I decided to use the term “Masterclass” on my site for Whisky tastings in general, while I’ll be using the term “Tasting” for (single) tasting notes of Whisky and other spirits. Usually you’ll use the term “Masterclass” for tastings held on Whisky venues and shows. If you look up the term in Wikipedia, it tells you something about some university courses from very respectable lecturers. Well usually the lecturer in a Masterclass is somehow “Somebody” in the Whisky industry, but not all the time. I think it’s more than OK to use this term on “ordinary” (sometimes extra-ordinary!) Whisky tastings. But back to the topic at hand, the Japan & Taiwan Tasting – sorry Masterclass – held by the L&P Whisky Consultants.
Whisky from Japan and Taiwan is kind of hard to get here in Europe, but nevertheless it’s quite popular here. Jim Murray chose the “Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013” as his “Whisky of the Year 2015”. Our first Whisky was indeed from the Yamazaki distillery but it was the “Yamazaki Single Malt Distiller’s Reserve“. I still can remember how everybody (especially the Scots and the Scotch loving people) was insulted(?) by this choice. How could a Japanese Whisky be the best of the world? Well, it was the opinion of Jim Murray. Not more, not less. But I have to add, the Japanese Whiskys are quite good! Even taking into account the relatively high price, that is f you even can get them here anyways. Also I found, that – IMHO – it takes much longer for the Whisky to become “taste able”. I don’t know why, just give them more time as a Scotch while tasting!
Whisky number two was another Whisky from Japan. To be precisely it was the “Hakushu Single Malt Distiller’s Reserve“, also made by Suntory (as the Yamazaki). If you know the movie “Lost in Translation” the name “Suntory” will be familiar, as they have a commercial running in that film stating “It’s Suntory time”! While the first Whisky was distilled at the Yamazaki distillery, this one was distilled in Hakushu. Both Whiskys – as the following four too – are n.a.s. Whiskys. Something quite common not only with the Irish and Scottish Whiskys.
The third Whisky – still from Japan – was a Blend. The “Hibiki Japanese Harmony” from (again) Suntory. It’s a blend made of Malt and Grain Whisky from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. Usually people tend to belive a n.a.s. on the bottle is a sign of a not so good Whisky – my tasting notes show quite the opposite – as they do when it’s a “Blended”. Of course, a blended Whisky is often not that complex and deep as a Single Malt but there are of course exceptions to this rule. In Japan the Blended is considered the more sophisticated product, because the Blendmaster has to assure every year – again and again – that he is well worth the trust he has gained by his work. Because the customer expects the Blend to taste the same year after year, something not usually to be expected with the Single Malts. I’d like to make a short excursion to Scotland, to Bruichladdich. The “Classic Laddie Scottish Barley” from Bruichladdich has only his “typical” character which stays the same. The taste can (and will) vary from year to year (see here my article about that Masterclass).
Back to Japan, we’re heading South-West to Taiwan. The fourth Whisky (as number five and six) are from Kavalan. 2015 they had the “Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique” which awarded the… No, later more about this. We start with the “Kavalan Single Malt“. Again a n.a.s. Whisky as said before, but I guess the used Whiskys here are quite young, given the climate in Taiwan. If you followed my tasting notes, you will discover that this doesn’t mean they’re not good or even bad! Old = Good can be as true as Young = Good. But it is also possible to be the other way round (Old = Bad / Young = Bad).
The next sample was the “Kavalan Single Malt Concertmaster Port Cask“. I had the opportunity to taste this Whisky back at the “Whisky Weekend 2015” in Salzburg. Just a short reminder: The next one will be on Oct. 7th and 8th 2016 at the “Kavernen 1595” in the beautiful City of Mozart. The difference to the previously tasted Whisky is, that it was finished in Port wine casks for some time (not specified). I’m a fan of Whiskys matured or finished in Port/Sherry/Wine casks, but I find it a pity if you can’t tell if it was finished in a special cask without looking on the bottle (like the “Kilchoman Single Cask release 679/2015” I tasted at the Whisky Show 2015 in London – click here for the article). But here the Port cask is truly present in the Whisky.
Our Masterclass was crowned by the last Whisky, the “Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique” – who won the World Whisky Awards 2015 as “World’s Best Single Malt”, “Best Asian Single Malt” and as overall winner in the category “Single Malt Whisky”. Again people were surprised, but this was a vote from an international tasting panel during a blind tasting, not the opinion of one person – as the Yamazaki vote from Jim Murray was. But I don’t dare to question the intentions or integrity of Jim Murray or anyone else in the Whisky word (like the late Michael Jackson). I’d be the happiest man in the world, if I ever reach the level Michael had before his (way too early) death or Jim has now sometime in the future. I don’t know how Jim Murray tastes his Whiskys but the Kavalan was tasted during a blind tasting as mentioned, meaning the jurors just knew it is Whisky. I’m 100% sure that in this tasting panel some people from Scotland were present and they had to vote in favour for this Whisky or it would not have become the “Words Best Single Malt”. The Masterclasses with the SMWS-AT are also blind tastings. Thomas Unterguggenberger – President of the SMWS-AT – has managed to hold the bottles (which are all the same shape and colour) in a way it is impossible to read the label and get a glimpse on what he is pouring into the glass. The only help is, we know it’s a Whisky from the recent Outturn, which we are allowed to use to determine which Whisky we are tasting. It’s always a great and fun evening but I’ll write about a Masterclass from the SMWS-AT another time (on May 21st is the next Masterclass here in Vienna…).
My resume: Whiskys from the Land of the rising Sun (and Taiwan) are incredible interesting and there is no need to hide behind the Whiskys from the “big” Whisky nations as Ireland and Scotland. They evolved from some niche Whiskys only some “nerds” get to taste to quite common Whiskys here in Europe. Sometimes they are a little bit hard to get, but generally you’ll find them in stores or even bars. Some of them are still quite exclusive, but there are plenty of other Whiskys from all over the word which are as exclusive or even more exclusive. I highly recommend that you take the opportunity to taste a Whisky from “over there” if you have it. But take your time, don’t hurry them as I mentioned before!