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Friday, Nov. 27, 2009
Society's whiskies hit the high notes
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society shows that a great liquor doesn't need a fancy name
I've found a new whisky to love. It's a 26-year-old single malt from Hokkaido's Yoichi distillery. It's got oak and a gentle, sweet smokiness, a touch of leather, cherries, toasted almonds and I'm just making this up now, because after "oaky" and "a bit smoky," I ran out of vocabulary.
Not that it matters. You fall in love with a whisky not by reading a list of increasingly tenuous tasting notes, but by swirling it in a glass until the aroma waltzes out, by sipping it straight or perhaps with a splash of water, and feeling the tingling heat as the flavors entwine.
You might find fruitiness from the fermentation, cured meats from the malting process or anything from coconut to cognac from its time in the barrels. Or you might just taste whisky, and who could blame you for that?
When you find yourself savoring the lingering, mellowing traces on your tongue, that's a whisky worth taking home.
I found my Yoichi at a recent tasting event in Tokyo staged by the Japanese branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Or rather, I found 116.16, because the SMWS doesn't like to tell you what you're drinking. Instead, it labels its releases with a code for the distillery (116 for Yoichi) and the cask (16).
Founded in Edinburgh in 1983, the SMWS now has 30,000 members worldwide. Four times a year, it selects exceptional casks from among 125 collaborating distilleries. The content is sold to members at cask strength in myrtle-green bottles marked only by a code and a tongue-in-cheek tasting note. My 116.16 is captioned, "Almond slices and cricket bats," which is no less plausible than most official whisky descriptions.
Society members have a key to identify the distilleries if they wish, but the anonymity can be a blessing. When you can't tell what you're drinking, you don't suffer from the preconceptions that big brands have worked so hard to foster. A Macallan, Laphroaig, Springbank and Fettercairn all look alike, and all stand or fall on their flavors.
Even if you know what you're drinking, you're probably in for a surprise. While the brands work hard to keep their flagship lines consistent, the SMWS celebrates the diversity that whisky production, especially the aging process, can produce.
"Customers might know the standards, but they're often amazed when they taste the society versions. The selectors have a really refined sense and pick the very best casks," says Seiji Mizota, who stocks around 30 SMWS bottles at his Ginza S bar.
Mizota's passion for drinks was piqued as a high-school student in Kumamoto. The seniors in his swimming club would take him to local bars and furnish him with beer and whisky.
As a university student he took part-time bar jobs and began reading about whisky. "But gradually I began to wonder if it was OK to tell customers about something I'd only read about in books," he says. So he went to Scotland.
He signed up for a two-week stint at the Isle of Arran distillery, southwest of Glasgow. "It was unbelievably hard at first," says Mizota. "I didn't know what they were saying. But there was plenty of alcohol around, which helped."
Two weeks became three years and included a spell at the Springbank distillery to learn floor malting, a traditional process of malting barley.
Once back in Japan, he opened his bar in the heart of Ginza's drinking turf in 2005 and stocked it with a connoisseur's selection of Scotches. He has plenty of Arran whiskies, of course, including some fun ones aged in Pomerol, St. Emillion and Chianti barrels, but it's the shelf of society bottles that catches your eye.
If navigating a whisky menu is challenging for the casual drinker, even a connoisseur will be flummoxed by a row of indistinguishable green bottles.
That's good, says Mizota, because it facilitates communication between customer and staff. "Most of our guests know a lot about alcohol, but you don't need to know anything at all. You could start by sampling two contrasting whiskies, and go from there," he says.
I compared a 29.73 with a 29.74. Two Laphroaigs. You'd never believe they came from the same distillery. The 73 was captioned "Weddings and First Dates," but if my date smelled anything like this, there wouldn't be a wedding. The 74 ("BFD: Big Friendly Dram") was seven years older, much sweeter and converted one of Laphroaig's detractors, my girlfriend, who usually cites "that really smoky one" as the only whisky she won't touch.
Among Ginza S's regular customers is Naoto Ando, a professor of the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Three years ago his university began drawing up plans for a new complex on its main Hongo campus to comprise dormitories, a restaurant, a seminar room and a meeting room.
"The meeting room needed to be comfortable, so I decided to make it into a bar," explains Ando. He then tapped his favorite bartender to run it.
The result is S University of Tokyo, which opened at the beginning of September. If you've ever been to a university bar, this is nothing like that.
The prof used his connections in the agriculture industry to source the kind of woods more commonly found in exclusive restaurants or ryokan. The chic cypress interior creates an ever-so-slightly breezier atmosphere than Ginza S, but imports its bartenders, waistcoats and all, from the master bar.
The shelves at the university are also lined with Arran malts and around 70 SMWS releases, though here there is a menu that lists distillery, age, alcohol content and price. "In the university bar there are people who haven't drunk so much whisky, so it's important to give them a menu," explains Mizota. Other than that, it's business as usual.
The standout bottle from my first evening on campus was a Longmorn, a little-known Speyside malt that spent 40 years drawing rich, fruity flavors from a sherry butt. Sadly there's none left. The photographer and I put a dent in the stock, the profs must have finished it off, and since these are single-cask whiskies, when they're gone, they're gone. But by the time you visit, a new bottle will have replaced the Longmorn, and if you're lucky it will be an oaky, little bit smoky 116.16.