Archive for the ‘Japanese whisky’ Category

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

It was revealed today that Beam, the all-spirits company spun off by Fortune Brands in 2011, has agreed to be acquired by Suntory for $13.62 billion, upon approval from Beam Inc. shareholders. Suntory already distributes Beam’s products in Japan, and Beam distributes Suntory’s products in several other Asian markets. The deal is targeted for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Given numbers from the Impact Databank, the deal will make Suntory the world’s fourth-largest spirits company, behind Diageo, India’s United Spirits Limited, and Pernod Ricard; Bacardi will now be fifth. By dollar amount, this is a bigger deal than the Fortune Brands/Pernod takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005.

Assuming the deal goes through, this will put a lot of new whiskeys under Suntory’s roof. In addition to their own Suntory, Yamazaki, and Hakushu brands, and Scottish brands Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and McClelland’s, they will now own all the associated Jim Beam brands, Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club, Laphroaig, Ardmore, Teacher’s, Alberta Distillers, Cooley, and the Spanish DYC brand. They’ll also own the still-growing Pinnacle flavored vodkas, Courvoisier cognac, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Gilbey’s, and Skinnygirl cocktails.

What’s this mean to you, the whiskey drinker? Probably not much. Beam CEO Matt Shattock and the current management team will be left in place to run the business. Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, and Scotch whisky are all growing strongly. Given Suntory’s record with Morrison Bowmore, it seems unlikely that they’d change anything with their new acquisitions. Should we worry about Suntory owning both Bowmore and Laphroaig, and possibly closing one Islay distillery as unwelcome internal competition? Not for now, when both are selling well, though it may become a factor if there’s a downturn; but in that case, everything is going to be in play anyway.

The deal will increase Suntory’s debt load considerably; Moody’s Investors Service indicated that they would be evaluating the company for a re-grading in light of it. Should we worry about prices going up to cover the debt? Realistically, at this point in the whisky market…would we notice?

This was a sale that everyone interested in the industry had been expecting, at least on the “Beam sold” end. As a purely spirits company that was neither family-owned nor large enough to fend off purchasers, Beam was widely considered as a very likely takeover target. The “Suntory acquired” part was more of a surprise, in that one company is swallowing them whole. That’s the only potential downside; that a richer purchaser might have been able to put more into the new brands than Suntory will, but that’s all speculation.

In the end, it looks like a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ moment. Just another swapping in the game that has gone on for decades. Suntory has a good track record; rest easy. We might even see more Suntory whiskies in the world market.

Meanwhile, in a much, much smaller deal that was also announced today, two Tasmanian distilleries are merging. Lark distillery will acquire Old Hobart distillery and the Overeem brand. Both companies will remain as separate brands and entities, Overeem becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Lark. Perhaps more importantly, Bill Lark will be reducing his time at the distillery and becoming the Lark global brand ambassador, and Casey Overeem will be doing the same. We’ll wait to see if this means more Tasmanian whisky in America.

Whisky Advocate Award: Japanese Whisky of the Year

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, $250

Yoichi is a distillery which has great resonance for those of us who have followed the remarkable arrival of Japanese whisky into the world. It was this distillery, after all, which did the equivalent of Stags Leap Cabernet at the famous Judgment of Paris, when the Yoichi 1988 single cask lriconic Napa wine beat the great Bordeaux blends. Yoichi did the same in Edinburgh in a blind tasting, beating the greatest Scotch single malts. The world, as they say, would never quite be the same again. There have been plenty of good Yoichis since then, but none, in my opinion, as great as this which, in a neat enough parallel, I tasted first in Paris.

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that is in charge here. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke: ozone, tar, and soot, alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and, in among the smoke, apple mint. In other words, here’s complexity and here, in spades, is what defines Yoichi.

I know… it will have been gone by now, and if you can get a bottle you’ll have to pay, but it would be wrong to pass over a whisky this great. Hopefully in 2014 the U.S. will get a single cask of equal quality. —Dave Broom

We’ll see you here tomorrow for the World Whisky Award.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97


Some whisky highlights from WhiskyFest San Francisco

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

WhiskyFest San Francisco was this past Friday. I had a chance to try some new whiskies while I was there and would like to share my thoughts. Some of these are so new, they haven’t even been formally released yet. I was just offered pre-release samples to taste.

One of my favorite whiskies of the evening was a Samaroli Glenlivet 1977 Vintage. It was elegant, well-rounded, and subtly complex. Very nice!

The U.S. finally has Japanese whisky besides Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu. Nikka is making its formal debut at WhiskyFest New York in two weeks, but the importer was also pouring Taketsuru 12 year old “Pure Malt” and Yoichi 15 year old single malt at the San Francisco event. The 12 year old, a blend of malts, was nicely rounded and easy to drink, while the 15 year old was very distinctive. My feeling on Japanese whisky is: the more the merrier!

Angel’s Envy has two new whiskeys coming out. The first one is a barrel-proof version of their flagship Angel’s Share bourbon that’s finished in port pipes. The other one is a high-rye whiskey that is currently being finished off in a Caribbean rum cask. I tasted both. Both were very interesting. The high rye/rum finish combination was unique.

Wild Turkey is finally coming out with a new whiskey that’s not 81 proof! (Thank goodness!) There’s a new Russell’s Reserve Small Batch being released soon that’s 110 proof, with no age statement.

I was able to taste the next Evan Williams Single Barrel vintage release (a 2003 vintage). It was very smooth, easy-going, and dangerously drinkable.

There’s a new Michter’s 20 year old single barrel about to be released. I was concerned that it was going to taste too woody, dry and tannic. Not a chance! I was so impressed with this whiskey, that I kept taking people I knew over to the Michter’s booth to taste it before it disappeared. (Well, it wasn’t officially there in the first place, but I did my best to spread the word.) I know this was a single barrel, but I sure hope they all taste like this!

Gable Erenzo had a unmarked bottle of a Hudson Bourbon he wanted me to try. It was a six year old Hudson bourbon matured in a standard 53 gallon barrel (not a small barrel!) and it was the best Hudson whiskey I have tasted to date. Thanks for the tease, Gable…

One of the most pleasant experience of the evening wasn’t even a whisky. It was a beer! At the Anchor booth, they were pouring Anchor Steam that was bottled just five hours earlier. Damn that beer was fresh. It was the best Anchor Steam beer I ever had outside of the brewery. So, if you saw me walking around with a glass of Anchor Steam, now you know why!

Finally, I couldn’t resist sitting in on one of the seminars: a flight of Bowmore whiskies paired with a variety of West Coast oysters that were flown in that day and shucked right in front of us.  Delicious!

Mike Miyamoto explains Hakushu Japanese whisky

Friday, May 11th, 2012

It’s not often that we have a master distiller visit the Whisky Advocate offices in the sleepy town of Emmaus, PA, but yesterday was one of those days. It was a brief visit–only about an hour–but Mike Miyamoto, the master distiller for Suntory, discussed Hakushu whisky and how the whisky is created.

He was nice enough to taste the Whisky Advocate office staff, not our writers, on some Hakushu whiskies. For this reason, the tasting wasn’t overly technical in nature. However, he did mention a few items you might find interesting.

Hakushu, until about a decade or so ago, wasn’t a peated whisky. Now the whisky is lightly smoky–nothing like the big brutes on Islay–but still is demonstrably smoky. When I visited Hakushu about six years ago, I fell in love with the whisky and have consistently asked Suntory to import the whisky to the U.S. They finally have, with the introduction of Hakushu 12 year old. (Of course, now I am asking them to bring in the 18 year old…)

We tasted the three main Hakushu components that go into making the 12 year old. Interestingly, they don’t use lightly peated malt to make the lightly peated whisky. Instead, they make an unpeated whisky and a highly peated whisky and blend the two together. So, in front of us (pictured) were three samples: Hakushu matured in a hogshead, Hakushu matured in a Spanish oak sherry cask, and a highly peated Hakushu.

Why make a heavily peated and a non-peated whisky and blend them together, instead of just making a lightly peated whisky?

That’s a good question! According to Mike, it’s difficult to ask a malting company to make malted barley to a specific peating level, like 8ppm phenol, to use in making a whisky. There’s too much variability. Instead, they order some non-peated malt and some highly peated malt (around 25 ppm–any higher than this becomes more of a challenge according to Mike) and blend the whiskies together to get it in the range of what would have been 7-9 ppm phenol.

Yes, that means they are making some heavily peated whisky–along the equivalent of Bowmore 12 yr. old in peating level–and could actually bottle this if they wanted. Indeed, they have done just this, but on a very limited basis. (Nice try for all of us living here in the U.S.) It also means that they could put out a heavily sherried Hakushu, which they also have just done, but only in Japan. We also had the fortune of tasting this during his visit. It was delicious: very smooth, clean, and lush–not cloying and sulphur-tinged like some sherried whiskies.

What’s new on the horizon for Suntory and their two distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu? Mike told us they are going to be introducing whiskies from both distilleries with no age statements and a lower price. It will be released in Japan only initially. We’ll see where it goes from there.

Why aren’t they selling some of these limited release whiskies here in the U.S. (or even in Europe)? Mike told us the Japanese market has suddenly become smitten with Japanese whisky, and there isn’t a whole lot their whisky to spread around to all the thirsty consumers on this planet. Hey, we’ll take whatever we can get!

One final note: the heavily peated sample we tasted, which would be on par with Bowmore, didn’t taste as intensely smoky as Bowmore. It was softer, gentler. Mike credits the water supply and environment surrounding Hakushu (affectionately referred to as the Japanese Alps) for this.

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 in 2011: the year in review

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

I was going to summarize all the new releases and general trends in whisky this past year (and there have been a lot of them). But, Sku over at his Recent Eats blog, did such a great job with this recent post, there’s no use in reinventing the wheel. Well done, Sku!

Read his post. How do you feel about what happened in whisky in 2011? Was it a good year or a bad year? And why?

Bonhams New York City whisky auction slated for December 8th

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

One week from today, Bonhams will once again host a whisky auction here in New York. Those of you who are looking for that special whisky might have a chance to procure it in time for the holidays.

Looking at the catalog (which you can peruse here), I see some great whiskies being auctioned again, like this 1979 vintage release of The Macallan Gran Reserva (pictured on right).

This time, in addition to single malt scotch, there’s a greater emphasis on whiskies from other countries, including bourbon, Irish, Japanese, and Canadian whisky. For example, bourbon enthusiasts will drool at the 9-bottle case of Very Old Fitzgerald 8 year old bourbon distilled in 1948 at the defunct Stitzel-Weller distillery (pictured below).

I realize that many of you don’t have the means to buy some of these rare whiskies. For those of you who do, this is a great opportunity to perhaps procure that special whisky you’ve been looking for. And, to be honest, there are many lots of grouped “regular priced” whiskies that, depending on the bidding, might proved to be a bargain–even with the fees that are tacked on.

Regardless, it’s worth a look at the catalog, even if it’s only a stroll down memory lane for you.

More new releases, and my general thoughts on them

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Again, this is from a U.S. perspective…

Starting with Ireland, it looks like Jameson is introducing a new whiskey in their “Reserve” line. I received an invitation to attend an event in New York this Sunday where they will be uncorking the first bottle of Jameson Select Reserve Black Barrel. Black must be the new cool these days, because we’ve recently seen the introduction of Crown Royal Black, Johnnie Walker Double Black, Canadian Mist Black Diamond, Bruichladdich Black Art, and now this whiskey. I guess Black Bush  and Black Bottle were way ahead of their time…

Also, from Ireland, I got my hands on a review sample of the new Redbreast 12 year old Cask Strength, which is supposed to arrive here in the U.S. sometime early next year. Amazing stuff!

You recently saw my review of the new Bruichladdich 10 year old. Well, I also received a review sample of the new Kilchoman 100% Islay release. It’s bottled at 50% ABV (slightly higher than the standard releases), and priced higher too at $100. It’s called 100% Islay because, according to my press release, it’s produced from barley grown, malted, distilled matured, and bottled at the distillery. Only 780 bottle are coming to the U.S.

I’ve tried it and must admit that–as cool as this bottling is with the “all Islay” theme–it’s my least favorite of the Kilchoman releases here in the U.S. It just taste too young and immature to me, which is atypical for Kilchoman. Their 3-4 year old whiskies usually tastes a few years older than they really are. My advice: go and get a bottle of the Spring 2011 bottling if you can find one. That’s my favorite of the releases so far.

Turning to the U.S., Buffalo Trace just announced the third release of their Single Oak project. I’ve tasted all the whiskeys from the first two releases. I must say that, as a whole, I liked the second release more than the first release, which had a lot of whiskeys in the 12 bottle lot with an aggressive amount of oak influence. Round two was tamer and more to my liking. (In fact, I actually thought a couple from the second round to be too tame…!)

The news on the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection release for 2011 is out. This time it’s actually two releases: both 100% rye whiskeys. One is aged in new charred oak barrels, while the other is aged in first fill Woodford barrels. Details to follow.

The 2011 allocation of Van Winkle whiskeys are coming out. Again, they will be in very limited supply. The collection consists of Old Rip Van Winkle 10 years, available in 90 proof and 107 proof; Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon, aged 12 years; Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbons, aged 15 years, 20 years and 23 years; and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye Whiskey, aged 13 years.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed and not sure which one to buy? I tasted my way through the 10, 15, 20, and 23 year olds recently at WhiskyFest San Francisco. My favorite was the 15 year old. That’s the sweet spot in the range. Save yourself some money and get this one instead of the 20 or 23 year old.

Finally, I wanted to mention again that Suntory’s Hakushu whisky is finally being distributed here in the U.S. Unlike Suntory’s Yamazaki whisky, which has been available for quite some time here, the Hakushu is slightly smoky. (If you like whiskies like Ardmore or Oban, then you might want to give this one a try.)  I really enjoy the entire line of whiskies from Hakushu and have been asking Suntory to bring this whisky to the U.S. ever since I toured the distillery several years ago. For now, we’re only getting the 12 year old (43%, $60). Hopefully, the 18 year old will follow shortly.

Some new whiskies here in the U.S.

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

A few thoughts on new whisky information that crossed my desk recently:

The gently peated Hakushu whisky from Suntory is finally coming to the U.S. The official launch is October 12th. I’ve been pleading with my friends at Suntory to bring it in as a companion to Yamazaki for many years. It’s great to see it finally coming here.

Isle of Skye 12 year old blended scotch is finally making its way to our shores. Previously, the U.S. has only been getting the 8 year old.

John Hall, whiskymaker of Canada’s Forty Creek whisky, has a new “John’s Private Cask No. 1″ release. This is coming to the States too. I’ve tasted this already and it’s another delicious release by John.

Finally, Buffalo Trace is about to release a new Single Barrel version of their Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. bourbon (pictured). This one will be 11 years, 7 months old and bottle in bond (100 proof).

I’m sure there will be many more new whiskies coming on the market as we approach the holiday season.