Probably the only Organic Craft Beer Brewery in Japan.

The Zakkokku brewery in Ogawamachi, Saitama. (小川町) Just an hour ride by train from Ikebukkuro, this is possibly the most natural tasting beer you can get in Kanto.

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I had to use Google Maps because in my excitement to get a drink was too much! As shown, it has a simple front and is just a 5 min walk from the station.

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The place is run by a young couple who manages the store and brew in-house, and also by another man, the original founder whom he is the in-law.

The founder’s name is Baba-san. He has been making beer since the late 90s when he left his university professorship and never looked back. By using the fields he own in Ogawamachi, Baba-san grows his own wheat (komugi/小麦) barley (omugi/お麦) and millet .

With it, he makes 7 varietals but if i am not mistaken, only 3 are available all year-round. The 3 are the Hefeweizen, Pale Ale and Porter.

All of his crops are grown organically which brings about the most natural of flavours. The full-bodied maltiness cannot be described. It should be tasted. He brings in Germanic hops for the Hefe, uses Cascades for the Pale Ale, and i just can’t get an answer for the outstanding porter.

In case you want to give them a call or have a clear directional map, here is a picture of their business card.

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Yes, it is abit far and expensive by train. But at ¥400 for an all-organic locally crafted beer? It is worth the journey. Especially when you have a famous tofu store that sells delicious tofu donuts just opposite the station. Eat the tofu fresh in the store with just shoyu (soya sauce) and green onions is just the most subliminal experience, especially with the tofu cheesecake after. The front of the shop is shown below.

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And, if you have read till this part, there is the most amazing restaurant 20 mins away. It is secluded but it is so famous that sometimes, even NHK has their staff meeting and meals there because of the food! The restaurant used to operate at the NHK headquarters in Tokyo. But due to the age of the owners, they moved to Ogawamachi.

Who wouldn’t pay a visit if by paying just ¥1000, you get simmered sea bream straight from Tsukiji, and the best tamago ever. I kid you not.

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Trust me. This is really worth the long walk. Below is the front of the shop.

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Other than that, do drop by Ogawamachi. For the delicious organic beer, and fantastic food! Cheers!

Japanese Beer, and the rise of Happõshu.

I am sure many of you have been to Japan and enjoyed the difference of Japanese beer especially with the signature ‘karakuchi’ (dry) compared to the rest of the world. But, have you heard of Happõshu?

This, is the rise of a drink that might turn you away from Japanese beer, or have you spend less and enjoy the alcoholic high of these new beverages.

The market is now dominated by 4 larger beverage companies. Below shows the companies involved, with Asahi taking the lion’s share of the picture, as with the market.

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So what is with this sudden explosion of Happõshu got to do with lovely, simple beer? Well. It all boils down to legislation. Japanese taxes go higher the higher the malt content is in the beer. Malt, being the processed form of barley is essential for beer. But the high taxation of 67% content and above is prohibitive to sales. Thus, began the age of Happõshu. Keep in mind that liquor like Barcadi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice is also considered happõshu.

First, they started with low-malt content beer. By replacing the malt with rice and wheat. But then they realised they can sell beer even cheaper to appeal more, because of the ever depressing Japanese economy. Thus they went creative, and almost nuts. They experimented with soybean protein and pea protein to yield 0-malt beer.Tasted good even though it sounds scary. Just wait till you read what they did next.

They proceeded to make beer-flavoured beverages. Laced with spirits from barley and wheat. Most of it tastes legit and good, but the smell does not lie about its origin. You can even pick one up for ¥98! God knows what did they use to achieve such a product.

Now, don’t panic. We all love beer and alcohol. It should be treated equally and appreciated separately. But for the discerning palate and health conscious bunch out there, below is a guide to avoid buying, and drinking happõshu.

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As you can see here, the one above is happõshu. It is indicated in the bracket as 登泡酒。 Beer that uses 67% malt and more is shown in the pic below. Indicated by 非熟処理。 Or just read the all-malt label in english and 生 word. If all else fails, just buy Yebisu!

There are news circulating that the big 4 will soon shift production focus to happõshu only. But don’t fret. They won’t or else the new dawn of microbreweries would engulf Japan, and bring a new age of beer with it. Kampai!

Whisky 101: Cask Ageing

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Basically, wooden barrels.

Casks. What are casks? Traditionally, casks (barrels) are made of wood and are used to store and transport liquids from Medieval Times to the end of the Age of Sail. People definitely used casks to store water and/or wine in their homes for use and slowly, they realised that the casks impart a certain flavour to whatever is stored in them. In the case of wine/ales/beers, it amplified the flavour resulting in a better drink. Slowly, casking and cask ageing became a thing.

So, what is all this big fuss about cask ageing and the wood associated with it? To put simply, whisky in its purest form is just a white distillate derived from malted barley. This white spirit has some flavour but lacks a lot more ‘punch’ and maturity to become a fully aged whisky. For it to fully become whisky, it has to be stored in casks and aged, allowing it to fully developed and mature in the casks and thus become whisky. In the eyes of the law, Scottish whisky has to be aged a minimum of three years and not in casks exceeding 700L in volume. You can read more here about whisky regulations. (Soon! I promise!)

Now, if you think it is a good idea to start making cask and store your own white spirit to mature, I suggest you sit down and read more lest you desire wood sap for a drink.

This beast is where all them flavours come from.

Alright. Did I get your utmost attention? Great! As this post will be a very, very long one. Casks do not just come from any wood for cask ageing. Most, if not all come from the White Oak tree. See genus Quercus. Why? Because oak has consistently proven itself to impart its flavour to whatever is casked, and also history where wine is the staple and oak is one of the, if not the wood to use over centuries of human experimentation. The wood is porous enough to allow whatever is stored inside to seep into the grain, and allows some oxidation and evaporation to occur not to the extent of spoiling the stored liquid. The chemicals in the wood, such as the phenols and tannins impart their flavours into the liquids. Examples of these are the vanilla-y flavours and the silky (siap) mouth-feel.

Us humans have become incredibly creative in our search for better flavours. We also toast the oak casks to bring out certain flavours. From fresh oak to toasted and lastly, charred. If that is not enough, we also reuse barrels that have been filled with other liquids to get those flavours for whatever we want to age. Common examples would be Port, Sherry, Bourbon and Cognac. It is uncommon but you can even see Chardonnay casks and Calvados casks being used. It all depends on the flavours that one is interested in achieving. Below is the very rough breakdown of what you can expect for the different casks used to age your preferred choice of drink. I can only provide what is common as whisky casked in Calvados and Chardonnay barrels does not come easily anywhere.

Types of Casks

Sherry – Red fruits. e.g. Cranberries and Cherries and raisins.

Port – Dark fruits. e.g. Plums and Blackberries.

Cognac/Brandy – Grraaappppeeeeesssss. Simple sugars, fruits and flowers.

Bourbon – Vanilla, oak and wild flower honey.

French Oak – Oaky and Tannic. Silky mouthfeel with a bit of a bite. Think young red and white wine.

American Oak – Vanilla and alot less Tannic. Has a floral character.

Charred Sugar Maple – Jack Daniel’s. Maple syrup. Very sweet.

*Psst. I’ve included Wikipedia links for you book worms out there.

As mentioned, these are the common types of casks used to age your favourite distillate. I hope I am able to try the Mizunara aged ones because only Japan has it. Mizunara, is Japanese Oak which is used to age Umeshu (Japanese Plum Liquor). Fuji Gotemba, Mars Distillery and even Chivas seem to have Mizunara casked whisky for purchase, but only in Japan. Now, lets move on to the next part of the casks used to age whisky. This factors ranges from the time taken, humidity, temperature and even the location where the cask is placed in the warehouse. Some whiskies also undergo another period of cask ageing or ‘finishing’ to impart more flavours, or to ‘marry’ a whisky to smooth out and harmonize the blend, instead of just being blended and then bottled.

Surprise! Here comes India!

Humidity and Temperature

Ever heard of Amrut? It is an India-based distiller who makes single malts in hot, tropical and humid Bangalore. Average humidity is 65.2% and the temperature is 29.4 to 19.0 degree Celsius. Way more than the cold, balmy and dry Scottish lands. So what does this do the whisky? The high humidity lessens the amount of Angel’s share in the barrel and thus less whisky is lost every year. However, the temperature probably overcompensates for the humidity and 10% of the whisky in the barrel can be lost annually due to evaporation. Don’t get too ahead though as the higher temperatures allow the whisky to age a lot faster than the ones in Scotland. The temperature allows the casks’ pores to open up and gives more energy to the whisky to interact with the barrel and itself. So, an 3 to 5-year-old equivalent of an Amrut might feel as old as a 12-year-old from Scotland. Heck, I might even be wrong as I’ve yet to have the opportunity to try an Amrut, and the Amrut 8 years is a Limited Edition. Most of their range comprises of NAS which we covered here, and have been loved well and wide internationally.

The Kavalan Distillery Warehouse

Location

A warehouse is a building with many shelves and racks. A barrel can be placed in the darkest, most isolated corner of the warehouse to the top shelf near the roof. What exactly does this do to the whisky? The higher you place the whisky, the higher the average temperature it is at that particular height. This increases the Angel’s Share but allows the whisky to mature faster as it concentrates the distillate. Put it in a dark corner of the warehouse? You have a whisky that is taking its time to age, mature and develop. You won’t really get to taste the effects of this as all whiskies are blended, unless it is a Single Barrel.

Be afraid. Very afraid.

Size

Now you may be wondering. All whiskies come from a cask, but not all casks are made the same. Most use the de facto size of 200L as the U.S. law states that is the required size for bourbon to be aged in. But, as you can see above many sizes of barrels exists as the rest of the world carries on without such funny regulations. The Butt, Hogshead, Barrique and Quarter Cask are common. The Tun is something you probably hear from Game of Thrones or maybe even Monty Python. Basically it all boils down to this. The bigger the barrel, the longer it takes to impart its flavours. Vice versa for the smaller barrels. The smaller, the faster it takes. This is all related to the surface area in which the whisky is exposed to. So maybe sometimes you see a Laphroaig Quarter Cask lying around, don’t go “meh, what marketing gimmick is this?  I’ll get the 10 instead.” Wrong! Try the Quarter Casks! But hey, both are amazing stuff for my peat head of a friend Jo, just not for me.

Multiple Casks Ageing

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Some whiskies only use a Sherry casks for their whiskies. However, many have opted to use multiple types of casks to age their whisky. By altering how long the whisky spends in certain casks, type and size, one can alter the flavour profile he or she wishes to achieve. An example would be a Glenlivet Master’s Distiller’s Reserve. This bad boy is aged in Ex Sherry, American Oak and lastly, plain Oak casks which they mentioned traditional. Maybe Glenlivet’s own? This is a prime example of ‘marrying’ a whisky or ageing the blended whisky.

The Solera System. Easier to understand than me writing it.

Technique

The last factor is quite limited. You have either the Master Blender or Blender to decide which whisky is blended and married together, or depend solely on a system. This system is called the Solera system originating from Spain. This system is used on Sherry, Port and Rum where the liquor is constantly mixed and blended with younger ones until you achieve one big consistent product that might even contain whisky from 50 years ago! Basically, the casks above which are younger are continuously taken to blend with an existing cask below. The lower you go, the older the product that is introduced to the blend, ending up with a Solera-based drink.

To sum it up, whisky ageing requires wooden casks, time and a few other factors as stated. Alot of work goes into one whisky and we shouldn’t just base one whisky off the age just because it’s too young. Be aware, and you can end up making decisions based on knowledge of cask ageing to get the flavour profiles that  you want!

Alright! I should be about done! Took awhile and I hope I have briefly summed up about whisky and ageing it. I will continue to update this post as to my knowledge and I hope you’ve learned as much as I do!

Johnnie Walker Blue Label

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This as you can see right here, is the iconic Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the 4.5L cannon version. However, what we tried today isn’t current. This version of the JW Blue is quite old, but it is still very, very good. The JW Blue Label is the premium, top-of-the-line offering by Johnnie Walker, however it is a NAS. (No age statement)

A little bit about NAS. Quite controversial as traditionally, scotch is sold according to how old is. Example being the 12, 15, 18 and 21. But, that does not mean all NAS whiskies are bad. NAS whiskies allows the master blender more freedom to achieve consistency and quality in order to get the same product every single time a la Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Sometimes, it can be even better than the equivalent 12 or 15. (Hakushu Master Distiller’s Edition is better than 12, my personal opinion) . However, do be cautious as nowadays many distilleries are churning out NAS whiskies to sell more as they do not have stock to keep up with the demand of their traditional age statement whiskies thus not all are as great and consistent as the venerable Blue Label.

Johnnie Walker claims their Blue Label is the smoothest blended whisky ever made. Using a recipe dating back to the 19th Century and utilizing rare casks from distilleries, current and past (only 1 in 10000 casks makes the cut). We should find out if it really is the legend of a whisky (blended).

Credits to my friend, Benedict who supplied this bottle while at his place. Do admire the collection behind this bottle, for there are numerous cognacs and whiskies which I will hopefully get to drink someday. Sigh, my first world problems.

Now, to the tasting!

Appearance: Golden amber liquid. Oily, thick and viscous. Coats the glass thoroughly.

Nose: Huge initial burst of vanilla, oak and some smoke. Creamy and Buttery. Wild Floral Honey and Orange Marmalade. A final touch of smokey peat and it ends.

Mouth: Smooth. Very smooth. I can imagine why people would down this willingly in the club. Can I fault it for being too smooth? Honey followed by light floral undertones, and a slight sherried sweetness. A touch of chewy toffee and raisins. Eases subtlety to reveal an enjoyable smoke and peat background. Conceived with balance and executed perfectly.

TL:DR, A really really smooth and very enjoyable whisky. The focus of it is still on the smoothness and drink-ability. Not the complexity or layers of flavors, but it has enough to keep you more than satisfied. A 85/100 because of how it is simply enjoyable. No fuss at all. Price-wise, you’ll have to decide for yourself, a decent 1.0L bottle goes for $237 in Changi DFS.

Cheers!

Dalwhinnie 15

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The Dalwhinnie 15. Dalwhinnie distillery has the highest elevation of any distillery in Scotland. Situated 354m above sea level in an area where the average temperature does not pass 16 C and -2 C. It is owned by beverage giant, Diageo and marketed as part of the Classic Malts range. It is known as the Gentle Dram and rightfully so. A Highland malt with a Lowland personality and a touch of Islay. It uses the local spring water during the making of the whisky but does not process its own malt.

I bought this in Changi DFS back from my trip to Bali for a whooping SGD$91.40. I had a hard time choosing between Dalwhinnie 15 and the Scapa 16. The Scapa and Oban, in its slick looking hard tin packaging was right there staring me in the eye to buy it back rather than the Dalwhinnie 15 in its cruddy old box. The box still disturbs me to this day when I hold it and goes soft and flaplike a cardboard box in the monsoon season. When I returned home, I downed a glass of my sad, sad purchase alongside a Stella Artois before crashing in for the night. Luckily, it did not turn out to be as bad as I’d imagined when I revisited it again with Jo. Though the box…that box… Let’s move on.

I personally prefer Lowland malts as they bring a crisp and refreshing palate. Most of the common aromas associated with the Lowlands are fresh cut grass, meadows of heather or flowers and fruit orchards. The sweetness is something else. Not so cloyingly sweet as a sherry-cask matured whisky but good enough to satisfy the sweet tooth, somewhat like the honey aloe-vera liang-teh . Its like stepping into the countryside without the travelling and getting to sample all the fine fruits in the orchards. Another really good example is the Glenkinichie 12 which I will touch upon another day.

Now, to the tasting!

Appearance: Light Golden, similar to Hay. Quite thick and clings but returns quickly.

Nose: Mainly Honey, a Tinge of Oak, Very Aromatic and Creamy. Heather is very prominent. Floods your senses with them fruity smelling benzenes. Reveals raisins, nectarines and apricots. Some custard, caramel and ends with some smoke.

Mouth: Long initial. Creamy Honey and Heather. Like drinking thick nectar with a nutty touch of hazelnuts or walnuts.  Moves quickly to the fruits ( I am guessing nectarines and apricots), vanilla and a spicy touch of cardamoms. Ends long in smoke, heather and some spice.

TL:DR, A fine whisky. To me, this is an 8.5/10. Sweet and approachable. Does not rush you and ends well. A whisky for Lowland lovers who likes the occasional peat and an excellent introductory single-malt to people used to drinking only blends. You should buy this if you want to experience a Highland malt with a Lowland character that comes with enough peat to keep you satisfied.

Cheers!