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Japan vs Scotland Whisky Tasting

Posted on 2008/05/04 20:21:21 (May 2008).

[Tuesday 29th April]
Over at the Nonjatta blog, fellow Japanese whisky enthusiast Chris Bunting had posted an article about a "Japan vs Scotland" whisky tasting being held in London today. Luckily I had noticed it just in time to mail the organiser - a chap called Eddie Ludlow from a company called The Whisky Lounge - and reserved myself a place.

The tasting was held at The Hide Bar in Bermondsey, in a room at the back where they apparently hold all sorts of different tastings - from wine to absinthe. Tonight though the focus was entirely on whisky, and it took the format of a "blind" tasting of three Scottish and three Japanese malts. I've never really been to a tasting like this before - previous tastings I've been to have been much less structured - basically there are a few malts to try and then you're pretty much left up to your own devices. This one however was very much a group activity, we all sampled each malt in turn, Eddie did a bit of a presentation about each one, and then we were encouraged to collectively discuss and rate each of them. I attempted to take the whole thing rather seriously, even taking notes as I went along. For prosperity I shall recount my notes here.

1) Colour: pale gold. Nose: pear drops, vanilla sponge, icing sugar. Palate: salt, umami, anko, hint of spice. Finish: gentle, wall balanced. Score: 7/10. I think I correctly guessed this was Japanese, although had no idea what distillery - it turned out to be Hakushu.

2) Colour: slightly darker than the previous one, slight reddish tinge. Nose: raisins(?) bourbon notes. Palate: bubblegum, konnyaku, yuba. Finish: hint of spice. Score: 6.5/10. Whilst I guessed this was Scottish, I had no idea of the distillery, and was very surprised to find out it was Old Pulteney - particularly a surprise as I had given it quite a low score, and had previously thought I quite liked this malt.

3) Colour: more sherried than the previous one. Nose: sherry, varnish (?), very woody notes. Palate: pot pourri, tiny hint of liquorice, Unicum (?), spice, pepper, Shaoshing. Score: 7/10. When it came to guessing which country, I got this completely wrong, thinking it was a Scottish malt. It was in fact a Yoichi 15 year old.

4) Colour: yellowish gold. Nose: PEAT! Heather, hint of smoke. Palate: copper, chewy, umami (beef and onion crisps!). Score: 8/10. No surprises here - this was obviously an Ardbeg - in particular the 1990 Airigh nam Beist.

5) Colour: dark gold. Nose: fruit cake, sherry, black cherries. Palate: gutsy, bran flakes? Score: 7.5/10. Having cheated and seen the line-up before coming along I already knew there was a Dalmore on the list, and guessed that this was it. Specifically it was a Dalmore King Alexander III.

6) Colour dark gold. Nose: fruit, caramel, bananas(?). Palate: orange peel, burnt sugar, molasses, spice, stewed apples, nutmeg. Score: 8/10. Again, having seen the line-up I knew that there was a Karuizawa 1971 on there, so I can't pretend I guessed the distillery, but was at least able to pick it out from the other six. I've only had Karuizawa a couple of times before, but all the examples I've tried have tended to be very dark and there's been a consistent molasses theme there.

Obviously everyone else gave slightly different scores, and I'm not sure that an outright winner was declared, but the two which generally seemed to cause most excitement were the Ardbeg and the Karuizawa. I suppose it's hard to fairly compare like for like - the Ardbeg obviously stood out as the only heavily peated malt there, and Islay lovers like me would always tend to err on the side of rating that above all the others. The Karuizawa was clearly something very special - I don't think I've ever had a Japanese malt at that kind of age before - but it certainly wasn't something I would want more than one glass of in an evening (and not just because of the price!).

It was a very mixed crowd, from some people who are not particularly regular whisky drinkers and just wandered along on a whim, through long term Scotch fans who had never really tried Japanese malts before, to all round experts like the famous Sukhinder Singh, proprietor of The Whisky Exchange. Actually meeting Sukhinder was something of a highlight of the evening for me - we had a brief chat towards the end. I'd seen his name crop up in a number of articles on whisky, and I believe he was a friend of the late great Michael Jackson.

It was a bit of a shame that there were no Japanese people attending - I'd hoped I might get a chance to practice a bit of the old Nihongo. In fact with the exception of Eddie and Sukhinder I got the impression most of the attendees were newcomers to Japanese malts, and of the few people I asked it seems no-one had been to visit any Japanese distilleries. Still, I suppose that was part of the point of the event - in a sense there would be no point preaching to the converted!

Anyway, it made for a very interesting evening.

Comment 1

Thanks Will!

Actually I really struggled to come up with those tasting notes, I found it incredibly hard to describe the aromas and flavours. Probably one or two of those descriptives are a bit far fetched, but they were just the things that sprang to mind.

I heartily recommend you try Japanese whisky while you're there. During my time in Japan I never found a blended Japanese whisky I particularly liked, but some of the single malts were fantastic. Of the ten-ish distilleries in Japan, Yoichi and Yamazaki are probably the most popular for single malts - and not undeservedly - I've had some great whiskies from both of these giants.

I suppose as someone who is into beer Japan might be a bit of a disappointment in some ways? I found it was pretty much dominated by the big three or four breweries, and there wasn't a whole lot of variety (other than all the subtly different variations of happoshu, each one seemingly invented to be a slightly more effective tax dodge than the previous one). I have to admit I actually really liked Japanese beer - but then I'm not really a connoisseur when it comes to beer, so I am completely satisfied with a cold glass of "nama" Asahi. Although most beer connoisseurs I know would turn their nose up at that sort of over refrigerated mass produce thing.

Posted by John at 2008/05/08 22:27:55.

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