In this period of time where travel to Japan is no longer possible, due to the global pandemic, it has become necessary to search for other ways to travel. Reading would be one such way, allowing us to access other worlds. However, reading is, ultimately, only something for the mind. In contrast, food engages several senses, in addition to the mind.
Everyone probably knows of scotch whisky and may have an image of successful people drinking a dark coloured Macallan. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. For me, scotch whisky has been the perfect way to travel without leaving home. The flavors, the diversity of smells and taste, but also the journey of discovering and learning about it. I am only at the start of this journey, and therefore all I can recommend at this time is to learn from Ralfy on Youtube.
After about one year of serious exploration, I discovered an amazing whisky. The following is a description of it by Ralfy, which I transcribed from his video. I hope he will not mind. I took out the information identifying this whisky because it is not so much about what whisky to buy, but the adventure that whisky can be. I cannot say it better than him.
"Smell: No peat. As soon as you nose this, you realize it’s something pretty intense, it’s like concentrated single malt. And some barrels will do this, it depends on the luck of the draw, the provenance of the cask. When you put new-make spirit into one cask, over time it sort of fades, it becomes thinner. Whereas, other whiskies, you can put them into the cask, and over time they just seem to get more concentrated and richer and more intense, and in fact, it can cause flavor confusion, some of these malts, because there is just so much going on. Not just in terms of flavor, but also in terms of sensations, the sweet, salt, sour, bitter and savoury. These can become very congested and even confusing. And what you need is just patience. Time, give them time, that’s what makes the real difference, and allow the experience of the malt to express itself it its own good measure, over time.
Nose: Very resinous, very rich, beautiful soft cask notes, mildest of tannins. Super rich barley sugar, ultra rich barley sugar. Very intense. Nothing is off key, everything is beautifully aligned within the nose. As soon as you smell this, if you’ve got any experience with single malt whisky, you will know that you’re smelling something very singular, rather unique, and frankly amazing.
Taste: [makes a face] Very intense. It’s not sharp, it’s not particularly nippy, it’s just got this kind of richness, it’s so rich, it’s uncomfortably rich. That’s what it is. Initially, you’re thinking it’s too citrus, too salty, bit rough, but it’s not. Adding 2 teaspoons of water (10 ml). After all these years, it’s still at a high strenght which suggests that this spirit went into the cask at a higher strength than normal. I would suggest it went into the cask at over 70% alcohol. Many distillers will cut down the alcohol with water to make the cask engagement a bit more textured, a bit more methodical, a bit more soft. But this went into the cask straight off the still, and it shows. And the way it shows is just the sheer intensity is showcased here. It’s very intense. It needs the water, lots of water. You’ll add water, you’ll smell it, taste it, and then you will add some more, just to get access to the flavor.
Nose: So much more expressive. The complexity, even more so. Spicy, herbal, floral, slightly savoury, very very busy.
Taste: The arrival is so slow, so prolonged. Now the development is arriving. Beautifully integrated with the cask, sultana, barley sugar, Manuka honey, sweet and sour dried fruits, a savoury mint (an odd peculiar savoury mint), winter green, a little mild spearmint. It’s slightly salty, not saline, not brine, actual table salt.
Adding another spoonful of water. It will not drown, I can promise you that. When I bought it, [it was 1/10th of the price it is now]. But having said that, it’s a seriously impressive single malt by any standards. Bigger, more matured, than many malts twice its age. For its age, this has got an awful lot to say for itself. The cask influence is so complex, remarkably complex. And I think it’s the style of lowland single malt that has provided a perfect foil for the cask influence. Top quality cask, aromatic wooden notes, soft sublime herbal sappy notes, gentle tea-like tannins. It’s not what’s come from the cask that is noticeable so much as the quality of what has come from the cask. It really has translated so well. The busyness, the balance, the poise, the complexity of this unpeated whisky is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s a stunning single malt, it’s a showcase for its generation. I like the lowland style of matured single malts, they really work for me and my palate. Lowland whiskies have subtle, refined finishes. They are a real fascination for me. The problem is the caliber of bottling is often not that great, and no region is more badly affected by this than lowland whiskies.
It’s a remarkable whisky, and it know it is because I have so much experience with whiskies over the years now, so I know what I’m looking at, I know what I’m smelling, I know what I’m tasting, and for many reasons I know why a whisky is the way it is. But the truly special ones, the spectacular ones, the outstanding, unforgettable single malts, they have something in common: you never fully understand them. You know there’s more there than you can smell and you can taste. You know that there is simply something greater than you are able to comprehend, but you know it’s there. You don’t know what it is. And there is no point struggling to understand it or try to get to know it. Doesn’t work that way. You just have to roll with the experience, which is what I have been doing.
Initially, I didn’t like this whisky. Initially, it was just too confusing for my palate, because I was still learning a lot then. But, I suppose instinctively, I just poured a glass, put the water in, covered it up, came back to it an hour later, had some Glenfiddich, had some Springbank, came back to it, tried it again, and it was through tasting other whiskies around it (from lowlands?) that I gradually got more and more access into this, to understand what it was and how it worked. So I learned so much about whisky from this bottle, because it was so unusual, it was so different. I could just tell it was quality, but I had a hard time accessing it. It was a real challenge, it was an obstacle to be overcome, it was a mission, it was a real passion project of a whisky that I couldn’t rush and I couldn’t dismiss. The bottle lasted me three years once I opened it. I never rushed it. And every time I poured another glass, I was enjoying it more and more.
It’s so easy for me to just sit here with this bottle and just chat about it, about how fantastic it is. And I hope that people will go to auction and buy a bottle and, its not just as an investment portfolio accessory, but to buy it for what it was originally bottled as, a stunningly good single malt whisky, well worth the time and effort. And also, an education. It’s whiskies like these that set the standard, that help us calibrate our measuring tape of what is good whisky and what is bad whisky.
Its whiskies like this – and you will encounter a whisky that you find so good, so memorable, so instinctively special that it registers in your subconscious, you remember the day you opened the bottle, you remember who you poured that dram with, you remember where you were and what you were doing, and the reason you remember is because of the intrinsic quality of the smell and of the taste. It’s very special and it really enhances our journey. Maltmates, I command this whisky to you. If you find it, cherish it. I found it, and I certainly cherish it. It’s all part of the journey."
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Matsukawa (revisited), Learning Japanese, Advanced Japanese Manners, Hakone, home cooking.
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Cafe de l'Ambre
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Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui
Art Museums in Tokyo