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Saturday
Nov082014

Japan: Day 5 – Still Drifting

After roaming the streets alone this morning, we met with Naoki again for lunch and our first ride on the Tokyo subway. Just one stop over from our Ginza district hotel was a completely different landscape. Following alongside (and underneath) the overhead train tracks was one of Tokyo's most-frequented night life regions; albeit we were there in the late morning.

Everywhere you looked were the remnants and reminders of a wild Friday night; from the recycling collections full of empty sake bottles, to the guys stumbling by, still half-drunk, hovering close to the various pachinko arcades.

"Is there anything else you want to do before leaving Tokyo?" Naoki asked us. "Is there anything that you want to eat that you haven't tried?"

"Is there a good gyoza place nearby?" I asked. 

"Actually there's a very famous gyoza place just around the corner," he answered. We headed back towards the elevated line and saw the tiny Ohsho hole-in-the wall in front of us. 

"This is the party area, so there must be good hangover food options. In Japanese, we would say this is the type of place where you eat and you get grease on your shoes," Naoki said. 

"A greasy spoon!" we all said in unison.

And, yes, the gyoza were everything Naoki had promised. Perfectly crispy and fried on the outside, while remaining juicy and moist in the center. I think I've finally crossed everything off my to-do list.

We're back at the airport now stockpiling gifts and getting ready for the long flight home. I'm leaving here at 5:30 PM on Saturday and getting back at 10:00 AM on Saturday. It's been such a good day I'm really excited about the possibility of living it twice.

See you all in the store next week. Signing out from Japan.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Nov072014

Japan: Day 5 – Tokyo Drifter

Lots of time to kill today before a 5 PM flight back to California. Time to hit the street. Speaking of hitting the street, where else in the world can you plop down for the night on the sidewalk and just go to sleep, both legally and safely? Only in Tokyo. This guy is wearing a $300 suit; it's not like he's a vagrant. He just had a rough Friday night and needed to take a rest. There's not one piece of trash on the ground in the entirety of Japan, so add "cleanly" to my original query.

Shinanoya is one of the oldest and most-respected whisky retailers in Tokyo, so stopping by the storefront was an absolute must.

A huge, expansive, and eclectic selection of whisky awaits you inside. I cleaned up in here. There were some serious gems on that shelf.

Somehow, some way, Chris and I just stumbled upon this gigantic fish market. We had heard that visiting a fish market was something we should do in Tokyo, but we didn't know where it was and didn't want to waste time searching one out. Yet, despite our laziness, we still ended up at the fish market just by meandering right into it. To get an idea of how big Tokyo is, let me give you some perspective: just this fish market is the size of Union Square (including the mall). I'm not kidding. You have a selection of seafood that is as big as all of our department stores put together.

Whatever you want from the ocean, it's here waiting for you inside this box.

Then I spotted these empty wine bottles in a department store window display: 1997 Lanessan and 1997 Potensac. There's no way these two bottles didn't come from K&L. We bought practically the entirety of both vintages from these two Bordeaux chateaux, so the odds that these two bottles were purchased in tandem anywhere else is pretty much zero. What are the odds? A Japanese businessman probably visited the Redwood City store, bought these from Jeff Garneau, flew back across the Pacific, drank them, and used them in his window display.

Big Tokyo, small world.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Nov072014

Japan: Day 4 – Blending In

Tokyo is gigantic sea of people moving through a highly-intricate web of streets, alleys, and pathways. It's the only city where I've ever truly felt lost, overwhelmed, out-of-place, and intensly-excited all at the same time. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we had a few hours to go out on our own. While our lodging is in Ginza, we had a bus drop us off in the Shinjuku district. It's there you'll experience the Tokyo of your dreams and expectations. I struck out on my own for most of the late afternoon and just let the flow of traffic take me where it may.

Life in Tokyo is about finding balance; it has to be for anyone to avoid going completely insane. You've got more than thirteen million people living on top of one another, all up in each other's business twenty-four hours a day. What fascinates me about Tokyo (and much of Japan in general) is the ingenuity in small spaces. The Japanese have found a way to create peace and harmony in the most compact of areas through creative design. This hidden side street near Shin-Obuko Station had patio tables, trees, and an atmosphere of tranquility in the most unlikely of locations.

Not far from Shibuya Station is Nikka's headquarters and the incredible Blender's Bar: a clandestine watering hole loaded with old and rare Nikka whisky expressions, as well as sixteen different blends created by Nikka's blending team exclusively for this location. We couldn't wait to get inside.

What to drink first? The Taketsuru 17 year unchillfiltered at 48%? The Pure Malt 35 year? The 30 year old "Rita" apple brandy? Or one of the sixteen exclusive blends? I felt like my head was going to explode under the pressure.

When in doubt, just ask Tadashi Sakuma—Nikka's head blender—who was sitting directly across from me for most of the evening. We had drinks and small bites with the entire Nikka blending team, while sipping dozens of different whiskies at the Nikka Blender's Bar. 

"I'll try #16; the Tropical Sunset Blend," I told the server.

"Oh, you chose my blend," said Tadashi humbly. It's an incredible thing, ordering literally any whisky off the menu, and knowing that the person who formulated that flavor is somewhere in the room with you. We were able to ask the most specific of questions and instantly get a direct and detailed answer. It was one of the more satisfying industry dinners I've ever sat through. The blenders were all very relaxed, polite, and interested in learning more about the American market; never once tiring of our incessant questioning. Later in the evening, I sat next to one of the newer blenders who, after two months on the job, told me how even one drop of the wrong whisky in a blend can destroy the harmony of the marriage. I left not only with an increased awareness of the entire Nikka portfolio, but also with utter respect for the care put into each expression. These guys have spent decades experimenting, researching, and grinding away in the hope of whisky perfection. There's a level of respect and commitment to whisky making in Japan that I've never witnessed anywhere else.

Even though we had eaten dinner with the blending team, there was no way I was going to bed without a bowl of ramen; especially with the renowned Ippudo literally across the street from our hotel.

I'm normally a miso guy, but Ippudo is famous for their tonkotsu pork broth. Harmony, balance, peace, and simple design: it's all right there in that bowl. 

-David Driscoll

Friday
Nov072014

Japan: Day 4 – The Road Back to Tokyo

We boarded the bullet train at Sendai station this morning, eagerly anticipating the upcoming views through the window. Getting the chance to see a city from afar is much different than the view from the middle. Sendai was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami in 2012, and there are placards at the airport showing where the water level reached during the flood. Since then, however, it appears the city has persevered. We were all very impressed with Sendai; both with the aesthetics and the friendliness of the citizens. I would definitely go back again on vacation if I had time.

Tokyo, from the little I've seen so far, is one of the most awe-inspiring cities I've ever visited. There are busy streets full of storefronts, and alleyways full of more storefronts intersecting those streets. It's like the compactness of New York, with the sprawl of Los Angeles, but bigger, fuller, and even more-populated. And you can't read anything, or recognize exactly what anything is. I think I could spend an entire year here and barely scratch the surface.

As if the busy streets full of shopping weren't enough, you've got train stations and subway stops bursting with more options. It seems all the best spots are located underground as part of the transit system. Hasegawa Liquors, one of Tokyo's most-revered whisky stores, is tucked away beneath the bustling city streets; part of a series of small, garage-style bodegas.

And don't forget the malls! Tokyo goes a lot further up than down. I'm still working on the subterranean selection. I can't even imagine what awaits over my head.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Nov062014

Japan: Day 3 – Miyagikyo

We touched down in Sendai, hopped on our Anchor bus, and immediately began driving into the mountains towards the Miyagikyo distillery. After about twenty minutes, the hills began transitioning from urban dwellings and pine trees, into clear fall colors and country simplicity. Miyagikyo is located in an entirely different terrain than the Yoichi distillery on Hokkaido, which is something Taketsuru originally wanted (a contrast to his existing facility), yet it still follows the same guidelines for quality whisky production in Japan: a cold Scottish-style climate with incredibly pure water close by.

While seeking out those very important criteria in the late-1960s, Taketsuru came across this mountain stream in the Miyagikyo Prefecture; a water so clean and crisp that he was able to drink it right from the river bank. He famously kneeled down, put his hand in the water, and brought the cold, refreshing liquid to his lips. He asked an assistant what the name of the river was: Nikkawa. The name of his company was already engrained into the current; it was a sign that his next distillery should be built in that very spot.

Using red bricks to create a striking contrast against the green forestation of the mountains, Taketsuru established Miyagikyo distillery in 1969 and immediately began creating a completely different style of whisky to increase the versatility of his blended expressions. 

Whereas the Yoichi stills were wide-necked with descending lyne arms, the pots at Miyagikyo were to be more narrow with ascending lyne arms that allow only the lighter, less-heavy alcohols to escape before condensing the vapor back into a liquid. Powered by steam rather than coal fire, the result is a graceful, more feminine style of single malt whisky. The perfect contrast to Yoichi's masculine, full-bodied weight.

Taketsuru had purchased a Coffey column still from Scotland in 1963, and upon establishing the Miyagikyo distillery he had it moved from a northern Nikka site to his new mountain location. Today there are two Coffey stills operating side-by-side, feeding a continuous cold stream of wort into the yellow, S-shaped pipes, which carry the liquid through the rising vapors; both condensing the alcohol as it rises, and heating the wort with the temperature of the steam. In 2013, Nikka launched a pure Coffey still grain whisky and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite expressions. Using a mashbill of mostly corn, the whisky is dangerously drinkable and the maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels casts a soft, mellow flavor onto the spirit. It's basically Japanese Bourbon, but don't tell Scotch drinkers that.

In order to obtain access to the parts of the distillery unavailable to most visitors, we had to suit up head-to-toe in a Nikka work suit: shoes, pants, belt, windbreaker, and helmet. 

And out we marched, one-by-one, across the Miyagikyo campus and towards the first stop on our tour.

Our guide led us to the end of the compound, unlocked a gate, and escorted us down to the bank of the Nikkawa River where, of course, we were allowed to recreate Taketsuru's initial taste of the pure mountain water.

Next, a peek at the towering Coffey stills that stretch up several stories, through grated metal platforms, as high as the eye can see.

While the Coffey stills are tall, the Miyagikyo pot stills are nothing to sneeze at either. They're huge! Naoki said they were once the biggest in Japan and may still be. He wasn't sure if Suntory or another rival company had since installed larger ones.

Like Yoichi, there is a cooperage on site, albeit a much more modern and expansive one. 

We had an amazing visit at the Miyagikyo distillery, complete with our own blending exercise where we were given the raw components of each whisky to use in our own creations. At the end of a long day, however, we couldn't wait to get to our hotel. Hotel bars in Japan are incredible and are often the standard in the industry. The Sendai Metropolitan bar was no exception. First class service; top quality drinks.

We sat at the counter for more than an hour, talking about our day and what we had experienced. It was a lot to take in. We've done so much, so quickly, with little time for reflection. Getting the chance to simply sit and unwind was a treat.

Soon it was time to head back out, though: deep into the bright lights of the Sendai evening. We grabbed some Japanese tapas, chugged a few cold Asahis, and eventually ended up at a nearby Karaoke room where we screamed our voices hoarse until late into the night. In 2004, I lived with a group of Japanese girls while studying in Germany and learned a bunch of trendy Japanese rock songs by sheer repetition. I don't know what any of the words mean, but I still remember what they are. Of course, those very songs were available for Karaoke, and, of course, I wanted to shock the shit out of everyone by singing one of them. 

Naoki about fell over. "How in the hell do you know the words to that song?!" he screamed. It was a great time, to say the least.

We're off to Tokyo today by bullet train. That should be quite an experience.

-David Driscoll