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Tuesday
Nov042014

Japan: Day 1 – Sapporo

We had an incredible flight over from Taipei to Sapporo. The entire plane was Hello Kitty to the absolute max. Hello Kitty pillows. Hello Kitty coasters. Hello Kitty safety instructions. Hello Kitty radishes at the bottom of my miso soup. Everything on the plane was Hello Kitty, from the air freshener in the bathroom to the pen I used to fill out my customs form. What a riot!

We arrived in downtown Sapporo with plenty of time to explore before dinner. A few of us put down our suitcases, changed into heavier jackets (sub-40 temperatures in Hokkaido), and hit the streets to see the sights.

Right downtown sits a gigantic neon Nikka billboard with an Asahi complement just across the street. Not more than thirty feet away is a huge Sapporo competitor. It might seem strange to visit Sapporo and not drink a Sapporo beer, but remember we're here to visit Nikka. Asahi is the Nikka brand, while Sapporo is the Suntory brand. These two companies do not like each other. Suntory is like Coca-Cola to Nikka's Pepsi. Suntory is the Dodgers to Nikka's San Francisco Giants. It's a serious rivalry, to say the least.

Since we were here to drink (and learn more about) Nikka, what better place to visit than the Nikka Bar situated just a few blocks from our hotel? Highballs all around! If you're not familiar with Japanese whisky culture, the Highball is the prefered whisky cocktail: a huge block of handcut ice and a splash of whisky, topped with soda water. It's a very serious drink in Japan and the preparation is quite ceremonial for something so simple. Even our quaint hotel bar (not pictured due to a charging camera battery) had a professional guy behind the counter cutting blocks of ice with supreme skill. 

This being the Nikka Bar, there were all kinds of exclusive, unseen-in-the-states whiskies behind the counter. Single casks galore!

Our guide from Nikka, a man by the name of Naoki, picked us up at the hotel and took us out for some drinks and nibbles. Super cold draft Asahi (served at 2 degrees Celcius) was the name of the game, along side fried chicken with ginger, picked vegetables, and crispy potatoes. This was all a precursor, however, to the meal I had been waiting for my entire adult life.

I discovered Japanese ramen not by reading Yelp or following the advise of my generation's hipster culture, but rather simply by geographical coincidence. I live in San Mateo, which happens to be the Japanese ramen mecca of the Bay Area. It's impossible not to see the lines wrapping halfway around the block outside these esteemed eateries and not take notice. Since 2007, when I moved to the Peninsula capital and finally waited the half hour requisite to enter one of these über-popular joints, I've been a ramen addict. Sapporo happens to be the spiritual home of my particular favorite type: miso ramen. Naoki walked us outside of the general city center and towards a hole-in-the-wall filled with dinner time guests. 

After tolerating our over-excited American behavior the entire evening, Naoki turned to us before we entered the tiny establishment and said, "All right guys; let's all tone it down and be cool. This isn't a tourist spot." I grabbed one of the few open seats at the counter and gazed at the noodles sitting nearby. 

Chris Fu and I were in hog heaven. We kept giggling to each other and shaking our heads. Holy shit, the ramen was incredible. The miso broth was thick and creamy; the noodles were hearty and filling. We slurped, swallowed, and placed our bowls onto the upper counter. Time to clear out and offer our seats to the fifty guests waiting patiently behind us. 

Tomorrow we go to Yoichi.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 2 – Airport Mall

What's this?! We get to fly to Sapporo on a Hello Kitty-themed plane?! Oh my god. I cannot wait to get on this aircraft.

First, however, it was time to hit the business lounge. Front and center: a bowl of rice for breakfast washed down by a half can of Kavalan's Mr. Brown Coffee. Delish. If you haven't been to Taiwan, let me tell you, you're flying in and out of a high-end mall that also happens to have a few runways. There's more luxury merchandise here than the entirety of Union Square's Maiden Lane. It's astonishing.

When we got to the gate I had to fight through a crowd of other passengers to get a look at the plane. There was a mob of people standing in front of the glass window, jockeying for position to get their photo taken.

Like I said, I can't wait to get on this aircraft.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Night in Taipei

Downtown Taipei is an incredibly intricate tapestry of modern consumerism and intelligent design. The lights are bright, the scene is ecclectic, and the energy being exuded is full of optimism. There is new construction. There are crowds of well-dressed people speaking English as well as they do Mandarin. There's plenty of bustle in Taipei, but refreshingly it's without the hustle.

Every bench on just about every alley is being used. People are resting, taking breaks, talking to one another, enjoying their coffee rather than slurping it down as they move quickly from one task to the next. The city of Taipei has provided its residents with a number of serene seats to unwind and the people are utilizing that space. The juxtaposition of steel, glass, and greenery is outstanding. It was quite wonderful to observe. 

Mopeds seem to be the preferred transportation with young couples zipping down the city streets, in between the numerous buses that continue to shuttle more residents into the center.

At one point the world's tallest building, Taipei 101 looms largely over the area. Unlike the Empire State Building or the former World Trade Center, however, the vertical behemoth you see before you isn't just a stack of offices as high as the eye can see. It's something much more user friendly.

Taipei 101 is a gigantic, never-ending, beautifully-designed, awe-inspiring shopping mall. It's without a doubt the greatest mall I've ever experienced. Imagine every retail outlet in Vegas, from the Venetian to Caesar's, all crammed into one space with twice the inventory, along with an additional 200 stores we never see in the U.S. 

If you can picture that in your head, you might start to come somewhat near to what Taipei 101 offers. All I could keep saying to myself was, "My wife would absolutely die!"

It's not like it's a mall full of sad Old Navy jumpers and shitty Armani cast-offs. Each store is like an individual work of art. I thought this golden delight above was a Tory Burch, but it was actually a beautifully-curated tea shop with a detailed selection. I don't drink that much tea, but I blew through $60 in about two minutes. I was deeply moved.

The fashion on the Taipei streets is also modern and, more importantly, smart. Despite the dominance of big brands on the billboards, no one was painfully whoring their labels for everyone to see. It's more about looking good, than looking expensive. Doc Martins, black tights, a sweater dress, with a discreet Chanel purse? Well done. 

Into the neon night we went, a balmy 70 degrees, walking from the hotel towards the restaurant where we would meet Mr. Lee, the owner of the King Car Company, for a special banquet style dinner.

Mr. Lee was busy deciding who would sit where around the lazy Susan. Seeing the final arrangement, I didn't understand the nature of the positioning, but I soon discovered the strategy.

In Taiwan, it's tradition to drink only when inviting someone else from the table to drink with you. If you want to take a sip of wine then you must make eye contact with someone else and raise a toast in their honor. For that reason, the whisky was poured into thimble-sized glasses that hold probably a third of an ounce. It's completely deceiving, however. No one tells you in advance that you'll probably engage in forty to fifty toasts over the course of the evening (and you're expected to drain your glass each time). I started faking it after about the fifteenth raising of the glass. I don't think many other people were following my lead, however. Things got absolutely nuts in a hurry. It was an incredible dinner full of heartfelt speeches and feelings of true friendship, fueled by endless shots of Kavalan single malt. The meal was delicious, but I'll remember the comradery more than the food.

Around the family-style table in Taiwan you'll find great bottles of whisky, but you won't sit there nosing the glass, trying to coax out each detailed aroma while some ridculously pompous guy talks to you about the history of distillation and the importance of enjoying each sip. You're here to drink. You're going to enjoy each tiny glass while you do it, but the main focus is on the person across from you rather than the liquid in the glass. I think we all really enjoyed that aspect of the evening. I don't think I've ever had that much fun with a bottle of whisky.

Thankfully, I managed to get home and into bed rather early. A few hours of shut-eye was exactly what I needed before rising early in the morning for our flight to Japan. I climbed out of bed around 4:15, opened the blinds, and began organizing my images into something somewhat tangible. The city was still moving.

I'm excited to see what today holds for us.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Kavalan Continued

Before heading into the distillery proper this morning, we gathered in a UN-style conference room to watch a short film about the King Car Company. No precursor could have been more appropriate to start the Kavalan experience. Many of us were giggling throughout the introduction; not because we were mocking the video, but because of how completely unpretentious the presentation was. There was not one trace of irony in any of the explanations concerning King Car's advances in pesticides, or the increase in food safety measures. Every aspect of King Car was detailed and given with complete admiration, even though much of the information was completely out of touch with what's currently trendy in the American spirits market. There was no talk about "handcrafting" or "small batch" production, and no mention of "hands-on" care. The automatized aspects of Kavalan Distillery were points of pride, not humor. Efficiency is key in Taiwan, just as it is in Scotland, but there's no attempt to romanticize the process. Quality is in the details, as it should be. After four years of complete rusticity, I found this utterly refreshing. The film made me so happy, that when we finally met with Ian in front of the entrance, I shook his hand and said, "Great video, man. Absolutely great." He was all smiles, as usual.

That's not to say that Kavalan is a distillery run completely by computers and robots, because it isn't. There are twenty guys there just working with cooperage, which is more than some distilleries in Scotland employ for an entire week's shift. The Taiwanese are proud of their technological advances and don't feel the need to remain rustic just because that's what's cool right now. In fact, I don't think they even realize that's what's cool right now. Do you know how wonderful it is to visit a producer completely lacking in pretense? It's incredible. That's Kavalan in a nutshell: completely honest and straightforward without any hipster chip on its shoulder. 

In a lot of ways, Kavalan reminds me of a combination of Caol Ila and Port Ellen; the way the distillery looks and feels. It's modern and mechanical like Caol Ila and the placement of floor-to-ceiling windows opposite the pot stills is very reminiscent of the way the Islay giant faces Jura in the distance. We were able to taste the new-make whisky off the still and I was taken aback by how fruit-forward it was. Since 2005, Kavalan has employed a long 60 hour ferment (much like Oban), helping to bring out the fruity elements of the whisky.

The pagodas are very Port Ellen-esque. Except instead of a cold Islay port next to it there are tropical mountains.

I'll probably end up doubling-back and getting more technical about the distillation process, but to me the most important aspect of Kavalan's flavor is the cooperage and the warehouse conditions at the site. They use a five floor warehouse to create different temperatures, resulting in various speeds of maturation. It's part of the reason they've had so much success with their fino sherry expression; a type of cask that Bowmore distillery gave up on after thirty years of lackluster results. Scotland simply doesn't get warm enough to release that delicate fino flavor upon the whisky aging inside the barrel. The intense and humid heat of Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to bring out the best in certain sherry butts.

That's part of the reason the fifth floor of the warehouse (where the temperature often reaches 108 degrees) is called "the church." Partly because the vaulted ceiling resembles a cathedral and partly because miracles seem to happen inside the sherry butts resting in this room. We were able to taste fino sherry-aged whisky straight from the cask. It was indeed heavenly.

King Car's convention center brings more than one million vistors per year, making Kavalan distillery a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction. They have a gigantic tasting area with every expression available for a very small fee. With the neon lights and vibrant colors, it resembles nothing like an old-school distillery or a low-lit Scottish pub. 

What's happening at Kavalan is distinctly Taiwanese, from the incredibly pure water being sourced from the nearby Snow Mountains, to the manner in which the distillery is presented and operated. It's not simply Scottish single malt being made in Asia. There's something deeper going on.

I'm going to dwell on this idea a bit more. 

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov022014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Kavalan Compound

I woke up to a hazy, humid, tropical morning at the Kavalan distillery. We got in super late last night after an hour and a half drive from the Taipei airport (which I slept through most of). It was impossible to see much out the window as we landed--a typhoon in the area made the weather a bit rough--and I was too exhausted to do anything other than fall face-first into my pillow when we got here. I crawled out of bed around 6 AM, opened the shade to my bedroom window, and saw the distillery in the distance; the lush mountains lingering in the distance.

Kavalan distillery is really just part of a much larger facility operated by the King Car Company. They make all kinds of other products here including breakfast drinks, coffee, even soap. The entire convention center is located at the base of the hills with what looks like rainforest beyond it. If I didn't know I was in Taiwan I might think I was in Columbia.

We're currently staying in the gigantic convention center that has private rooms, huge conference spaces, a full size theater complete with sound stage, a cafe, and a small restaurant area. Chris and I were both up early so we took a walk around the grounds before meeting the others for breakfast.

There are a number of barrels painted by various artists lining the walkway towards the main distillery.

Mr. Brown's Coffee is also made on site and, let me tell you, after finishing a few cups it's clear that Mr. Brown knows what he's doing.

There are gardens everywhere around the main square.

And even a vineyard tucked in between the distillery building and the mountains. We're getting ready to go on a tour shortly, then we'll head into Taipei for more sight-seeing. I'll be back later with more.

-David Driscoll