Whisky and Words Number 41: Iwai Tradition Mars

A tall dark stranger to our shores

I’m finally getting my holiday post up, a bit tardy I must say. This one is a real departure for this blog, which thus far has all been Scotch whiskies. The Mars Shinshu Iwai is, as you would guess, from Japan. The style is different from what I’ve been reviewing here, as it is an American ‘whiskey’ style — corn mash, shorter maturation (but one would assume at higher temperatures than Scotch, as typical for American whiskies). Oddly the Iwai folks spell it ‘whisky’ on the bottle like the Scotch.

The importer’s website tells us that the moniker Iwai comes from Kiichiro Iwai, a ‘silent pioneer’ of Japanese whisky-making. With a little digging (thanks to gourmantic.com) we find that Iwai-san ran the Mars distillery years ago. The timeline they give is confusing, as the Mars distiller was licensed in 1949, commenced producing in 1960, but according to Gourmantic, Iwai-san had sent a junior member to Scotland to investigate their whiskies in 1919. At any rate, the distillery is in the Japanese highlands — 800m above sea level, a decent highland for sure.

Born in the Japanese Alps

But this is no Highland style whisky. In fact it is tough to discern what is in the bottle given the labeling (scant), as Japan does not have the same laws as Scotland does about its products. The marketing blurb on the tokiwaimports site does not help much:

“This is malt driven spirit is truly a reflection of contemporary Japanese whisky. Incredibly balanced, soft and layered. A blending of sherry, bourbon and wine casks with hints delicate hints of peat make for a harmonious whisky that would make Iwai-san proud.”

On Tokiwai Imports’ Resources page, if you wait for the image to load you can read a bit more: The regular Iwai is corn-majority mash, and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. The Tradition, subject of this review, is aged in sherry, bourbon and wine casks. No idea from that if it is a blend or a single malt. The Gourmantic site states it is a “Pot Still Blended whisky.” So, a vatted malt in Scotch parlance.

Hey who’s photobombing my shot?

Enough of the provenance, how does it taste? I’m no bourbon expert, so I compared it to a well-known American bourbon, Bulleit. This is a real departure for me, as previously in my life I had really overdone bourbon (as a kid) and could not stand it for a couple decades.  It’s different than Scotch, for sure. The nose of a bourbon tends to be grassier, have more lighter aromatics from the wood (which is of course true first-fill cask!) and less maltiness than your typical (and by law, all barley malt) Scotch.

As for color, you can see from both shots this is quite a dark spirit. That may well be from the sherry and wine butts, but we know that distillers even in Scotland are open to adding colorant. I have no idea what the laws are in Japan, so take the color for what it is – color, no more. As one learns from Laphroaig, color isn’t taste.

Iwai Tradition Mars Whisky (Japan), 40% ABV

Nose: Green grass, lemon, oak tannins and a touch of vanilla, sweet. Pleasant, refreshing, fairly complex.
Palate: Very smooth at first – like liquid toffee, green and red apple, with oak coming to the fore at the end. Cleans up quickly with some bitterness – I don’t know if this is from the wood being true first-fill or what, but the dryness you get from this is edgier than what you get with tannins in a single malt Scotch. Perhaps they toast the casks differently in Japan?
Finish: The finish gets spicy, feinting a bit with some lively pepper (black peppercorn and red bell pepper notes both) then it fades to sweetness again, like they’ve added Lyles Golden Syrup. The finish is not clinging or cloying, but sweet, like those friendly lasses at higher-end Kabukichō bars who’ll hang out and pour your whisky for you. (And that is ALL I will say about my adventures in Kabukichō…what happens in K-chō stays in K-chō!)

Bottom line: The story Gourmantic relates about the younger man being sent to Scotland and finding the spirits there too robust for the Japanese palate ring true to me. The modern Japanese certainly get around gastronomically but flavors are relatively muted when you encounter in Japan robust cuisines such as Italian. So it’s no surprise this is a gentle whisky. A good refreshing summer swallow. In comparison, Bulleit, with a more robust nose (which has a good whiff of malt, pears and oak) is more muscular from start to finish. In comparison, Bulleit’s nose comes across as downright skanky. Due to Bulleit’s higher (45%) ABV, it is harsher going down, but the Bulleit’s tannins are a tad less edgy than Iwai’s. All in all, at double the price of Bulleit, Iwai delivers a more refined experience. Compared to another light, refreshing bourbon (Stein, Oregon micro-batch I will review soon), Iwai still has a cleaner, more refined nose and a richer mid-palate. Iwai Tradition is to be savored straight, it would not hold up to mixers, and at the price, should not be misused that way anyhow.

By the way I try to ignore tasting notes before I review a whisky. Everyone’s nose is different and I don’t want the notes to suggest flavors a priori. The importer claims “Ripe cherry, honey toffee with a beautiful ginger spice.” Pretty darn close. Yes, that black-and-red pepper is better described a ginger.

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Book review: Hitler, Ascent by Volker Ullrich

I admit, I bought this book in part to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we (in the U.S.) are lurching under Trump. I may write more about that aspect in another post. But this entry is about the book. It is a long entry, as it’s a long book: 758 pages of content with a stunning 187 pages of notes. I only read some of the notes, mea culpa.

So, why undertake such a behemoth? I always wondered, when reading about the rise of Hitler in general history texts, when they said “he seized power” — how did he do that, exactly? Well, Ullrich tells us how, with a very detailed forensic investigation, using personal diaries and other primary sources which unearth precisely both the motivations and means of the Nazis. And in doing so, he does an excellent job of unearthing the methods and frailties of a man who still remains an enigma. We know very little of Hitler’s personal thoughts, as he had papers about his early life confiscated (p.17) and all his personal papers were burned at his death. Very few examples of his personal writing remain, and his outward facing persona was just that — a persona. As for that, he put all of his outward-facing concepts into Mein Kampf. So while Hitler’s thoughts may remain obscured, the man’s actions are not. Ullrich applies a magnifying glass to Hitler from his very beginnings. It turns out to be a very consistent view. Hitler did not vacillate, at least not strategically.

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Whisky and Words Number 40: Caol Ila Moch

This is my wife’s ‘so good I had to bring it home’ whisky from our trip to Islay. It was an offering of our post-tour tasting. Being a big Caol Ila fan, my wife really took to it. Maybe because (besides Caol Ila 12) she tends to prefer more civilized stuff like Glenmorangie, and the Moch is presumably a dialed-back Caol Ila. But is it? Let’s find out…

A sunny day, a light straw color and cookies. Not a bad combination.

This expression is another NAS whisky – no age statement. Since my last screed on NAS whiskies, I have reviewed a couple more and liked them. NAS whiskies can be good and bad, and all over the map as far as price. I do not remember what we paid for the Moch, but on Master of Malt it’s about $55, a pretty moderate price for a special expression.

I like to start with what the company says about its product. The box proclaims this spirit is “Soft, smooth clean and fresh…the dawn of a new day.” An odd way of introducing a whisky, sounds like the ad for a bar of soap. For this whisky in particular I find the marketing understated (for a change). This is a spirit that makes its presence known immediately on the bottle being opened. It won’t clear a room like Laphroaig but the peat and seaweed produce a lively bouquet. A better image might be ‘a breath of sea air’ but they called it Moch (‘dawn’ in Gaelic) so we get the ‘dawn’ thing.

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Whisky and Words Number 39: Talisker 18

Talisker 18, looking pretty.

This bottle of Talisker 18 was a gift from my wife who knows I am a huge fan of Talisker’s 10-year-old, and knows I was blown away by the Talisker 25 I had in a New York restaurant. (That was Aureole, a great combination of superb food and service without pretension. A Michelin starred restaurant, and there were folks eating there in jeans and t-shirts…) But I digress. When I woke up Christmas morning and found this bottle stuffed in my stocking I broke out in a broad grin. Santa sure knows my taste.

This is a whisky with a serious price (about $165 around here) so I’m going to give it a detailed analysis. I’ll be comparing it to the Talisker 10 of course and the Caol Isla 18, which is comparable in some ways (age, Island flavor profile) though the Caol Isla is unpeated. (I have to find a peated Caol 18!)

The 10 (l) and 18 (r) in glass

From the photo above you can see the understated carton and classic design of the Talisker bottle. The label looks like one you could find going 50 years into the past: classic fonts on a cream-colored background. A map of the island (Skye) and their roaring mer-lion fading into the background. Pretty typical Diageo. The color of the spirit is ‘russet muscat‘ and exactly the same as the 10 (see second photo). That they match so well makes me suspect a little bit of alchemy at the bottling. You would think an extra 8 years would render a darker whisky.

A deep and refined dram

The first thing you notice when pouring a Talisker is the aroma. This is not a shy whisky that waits for you to stuff your nose in the glass…it comes and gets you. The air within a few feet of your Glencairn glass will carry that unique combination of seaweed, peat, and a solid midrange of malt and fruit. Since both the 10 and the 18 are bottled at Talisker’s odd 45.8% strength, we can do a solid head to head comparison on aroma. The 18 is very similar to the 10, though smoother. Whereas the 10 can sting a little in a deep draught and has noticeable aromas of drying grass and grapefruit, the 18 is smoother on the nose and less grassy; the 18 is more citrus peel than citrus, carrying as well heavier notes of prune, fig, and worn leather — hence Diageo listing it on the ‘rich‘ side of their tasting chart, versus the 10 being on the ‘light‘ side. Both have a solid background of peat – reminding me of the peated barley we sampled at one of our tours (Caol Isla IIRC). The peat is not overpowering by any means, which is why I love Talisker so much—it’s not heavily phenolic like a Laphroaig (in fact the Diageo folks rate this on the ‘lighter’ side of their tasting chart), but it is complex, balanced, and a treat for the palate.

On the palate, the 10 has a wonderful foretaste of caramel, followed by citrus and peat, a little peppery on the tide of the tongue and the citrus lingers into the aftertaste, where the oak really comes forward—not too bitter but definitely a strong note.

In the 18-year, the citrus and medicinal nature of the dram give way to a refined mid-palate. The peat is more laid back, but the caramel is tempered, like toffee—more caramelized (though not burnt) than in the 10-year and less a factor overall. The more laid back sweetness allows the subtlety of vanilla to come through. A softer oak finish riding on soft billows of peat and seaweed completes an overall smoother, less lively (although more complex) dram. Note there is not a lot of fruitiness in a Talisker. You are getting mostly ex-bourbon casking, just a small percentage of sherry butts (for great detail on the technical side of Talisker, read Difford’s guide.)

About the Caol Isla 18: it is a different beast entirely. I had to add a little water, it being almost 60% ABV. The Caol Isla 18 has a lighter aroma and palate, with toffee (but not as carmelized), grassy notes more like the Talisker 10, and of course no peat. The sweetness is lighter, and the finish smooth and not as interesting as either Talisker. Not as much punch. I would consider the Talisker altogether a more interesting dram, even outside the peatiness. Color me surprised. The Caol Isla single casks we tried at our tasting, and the Moch NAS that the wife brought back, have a magic I think is missing from the unpeated variety.

Talisker 18, Island (Skye) single malt 45.8% ABV

Nose: Gentle, but aromatic! Seaweed and saltwater, peat smoke, malt, citrus peel, figs.
Palate: Toffee, honeysuckle, vanilla, peat smoke and burnt seaweed, a bit of that ‘old spirit’ leathery/meaty magic, less so citrus peel and a touch of peppery/listerine medicinal liveliness around the edges for balance. None of these dominates or is abrupt.
Finish: Lengthy. Toffee, vanilla, oak tannins gently fading in to balance the sweet side, but not a trace of harshness. The peat rides on as well! A little of the listerine-medicinal/citrus peel from the palate.

Bottom Line: The great 10-year expression is a tough competitor. While the Talisker 18 comes in with refinement and improved mid-palate richness, is it enough? Or is it too laid back? The price is not outrageous for an 18-year-old, in fact it’s about even with the Highland Park 18 (coming soon to this blog BTW). But it is not cheap and I think about the 25-year I had in New York which blew my mind and wonder if this is a spirit that reaches its pinnacle with just a few years more. Where the 18 shines is in the aroma and finish. I find it enjoyable just having a glass poured somewhere in the room, and the finish lingers on for paragraphs.

The Talisker 18 and a few oddities

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla (technical)

Our enchanting guide, in the tiny visitor’s center.

I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.

Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.

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Whisky and Words Number 38: The Singleton 15 (Glendullan)

Glendullan 15, color in the bottle is more accurate (the glass is taking some color from the gourd behind).

This was a gift from a very considerate member of the family. It sure beats getting a tie! But of course, then the giver risks the chance I’ll critically review the gift. In this case, they can rest easy. The Singleton 15, an American-only release, comes from Glendullan distillery in Dufftown. You won’t find much about the place online, though the folks at Malt Madness have a pretty good history of the place here. It’s a modern Diageo operation, producing 5M litres of spirit a year from six stills. I found it interesting that it has larchwood washbacks. Does it matter? Probably not; you can read more at ScotchWhisky.com.

The Singleton 15 presents well for its price, and offers a very compelling value in a 15-year whisky, about $50 locally (Oregon). What you are hoping for in a 15-year is a noticeable step forward in maturation over a 10 or 12-year: a gentle nose, complex flavors, and depth as the flavor profile moves from taste to finish. In this case, the malt master has gone for a gentle and sweet dram, very approachable even for a non-Scotch-drinker. For the Scotch aficionado, this dram lies on the lighter side.

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