A RARE JAPANESE SINGLE MALT WHISKY DISCOVERY IN HIROSHIMA
On a cool early January night while walking the streets downtown in Hiroshima I spotted a rectangular billboard of famed Nikka whisky founder Matasuru and his then wife Rita along with the usual ad pitch for various Nikka whiskies. As a bonafide Yoichi single malt whisky lover I was intrigued enough to slip into a whisky bar called High Ball Bar Hiroshima 1923 just across the street.
It was early evening and the place had yet to fill so I sat down at the bar considerably stocked with whiskies from across the globe. A single patron at the corner of the polished wooden counter was sipping on a whisky highball which turned out to be the theme of the bar. I still had thoughts of Yoichi in my head and asked the bartender if he had any. I hadn’t paid much attention to the signage outside so was slightly embarrassed to be told it was a highball whisky bar both sponsored and owned by Suntory – Nikka whisky’s primary competitor. Fortunately the bartender was gracious enough to give me a free pass for the slip-up and conversation soon turned to the considerable selection of Yamazaki and Hakusho single malt whisky congregating behind him. They also have whisky “on tap” for pulling whisky highballs efficiently. To keep things simple I asked to see what he had from 15 years and older.
CHOOSING A JAPANESE SINGLE MALT
Given I was in a Suntory owned whisky bar it made the most sense to try one of their older single malts rather than an imported variety. Several years earlier I had travelled to Yamazaki Distillery and taken their tour. It is a very impressive facility located at the base of a mountain that supplies its legendary spring water Suntory makes its whisky with. At the end of the tour of the various stages of manufacturing one finds themselves standing in a gorgeously appointed tasting room full of the history of Yamazaki whisky offerings. As I recall a vertical tasting of vintages was offered including the 8, 12 and 18 year old Yamazaki’s. The 12 year old stood out for its pleasing balance between youthful freshness and aged complexity.
When on holiday I am more inclined to try something rare but between the Hiroshima bar’s short menu and what I could see behind the bar nothing jumped out. I settled on the 18 year old single malt for the reason that it had not impressed me at the distillery but recently has received high accolades in the press. As the affable bartender pulled the 18 year old off of the back shelf an elegantly labeled bottle to its right side revealed itself. I couldn’t recognize the label but was was intrigued and asked to see it.
A brief introduction to the mysterious whisky was given – it was very rare and could not be bought on the open market with only 277 bottles ever made. The distillery that made it – HOMBO SHUZO – had gone out of business after this bottle was made. It was a tale similar to that of legendary Islay whisky maker Port Ellen. Having not yet poured the Yamazaki I now stared down at two expensive options in front of me – the unknown fetching twice the price of the ¥1800 Yamazaki 18 year old. A ¥3500 per pour does make one hesitate, particularly when it is an unknown whisky served in an unknown bar in a city one is visiting for the first time. I briefly debated, then waffled on my desire and chose the more practical 18 year Yamazaki. Thinking I should take more time to consider the more expensive choice was met with agreement by my evening neighbor – a local fireman sipping on a whisky highball a few barstools to my right.
The aromas of the Yamazaki 18 Year Single malt whisky were subdued and dare I say flat. The first sip reinforced this viewpoint, delivering a smooth bass note of dried sultana raisin, subtle cinnamon flecked with orange peel and sweet dark sugar – its resinous texture coating the tongue. It simply lacked intrigue and with low acid and faint spicing there was little improvement over time. It could well be a case of Japanese Kaizen (pristine refinement) being taken so far that the “spirit of place” had been rendered anonymous. A little acidity, savory spice or mineral essence would have added the desired energy to drive flavors home and increase interest but all were absent. It brought me full circle to my initial longing upon entering the bar – the unique and mysterious character one gets from Yoichi whisky. I instantly decided to go for the 1990 Komagatake after getting reassurance from the bartender that it was most certainly worth at least double the Yamazaki 18.
KOMAGATAKE 1990 SINGLE MALT WHISKY
This was to be my introduction to the Hombo Shuzo, one of the smaller and lesser known whisky labels in Japan. Started in 1985, Hombo Shuzo (shuzo = brewing) began as a new project by a Japanese “shochu” maker from Kagoshima, Kyushu when it was looking to expand its product line by adding distilled spirtis. They chose Miyata village in Nagano Prefecture and built Shinshu Distillery to produce two new lines of whisky and brandy. The kilns they selected were modeled on the straight-head stills designed by Nikka Whisky founder Masataka Taketsuru and used at Yoichi Whisky Distillery in Hokkaido. Hombo Shuzo whiskies are sold under the umbrella brand name of Mars with a smaller lineup of single malts receiving the additional label Komagatake.
When it began production Japan’s economy was in ascendency. When the bubble market burst in 1989 the distillery was hit with fast declining sales. It used to produce whisky during winter and other distilled liquors such as brandy from spring to fall. By 1992 Homob Shuzo was forced to halt its whisky production due to ongoing sluggish demand. After a long period of dormancy production once again resumed in 1992 following the modest economic recovery of the whisky market.
The terroir of this whisky is Miyata village which is 798 meters above sea level. Here the climate is cold and fog often occurs as the temperature falls below -15 degrees Celsius during the winter months. Produced from water that has passed through granite rock means it is high in natural minerals.
The aromatics on the nose are delicate and perfume-like notes of golden caramel, butter and ripe apricot. Sipping KOMAGATAKE 1990 SINGLE MALT WHISKY is much like walking past a Parisian pastry shop where fragrant aroma’s of toasted buttery flakes waft like perfume through one’s senses. In the mouth flavors build always remain delicate, fresh and balanced. Poached La France pear tinted with butterscotch dances through the mouth.
The texture is absolutely mind blowing, often times feeling more like an aged sauternes or Tokaji with its corresponding noble rot flavors. Stewed peaches and apricots fade in and out of the clear amber liquid. While never overly complex this whisky is nonetheless absolutely compelling as it seems to straddle a fine line between great whisky and Tokaiji -leaving your mouth at times in a dual state of ecstasy.
Its graces lie in its refined elegance and very rare texture. A remarkably fine mineralogy leads the charge, giving it a verve that seamlessly drives the concentrated bouquet of flavors forward – never skipping a beat. This is a whisky for those appreciating a feminine style of whisky delicately kissed with wabisabi.
Highly recommended to drink it on its own … in front of a fireplace … with music … in the backcountry during the height of winter.
WHERE TO BUY: it may not be possible however if you should come across it expect to pay in excess of ¥50000
NOTES: this whisky was tasted at Suntory Highball Bar in Hiroshima January 2016
DISTILLERY WEBSITE: HOMBO SHUZO WHISKY
LOCATION: Miyatamura 4752-31, Kami-inagun, Nagano
TEL: (081) 0265-85-4633
HIGHBALL WHISKY BAR 1923 HIROSHIMA
LOCATION: 2-14 Horikawacho, Naka Ward, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture 730-0033