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Saturday, 1 August 2009

Mental Oriental Malt Mission - Part 3

Tonight... I am Chris Bonnington...

A little bit of time has passed since we posted part 2 of the Caskstrength Oriental Malt Mission, but i've only just found the missing notebook with all the tasting notes in, as I was packing my suitcase for another trip.
You join me typing this final part out on the (fortunately) air conditioned tour bus for a US tour of London band, The Duke Spirit. Today, we're in Boston and the sun is blazing down, gently warming the bottle of 20 yo Longmorn I have bought along for company.

More on this later, but now to business- our last day in Tokyo and to recap, we had already found some unbelievable bars and seen some of the oddest and amusing stuff, that makes Japan so totally unique.

On our final full day in the city we had set aside some time to locate 2 particular bars in the Ginza district, recommended by all-round top fellow and whisky legend, Dave Broom.

As we'd already experienced, finding the bar you want can prove tricky, as the maps I pulled off the internet were not terribly accurate. But a little bit of running around just made us even more determined (and thirsty) to locate what promised to be one of the greatest whisky experiences of our lives.

First up was the intimate Campbelltoun Loch bar, run by the amazingly knowledgeable
Nobuyuki Nakamura.

My pulse had already shot up just walking down the concealed steps to this mecca of Japanese whisky bars and it didn’t slow down when we walked through the door.
The sight before our eyes was quite simply, breathtaking- row upon row of some of the rarest single malt I have ever seen, packed into a room no bigger than a modest terrace house Bathroom. ‘Take a deep breath, pause for a second an take it in’ I thought…. 70’s Ardbeg, Springbank, insanely old Japanese bottlings of Port Ellen, Longmorn's, the list of jems was endless- around 500 bottles give or take a rare old Macallan or 2….

So with the biggest smile on my face, I had reached the summit of my whisky adventure and what better way to celebrate than dive off, head first!!

Here are the undoubted highlights of a most memorable evening- (not withstanding the plethora of wonderful Port Ellen's we also tried, as above)..

Longmorn – 1996 – Berry Bros & Rudd bottling – Cask 56778 – 57.9% Exclusively bottled for Maison Du Whisky

Nose: Crumbled Caramac bars, soft fruits and coal notes. Delicate and fragrant.

Palate: Fruit gums, ginger spices, Hubba Bubba bubble gum, grain & malty notes, leading to loads of hazelnuts, when reduced with a little water.

Finish: The fruity notes increase as the palate dries with sharp Passion Fruit notes on the finish...

Overall: lovely opener to the evening... Ace.

After the palate cleansing lightness of the Longmorn, I noticed a well appointed collection of Lagavulin bottles- but my eye was drawn to one whose label didn’t seem to fit in- thank the lords of Islay it did…

Celtic Cross - 1990- Lochan Solan – Lagavulin bottled by Scottish Independent Distillers Ltd – 46%

Nose: Really delicate for a Laga... Caramac, mint, menthol and malt, so sweet, with subtle raisin notes in there too- Marzipan covered Tracker bar’s anyone?

Palate: Sweetness prevails, creamy toffees, ginger, soft peat, more Caramac, slight roast vegetable notes, mint, rose water... Light weight, but a fairly restrained bottling at 46 %

Finish: Oily, but more of the rosewater on the finish, def. Laga, but lighter than a younger 12 and less rich than the 16 yo.

Overall: Another cracker.

Mr Nakamura pulls out a very old bottle (60’s?) of young Springbank, which is apparently tonight’s complimentary ‘house whisky’…. Where do we go from here I ask myself… ;-o

Springbank 8 Year Old 100% Pure Malt- Bottled for the Japanese market… along time ago! – 40%

Nose: Coconut, mahogany, wine notes, slightly wet wool, lemon zest. The origins of where Springbank came from, all in one bottle.

Palate: Creamy fudge, with some lovely violet notes, heather honey, and oaty breakfast cereal.

Finish: Really rich, sweet cream, wonderful length.

Overall: Quite simply, amazing for a bottle this age. Slightly off strength but soooooo drinkable...

Onto the final dram of the evening and I invite Mr Nakamura to choose me an Ardbeg. By now, I’m so blissfully happy and content, that a 10 yo would suffice, but he goes many steps beyond this. It’s nearing my 34th Birthday (I was born in 1975) and in front of me arrives a whisky I have experienced sleepless nights over, hoping to find see the label, let alone try it...

Ardbeg 1975 - Velier Bottling - cask 4703 - Sherry Hogshead – Cask 51/240 Distilled: 26/12/75 Bottled: 26/03/2002. – 47.6%

Nose: Caramelised fruit mixed with wafts of soft, delicate ‘Swimming Pool’ peat!!! How do they make aromas like this! A bit more time in the glass brings out burnt toast, perfumed marzipan and dried fruit/ raisin-like notes from the sherry.

Palate: Sweet sherbets, heather, that wonderful lightly antiseptic peat, pepper, butterscotch, slightly brittle gingersnaps, into a granular, waxy honey note. Sip by sip, it demands your fullest attention.

Finish: As the peat dies away, dry oak resides, but in the gentlest sense.

Overall: Everything I had hoped for - and then some.

As we thank Mr Nakamura for his wonderful hospitality (something the Japanese have totally redefined) I realize it’s time to put the next plan of action into effect- a special anniversary cocktail for Mrs Caskstrength and there’s only one man to turn to… the master of mixology and owner of Ginza’s Star Bar- Kishi–San.

The Star Bar really is every bit as authentic and traditional as you could have hoped for. Beautifully tasteful leather trimmed décor give this basement bar a real air of 1930’s Manhattan chic.
Well...when in ‘Rome’ I thought, what better than to order a Manhattan? Kishi-San works his magic and before you know it, Mrs Caskstrength and I are given exquisitely mixed timeless drinks. We both just grin at each other, feeling like film stars from a bygone age of glamour and refinement.

Special thanks to Kishi and his superb bar staff for a great anniversary treat. Anyone planning to visit Tokyo MUST visit both Star Bar and Campbelltoun Loch.

As clichéd as it may sound, once you’ve experienced Japan, you’ll never quite feel the same again. It refines your sense of community, your manners and most of all, your wellbeing which I think most Europeans need a large dose of right now. A love affair has well and truly been ignited. Sayonara Japan and see you next year with any luck....