Chita Single Grain, by Suntory

Originally launched in Japan a few years ago, The House of Suntory has just announced that they’re bringing the Chita single grain whisky to Australia, adding to the current range of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki products that already grace our shelves.

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Distilled from corn, the Chita Single Grain is produced at Suntory’s Chita Distillery in Aichi Prefecture, near Nagoya, Japan. It’s said to have been matured in a combination of ex-wine, sherry and bourbon casks and is a fantastic warm-weather dram. I’ve had many Chita Highballs (Chita on ice, topped with soda) in Japan and can attest to their insanely refreshing (and oddly reviving) nature!

I’d love to tell you more about the Chita Distillery and how this whisky is made, but Suntory are rather secretive about those details, so we’ll have to save that for another time. Hopefully.

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Tasting the Chita single grain 43%

On the nose it’s sweet, yet fruity with notes of tinned tropical fruits, slightly acidic tropical fruit juice, vanilla custard, creme brûlée and floral honey. Nothing particularly leaps out of the glass at you, so I think the nose can be best described as delicate, but fragrant.

The palate is similarly restrained and quite mild in its delivery. It’s creamy, with some sweet honey and vanillas, some of the tropical notes from the nose, but delivered like a punchy aged grappa. Sweetness fades to some spicy bitter-sweet oak, and while the palate is rich and desserty, it’s also quite light.

It’s that composition that makes this a great summer sipper, but equally (if not more-so) enjoyable in a highball. I’d quite like to put this one through its paces in a few summery cocktails, so I’ll report back if that’s a success.

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The Chita single grain whisky, by Suntory, is available in Australia now at a recommended retail price of $89.99. Thanks to Suntory Australia for the sample pictured here!

 

 

 

Ardbeg Grooves Committee Release

Thanks to a pesky little thing known as the TTB database (the United States’ online database for liquor label approvals), the annual Ardbeg Day releases have become the industry’s worst kept secret, with mock-up labels leaking online months in advance of any official announcement.

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I too am guilty of scouring the database in moments of boredom, and when I spotted the mock-up for the 2018 Ardbeg Day release – Grooves – on there last year, I thought Ardbeg had well and truly lost the plot. What kind of name is ‘Grooves’ I thought? And how the hell are they going to craft a marketing story around the flower power movement? As more info has started to come out, it’s starting to make a bit more sense.

What’s in a name?

Breaking with the Gaelic and geographic naming used in their core range, the ‘Grooves’ reference has absolutely nothing to do with the psychedelic era, but has everything to do with the casks used in the maturation process. The official marketing word goes a little something like this:

“This year’s Limited Edition festival bottling is a deeply mellow dram.. It has been matured in ex-wine casks that have been intensely charred to form heavy grooves in the surface of the wood, releasing flavours of smoked spices, distant bonfires and chilli-seasoned meats”

I’d normally have to just sit back and be satisfied with that level of detail, but thanks to a little trip across the ditch to New Zealand the other week (for DramFest – more on that one soon!), I can bring you a little more.

Groovy groove grooves

Before lunch one morning, an impromptu little Ardbeg tasting took place in Christchurch and the guest of honour was none other than the creator of this very whisky, Dr Bill Lumsden himself. In one of three plain-packaged bottles, a mystery whisky awaited us. As we eventually made our way on to the third sample, it was revealed that we were actually the first consumer group in the world to be tasting the standard (46%) release of the new Ardbeg Grooves! Groooovy baby! (Sorry, you should’ve known that was coming at some point..)

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In taking us through the dram, Dr Bill elaborates ever so slightly on the marketing spiel above, but at one point he lets slip that Ardbeg sourced the uniquely grooved casks for this release from their friends at Brown Forman. That got the ‘ole cogs turning in my head. Didn’t someone else use a ‘grooved cask’?.. Indeed they did, and it was Jack Daniel’s with their Sinatra Select that came out a few years back.

In that story, Jack Daniel’s used “unique Sinatra Barrels that have deep grooves specially carved into their staves to expose the whiskey to extra layers of toasted oak”. If you’re struggling to picture what a ‘grooved cask’ looks like, here’s an image (I knicked off the web) of the casks Brown Forman created for the Jack Daniels Sinatra Select.

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You probably know where this is going, but Jack Daniel’s just so happens to be owned by Brown Forman! A bit of a coincidence, eh? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but despite the marketing descriptions being a bit different, I reckon there’s a fair chance the casks used in the new Ardbeg Grooves share a strong lineage with those used in Sinatra Select. Time to give this thing a proper whirl.

Tasting the new Ardbeg Grooves

I don’t normally comment on colour, but the new Grooves has an incredibly alluring copper hue. Sitting in the glass it’s warm and almost iridescent .

Straight away on the nose it has the hallmark Ardbeg dry smoke. Behind that though, I get charred citrus, a hint of liquorice, smoked muscles (the ones from Loch Fyne!) and a sweet element; perhaps a smoky orange marmalade and some apricot jam. Coming back to it over the course of half an hour, I find a certain mineral quality to it as well. Crushed gravel, graphite and stagnant rockpools. There’s a lot going on here.

On the palate it’s immediately oily, but suddenly hits with an effervescent, fizzy note. White pepper and tangy brine. A few moments in and I get what I can best describe as a briny black forest cake that’s been charred to a crisp (dark fruits, a saline mineral tang and heavy char, with a healthy dose of powdery dark chocolate and cherry jam). The finish is incredibly long and full of residual sweetness, sooty, tangy ash and leather. It never turns overly oaky or drying.

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The new Ardbeg Grooves will be released to Ardbeg Committee members this month (I believe), but at this stage I don’t have any further details on pricing. Post will be updated in due course. A big thanks to Moet Hennessey Australia for the advance-sample tasted here!

Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost and Rare

The Johnnie Walker Blue Label has always been something of a luxury item, a bit of a ‘status whisky’ if you will, especially to the casual whisky drinker. It’s the bottle I’ve seen appear at many-a-wedding. The hero bottle on the back-bar at plenty of restaurants and the bottle mates will bust out at a party when they want to impress. Simply mention ‘blue label’ in front of even the most casual of whisky whisky drinkers and they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to. They know it’s expensive and they know it carries a certain mystique. So it makes perfect sense that when Diageo decided to blend together some of their rarest stocks, it would be done so as an extension of the Blue Label range.

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What’s in a name?

The new Blue Label Ghost and Rare gets its name from the eight malt and grain components it’s comprised of. Six of them are malt whiskies, two are grain whiskies and three of the eight come from ‘ghost distilleries’, ie distilleries that are no longer in production. I could probably whip up some cool little pie charts with those numbers, but hopefully you can follow along alright.

The Ghost and Rare features whisky from the active distilleries of Clynelish, Royal Brackla, Genlossie, Glenkinchie and Cameronbridge (Grain). The three ‘ghost’ distilleries featured in this release are Cambus (Grain) and Pittyvaich (both of which were closed in 1993), along with Brora, which was closed in 1983 and is arguably the hero component of this blend. If we pause for a brief moment there, there are two things buried in that info that I find rather interesting:

  1. No Islay whisky is present in the Ghost and Rare, which is interesting to me as Caol Ila brings the zingy peat-show to the standard Blue Label release.
  2. Working off those closure dates, we know that there’s some well-aged whisky in this blend as well (at least 24 years old for Cambus and Pittyvaich, and at least 34 years old for Brora)

When I saw all of the PR releases come out for the Ghost and Rare, I was initially a little bit apprehensive, thinking to myself ‘Is this just a clever marketing move, riding on the coat-tails of the closed distillery hype? And will it actually taste any different to the standard Blue Label?’ Only one way to find out…

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Tasting the Blue Label Ghost and Rare

The nose is quite rich and dense, and I get notes of pineapple, citrus, dark chocolate, hazelnuts, golden syrup and the faintest soft earthy smoke. Smoke probably isn’t the right term, it’s more like coal dust, or the burnt out, day-old embers left behind in a fireplace. There’s an interesting coastal note as well, not something I’ve picked up in a Johnnie Walker blend before. A saline mineral tang if you will.

The palate starts off creamy and oily, there’s an up front sweetness, but also notes of citrus, orange segments, tinned fruit and a herbal, earthy-yet-salty peat on the finish. Going back for a second and third sip, some darker fruits emerge, more of that coastal tang and some kelp, before fading to a savoury finish.

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So, clever marketing move? Sure. But more than that, it’s actually bloody good whisky, and yes, some of the contents in the bottle are indeed very rare. Any different to the standard Blue Label? My word it is. For starters it’s bottled at 46% and is non chill-filtered, so it carries a richness and weight that you don’t get in the the standard Blue Label, which noses and tastes lighter, fresher and crisper than this stately dram. The Ghost and Rare is very cleverly constructed, has a great story behind it and there’s a lot to like about what’s going on in the glass.

Just 270 bottles of the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare will be made available in Australia at a recommended retail price of $480 through Dan Murphy’s, and other specialty retailers.

A special thanks to Diageo Australia for the special preview-tasting of this new release.

Abbey Whisky – 10th Anniversary whiskies

Tasting Abbey Whisky’s 10th Anniversary releases

When opening a recent delivery from the good people at Abbey Whisky I was super excited to see that a couple of wee samples had made their way into the parcel.

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What are they exactly? Well, Abbey Whisky recently celebrated their tenth year in business and to celebrate they released a trio of very desirable whiskies. The first release – a 1993 GlenDronach single cask – sold out in a flash, but was promptly followed by two additional anniversary bottles, pictured here in sample form.

Abbey Whisky Glenrothes 2006 Cask 5469

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First up we have a 2006-vintage Glenrothes, from sherry cask 5469. It was bottled at ten years of age at a ball-busting 67.1% ABV. Glenrothes can be a little bit hit and miss for me, and I don’t really pay any attention to their official releases, so let’s see where this one sits.

Nose – Big vanilla and caramel. You know it’s high ABV, but I would never have guessed this high. Vanilla slice (the kind you get at a good bakery, with passion fruit icing on top), packet custard, gummy cola lollies and delicious bread and butter pudding. Plenty of complex sweetness in this nose, but give it some time in the glass and an interesting minerality emerges.

Palate – The alcohol is a tad more present here, but brings with it bucket-loads of sweet juiciness! No-where near as brutal as I was expecting. Creamy vanilla custard, with an almost buttery texture. Confectionery sweetness, jammy fruit and sponge cake, finishing with hints of dark chocolate, a slight fizz and some grassiness.

One for those with a sweet-tooth, but wow. What a killer little pocket-rocket. The most exciting Glenrothes I’ve tried to date.

Abbey Whisky Anon. Batch 2 – Orkney 1999

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Next we have Abbey Whisky’s third tenth-anniversary release, this 17-year-old mystery malt released under their ‘Anon’ range. In case you haven’t picked it up from the label, that string of numbers is actually a set of latitude and longitude coordinates. Punch them into google and hey presto, it looks like our anonymous malt is actually from Highland Park distillery. So, unofficially, what we have here is something pretty exciting – a 17-year-old Highland Park, matured in a refill sherry butt and bottled at 53.8% ABV.

Again, when it comes to official releases, Highland Park isn’t a distillery I really pay any attention to these days as they’ve well and truly lost me with their multitude of odd viking-inspired series. That said, I’m very excited to try this.

Nose – Gentle and refined at first, but with an overarching ‘coastal’ note to it. There’s some honeycomb, soft spice and a light, sweet heathery-smoke (almost floral, in a way). Flinty minerals, crushed quartz rock, red apples, apple skins, grilled stone fruit and oily rope.

Palate – A lovely oily texture. Naturally sweet up front, with notes of bush-honey (it’s an Aussie thing), lavender and toffee. The peat is much more present here, delivering a smoky farm-yard – smouldering hay, floral tobacco and leather. It finishes with an earthy quality to it, some salted dark chocolate and a touch of sweet liquorice.

Complex and hugely rewarding. A really evocative dram that takes me right back to the far-north of Scotland. This is what Highland Park should be bottling themselves.

Get onto it!

At the time of writing, both of these are still available at Abbey Whisky. I put my money where my mouth is and bought a bottle of the Highland Park the second it came out. After now tasting it, I’m very glad I did and am now thinking I might just pick-up another.. and a Glenrothes as well. Hmm…

Cheers for the samples Mike! Not that I doubted your taste in the slightest, but a couple of absolutely cracking selections here. Seriously.

Nikka Coffey Grain

Nikka’s Coffey range comes to Australia

In years gone by, Australian shelves were graced with aged-stated whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. Those days disappeared a few years back and for a while the only expression you could get your hands on was the incredibly tasty Nikka From The Barrel. That is until now. Asahi Premium Beverages are gradually launching the full Nikka Coffey series into Australia, starting with the Nikka Coffey Grain.

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Thanks to that good news, I recently found myself sitting down with Naoki Tomoyoshi and Emiko Kaji from Nikka Distilleries to learn all about the Coffey series, and how they do things at Nikka.

The Coffey Series and grain whisky

Not trying to re-write whisky literature here, but it probably helps to know two quick things, to help put this new release into perspective:

  • Where the Coffey term comes from, and
  • What grain whisky is.

No, the ‘Coffey’ reference has absolutely nothing to do with the delicious brown caffeinated beverage! It comes from Mr Coffey (known to his mates as Aeneas), who is credited with inventing and patenting a continuous column-still design in 1830. That design would go on to become the most sought-after piece of equipment for grain whisky producers around the world. As for grain whisky itself? Whereas single malt whisky is made solely from malted barley, generally in a pot still, grain whisky can theoretically be made from any grain, and it’s distilled in a column still (sometimes also referred to as a continuous, or Coffey still).

Emiko tells me that Nikka’s first Coffey Still (they now have two) was imported from Scotland in 1963 and was installed in their Nishinomiya facility. That facility was later closed and in 1999 both stills were re-located to their Miyagikyo Distillery, where they now produce the grain distillate for their entire Coffey series (Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Gin and Vodka). In the case of their Nikka Coffey Grain expression, it’s distilled from American corn (with a small component – less than 5% – of malted barley), before being filled into casks at 63% ABV.

Tasting notes

On the nose it’s immediately sweet, creamy and buttery. I get notes of cinnamon finger buns with runny icing, a touch of orange peel, toffee, coconut and sweet tropical fruit.

The first thing that strikes me about the palate is the texture. It’s milky (or creamy), with a fantastic oily texture. That texture brings with it an immense depth of flavour. Creamy tropical fruit, whipped vanilla cake icing, candied popcorn and biscuity notes. The finish stays sweet, with a touch of oak.

This is so well-constructed, refined and classy – completely moreish and delicious.

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So what makes Nikka Coffey Grain so different?

In my personal experience, I’ve found that grain whisky tends to be very one dimensional and often needs to have been quite well-aged to even begin exhibiting any kind of depth. Nikka Coffey Grain is completely different though. I mention my experiences to Naoki and Emiko, and ask why they think Nikka has been able to create such a tasty grain whisky, compared to their Scottish counterparts?

Naoki offers up an interesting perspective when reminding me that traditionally, Scottish grain whisky was produced for one reason: blending. When it comes to blended whisky (a blend of single malt and grain whisky), the grain whisky component generally serves as a filler. The traditional school of thought is that the complexity in blended whisky comes from the malt whisky, therefore the grain component is literally used to bulk-up the blend. And to make enough grain whisky, distilleries have generally focused on volume – pumping out as much volume as they could, to fill as many casks as they could (often very tired casks, filled one-too-many times, in my opinion).

Naoki goes on to explain that Nikka once treated their grain distillate as a filler as well. But they quickly learned that they could bring added complexity to their blended whiskies (such as Nikka From The Barrel) by paying close attention to the spirit quality and style coming off their Coffey still. They also fill into a variety of casks (ex-bourbon barrels, a range of refill casks and re-charred casks) to give them a broader flavour range of matured whisky down the track. It’s that ethos that has allowed them to produce such an incredibly tasty whisky.

There’s so much more to the Nikka story

This post is all about the Nikka Coffey Grain, but spending some time with Naoki and Emiko reinforces just how much more there is to the Nikka story. Between their two distilleries they have 14 stills (six at Yoichi and eight at Miyagikyo). A combination of steam heated and direct coal-fired stills, they’re all different shapes and sizes, and all have been designed and forged in Japan. Over the years, they’ve also cultivated their own yeast library, boasting in-excess of 700 different strains, six of which are currently in use across their distilleries at the moment. They don’t stick to one style of malt either, distilling a number of different barley varietals, along with malt that has been peated and/ or roasted to different specifications. Add to that all of the different casks they’re filling into, and you literally have thousands of different possibilities.

And the most amazing part in my mind? These random statistics aren’t just marketing fluff. Nikka use all of these aspects, every single day, when creating their whiskies. They actively seek to create a vast range of different spirit types so that once matured, they can create complex, delicious whisky.

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Naoki tells me that’s another reason why it’s so hard for them to increase production. Whenever someone asks ‘why don’t you just make more whisky?’ – aside from the fact whisky needs time to mature – for Nikka it’s not just a case of making more of one whisky. Rather, it means increasing the volume of each and every one of these whisky styles, so they have the right components for whisky creation and blending in future.

Nikka Coffey Grain – Available now

Even just this week I saw a post on Facebook from a whisky-fan who had just tasted the Coffey Grain for the first time, while skiing in Japan. A photo of three newly-purchased bottles was attached, along with a caption about how he was blown away by the flavour, and that it’s now his new favourite.

It’s winning fans the world over, and when it tastes this good, it’s really not hard to see why. The new (to Australia) Nikka Coffey Grain will be hitting select retailers shortly, with an RRP of $129.99. The rest of the range should be making its way to our shores throughout 2018 and into early next year.