Archive for February, 2012

Whisky Advocate Award: Japanese Whisky of the Year

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Chichibu The First, 61.8%, £90

It has been a quiet year on the Japanese front. Stocks at the larger distillers are under pressure, the result of short-term production twelve to eighteen years ago, and while this is being managed capably by producers, it also means that they aren’t exactly embarking on a program of multiple new expressions. With Mars only just reopened, Gotemba extremely quiet, and Karuizawa silent, there was one distillery that rose above all of this. It’s Japan’s newest, and the smallest.

2011 was the year when Chichibu came of age. Owner Ichiro Akuto built the distillery after the enforced closure and demolition of his family’s previous plant, Hanyu, and did so in the same town where his ancestors started making sake 500 years ago.

He and his young team are crafting a new presence, or rather, by exploring all parameters of whisky making, are allowing a new being to come into existence. Three styles are made, light, heavy, and peated, and there are plans to malt on-site (using local barley and peat) and build a cooperage.

This first official release of whisky (rather than maturing new make) is of the quicker-maturing light style and shows typical Japanese clarity along with genuinely ‘Eastern’ aromas of citrus and fragrant spices, and a soft, unctuous feel. It shows enormous promise and demonstrates that there is hope for smaller distillers in Japan. Important in so many ways. —Dave Broom

Be sure to visit here tomorrow. We’ll be announcing our New World Whisky of the Year Award.

Whisky Advocate Award: Irish Whiskey of the Year

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength, 57.7%, $65

In a normal year, any one of the six Irish whiskeys released in 2011 could have staked a claim as Irish whiskey of the year. But 2011 wasn’t normal, not least because in a normal year it’s not likely there would have been six releases in total, let alone six potential award-winning contenders. Unsurprisingly, given the last decade or so, Cooley was never far from the headlines, and the company bookended the year with Kilbeggan 18 year old and Greenore 18 year old at the beginning of it, and Connemara Bog Oak toward the end.

But it was the stunning triple whammy of single pot still whiskeys from Irish Distillers in between that provided the greatest surprise in a generation for the Irish whiskey category. All three were wonderful, but it was the last of them, the cask strength version of the much-loved 12 year old Redbreast, that carried off the honors.

A rich, bittersweet plummy, red berry, oaky-spiced delight, the increased strength gives an already great whiskey a richer, fuller, fruitier dimension, and makes an already complex whiskey…even more complex. For me that makes it not just the best Irish whiskey of this year, but of any. An utter joy. —Dominic Roskrow

The recipient of Whisky Advocate’s Japanese Whisky of the Year will be announced here, tomorrow.

Whisky Advocate Award: Canadian Whisky of the Year

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Wiser’s Very Old/18 Year Old, 40%, $65

Some folks always suspect that food or drink exporters keep the best stuff for themselves. I’ve heard it about cheese, beer, fruit…but when I’ve looked into it, the export markets are indeed getting “the good stuff.” Why not? You’d want to send the best to get the highest price, given that shipping costs are the same for great or mediocre products.

But after enjoying this bottle of Wiser’s Very Old (also sold as Wiser’s 18 Year Old), I’m starting to think that the Canadians really are keeping the good stuff up north. There are small amounts for sale in the U.S. (though that’s slowly increasing), but almost all of it stays home.

That’s a hardship for us non-Canadians, because this is a very nice whisky. After years of thinking of Canadian whisky simply as fuel for highballs and sweet Manhattans we’re looking for something else, something that can stand on its own and intrigue us, or something that could make a more robustly Canadian cocktail, and this Wiser’s would very much fit the bill. You can really taste rye and oak, without a lot of gloppy sweetness, and there’s a finish to reward sipping contemplation.

We’ve seen innovation in this category from John Hall’s Forty Creek whiskies, and rare elegance from limited bottlings like Canadian Club 30 Year Old. Wiser’s Very Old delivers classic Canadian smoothness with a rich extra helping of well-integrated flavor and complexity. Keep it coming, Canada; we’re ready for more.—Lew Bryson

Tomorrow’s announcement will be the Irish Whiskey of theYear.

Whisky Advocate Award: American Whiskey of the Year

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Elijah Craig Barrel No. 3735 20 year old bourbon, 45%, $150

If there is one thing Heaven Hill has proven on numerous occasions, it’s that they know how to cherry-pick great whiskeys for their single barrel bottlings. They’ve been doing it for seventeen years now with their vintage-dated Evan Williams Single Barrel releases, many of which we’ve rated very highly. They also proved they can do it with rye whiskey, when they released their 25 year old single barrel Rittenhouse rye a couple years back (which we rated a 96).

In 2011, they did it again with a new bourbon. This time, it was a single cask, 20 year old Elijah Craig bottling, released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Since it is a single barrel bottling, very few bottles were made available to the public, and they were only sold at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Ky. However, those of you who read the Whisky Advocate blog (whiskyadvocateblog.com) on a regular basis had a chance to procure a bottle of this special whiskey when we published our review of it back in early November.

What makes this whisky so great? It’s seamless, richly textured, and impeccably balanced. It’s complex too, with nutty toffee, pecan pie, apricot, berried jam, and nougat, peppered with cinnamon, mint, cocoa, and tobacco. It’s warming, with polished leather and dried spice on the finish.

This is an outstanding whiskey from a distilling company that continues to prove that they know how to make a wide range of excellent products, from great value whiskeys all the way to some of the finest whiskeys America has to offer. —John Hansell

Join us tomorrow for the Canadian Whisky of the Year announcement.

Whisky Advocate Award: Artisan Whiskey of the Year (North America)

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Low Gap Whiskey, 42.7%, $40

There are an increasing number of whiskeys coming from small distillers. At first, a small number of distillers bottled unaged distillate as a somewhat hokey packaging of moonshine-like white lightning; some were flavored, some were spiced, but almost all of them were meant for mixing (maybe a more accurate description would be ‘spiking’). But over the past eighteen months, a new interest in white whiskey has led to a batch of more carefully made, more flavorful bottlings — or maybe it was the other way around, it’s hard to tell which caused which. Even the big distillers like Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace got into the act, and some folks were buying white whiskey to custom age in small barrels. 2011 was the Year of White Whiskey.

That’s why a whiskey I gave an 80 rating is walking away with this award. Of all the white whiskeys that came across my tasting table in 2011, Low Gap was the solid winner, and this is recognition that there are some white whiskeys out there that are worth drinking on their own for more than the once-or-twice novelty of it.

Low Gap, distilled from malted Bavarian hard wheat, is a round, fruity spirit that smells like fresh flour and crisp crackers, but drinks like brandy — aromatic and vaporous — with a real grain-laced finish, not just an alcohol wick-up. That’s hardly a surprise coming from Craft Distillers, who make Germain-Robin brandy; they know their way around a still, particularly the 16 hectoliter cognac still they use to make Low Gap.

There were aged whiskeys from small distillers this year that I liked better, but this was exceptional in its niche…and I can’t wait to see what it’s like when it has had a chance to age. —Lew Bryson

Tomorrow, the recipient of Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year Award will be announced.