New Arrivals

The first snow of winter, marching towards us across the Jura.

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura. All photos: PKR

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura.
All mountain photos: PKR

The sun was shining in a final burst before a major storm that was due to hit overnight, and I had to go for a final autumn run in the last bits of warmth, even as I could see winter’s 1-6

No images here of the white carpet that greeted us the following morning, it all started melting soon after sun-up.

But in celebration of winter’s greeting card, we tried the Suntory produced Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select blended whisky I mentioned in a recent post, a foray into mostly unexplored territory for single malt fans such as ourselves.

According to Master of Malt, “Hibiki Japanese Harmony is made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from the Chita distillery. The whiskies are drawn from 5 different types of cask, including American white oak casks, Sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks.” The blend includes ten different malt and grain whiskies.

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For me, this is limited edition blend is a curious mixture of tart, oaky acidity with round apple sweetness and not much in between, a double-edged sword that I’m not sure I love, but which I definitely enjoy. It’s like one of those candies which you might not like at first taste, but which you can’t seem to stop yourself from eating.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

I do, however, think the bottle, with its 24 facets and matching stopper, is very lovely. The 24 facets are meant to represent the two dozen Japanese seasons, and I’ll be the first to admit that although I lived in Japan, I didn’t realize just how many seasons I was experiencing over the course of a year.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

What I do know is that a new season is upon us. It’s cold outside.

Yes, winter is not only coming – it is already here.

That doesn’t have to be all bad.

Diving In

bg_mainvisual_yam_002When I first moved to Japan many, many years ago, someone told me to bring along a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label as a gift to the head of the household where I would stay. I thought it seemed like a very specific gift, but was assured that this was exactly the right thing to do to show my gratitude for a stranger’s roof over my head. I dutifully bought a bottle at a shop in San Francisco and carried it to Japan (yes, this was so long ago that airline passengers could carry a large bottle of whisky on board with them, just like that).

To my astonishment, the bottle of Black Label was a huge hit. I hadn’t realized at the time how important whisky was in Japan, or the instant friendship that giving a bottle of genuine Scotch whisky could inspire.

But at the time, I myself had not yet been introduced to Scotch, and I associated whiskey only with the bourbon I put in mixed drinks. So I missed a golden opportunity to explore Japanese whiskies at the source while I was living there.

One of the most famous poems in the Japanese language is the 17th-century  haiku by Matsuo Bashō that goes like this:

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto

The translation I like is:images

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water

According to Robert Aitken, Bashō is presenting his mind “as this timeless, endless pond”, a serenity won through persistent inquiry. In the practice of Zen,  a simple incident could suddenly disclose the ultimate Way. Aitken: “As Yamada Rôshi has said, any stimulus would do — a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself.” For Bashō, it was a frog.

In Japan, apparently, this poem has become quite stale with repetition over the past three centuries. For some Westerners, it is still new. I’m guessing the situation might be similar for Japanese whiskies – well known in Japan, still being discovered elsewhere.

Suntory’s Yamazaki 25-year-old was voted the World’s Best Single Malt at the 2012 World Whiskies Awards, and overall, Japanese whiskies have been attaining new heights since their introduction early in the 20th century.

And so, today I’m heading out to one of the best liquor stores in the Lake Geneva region, the Caveau de Bacchus, in the hope that within their usually excellent whisky selection I will find a good Japanese variety. Otherwise, there’s always online.

I hope to hear the plop of a frog, the sound of water.images-1