Obaba: "After a thousand years of darkness, he will come, clad in blue and surrounded by fields of gold to restore mankind's connection of the Earth that was destroyed."
So, you've heard that Japanese whiskies are having their moment? Are they ever! And it's not just the product of strange Bill Murray movies - this is the product of true shokunin. Suffice it to say that I had my doubts, but after tasting Hakushu's bourbon barrel expression it's clear that the Japanese are as dedicated to perfecting this trade as any. It is rare that you will find a whisky this drinkable or complex.
The first word that comes to mind when you nose this whisky is purity. It's neat, and clean, and exceptionally green, as though you were wandering trance-like through a forest full of huge, tropical flowers, sun-ripened apples, and bright, glowing mist. Everything is luscious and swollen except the smoke; there's just that subtle hint of smokiness (not peatiness, but a fine green-wood smoke) that's characteristic of Hakushu's malt. When I say whisky is a reflection of terroir, of place, this whisky will absolutely make a believer of you.
Maybe my nose is not as sophisticated as Master of Malt's with this one ("lemon drizzle cake and black forest honey??" you can be as esoteric as you like), but what come at me strongest are freshly-sliced Granny Smith apples, banana peels, and buttery sweet, bourbon-soaked oak planks fashioned into a boardwalk suspended over the vapors of a crashing mountain stream (not to be outdone!). ;-)
Can we taste it now? My mouth is positively watering. Here we go!
Hmmmm... surprisingly smoke-forward, which burns up into a sort of brooding white peppery cloud and then almost completely fades away by the time the other flavors are finished. Charred barrel with the smoked malt? Oh yes. Underneath that smoke is a sort of lemon zest - that doesn't last long. But what does take its sweet time is that Granny Smith apple flesh - the flesh mind you, the pulp, with no tang of the skin. Granny Smith applesauce? Sure, with some spices sprinkled on top :-)
Where's the bourbon? Wait for it... wait for it. THERE it is. In fact, the whole ensemble of flavors kind of packages itself into that last, bourbony moment, almost like shoving all of your spent Christmas wrapping into a small, simple paper bag. There's that signature buttery biscuit, but it's almost like you dropped the biscuit into grapefruit juice or something - a notable tang. May not be the most complex finish, but man, the first two parts were IN-CRE-DI-BLE.
I say, let this whisky take you on a journey. Admit that you've always found Japan to be a fanciful and far-off place and just let the Spirit of the Forest be your guide (pun fully intended). Close your eyes and the spirit will even speak to you, revealing mysteries of the natural world that will leave you full of humility and awe. They do that sort of thing, you know, at least in Studio Ghibli movies.
Best enjoyed to the soundtrack of Joe Hisaishi. If you haven't clicked that link above, pour yourself a dram already, because now's the time. Make sure you've got plenty of volume and some hi-fi stuff to play it through. This whisky is positively the best thing to come out of Japan since Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind :-) Hard to find, but even harder to beat. Let your imagination run wild.
I've been to Hollywood,
I have no idea how "small batch" this stuff really is, but you'd better hope they plan on making loads more of it because we've reached the pinnacle of our Bulleit triple-header. This high rye bourbon maker has gone and upped the rye to 95% (hence the 95) with barley making up the balance. It's like liquid gold. What better way to treasure that sentiment than with the inimitable Niel Young?
The nose on this thing is pure, undiluted honey. Like real honey, not whatever Arizona claims they put in their bottled iced tea. Shoot, from the nose alone I'm thinking they just went ahead and used this for the "honey" in Dewar's Highlander Honey that just came out. It's just as bright and floral - almost like honeysuckle and just as pungent. Plus, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and put this in your tea! I'm thinking it would give the Long Island Iced Tea a run for its money and make ten times more sense (you have no idea how many people I know who think they actually use tea in the Long Island version).
It's just delightful to sit here and smell this. In fact, I begin to recall a dream scene from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, where young Nausicaa is standing in a golden field, grasses swaying in the wind. In my mind I can even hear that Japanese girl singing her "la, la lala la la la...". Simply magical.
There's a slight cereal note as you dive back in for the last sniff ("Quite well, thank you very much"). Only this time it's damp grains - think stomping across farm land in boots after a fresh, spring rain; you pluck some grains and mash them between your fingers. That's the smell that I'm parting with. Not the most complex Bulleit nose, but I'll be damned if it isn't the sweetest.
[Ed. note: I think very few (if any) of these cereal notes are the result of the 5% barley. Rye has its own signature cereal notes, and barley - unpeated - is usually just such a neutral grain (hence why it's preferred for tinkering with single malts). I'm uncertain about the malting, but I've no doubt that the barley is here just to mellow that rye spice a bit and give it a more corporeal, less ethereal palate. 100% rye mashes tend to suffer from that a bit; I say "suffer" because I like some earthy / farmish complexity in any brown spirit, Bruichladdich being most famous for letting that sort of thing shine through].
Right, well let's taste it! This comes bottled at 45% ABV, so a few drops of water should do it well. I already added them to dissect the nose.
Delicate, soapy sweetness gives way to a rolling hill of spice - I swear it started as Glenmorangie and then went all movie theater candy on me. The spice is signature for a rye, and can surprise many a whiskey drinker who hasn't given high-rye mashes a chance. It can be difficult to quantify, but think bright spices like cinnamon and paprika and you're getting in the ballpark. It's those little Red Hots cinnamon candies your Grandmother always kept in her purse, like that scene with the Oracle from Matrix Reloaded. So basically... you have become Neo, your mind awakened to the reality of spicy rye. Anyone else think that those Red Hots she offered him were symbolic for the red pill? But of course.
Really not a lot of wood mellowing here, but there is that slight oaky hint that comes out mid palate about the same time as the sour candy - the sides of your tongue will feel it right before the spice hits. But mainly it's all overwhelmed by that interplay between sweetness and spice. Bulleit, come straight out and tell us - what oak are you choosing for your whiskies? Is it air dried? Is it slow growth? Because this combined with what I got from your 10 year suggests that time with your oak does the exact opposite of what I'd normally expect from a spirit. See Glenmorangie's Ealanta for an example of carefully groomed virgin oak in action and tell me what you're doing differently. It's not ... bad, it's just bizarre. Truthfully, I'm glad that they bottle this around the 6-7 year mark. Hint: please don't release a 10 yo rye expression. This is excellent just the way it is.
Finish is long and full of spice - very pleasant really. There's really no need to search far and wide for a decent rye anymore - you have it right here, and at a very fetching price (usually just over $30). Just look or ask for that green label. Highley recommended ;-)
P.S. This is the perfect whiskey expression for mixing up an Old Fashioned. I mean a real Old Fashioned, not that over-muddled spicy water that passes for it when ordered from your neighborhood Applebee's. Find a bartender that knows how to do it right, or just do it yourself. The whiskey will stand on its own just fine.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.