Imbibe's acting online editor Jane Ryan takes a trip to Sexy Fish to taste Europe's largest collection of Japanese whiskies
It’s 9.30 in the morning and I’ve got my nose stuck in a tasting glass of Hakushu Bourbon Barrel 2013. Across from me, Fluid Movement's Tristan Stephenson is throwing words around like supple, marzipan and fragrant, while beside me sits whisky expert Colin Dunn, who uses the loaded phrase ‘it’s margarine as opposed to butter’. I inch my nostrils deeper into the glass, trying to understand what he means.
Our hosts Jérôme Allaguillemette, head bartender at Sexy Fish, and Xavier Landais, bars manager for Caprice Holdings, are also at the table and, over the next three hours, we’ll be tasting over 40 of the bar’s 358 Japanese whiskies.
This morning’s session is just one of several as the four men chart the entire collection, writing unorthodox tasting notes as they go. It’s all part of a huge overhaul Landais and Allaguillemette are undertaking of their backbar, which currently holds Europe’s largest Japanese whisky collection. No bottle is being left out, even those previously unopened and with no concern for the price tag, they’re getting to taste it all, ranging from whiskies costing £9 for 25ml, all the way up to £500.
No, this isn’t just a self-gifted treat from Landais, although arguably the job has its perks. Instead the eventual aim of this unprecedented tasting is to create a whisky menu that is at once accessible, easily navigated and informative. It’s also simultaneously teaching our four experts a lot about the category as whiskies are comparatively judged alongside their peers, mouthful after mouthful.
'It’s all well and jolly to have the biggest list in Europe, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best list,' says Landais. 'We might be removing some after this if they bring nothing to the table.'
From this morning’s session, it seems very unlikely any will be leaving the line-up. After starting with the Bourbon Barrel Hakushu, we go onto the same distillery’s 1991 Furudaru Shiage. It’s got meaty undertones, smoked mushrooms and acrid coco nibs.
'You need a knife and fork for these whiskies,' Dunn says. The 2013 Sherry Cask could woo a cognac drinker across Eurasia to Japan as its dark liquid simmers with autumnal crunch and heavy fruit.
From Hakushu, we move to the younger more creative distillery of Chichibu.
'The age statements of Chichibu really take the argument out of the industry – their 4-year-old sits alongside most 20-year-olds,' says Dunn. And it’s true, as we taste our way from the 3-year-old, through the distillery’s variety of cask finishes, gaining in age until we reach an 8-year-old, each drop is a whisky beyond its years. One is described as a whisky for petrol heads – it’s viscous and bold. Another is phrased as having unctuous claws that latch onto your tongue. The 2010 Kusuda Wine Cask is revered, but none of them disappoint.
'From this one distillery, we’ve had one that tastes like a rye, one like an Irish, one like a brandy,' says Stephenson, the only one in the group who’s physically visited Chichibu, 'It’s so experimental and diverse.'
‘You can taste the dedication these master blenders have to their distilleries,’ agrees Landais. ‘Compared to Scotch, where the distilleries have a lot more access to different malts, Japanese styles have only the wood to play with, so they’ve found more ways to diversify.’
The tasting also reveals which whiskies have their palates extinguished with water and which burst with deeper flavours and aromas – useful when the staff will be asked how best to enjoy these styles.
'Tasting this many whiskies can be overwhelming,' says Landais. 'It’s tough to make it accessible and fun. Jérôme and I want five or so words, not a classic tasting note, to help guide our guests. We’ve asked Colin and Tristian because they are two of the most respected people in the whisky world so it’s great to get their point of view.'
As well as potentially overhauling the list, the tasting may also result in prices being tinkered. ‘We’re trying some huge prices and for some it’s felt totally justified – these are exceptional liquids – but maybe not all. Maybe we’ll need to update prices after this,’ says Landais cryptically.
Together Landais and Allaguillemette dream of having a whisky collection with no Scotch or bourbon, and instead having an audience daring enough to try their gateway Japanese whiskies with enough similarities to guide other category drinkers into the Japanese fold.