Maybe we will meet again, further down the river,
In the early 1930's, Masataka Taketsuru left his job at Suntory's Yamazaki distillery - the "true birthplace of Japanese whisky" (Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014) - and toured Japan in search of a place to make the perfect, traditional Japanese single malt. Taketsuru was a rugged individual who helped found Japanese whisky in the 1920's. The heir of generations of sake brewers in Hiroshima, Taketsuru actually traveled to Scotland to obtain a degree in organic chemistry from the University of Glasgow in 1919. He then spent time living and working at Scottish distilleries before returning to Japan.
"That's great, Mr. Alchemist. Skip to the good stuff."
Wait for it, dear reader. The most important part of this story is where Taketsuru-san spent time living and working in Scotland: Campbeltown, a titan of distillation in its prime but home to only 3 functioning distilleries today. Campbeltown is the home of Springbank single malt whisky, a whisky startlingly close to Yoichi single malt in both quality and complexity. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Yoichi is Springbank's closest cousin ... on the other side of the world. How does this happen?
Campbeltown does incredible things making whisky in the old ways (i.e. open-oil firing of the stills). Yoichi is no exception. Taketsuru chose Yoichi as the location for Nikka's first distillery because he felt the terroir best resembled Scotland (Yoichi is situated on Hokkaido, Japan's northern-most island). The stills are traditionally coal-fired. There is no micro-barrel distillation here; instead, time and provenance take their course. Yoichi is, in a very deliberate sense, proof that you don't have to reinvent the lyne arm to make stunning and delicious whisky that appeals to consumers. In an age where craft distillation is booming in a way similar to craft brewing of yore, too many distillers see a need to cut corners or do something novel to make their spirit and story stand apart. Yoichi just isn't playing that game, and it's certainly not suffering for that decision.
The Yoichi 15 year old is leaning towards the older end of Nikka's core range of single malts. I'm not certain about the barrel-maturation make-up here, but I know Nikka's coopers work in sherry butts, ex-bourbon barrels, and Japanese oak alike. Honestly, judging from the nose, I wouldn't be surprised if all three are represented here in some fashion.
The nose presentation is extremely complex. Since it's so difficult to grab one thing at a time out of this one, I'm going to settle for an exercise in comparisons. In the breakdown I'm getting a definite sherry finish, similar to something like Balvenie's Double Wood but more subdued. There's also a strong, deliciously creamy bourbon-note here, similar to Single Cask Nation's 12 year old Glen Moray (matured entirely in a first fill bourbon barrel) or Hakushu's Bourbon Barrel. This adds up to dried dark fruits (figs, dates) swimming in creme brûlée while someone cooks with teriyaki just over in the kitchen. There are delicate hints of toasted oak (not as oak-forward as a Scottish highland malt) along with a very subtle campfire smokiness, certainly in the sub-10 parts per million. I know very few whiskies this complex and well integrated, and even fewer Japanese whiskies in particular. It's one of the reasons this was a finalist for my Highley Recommended single malt of the year.
Let's try the palate. (Gasp)... TWIST! That nose was just playing with us!
The smoke delivers right up front, certainly more than you'd expect from sub-10 ppm. It is tightly integrated with that bourbony cream flavor in a way that creates a slight drying spice on the palate, almost like sampling a spoonful of nutmeg and burnt coffee grounds (soaked in Texas Pete hot sauce). There are boatloads of umami going on here, just tons and tons of it. Since I lack the skills to adequately describe this sensation without going into glutamates and nucleotides, I'll just post a picture of where you get it on the tongue. And boy, do you GET IT. There's a certain salty seafood broth aspect to this, although it's hard to say if this comes from Yoichi's location as it is just about a kilometer from the coast. We're totally going down the rabbit hole now, as sour lime juice lurks down there somewhere along with fibrous, pitted dates. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you. What a journey!
What really sets this whisky apart is just how tightly integrated and structured all of its disparate elements are. The finish (which is long on the spice and heat) is a testament to the monumental deliciousness of what you've just experienced: a journey that would be fraught with peril in most other distilleries' hands. If you can find a bottle of this whisky (rarely available in stores, although much more widely available online) it is worth every penny. Its unique Japanese terroir combined with Scottish craft ensures you'll have special story to tell.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
One of three remaining distilleries in Campbeltown (a distilling region all to itself), Springbank produces some of Scotland's most stunning and complex single malt whiskies. All of them possess terrific, pioneering, and masculine names like something out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel: Straight-Tongue, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, La Longue Carabine, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, Longrow, Hazelburn, Springbank (ok, so only those last three are whiskies). All of them are unique in their own right, despite coming from Springbank: The Distillery. Longrow is distilled twice and heavily peated to around 50-55 ppm phenols. Hazelburn is distilled three times and is unpeated. Springbank is the most complex of the bunch, being distilled two and a half times (I'll explain what that means some other time) and being mildly peated to around 12-15 ppm. I found this particular bottle hiding away in Middle Earth (Arkansas) in a small, expertly-run liquor store on Christmas Eve. It was surrounded by three different single cask bottlings of 12 year old Springbank and two other bottlings of Hazelburn (one since discontinued). Woe, that I have but a limited budget for holiday whiskey!
I have most recently tried Springbank's 12 year old cask strength expression, but in this case I wanted to venture off the beaten path and try something truly unique. This particular single cask was matured in a refill sherry hogshead (the type of sherry was not specified). Only 281 bottles of it will ever exist, which by my iPhone calculator means that I am drinking approximately 1/281th of all of this liquid that will ever exist. There were 3 bottles left at the store (Colonial*SNEEZE*LittleRock*COUGH), but for how much longer...
While you're chewing away at that, I'm sitting here puzzling over this liquid's color. I didn't expect a refill hogshead to contribute much to the color (or the flavor, really), but this goes beyond the pale (pun fully intended). No, really, it's a super-light yellow, much lighter than I'm used to in an 11 year old. When you add water - which you should certainly do at 57.1% ABV - it gets even crazier. I'm calling it a slightly greenish straw color. Limeade? Meh. By color alone, you'd worry that there's not gonna be much there.
Boy would YOU be wrong. The nose is massive and complex, distinctly bright and Springbanky with tons of sprightly peat smoke whisping about. I'm getting lemon chews, tons of pencil shavings, dried banana chips, horse's stables filled with hay and sawdust, nectarine rind, magic marker (black), and something a bit like the exhaust fumes of an original 1967 Mustang as you ride down a road in winter with your sunroof open. There's an elusive hint of something like pickle juice lingering underneath it all that lends an oily character to the whole affair. Beautiful!
Initial entry on the palate is dry and hot, a bit like biting into a chili pepper. That heat chases the smoke right through your sinuses, only the sensation here is ever so sweet, vegetal, and intensely minty, like chewing up a pack of Trader Joe's Green Tea Mints. That minty freshness morphs into a mellow, malty sweetness about halfway through, like licking brewer's malt extract off your fingers. Green hay smoke, green tea mints, and grapefruit notes linger on the extremely long finish (which you can still taste at least half an hour afterward). The traditional Springbank oiliness is held greatly in check, presenting itself only through a persisting umami quality in the barley malt itself. What a delightful departure!
I'm supremely pleased with this choice! It certainly benefits from being bottled at cask strength (raw cask at that - you can see bits of barrel char floating around in the bottle!), and the sweetness comes out in droves with the addition of water. I can't wait to try my turn at a Hazelburn in the near future. Slainte, friends, and a merry new year!
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.