The Bewitched Ji-Whisky - Sasanokawa
In 2000, TOASHUZO sold its Hanyu distillery and all products to SASANOKAWA SHUZO because of financial crisis. However, Ichiro later buy-back the his grandfather’s heritage from SASANOKAWA and re-packaged as “Ichiro’s Malt”, which has made unprecedented success in the market.
Although Ichiro established the Chichibu distillery, its earliest production were actually from TOASHUZO and were stored in SASANOKAWA SHUZO. Therefore we can say that TOASHUZO is the parent of Ichiro, while SASANOKAWA SHUZO being his foster-parent.
The long history of SASANOKAWA SHUZO dates back from the eighteenth century, with its Sake and Shochu being extremely popular. It was until the twentieth century after World War II that it began to produce whisky and later expanded the cellar to facilitate whisky aging. The most famous range ‘963’ is named after the postal code of the distillery. With its simple name and traditional packaging, it mainly produced blended grain and malt whisky. But how does ‘963’ stand out among the keen Japanese whisky market which has already been dominated by Hibiki and Taketsuru?
First of all, “963” is a “Ji-Whisky”, meaning that the whisky is produced in a small local Shozu which used to make Sake and Shochu. After World War II, the surging demand of whisky provoked those Shozu to produce whisky. They made whisky by their own ways, while the production was limited that only supply local market. The concept is totally different from those commercial brands.
Another brand under the flagship of SASANOKAWA SHUZO called "Yamazakura” has long been popular among whisky geeks. Many people recognized “963” as an expression under "Yamazakura”, but the truth is the merger formed by SASANOKAWA and Yamazakura has already closed in 1998. The “963” are all blended whisky, from NAS malt and grain, to 8-year blended malt and 21-year blended malt. You may wonder why there is a big gap between 8-year and 21-year. Think of the NAS bottle. It certainly imparts whiskies of various ages. Of course, the distillery also reserve some of them for further aging.
The “963” Malt & Grain blend is the elementary version. It has an unparalleled abv of 59% with surprisingly soft aroma and palate. The orange and tropical fruit flavors, with hints of brioche and white chocolate, is followed by robust oaky finish. Consider adding a few drops of water to enhance the cereal flavors.
The “963” eight-year gave an illusion of “Yamazakura”, in fact there are also grain and malt blend under “Yamazakura”, although single malt rarely exists. This 8-year expression might impart “Yamazakura”, 59% abv, with flavours of malt, cream and nuts. The oaky finish is lifted by touch of honey. I suggest to serve it in neat without any addition of water, as it is just right for usual drinkers.
It is easy to associate with Hibiki 21 year when I mention this “963” 21 year, which has an unexpected 58% abv, much higher than 43% of Hibiki and 40-43% of “Yamazakura”. It is in fact a rare case in blended whisky. The aromas are reminiscent of that of sherry, with subtle spices and fruits attack and grainy feel brought out by smoke and dried fruit flavors, finish with little bacon and caramel. It may not appeal to Hibiki’s fans as it is not as aggressive, but is definitely suitable for fans of Highland.
The “963” series is characterized by its co-existence of high alcohol content and drinkability. The high but subtle alcohol is in fact hardly noticeable. Prepare for a couple of bottles for a 2-pax dinner as you can’t stop your next sip before you got drunk.
Toashuzo東亞酒造在二千年面對財改困難，不得不放棄其威士忌生產部門羽生蒸餾所，把所有產品賣給 Sasanokawa shuzo 笹之川酒造，後來伊知郎再從笹之川手上買回祖父羽生出品，以Ichiro's Malt系列從新包裝推出市場，竟然空前成功，可以說句「時也命也」。
笹之川酒造另一品牌「Yamazakura山櫻」知名度高，早在威士忌地酒界享負盛名，很多朋友把963歸納在山櫻系列，其實真相是山櫻和笹之川酒造合併後， 蒸餾所在1998年已關閉。963系列全屬混調威士忌，由NAS 沒年份的Malt and Grain，八年的混調麥芽和廿一年的混調威士忌所組成，大家會奇怪怎麼八年至廿一年之間像斷了層，試想想那瓶NAS，肯定部份十多年陳酒混進其中，當然部份也須保留繼續陳熟，不然就沒有廿一年或更陳年出品。
963的Malt & Grain blended雖然是入門版，酒精度竟然是59%這麼利害，但入口出奇地柔和，酒精沒有嗆鼻，橘子和熱帶水果，帶點牛油小包和白巧克力味道，尢其收結充份展示橡木香味。可考慮加數滴清水，提昇更濃郁穀物味道。