Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whiskey Bar Etiquette

Specialty whiskey bars, along with coffee shops, are one of my favorite things about Tokyo. The collections (and the bartenders really do consider the bottles behind the bar to be collections) are incredible and the atmosphere intimate. Unfortunately, whiskey bars can seem inaccessible to short-term visitors to Japan.  A minimum level of cultural fluency, however, can make going to whiskey bars in Japan much more fun. It is with this in mind that I've written this short guide.

Party Size

Many of the best and most interesting whiskey bars in Tokyo are small, 12 seats-at-a-counter affairs. If there isn't room for the number of people in your party, the bartender will most likely indicate that the bar is full by crossing his arms or his left and right index fingers to make an "X." Often, waiting for a seat to become available is not permitted. Therefore, its best to keep your party size small. I've had the best luck with parties of two; it can sometimes be difficult with parties of four. 

Entering

When entering a whiskey bar, wait in the entryway until you are able to catch the bartenders eye and then indicate the number of people in your party by holding up your fingers. If there is room, you will shortly be directed to a seat. If there isn't, you will most likely be asked to leave (see above).

Selecting Your Whiskey

At most serious whiskey bars, there is not a menu. Bars will often have hundreds of whiskeys and keeping a menu up to date isn't deemed worthwhile. 

There are essentially two choices when it comes to selecting a whiskey: requesting a specific bottle or asking for a recommendation. Normally, bottles are stacked on the shelf two or three deep, and so only half or one-third of a collection is visible. This can make requesting a specific bottle difficult, especially considering that lots of the whiskey is likely to be decades-old bottlings with unfamiliar labels. 

Asking for a recommendation, however, can be similarly fraught since most bartenders do not speak English. If you are able to ask for a recommendation, it's best to describe the general characteristics of the types of whiskey you like (e.g., extra-aged whiskey, high-proof whiskey, etc.). The bartender will then place several bottles in front of you from which to choose, The easiest method is simply to point at the bottle you want.

When requesting a specific bottle or when selecting from the bottles recommended by the bartender, it is perfecting acceptable to inquire about the cost. Simply point to the bottle and ask "ikura?"

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a whiskey is the fill level of the bottle and how long it is likely to have been open. Oxidation can make the flavor of whiskies that have been open a long time rather flat. 

Ordering

Once you've selected your whiskey, the bartender's next question will most likely be how you would like it served. There are essentially three possibilities: neat, on the rocks and with soda. 

If you would like the whiskey served neat, ask for it "straight." It will mostly likely be served to you in a shot glass, but it is not expected that you drink it as a shot. 

If you would like the whiskey served on the rocks, ask for "rocks." It will mostly likely be served in an old fashioned glass with a huge spherical or hand cut piece of ice. 

If you would like the whiskey mixed with soda water, ask for a "highball." Most of the whiskey consumed in Japan is consumed as a highball. If you are going to have a highball, I would recommend Suntory Kakubin or Hibiki. 

Servring MethodWord to OrderJapanese Transliteration
NeatStraightSutoreito
On the RocksRockRokku
With SodaHighballHaiboru
The bartender will then make your drink and place it in front of you along with the bottle. Don't worry, you haven't ordered the whole bottle. Feel free inspect the bottle or take a picture. The pour is likely to be very small, less than 1.5 oz. 

Paying Your Tab

When you're finished the easiest way to ask for the check is to get the bartenders attention and cross your left and right index fingers to make an "X." The bartender will then bring you a "receipt," which will mostly likely simply be an amount written on a small sheet of paper. It is unlikely to be itemized. Generally, you can pay the tab at your seat. Tipping is not required or encouraged. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Oxidation

Everyone knows that whiskey doesn't age in the bottle. That sealed bottle of 1964 Very Very Special Old Fitzgerald you "found in your grandfather's basement" should taste the same today as it would have 50 years ago. This is a good thing. It's what makes dusty hunting possible. Aging, however, is different from oxidation.

Once the bottle has been opened and the contents have been exposed to oxygen, the contents of the bottle do start to change. Normally, this isn't an issue. Most people don't have bottles that sit open for decades. In many cases, oxidation is in fact a good thing. It's the reason that a bourbon can improve on the second or third tasting.

In Japan, however, oxidation can be a problem. At whiskey bars, the price per pour is often very high and, as bourbon is less popular than it once was, open bottles tend to languish.

For example, I've tried the "cheesy" gold foil Wild Turkey 12 Year on several occasions with different results. I use  this as an example because I drink a lot Wild Turkey 12 Year bottled in the 2000s and so I am familiar with the general taste profile. The first time I tried the "cheesy" gold foil version, the bottle was relatively full and the bourbon was great.

On two other occasions, however, the bourbon came from almost empty bottles. This time, the bourbon was relatively flat and boring. It lacked the complexity and character that I had expected. I've experienced the same thing with Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon bottlings from the early 1990s and with the older bottlings of A.H. Hirsch. It's very likely that all of these bottles had been sitting open on the shelf for more than a decade.

This is all to say that when ordering rare older bottlings at a bar in Japan, consider how long the bottle has been open. If you're getting the last little bit of the bottle, you might not be getting a good example and may not get to experience why a bourbon is thought to be so great.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Early Times Brown Label

Distillery:Brown-Forman
Age:NAS
Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 1200

Aside from the shared name and distillery, Early Times in Japan is a different product from Early
Times in the U.S.

In the U.S., Early Times is not actually bourbon, it's "Kentucky Whiskey." To be a bourbon, whiskey must be aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels. Because 20% of Early Times comes from used cooperage, it does not meet the requirements for bourbon, but can still be called "whiskey." Under the TTB regulations, "whiskey" is anything distilled from grain that comes off the still at less than 190 proof that is stored in oak barrels (new or used) for any amount of time.

Used cooperage is not inherently worse, it just doesn't produce bourbon. Scotch, for example, is aged in used cooperage. Recently, Early Times 354, named for the DSP number of Early Times distillery and which does meet the requirements for bourbon, has been released in the U.S.

While Wikipedia states that Early Times sold outside the United States is the same product as sold inside the United States, but that, because TTB regulations do not apply to exports, it is able to marketed as bourbon, this is not true of the Early Times sold in Japan. Many Japanese sources (including Asahi, the distributor of Early Times in Japan) specifically state that the Early Times sold in Japan comes from whiskey aged in new charred (rather than used) oak barrels.

There are two expressions of Early Times in Japan: Yellow Label and Brown Label.
Early Times Yellow Label is the traditional Early Times that used to be available in the United States. Early Times Brown Label is a bottling specifically for the Japanese market that was first released in 1996.

Asahi describes the Yellow Label as "a classic bourbon that continues to uphold tradition" with a "light flavor, sweet aroma and nice finish." Asahi also plays up the "charcoal filtered" aspect, but, as all bourbon is charcoal filtered, this isn't a real selling point. 

Asahi describes the Brown Label as having a "profoundly complex flavor and a round finish suited to the Japanese palate." It is also described as a full-bodied bourbon with an oaky nose that still retains a florid and delicate flavor. Asahi also touts that the Brown Label is "double filtered," though it provides no additional information as to the type of filtering. My guess is that this "double filtering" is a reference to charcoal and chill filtering.  Again, all bourbon is charcoal filtered, and almost all bourbon is chill filtered, and so these are not selling points.

The nose is not complicated. It has notes of apples & honey, baked apple, caramel and a little banana. The flavor is rather sweet with notes of pancake syrup (not pure maple syrup) and banana. It has a thick syrupy mouth feel that is surprising for a young 80 proof bourbon. I think Asahi was right on with the "full bodied" description. The finish is dry and woody with some acetone toward the end.

Verdict:  It's a simple and straight forward bourbon with no serious flaws, but nothing outstanding either.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Old Forester 86 Proof

Distillery:Brown-Forman
Age:NAS
Proof:86 (43% ABV)
Price:JPY 3000

Old Forester, the first bourbon to be exclusively sold in a bottle, is distilled by Brown-Forman. This particular bottle, however, is a dusty version of Old Forester bottled in 1990 with a label that was particular to the Japanese market.

Dimples on Side of bottle
Continuing to look at the label (see below), the primary difference between the Japanese label and the U.S. label from this era is the addition of a picture of a tree behind the paragraph of text and the omission of the red "serial number" stamp and the blue "86 proof" stamp. It also says "whiskey" in Japanese at the bottom. No age statement appears on this bottle. The bottle, like all Old Forester from this era, has three circular dimples on each side.

Dating Late 1980s Early 1990s Old Forester

In 1979, Brown Forman moved the distillation of Old Forester from its Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville (DSP KY 414) to its Early Times distillery in Shively (DSP KY 354). Among Old Forester connoisseurs, the Louisville distilled Old Forester is thought to be far superior to the Shively distilled Old Forester.

With bottles of Old Forester Bottled-in-Bond (BIB), it is trivial to check the DSP number on the label to see whether it was distilled in Louisville or Shively. This method, however, is not foolproof,  as the TTB regulations permitted Brown-Forman to use up all existing labels listing the older DSP number before updating the label to reflect the new DSP number. Unfortunately, this particular bottle was not bottled in bond.

There are, however, a few other rules of thumb for identifying whether Old Forester was distilled in Louisville or Shively.

Seal

All bottles with a paper seal were distilled in Louisville; most, but not all, bottles with a plastic seal were distilled in Shively.

Distilling Company

Most bottles with "Brown-Forman Distilling Company" on the label are from Louisville and most bottles with "Old Forester Distilling Company" are from Shively. Therefore, there are examples with labels stating that the bourbon was distilled and bottled by Old Forester Distilling Company, but that list the distiller as DSP KY 414. The converse is also true, because the label reverted to listing the distiller as Brown-Forman in the mid-1990s. More on that below.

For most of Old Forester's history, the label listed Brown-Forman as the distiller. This changed sometime in the late 1980s, when the label started to list the distiller as "Old Forester Distilling Company." This change of label appears to have occured about the same time that Brown-Forman was switching over to Shively distillate.  Later, around 1995, the label reverted to the previous practice of listing Brown-Forman as the distiller.

"At Louisville in Kentucky"

A statement on the label that the bourbon was distilled and bottled by either Old Forester or Brown-Forman Distilling Company "at Louisville in Kentucky" does not mean that the bottle is Louisville distillate. This may seem to be a rather clear statement that a bottle is Louisville distillate, but there are examples of Old Forester BIB that contain this statement, but that list the DSP number of the Shively, Kentucky distiller (DSP KY 354).

My Particular Bottle of Old Forester

Japanese Label Old Forester 86 Proof
Based on the above information, my bottle is probably from Shively. The seal is plastic and the distilling company is listed as "Old Forester Distilling Company." Further, the bottle is from 1990 which is later than most of the bottles of Old Forester Bottled in Bond that list DSP KY 414. There is no age statement, however, to help determine about how old the whiskey is.

OK, on to what's in the bottle. The color is rather light in the glass, though not in the bottle - not a deep brown. The nose is sweet and mild with notes of vanilla. The bourbon has a nice distinctly creamy mouth feel with notes of caramel and vanilla. The flavor is round and balanced with no particular extremes. For me, the mouth feel stands out most of all and really makes this an excellent bourbon.

I'm not sure, but my guess is that mouth feel and over all character of this bourbon may come from urethene (also known as ethyl carbamate) a carcinogen that was apparent in high quantities in Old Forester in the 1980s.  Distillers agreed to limit the amount of urethene in bourbon distilled after 1989 and so recent bottlings of bourbon do not have high levels of urethene. This is, of course, all speculation, but this may be one reason that dusty bottles of bourbon have such a different character than more recent bottling. As an aside, Sazerac 18 (distilled around 1987) was at first banned from sale in Canada in 2015 due to high levels of urethene.

Verdict: If you see DSP KY 414 Old Forester BIB, buy it.



Friday, January 15, 2016

I.W. Harper 12 Year

Distillery:Probably Four Roses
Age:12 Years
Proof:90 (45% ABV)
Price:JPY 5000

I.W. Harper is a storied brand of bourbon, first becoming popular in the late 19th century. For about the last 20 years, however, the I.W. Harper brand was only available in Japan. Recently, however, Diageo (the owner of the I.W. Harper brand) has again started to use the I.W. Harper brand in the U.S.

There are two I.W. Harper expression in Japan: I.W. Harper Gold Medal and I.W. Harper 12 Year. This review is of the 12-year-old expression (not the 15-year-old expression released in America in 2015). Because Diageo doesn't operate any bourbon distilleries, there is some question as to where I.W. Harper comes from. The best guess is that I.W. Harper, like Bulleit, is distilled under contract by Four Roses. The mashbill is likely the high rye (OBS_) Four Roses mash bills and therefore has a much higher rye content than most other bourbons.

As you can see, the 12-year expression comes in a nice decanter bottle, reminiscent of the bottle in which I.W. Harper 15 Year was released in the U.S. I believe the main difference is the screw top.

The nose has notes of melon (and other fruit), as well as vanilla, pepper and honey. Melon (or another green fruit) and pepper are again evident on the tongue along with leather and dry wood. There is a nice honeysuckle finish.

This bourbon is very balanced with a spicy, sophisticated flavor. It lacks some of the sweetness of other bourbons, but I think this is also true of many of Four Roses' offering.

Verdict: It's age-stated Four Roses in a beautiful bottle; if you like Four Roses buy it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye

Distillery:Olde St. Nick
Age:"Many Summers Old" (NAS)
Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 5000


Olde St. Nick Distillery is an assumed name of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, despite the name, is a non-distiller producer, meaning that the company does not actually produce the bourbon that it bottles. It is also a export-only bottling for the Japanese market. For those interested, I have written more extensively about the brand elsewhere.

In addition to various bourbons, Olde St. Nick Distillery also bottles two ryes - a summery rye and a winter rye. As is normally the case with non-distiller producers, the origin of the rye is unknown.

"Winter rye" is a general term to refer to any type of rye that is planted during the winter. Because rye is more resilient, it can be grown in climates and at temperatures where other grains would perish. Some Canadian whiskeys are marketed as being made from winter rye and, therefore, more flavorful. While it is true that better wine normally comes from seemingly inhospitable soil, I am not sure where this is true when it comes to rye. "Summer rye," on the other hand, has no accepted meaning.

Although the distiller is unknown, I tasted it side-by-side with Rittenhouse Rye 80 proof and they tasted dramatically different. This leads me to believe that the producer is Midwestern Grain Products instead of Heaven Hill.

The nose has very strong notes of lychee and other citrus fruits as well as hints of mint and pineapple. The flavor delivers on the nose, starting out peppery and moving to sweet with lychee continuing throughout. The mouth feel is rather thin, but this is something that I find to be a characteristic of ryes. The finish is dry and smooth with very little heat.

I note that there are other bottlings that are higher proof and some that are age stated. As stated above, this was a non-age stated 80 proof bottling.

Verdict: Interesting if you like ryes or Japanese-export bottlings, but no need to seek this one out.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Blanton's Silver

Distillery:Buffalo Trace
Age:8-9 Years
Proof:98 (49% ABV)
Price:JPY 6000

Blanton's Silver was originally produced for the duty free market only, but has since been discontinued. Because it been discontinued, its is very rare to see it available for sale. I'm not sure how exactly this bottle made it to Japan, but I do see duty-free releases on store shelves from time to time.

As the color may suggest, Blanton's Silver is positioned between Blanton's Original Single Barrel and Blanton's Gold. Both the original retail price and the proof fall between these two bottles.

The bottle was dumped March 24, 2000 and is 98 proof. Like all Blanton's it comes from Warehouse H. The bottle was in OK condition when purchased. The wax was a little dried out and the box was somewhat damaged. I bought it anyway as a gamble, hoping that the bourbon inside the bottle would have survived the damage to packaging. 



The bourbon starts out well with a the normal caramel and vanilla as well notes of citrus and figs. The taste is less sweet than many bourbons, with hints of maraschino cherries. It's a little hot with a dry woody finish. 

This is not nearly as good as Blanton's Straight from the Barrel. The silver is much closer to the flavor of the Blanton's Single Barrel. Given the choice, I would choose Blanton's Straight from the Barrel every time.

This bottle is somewhat interesting because it was distilled during the tenure of Gary Garheart, the previous master distiller at Buffalo Trace. It does taste a little different than the current offerings (i.e., the notes of maraschino cherry), but isn't objectively any better. 

Verdict: If you see it, buy it - it may be your only chance.