Craft Cellars is delighted to welcome whisky expert Pete Burns to our team. Pete has an infectious passion for whisky and an extensive knowledge of the Scotch world. Originally from Glasgow (Scotland), his former roles include: being part of the management team at Scotland’s oldest whisky retailer; appraising and researching rare bottles for Scotch Whisky Auctions; and working alongside the Laing family at Douglas Laing & Co. In early 2018 he moved to Alberta to work with a specialist spirits importer – Craftwork Spirits Ltd. Pete is not only a great addition to the Craft Cellars team, but also to the broader Canadian whisky community. We look forward to Pete hosting many whisky tastings in the future and to all of his upcoming blog posts. We will now kick it over to Pete for his inaugural blurb, in which he will be introducing two new Japanese whiskies.

Take it away Pete!

Such is the maelstrom of insanity in today’s world, that despite being a Scotsman, with a background in Scotch, the first topic for Burns On Whisky is not Scotch but Japanese whisky. Thankfully, I am fascinated by whisky from Japan. The primacy of Scotch whisky being challenged by other distilling nations is nothing but healthy competition and a deterrent to complacency. Over recent years it is undeniable that there has been no stronger contender to the global single malt crown than the Japanese. The two whiskies I will present at the end of this blog exemplify this point perfectly. I would, however, like to provide some background as to how the Japanese came to be a whisky producing nation.

The story of Japanese whisky started in my home town. Just over one hundred years ago a chap from Japan named Masataka Takestsuru arrived in Scotland to study chemistry at Glasgow University. He went on to apprentice at several whisky distilleries, starting at Longmorn in April 1919 and ending with Hazelburn in May 1920. Prior to Taketsuru’s return to Japan, he won the affections of a Scottish lass by the name of Rita Cowen. The pair married and Rita accompanied her new husband to Japan in late 1920.

Shortly after arriving back in his homeland, he joined forces with another trailblazer of Japanese distillation, Shinjiro Torri. Together they created Japan’s first ever true whisky. In 1923 Taketsuru and Torri set up Japan’s first single malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki. The pair famously disputed the merits of peated versus non-peated whisky. Torri felt that peat influence was too aggressive a characteristic for the Japanese market. Taketsuru strongly disagreed. The skism developed to the point that Taketsuru parted company with Torri and in 1934 opened his own single malt distillery, Yoichi. He chose Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido as he felt that climate was similar to Scotland’s and therefore ideal for maturation. Torri’s company Kotobukiya went on to become Suntory while Taketsuru’s new venture was called Nikka. For many years, these two companies quite simply were the Japanese whisky industry.

Over the decades the stature of Japanese whisky gradually grew, establishing its own hallmarks along the way. The fastidious use of yeast in the sake craft led Japanese whisky distillers to adopt the same particularity about which yeast strains they use for fermentation. The use of clear wart is another example of their uncompromising commitment to the subtle the art of whisky making.  As the Japanese attempted to replicate (sometimes exceeding) the standards set by the Scots, the cultural affinity for exquisite craftsmanship emanated through their whiskies, both in the quality of liquid and stunning presentation. That brings me rather nicely to the two whiskies I am delighted to present:

The Matsui ‘Sakura Cask’ and ‘Mizunara Cask’ Single Malts

Matsui is a whisky produced by Kurayoshi Distillery, in the Tottori prefecture. Despite being a relatively small newcomer to the Japanese whisky establishment, they have made some big waves, particularly with their recent releases. Let’s take look:

The Sakura Cask

This whisky is truly a perfect nod to both the Japanese culture and its whisky heritage. Sakura is the Japanese name for the Cherry Blossom tree, which is the national flower of Japan. For this single malt, Kurayoshi actually age their spirit in a cask made from the wood of this tree – a very intriguing experiment but simultaneously a poetic gesture to Japan itself. The real question, though, is… does it actually work? The resounding answer is ABSOLUTELY! Here are some notes from my first encounter with this nuanced dram:

Appearance: Extremely light in both color and viscosity.

Nose: Shouldn’t be a surprise but there it is… cherry blossom! Notably subtle with faint suggestions of sweetness, lychee and mint.

Palate: Very discreet and delicate mouthfeel. A teasing barley sweetness is nicely balanced by a little citrus and a touch of pinewood and pink peppercorn.

Finish: A fading floral note accompanied by a slightly herbal wood note.

Overall: This is truly beautiful. I am usually one for more robust and concentrated whisky styles but, having tried a large many at this end of the intensity spectrum, I can honestly say this is very special.

The Mizunara Cask

When it comes to whisky maturation, Mizunara Oak is something which distinguishes many Japanese whiskies. During WWII, the Japanese did not have access to casks from Europe or America.  Fortuitously for them (and us), they turned in desperation to Mizunara. Although initially problematic to work with, use of Mizunara Oak was eventually tamed and refined over time. Nowadays, these rare casks are seen as a mark of genuine quality and have even been used in Scotland. Let’s see if this one lives up to the hype?

Appearance: Similar to the Sakura in its light color but with a touch more oiliness.

Nose: Gentle Madeira cake sweetness, with mint, lychee and green fruit…kiwi?

Palate: Light and graceful mouthfeel. Playfully slight notes of coconut, melon and possibly banana. A big spicy/peppery wave follows accompanied by sandlewood.

Finish: The sweet and peppery notes linger for a few moments, leaving behind a pleasing little floral note.

Overall: Similar to the Sakura in that it is remarkably elegant but this one is perhaps more playful. Although also very soft, the Mizunara certainly offers a touch more depth and fullness of flavor.

It is very easy to see why these whiskies have attracted acclaim and have both been subject of major industry awards. To name a few, the Mizunara scored highest in the single malt category in the 2019 Ultimate Spirits Challenge with 95 points. It was also awarded Japanese Single Malt of the Year in the 2020 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. The Sakura scored a whopping 92.5 points in the same edition, while also winning the Best Japanese NAS Single Malt in the 2019 International Whisky Competition.

These gloriously gorgeous whiskies have now arrived on Canadian shores (in limited quantities), and it has been a pleasure presenting them to you on behalf of Craft Cellars. I hope you enjoyed my first blog post and I look forward to many more in the future.