Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s whisky… but don’t call it Scotch

Organised by Yangon whisky aficionados, the Whisky World Cup has some of the world’s best squaring off all over town.

The finals will be held July 1 at Savoy Hotel. You can also sample the competitors there all next month. Photo: James ErskineThe finals will be held July 1 at Savoy Hotel. You can also sample the competitors there all next month. Photo: James Erskine

Whisky: It’s as Scottish as bagpipes, tartan and unintelligible poetry ... isn’t it? Well, no. Not any more. Global demand for whisky is growing at an astonishing pace. And as demand grows more and more distilleries are turning their hand to making “liquid gold” in every corner of the globe. Whisky is now made in every continent barring Antarctica – and I doubt anyone would be too surprised if a little corner of the Antarctic research station was given over to maturing whisky for one of the big whisky companies.

Last year the world’s most influential whisky writer, Jim Murray, crowned a Japanese whisky the best in the world. Some might argue that it doesn’t sell books if Jim Murray crowns a Scotch every year but when first prize at the prestigious World Whisky Awards in London went to a Taiwanese whisky there were genuine tremors in the whisky world. Asia is rising. And it’s drinking a lot of whisky on the way up.

Add to this the rise of Australian whisky; an increasing number of European distillers, skilled in distilling schnapps, grappa and gin, turning their attention to whisky; Canadian whisky finding its mojo again; and the unstoppable rise of micro-distilleries in the USA – the Scots certainly can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

It was against this backdrop that the Yangon Whisky Club set out to host a series of tastings to determine the best whisky-producing country on the planet ... or at least track down as many whiskies from as many countries as possible and see what they taste like!

This would prove no small feat in a country where liquor imports are still, essentially, illegal. Whisky mules were therefore recruited from the Whisky Club regulars and beyond, to go forth and search for whisky in their home countries. Over the course of five months, the collection of international whiskies reached the impressive figure of 20. With four groups of five whiskies, the Whisky World Cup was born!

  • A quick overview of how the Whisky World Cup works:
  • each tasting consists of five whiskies;
  • each whisky must be made entirely in its country of origin (with the exception of Myanmar, which blends local whisky with imported whisky – but what would a World Cup be without the home nation?);
  • anything categorised as whisky could participate – any grain fermented, distilled and matured in wood;
  • winners from each group would qualified for the finals on July 1;
  • whiskies would be tasted blind to avoid nationalistic fervour;
  • each member of the panel would have three votes but could not award more than two votes to their favoured whisky (so a whisky could not receive more than 67 percent of total votes cast);
  • lastly, tastings would move from venue to venue, each with a link to one of the whiskies.

The group stage results
(Note: All tasting notes quoted are genuine contributions from the tasting panel.)

Group A
April 29, Mahlzeit Restaurant
Finland, Taiwan, Wales, Holland, Germany

The smooth clean lines of Mahlzeit German restaurant provided the backdrop to the first round of the Whisky World Cup. Germany is home to more whisky distilleries than any other country on the planet after Scotland, however Taiwan was the clear favourite with their multi-award-winning Kavalan distillery.

The home advantage proved to be of little help to Germany, as Glen Els whisky finished behind Holland’s Millstone (5 years) – itself scathingly described as “like licking a shoe” by one panel member.

The whisky-making heritage of Wales made them solid contenders, however it was the Finnish whisky from Teerenpeli, one of the smallest commercial distilleries in the world, that stole the show and swept to victory in Group A.

Getting one bottle was hard enough. Tracking down another for the final required the good will of the Finnish Diplomatic Mission. International diplomacy takes many forms!

Finland (Teerenpeli 10 years old)
Percent of votes (with 66pc the maximum possible): 49pc
What the panel said: “Light and floral ‘like skipping naked in a meadow’”
2nd place
Taiwan (Kavalan Concertmaster) 35pc
“Rich and fruity”
3rd place
Wales (Penderyn Single Malt) 11pc
“Tastes like whisky should”
4th place
Holland (Millstone 5 years old) 4pc
“Like licking a shoe”
5th place
Germany (Glen Els The Journey) 1pc
“It’s just like that stuff you use for painting fences … creosote”

Group B
May 13, Padonmar Restaurant
England, Canada, Myanmar, Australia, Switzerland

A Myanmar whisky in a Myanmar restaurant in Myanmar – the stage was set for a spectacular home victory. Sadly the romantics were denied their fairytale ending as Myanmar finished last in the group. To make matters worse it was the old imperialists England that stole the round with a young (five years old) but impressively complex malt whisky.

The Canadian Rye whisky was well received and the Swiss malt whisky, my personal favourite, had its own distinctive style. The Myanmar whisky was deemed to be OK, if a little uninspired (not bad considering that it was one-third the price of the next-least-expensive). Sadly the Australian entry disappointed: Even maturation in pinot noir casks couldn’t hide the clunky whisky hiding beneath.

England (English Whisky Chapter 14) 39pc
“A bit young but really fruity… is that bananas?”
2nd place
Canada (Canadian Club 100% Rye) 29pc
“Like spun sugar”
3rd place
Switzerland (Sântis Malt) 16pc
“Smells like rubber worms. In a good way”
4th place (tie)
Myanmar (Grand Royal Double Gold) 8pc
“OK but a little boring”
4th place (tie)
Australia (Helliers Road – Pinot Noir Finish) 8pc
“Smells like grandma’s car. Not in a good way”

Group C
May 27, The Taj Restaurant
USA, India, Ireland, France, South Africa

Group D provided some serious whisky heavyweights. More than half of the world’s whisky is drunk in India. France drinks more whisky per person than any other country on the planet. They’ve been making whiskey in Ireland for longer than anywhere else. USA is the world’s second-biggest exporter of whisky (after Scotland).

The French whisky mules impressed, arriving with a selection of three French whiskies to choose from. Sadly the Eddu buckwheat whisky selected to take part was very interesting but didn’t inspire the panel. The bourbon from the USA and single malt from Ireland were clearly good-quality but both felt a little too safe to set the world alight. The South African grain whisky was very interesting but so sweet it almost tasted like a liqueur. None could compete with the thoroughly impressive Amrut Fusion from India, a truly superb malt whisky.

India (Amrut Fusion) 38pc
“Molten lava! Earthy with a lovely long finish”
2nd place
USA (Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon) 21pc
“Like toasted grain”
3rd place
South Africa (Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky) 20pc
“Short and sweet … like my husband”
4th place
Ireland (Teeling Single Malt) 11pc
“Creamy and floral with a hint of espresso in the finish. A bit lightweight”
5th place
France (Eddu Grey Rock) 10pc
“Slightly metallic with a toasted marshmallow finish”

Group D
June 10, Chõ Restaurant
Austria, Belgium, Japan, Scotland, Sweden

Every World Cup has a group of death and the two big beasts of malt whisky production, Japan and Scotland, provided the threat for whisky minnows Sweden, Belgium and Austria in Group D.

The minnows put in a strong performance. The Austrian whisky was potentially only denied victory by the smoking regulations in the restaurant, as one panel member assured us that it “would be perfect with a cigar”. The Swedish (“tastes like sweeties”) and the Belgian (“a bit edgy”) whiskies were distinctive in their own way but it was ultimately all about the two behemoths: Japan and Scotland.

It was a very close-run thing, one vote deciding who won and lost between the Japanese blended whisky, Hibiki (“smooth, nutty with an expansive finish”) and the triple-distilled single malt Scotch, Auchentoshan (“leafy and with hints of green-wood”).

Japan (Hibiki Harmony) 34pc
“Creamy, nutty and full of vanilla with an expansive finish”
2nd place
Scotland (Auchentoshan 12 years old) 32pc
“Leafy, grassy and with hints of green-wood”
3rd place
Austrian (Kekeis Single Malt) 20pc
“Salt-caramel with a little port … perfect with a cigar”
4th place
Sweden (Brukswhisky Single Malt) 10pc
“Light and fruity with poached pears – and porridge!”
5th place
Belgium (Stokerij De MolenbergFado Vivo) 4pc
“Edgy whisky with vanilla and fruity but with a bit of rubber/latex”

July 1, The Savoy Hotel

So here we are. The group stages are over. Five whiskies are in the finals ... and three of them are Asian! Here’s the line-up:

Finland (Teerenpeli 10 year old)
England (English Whisky Company Chapter 14)
India (Amrut Fusion)
Japan (Hibiki Harmony)
Taiwan (KavalanConcermaster) (qualifies as best runner-up across all groups)

Spots to participate in the final are nearly all gone, but check the Yangon Whisky Club page on Facebook for details. And if you’ve missed out, you can still play along on your own, by sampling competitors in the Captain’s Bar at Savoy Hotel all through July.