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Tastemakers in the City Series: unique & rare whiskies from Japan

I have really been focused on learning about the various types of whisky as of late. And have found a good resource in the self proclaimed, “whiskey muse:” bartender turned educational consultant, Reece of @reecesims.

On this night she was hosting a Japanese whisky tasting seminar at the new 90’s pop up bar: Lightshade. This is the first Tastemakers in the City Series: non-blind, nonconventional tastings, hosted at unique venues in Vancouver. It is broadcasted as an opportunity to try rare whiskies in a more casual environment. A guided tasting, where you can actively connect with other whisky novices and enthusiasts.

Held in the intimate space of Lightshade, attendees were greeted with a Japanese whisky based, welcome cocktail with shisho. This was a refreshing light start, with the likes of a smooth gin, given the herb used to accent and flavour it.
The following are the 6 Japanese whiskies we tried, and the notes I was able to jot down, as we sipped our way through each from light to heavy, and least to most expensive.

Where Nikkei and Suntory are the staple labels when it comes to imported Japanese whisky, this class would focus on the many other distilleries, and educate us on what makes Japanese whisky so unique.

But first a history lesson. The Japanese have been making whisky since the 1800’s. It was not commercially available until 1920. And 20 years after that, two distinct practices in Japanese whisky preparation surfaced.

The producers were split between following the traditions of Scotland with a full bodied and full flavoured, rich whisky.

And the others wanted to make whisky distinctively Japanese, with an emphasis on having it compliment Japanese cuisine. Specifically a lighter whisky, much like how sake is complimentary to sushi and raw seafood.

In the 1950’s when whisky bars opened in Japan, we saw the trend of watered down highballs for an easier sipping beverage that is more approachable.

Back then the industry was unregulated, so we saw many interesting blends and innovations, where whisky as a category was redefined. The art of blending Japanese whisky includes utilizing international malts and grain bases, and incorporating indigenous ingredients. Like for example rice whisky finished in a cherry blossom cast.

I won’t go into too much on how each of the 6 sips we had tasted, but instead offer some highlights and key points, that will hopefully encourage you to attend a similar session, and try them for yourselves. After all a tasting is best tasted, and everyone’s palate is unique.

We started light with the Shinobu Blended Whisky. It is inspired by the heart if the samurai, featuring Japanese glacier waters and a Japanese Oak cast, which takes longer to mature. This one one had spice and buttery notes, with vanilla and coconut on the nose.

The Nirasaki Blended inched us into heavier spirits territory. It uses other imported blends to make its own, and therefore it is difficult to asses. With the importing and blending of whiskeys you can’t pin point how aged a batch is and where its from. This one was spicy hot on palette, with a short finish. If you are interested in trying it for yourself, be sure to grab it sooner than later as it is being discontinued.

The Kanekou Okinawa Whisky is a unique blend of malted barley, wheat, and rice; finished with various casting. As a result it tastes as everywhere and everything as it reads. Sweet, savoury, spicy, and musky all mixed together. It starts light and finishes off heavy with lots more to give as an aftertaste.

The Masahiro Pure Malt is a blended malt that is aged in Jack Daniels barrels. It is unique in the location of the distillery. The naturally hot climate helps the whisky age faster. The result, a malty sweet spirit with the fruity notes of pineapple and citrus, along with vanilla; and plenty of spicy kick back.

At $150 the Amahagan Edition No. 4 showcased our host Reece’s favourite style of distilling. Their head distiller travelled to Scotland to train, and came back wanting to focus on smaller still for less copper contact and a more flavourful base. This whisky is finished in a cherry blossom cast, so has cherry and plum notes on the nose, finished with almond and marispan flavouring.

And the Kujira 10 year is the priciest whisky I have had to date, retailed at $200. It was definitely the most funky and memorable of the lot thanks to the use of indica rice imported from Thailand. This rice has enzymes that breaks starches to sugar, similar to the process of soy. And uses the traditional method of aging in clay urns. A rich and savoury whisky that drinks smooth and finishes clean; with plenty of sweet notes accented with vanilla. It smells of caramel but does not taste it, and is better the second time around. Our table deemed the price worth the contents in the bottle.

In conclusion, this was such a great way to learn more about Japanese style whisky and what sets them apart. And this was also a great opportunity to try some bottles I would never think to purchase, and others I could not otherwise afford to try.

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