to single malts that isn’t overly sweet and has a lot to offer.
McCarthy’s Single Malt-Portland Oregon, 42.5% alc, peat malted Scottish barley. Very pale yellow color, likely what any 3 year old would look like. The nose in of uncooked pepper bacon and that makes me smile. The mouth feel is however very thick with rich cereal flavors like graham crackers and salty peat short finish. And I like it, hear me Steve? I’m a bartender and I like your product, probably because I like white dog so much but lets bury the hatchet on this fight your distillers have with mixologists. Your stuff kicks ass, lets be friends.
Milford 10-South Island New Zealand 43% alc. golden yellow. It scents of hay and quite frankly New Zealand. New Zealand smell like air that is too good for humans and you can smell it in this malt. The flavor is lightly of red apples, distinct lingering vanilla and hazelnut. The finish has a light slow smoke.
Nikka Yoichi 10 Single Malt no idea on proof, maybe 45%alc? The nose is red clay, oats and everything that smells good about a stable but with none of the detractors of stable life, and new crisp oak. I has a sharp minerality, tastes on green apples, light caramel and is a bit rough and unrefined, but I love a rougher malt. The finish leaves flavors of allspice and cloves. I want to high five the distiller.
Nikka Miyagikyo 10 Single Malt., 45%ish? A light yellow hue and a nose of oak and grass. The mouth feel is hot with flavors of dried cherry, crisp wood and black pepper. The finish is long but with very subtle dry maple notes.
Nikka Yoichi 12, 40% or so I think. Brownish tan in color. The initial nose is of spicy tobacco then sweet molasses. Amore than any other flavor, I get light smoke and pecorino cheese. There is a short but very woody finish.
Suntory Yamazaki 12 rich golden color. The nose is maple and dandy lion. The flavor is of Muscat dessert wine or raisins and dried cranberry. It sweet and lightly smoked in the finish. An excellent malt that with lots of light fruit, perfect for introducing an Irish whisky drinker to a scotch style.
Unknown Nikka bottle that I got from a Japanese Grocery store going out of business, 43% alc, Very pale brown. The nose is everything that smell great about waiting in line at a bakery. The flavor is curiously astringent and finishes overly sweet almost tacky. Tastes like Pendelton blended whiskey.
Suntory Hibiki 17 Blended. This may be the first time I ever tasted a malted whisky and was left bereft of thought. It smells of a drift wood fire. The whole experience is rich but there is no room for anything to over done. This whiskey is restrained. It is sexy. Like some non black and white version of Chris Iasacs’s “Wicked Game,” this is honestly what I taste.
Suntory Yamazaki 18 deep tan. Those nose is mostly sweet maple. Of the tongue there is walnut, and blue plum with white pepper showing up later. It has long wooden tannins, not to bitter but balanced with a molasses like flavor. The Yamazaki 18 is and excellent example of what extra age does, a very distinct added maturity is clearly detectable.
Nikka Whisky Pure Malt 21 deep tan. Figs, green pepper but real reminiscent of a filet mignon. It is rich and savory with out having any scent of sea air. The only reason I brought up Umami earlier was to say it here. There is no bitter note in this dram but it tastes of the earth, iron and a pat of butter.
The winner for my personal taste is definitely the Yoichi 10. It wins the, “Andrew’s boiler maker award.” However, it is not for everybody. All of these whiskies have very unique flavors and I would be happy to use them to grow palates of patrons. All of these malts resemble lighter flavors of other scotches well known. The exception being the very young McCarthy’s and the beautiful maturity of the Hibiki blend and the Nikka 21 blend which are examples of why bottles of that age and price are worth celebrating.