Miyagikyo Distillery, on the island of Honshu, near the city of Sendai, is the larger but lesser known distillery of the Nikka group, producing a mild and virtually unpeated malt. Its location was chosen for its high humidity levels, similar to those of Scotland.
Miyagikyo 15 years is the oldest version in the range, which consists of a NAS version, 10 years old, 12 years old and 15 years old.
As of 2012, all Nikka whiskies have a new origami-inspired packaging. The one I’m reviewing was an older bottling though.
Nikka Miyagikyo 15 yo
(45%, OB 2011)
Nose: baked apples with brown sugar, marzipan and candied orange. Gingerbread spices. It shows sweet cedar wood, with traces of sherry and traces of grain whisky as well (vanilla and a little wood glue). Mouth: not too bold, but with a lot of wood influence now. There’s a honey sweetness but also sharp tannins, grapefruit bitterness and some grassy notes that are quite loud. Walnuts. Evolves on herbal cough bonbons. Finish: medium long, regaining some of its sweet creaminess now. Traces of salty liquorice in the very end.
Quite a nice, mild Japanese whisky, but the tangy wood notes on the palate are a little out of key with the smoothness on the nose. Prices tend to very between € 95 and € 110.
Oishii is not a bar per se but a New Style Japanese restaurant in Hasselt, Belgium (they originated in Germany where they also have a branch). Apart from high-quality (but slightly expensive) food, they also have an extensive list of Japanese whiskies available, all supplied by our Belgian importer / retailer The Nectar. They were probably also responsible for the excellent menu with concise tasting notes.
Among the cheapest options are a few blends like Hibiki 12 (€ 11) and Nikka All Malt (€ 9) or standard expressions like Yoichi 10 (€ 11). At the high end there’s the great Yoichi 20 (€ 34) and several Hanyu expressions (€ 26 to € 40).
Quite remarkably, there were several (unopened) Karuizawa bottles in a cabinet right at the entrance, but these are not mentioned in the menu. The chef’s personal collection? Or just a display by the distributor? Anyway I didn’t ask as the standard list was interesting enough.
Also strange is that while the menu mentions prices for 2,5cl and 5cl drams, I wasn’t asked for my preferred size, I was charged 5 cl and what’s more, I swear I got less than that amount. Not so nice. The glass was okay, a Nikka-branded tulip shape without stem. No ice, no water either.
Location: Zuivelmarkt 21, Hasselt Range: +/- 40, only Japanese Price: € 9 to € 40 (for 5cl)
A Highland Park 1997, Pedro Ximénez sherry finished and bottled by David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Company in their Exclusive Casks series.
Highland Park 14 yo 1997 (51,9%, Creative Whisky ‘Exclusive Casks’ 2012, PX sherry finish, cask #6255, 90 btl.)
Nose: modern sherry, quite thick. Classic raisins and figs and a kind of syrupy sweetness that’s typical for Pedro Ximénez. Raspberry sweets and prune juice. Also a distinct sawdust / planky note which is not uncommon for this kind of speedy maturation. Mouth: starts nicely honeyed and fruity, but it quickly becomes spicy (pepper, clove) with an oaky undertone. Liquorice. Heather. A slight bitterness of herbal tea in the end. Slightly harsh due to the alcohol and punchy spices. Finish: long, quite grainy now, with much less fruits and only liquorice and spices left of the sherry.
Quite a modern style of sherried whisky. Quite good as well, although I tend to like my sherried drams a little more rounded. Around € 70.
The Archives series welcomes a new Laphroaig 1998 (there was another one earlier this year). I thought it would be thirteen in a dozen, there are so many Laphroaig releases you know. Mind the cask number by the way, I’ve never seen a cask from that range before.
Nose: this one surprised me right away. It has strong hints of car workshops, with clean tyres. A lot of freshly laid tarmac as well. Over time this impression fades away, and secondary notes start to show: antiseptic, hay, dark espresso, and some sweet lemon juice. Marzipan. But the initial feeling of deep, phenolic peat was quite unique. Mouth: there it is again, this unique rubberiness (in a good way). Have you ever been in a pit stop during a race? Nice. Very peaty, very tarry, quite dark, really beautiful and focused. Ashes, some liquorice, sugared lapsang tea, coffee roast. Marzipan and candy sugar. Hints of pencil shavings too. Finish: long, peaty, and slightly kippery.
A concept dram, maybe, but a nice one and not just an experiment in peatiness, if you know what I mean. It shows some unique notes and above average complexity. Nice to be surprised by a seemingly standard young Laphroaig. Around € 80, found here.
2013 will be the year of the last single casks of BenRiach 1976 bottled for third-parties. There were 16 casks of this vintage left in the warehouses when Serge had the big 1976 tasting last year. In the meantime eight have been sold, four of which to Dutch retailers and the Usquebaugh Society. I was told the remaining stock will only be used for the official releases (not all of them reach the level necessary for a single cask bottling though – the best expressions should be out there already). Soon this will be an extinct vintage.
This sherry hogshead (was it really #963 or maybe #6963 which seems more logical?) was bottled for The Whisky Agency. Based on the colour, I guess it will be in the same category as cask #6942 or cask #6967 – those are expressions with heavier sherry influence than most other 1976’s.
BenRiach 36 yo 1976 (49,6%, OB for The Whisky Agency 2012, sherry hogshead #963, 132 btl.)
Nose: very fruity, although indeed it shows dried fruits rather than the legendary tropical fruitiness. Juicy raisins, damson plums, and mixed berry jams (blueberry, redcurrant, raspberry). Beautiful sherry elements like leather and nuts as well. Cinnamon. Elegant oak polish to round it off. Mouth: very fruity again (oranges, cherries, hints of pink grapefruit). If you pay attention, the tropical fruitiness is still there, but it’s behind a more upfront layer of sherry. Some toasted oak, within limits. A little coffee and herbs. Christmas cake. Dark chocolate. Finish: maybe not the longest finish, but nicely balanced between dried fruits and oak spices.
I really liked cask #6942 and I’m happy to see this is certainly on the same level. Maybe the nose is even slightly juicier and fresher. Beautiful selection, but remember there are fewer tropical fruits to be found so it’s less classical. Around € 350, on its way to stores but I doubt many of them will actually appear on the shelves.
One of the first (if not the first?) releases by The Whisky Mercenary, a Bunnahabhain 1976. While Jürgen’s label was relatively unknown until recently, his bottles are now available in a selection of stores in Belgium.
Bunnahabhain 35 yo 1976
(48,8%, The Whisky Mercenary 2012, 80 btl.)
Nose: a most elegant style of Bunna, showing fresh fruits (apples first) and soft herbs (mint, thyme). The fruits slowly grow warmer and more exotic (banana, kiwi, gooseberries). There’s also a subtle pastry-like edge (buttered dough, marzipan). And balanced salty / flinty notes too. Subtlety is the keyword here. Mouth: a distinctive palate, citrusy at first (oranges, grapefruit), then warmer and oakier. Mint, cloves, a little pepper. Drying green tea and grasses. A bit of a Sancerre style malt. Finish: drier and slightly bitter, with lemon, salt and a soft aspirin effect. Still a graceful end though.
A great example of Bunnahabhain’s capability to age well, especially in not-too-active sherry casks. The result is subtle, complex and very drinkable whisky. Around € 150, still available.
Over the years Arran has tried pretty much every type of wine barrel to finish its whisky. Amarone, Sauternes, Port, Pomerol, Calvados, Champagne, Brandy, Madeira… Interesting to widen your range during the difficult start-up years, but few of them reached the heights of their more traditional, “naked” whiskies.
Single Cask Nation released a single cask Pinot Noir finished Arran. After distillation in 1999, it spent eight years in first fill bourbon wood and an additional four years in the wine cask.
Arran 12 yo 1999 (54,8%, Single Cask Nation 2011, cask #6, Pinot Noir finish, 277 btl.)
Nose: peppery and gingery at first, with a strange whiff of sour pickles. Quite some winey undertones and more than a hint of rubber as well. Settles down on lots of berries and red fruits: strawberries, grapes, candied apples and some raspberry sourness (Lindemans Framboise). Gets sweeter and rounder over time but it stays a little whacky. Mouth: sweet grapes and cherries, then a peppery kick, then back to caramel syrup and honey. It’s oily and jammy at the same time. There’s a certain lacquered / roasted meatiness as well as the rubbery side from the nose. Fades on all sorts of spices. Finish: sweet and spicy, a little hot even, with a bitter edge in the end.
While I’d still defend the non-finished Arran character, the Framboise touch in this wine finish was unique and actually quite pleasant. Around € 85. Only available to SCN members.
To tell you my honest opinion, I had the feeling 2012 was a slightly lesser year. This is due to a number of evolutions:
A significant decline in old whisky (the type of whisky that interests me most). A lot of independent bottlers seem to be struggling to secure 1970’s and even 1980’s whisky, and this change seems to have occurred rather rapidly. Of course stocks from a certain decade will come to an end one day or another, but I had the impression that over the last few months stocks skipped two decades and the average 1990’s whisky is suddenly marketed as pretty old or at least “old enough”. Significantly younger whiskies are now bottled in series that only included much older whisky before. Other series that stick to their concept now have a slower release rate. In official bottlings the situation is even worse, as more distilleries now indicate NAS releases as the way ahead. The occasional older cask is held back until a suitable wooden box or elaborate bottle has been designed. Has whisky become too popular?
The ever rising prices of whisky. We complained about this before, but this year the changes have been rather drastic. Not so much for standard whiskies, which tend to have fairly constant prices, but the higher end releases have really skyrocketed in a short amount of time. Similar casks are now two or three times the value they had one or two years ago. Some bottlers introduced some kind of long due indexation in 2012 (just compare Diageo’s Special Releases over the years). I’m not entirely sure this is a simple question of demand vs. availability… a certain forced market control or market experimentation may be playing a role as well.
A growing concentration of whisky releases. Whenever the market discovers great casks from seemingly underrated distilleries or vintages (e.g. Littlemill 1988-1992, Macduff 2000 or Tomintoul 1967-1969), suddenly you can find ten or fifteen similar versions from different bottlers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it flattens our idea of a vibrant whisky market full of variation. Still, kudos to the German bottlers who are responsible for most of the discoveries.
A growing interest for rum and grain whisky, bottled by whisky bottlers, sometimes very old and very good and often more affordable. Is this a cure for the growing lack of high quality old whisky and the rising prices?
After the rant, here are my most impressive whiskies of 2012, in the most expensive category (but still more or less acceptable value):