This is not your grandma’s port, well it is but it sure doesn’t seem like it! Gone are the short glasses of tepid port served in stuffy restaurants and on airplanes in first class. Instead serving port chilled in white wine glasses as you would with any other sweet wines is so much more refreshing. I never thought about port in that way until I tried the white port-tonic cocktail garnished with slices of lemon at the tasting session.
The presentation by Jorge Nunes, Dow’s Asia Representative was equally eye opening. The rational for serving port chilled is a simple one as Jorge suggests, it just gets too hot here in Hong Kong with room temperatures of 30 degrees C. The talk also gave me a better appreciation for port as a whisky drinker. The stopper you find on whisky bottles can be found on some port bottles as well. These bottles when opened can keep up to 2 months which is far shorter than whisky but an eternity for wine. The age statements are also similar to whisky although the differences between a 10 year old and 20 year old port is a little harder to distinguish when the wines have been chilled.
Another surprising thing was how appetising the ports were. After a few glasses I was wolfing down the pate and cheese. However, the best pairing was chocolate and Dow’s Nirvana Port which was specially concocted for chocolate lovers. I think I ate a plates worth of chocolate that night!
With Chinese New Years celebrations and gatherings over and done with, I can finally relax with my favorite dram. It’s a cold and foggy night here in Hong Kong, perfect for savoring the Yamazaki 25 I picked up on my tour of the distillery.
Nose: Caramel, toffee, wood varnish
Taste: Nutty, savory, a hint of pepper and grass. Wheat crackers and honey when served with water or ice
Finish: Lavender and mint with subtle Rosemary
Highly recommended if you can get your hands on it. A visit to the distillery to purchase is also very worthwhile.
The Distillery is located right next to the Yamazaki JR train station. It’s a short ten minute walk down a nice lane double backing along the tracks. On the way there’s a master of tea ceremony residence. The area is renowned for its pure water suitable for making Japanese tea as well as whisky. Maybe that’s how those cool Taiwanese cats figured out how to mix green tea with whisky. Crossing a few set of train tracks is the entrance to the Distillery grounds. There is a small administration building for booking tour times (reservation in advance is highly recommended due to popularity of tour) and getting the tickets and English audio guide for the tour. We waited for our 230 pm tour to begin at the visitor center.
There’s the obligatory history of the distillery exhibit with an assortment of old posters and bottles. Quickly passing through we came upon the Whisky Library with its walls lined with bottles of Yamazaki whisky. At the tasting counter we sampled some whisky only available at the Distillery.
I particularly enjoyed the Yamazaki 1986 single cask. Vanilla scents on the nose and caramel popcorn to the taste – very smooth with no after taste. There was still time to take a sneak peak at the gift store before the tour began. The first stop in the tour are the two bronze statues of the Yamazaki Distillery founders standing beside a bronze pot still. The audio guide gives you the story about how they wanted to bring whisky production to Japan and got their start with Port Wine.
Not sure if one of the visitors actually bowed or was taking a quick look at his suit lapel but the sense of reverence was palpable. The Japanese do hold craftsmanship in high esteem. We then proceeded to the whisky production building. Taking the elevator up to the entrance we were expected to clean our hands with sanitizing soap. Don’t think I’ve ever had to do that visiting the Scottish distilleries. Both the mash tun and wash back rooms were rather clinical and empty. There were some samples of barley for the visitors to smell in the mash tun room.
After passing the computer control room we entered the pot stills room. We were told by the audio guide that Yamazaki operates a multiple stills distillery. The different shape stills gives the spirit different characteristics. The spirit still with the bulge in the middle enables reflux and produces smoother whisky since the spirit is redistilled inside the enclosure. The pot stills work in tandem with the still across from each other. The tour then double backs at this point to the tasting room across the street. (The warehouse was closed for maintenance at the time of our tour.) Available for tasting was the Yamazaki 12 years old, Bourbon Barrel, and the Hakushu 12 years old. We were given a choice of taking our whisky neat or on the rocks. Most people enjoyed their drinks on the rocks and with soda water.
The drinks were paired with Yamazaki branded savory treats and chocolates. I thought the drinks on the rocks tasted better with the snacks. They also showed a video but alas it was in Japanese with no subtitles. After the tasting we were unleashed into the gift shop. Lucky for the Takkyubin service I was able to buy more than I would have otherwise been able to carry. I will definitely be back again when the warehouse reopens after maintenance.
After my encounter with the rain and the mud coming down the hill from Edradour I stumbled across the Blair Atholl Distillery which produces the signature malt of the Bell’s blend. It was a welcome relief to be out of the cold rain and into the cozy reception of the distillery’s visitor center. I spent the thirty minutes before the tour perusing their “How Whisky is Made” installation and wolfing down the sandwich I bought at the petrol station across the road. All I needed now was a good dram to warm me up.
In contrast to Edradour, the Blair Atholl guide was a kilted young lad. He was a very good guide as we had a much larger group yet he was clearly audible to everyone there. The most impressionable part of the tour was smelling the difference between the peated and unpeated barley. The smokey aroma and phenolic flavor was very memorable and is a good reference point for peatiness.
The glimpse of the multistory warehouse through the panoramic glass was especially dramatic as the barrels closest to us were well lit and the rest receded into a mysterious darkness. At the end of the tour I got the chance to finally savour a gingery dram of whisky in the gift shop. Now warmed up I headed back to the station to catch my train to Edinburgh. While I would have loved to continue on to Speyside, Pitlochry was as far north as I got on this trip.