Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Dark Horse: Eigashima 12yo (1997/2010) Private Bottling

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

A few weeks ago, after spending a fortnight exploring the calvados and whisky distilleries of Normandy and Bretagne respectively, I made a little excursion to the city of Ghent in Belgium to host a Japanese whisky tasting. The organizer – importer/retailer The Bonding Dram – wanted to offer a sort of panorama of Japanese whisky and the decision was made to limit the selection to single malts (but no single casks). To cater to both well-seasoned Japanese whisky drinkers and newcomers, there was a selection of drams only available in Japan (brought over by yours truly) in addition to malts generally available in Europe (supplied by the organizer).

As part of an effort to try and compile a flavour map of Japanese whiskies – based on the model developed by Dave Broom for the Classic Malts – I thought it would be interesting to get some feedback from whisky enthusiasts in Europe and so it was decided to do the entire tasting blind, with no hints whatsoever as to what was in the glass. Just out of curiosity, to see what the collective preference was, we also asked the attendees (32 in total) to score the whiskies.

The line up was as follows:

Miyagikyo 12 (45%abv)
Miyagikyo NAS (43%abv)
Yoichi 10 (43%abv)
Karuizawa 12yo (an original bottling from the 90s, 40%abv)
Ichiro’s Wine Wood Reserve (leaf label, only available in Japan, 46%abv)
Yamazaki 18 (43%abv)
Hakushu Heavily Peated (first release, 48%abv)
Eigashima ‘Akashi’ 12yo Private Bottling (59%abv)

During the first half of the tasting I said very little, not wanting the influence people’s evaluation of the whiskies. When scores were tallied and the top 3 drams of the evening were announced a shockwave went through the room: in third place was Ichiro’s Wine Wood Reserve; runner up was Yamazaki 18 and the top dram of the evening was… the Eigashima 12yo private bottling. The fact that it managed to win – and win by quite a large margin! – was even more surprising given the fact that this particular whisky had received the lowest score from a small group of people, indicating that those who had given it their highest score liked it quite a bit.
The Eigashima 12yo was bottled in 2010 – together with a 5yo – in a limited edition of 102 (for more information, see this post). About half of the outturn went to Sweden, the other half stayed here, in Japan. On the nose, the initial impressions are Christmas cake, dates, figs, candied orange peel, breakfast cake (spice cake), lots of wood smoke, peat, charcoal, cigar boxes – also freshly roast coffee beans, vegetal notes (turnip, jacket potatoes), a hint of motor oil, nail polish, rubber and traces of sulphur. It was clear that the latter was responsible for the polarizing response: some couldn’t get past it; most people felt it worked in the context of the other aromas. On the palate, you get candied fruit, toffee, burnt toast with orange marmalade, tobacco, burnt marshmallows, beef jerky, barbeque smoke (pumpkin), goya and a hint of cointreau. Water smoothens the rough edges but makes it a bit more bitter. The finish is long and bittersweet on dried fruit, chicory and goya.

At the end of the evening, I got quite a lot of requests from people who wanted a bottle or two of the Eigashima. When I put my bottle (actually two, because they’re only 500ml) in my suitcase, I couldn’t imagine it would topple the Yamazaki 18, but such are the wonders of blind tasting… a Suntory brand ambassador’s nightmare if ever there was one, this little Akashi 12yo private bottling. A pity or good fortune – whichever side of the divide you fall on – that there’s nothing like this in the warehouses at Eigashima anymore and that there were only 102 bottles to start with.

Read more about Eigashima Distillery here.

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