Saturday, May 25, 2013

Suntory Whisky Tasting at the Noguchi Museum

Not long ago we were invited to an exquisite tasting at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City for a proper Suntory tasting and cocktail event celebrating the Whisky House's 90th anniversary with chef David Bouley and chef Isao Yamada.  The Noguchi Museum is a hidden gem in New York City, just a short distance from Manhattan, and a gorgeous retreat hidden behind brick walls, and filled with weighty biomorphic sculptures, a stone garden, and lush trees, and idyllic location for a Japanese whisky tasting.

It was designed as a garden museum by Isamu Noguchi to house a collection of his life's work - drawings, sculptures, furniture designs, and architectural models.  It opened in 1984 on a limited basis, and was fully opened to the public in 2004.  The collection is quite stunning, monumental works of sculpture that are paced brilliantly throughout the museum, almost in dialogue with the space that houses them.  The influence of Brancusi is quite evident in Noguchi's work (Noguchi studied with Brancusi in the late 1920s) - the stacking of different geometric shapes and materials, and the presentation of monument - or a collection of monuments in space, reminding me of Brancusi's Atelier at the Pompidou in Paris.

Photo Courtesy of Suntory/Jason Lewis

What a glorious setting to drink whisky!  Upon entering the museum we were greeted with a Hakushu Highball - a smoky and fresh cocktail.  We wandered our way through the main room of the museum, a lofty space that was still technically outdoors as the corners of the room peel back to allow for light, rain, and trees to reach the sunlight above.  We made our way to the tranquil garden space - filled with dark stones, massive dark carved granite sculptures, and a lush garden.  Tasting tables were set up lining the garden, illuminated in the dappled light.

Yamazaki 18Hakushu 25, and Hibiki 21
First, for a little background.  Suntory is the first House of Whisky in Japan - founded in 1923 by Torii Shinjiro.  For those of your familiar with whisky, you probably already know that the Japanese love their whisky.  They love Scotch, they love Bourbon, and they've perfected it.  Building upon the centuries old Sake brewing traditions, Japanese whisky distillers use the same model to achieve a high quality product: pure water local to the distillery, high quality grains, and letting the spirit age in the distinctive Japanese climate. There are three brands under the Suntory umbrella: Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki.  Each are made in different regions of Japan, there are nuances to how each is produced, and thus each have very different flavor profiles.  

Mike Miyamoto Explains the Tasting
The evening's preview tasting was Yamazaki 18, Hakushu 25, and Hibiki 21, the last two of which are currently unavailable in the US (our hearts doth break).  We started with the Yamazaki 18; with notes of chocolate, jam fruits, spice, and was creamy on the mouth.  It has quite a long finish in the mouth, with lingering flavors of chocolate and spice.

The Hakushu 25 was more smoky with flavors of fresh green leaves.  It was spicy on the palate, a bit hot, following with notes of caramel, honey and sweet fruit.  It finished nicely, smoky, sweet, and yet dry on the mouth.  The Hakushu distillery is at a higher elevation than the other distilleries, so the winter season plays a larger role in how Hakushu ages in the barrel.

On to the Hibiki 21, which was my favorite of the evening - a light smoke on the nose, the sour fruit of citrus and pineapple, and on the palate it was smooth, creamy, almost floral.  This whisky is layered, sophisticated, and extremely smooth and refined.  I'm also a big fan of the Hibiki 12, which was also being served over brand ambassador Gardner Dunn's hand carved ice spheres (extremely impressive, sir) - which has soft flavors of pineapple, honey, and plum.  I hate to gender things, but this is a glorious ladies whisky - and I'm certainly serving it at my next ladies night.

Ice Cubes Resting Before Being Carved Into Spheres
The other thing I was dying to taste was the Yamazaki 25 aged in sherry casks.  From its deep plum hue I could tell we were in for something special - it's a single malt with very high tannins from aging in the sherry barrels, and it picks up a lot of bitterness as well.  It's still got a lot of fruit to it, raisin, jammy fruits, and flavors of dark bitter chocolate, and a bite at the back of the throat.

And an already amazing evening got even better: paired with these gorgeous whiskys chef David Bouley worked with chef Isao Yamada of Bouley and Brushstroke to create a variation on a Kaiseki-style food-pairing menu (a traditional multi-course menu served in Japan).  Chef Bouley spoke on the importance of seasonal food in Japanese cuisine, the role of the seasons in aging Japanese whisky, and how the menu we were about to enjoy was crafted to showcase each spirit.

The first pairing was the Green Apple Meringue Stacked with Smoked Salmon, Trout Roe, and White Truffle Honey - a rather large canape that once placed in one's mouth melted, combining the flavors of apple and smoked salmon, perfectly complimenting the smoky and fresh green flavors of Hakusu 12 Highball.  Heavenly.  The next dish was Pressed Sushi with Sansho Pepper and Bamboo Shoots served with Kinome Leaf.

Green Apple Meringue Stacked with Smoked Salmon, Trout Roe, and White Truffle Honey
Photo Courtesy of Suntory/Jason Lewis
Pressed Sushi with Sansho Pepper and Bamboo Shoots served with Kinome Leaf
The second pairing was Wild Mushrooms served with Seared Toro and Coconut and Garlic Foam, to pair with the woodiness of the Yamazaki 12.  Passed around the event were Yamazaki Mizuwari cocktails - which was basically a whisky refresher - Yamazaki served with water and lemon.  If a girl's gotta hydrate, I certainly prefer to do it this way.  The second dish of the pairing was Organic Wild Duckling served with Nevada dates, topped with Kumquat.

The final pairing was designed to compliment the smoothness of the Hibiki expression, a blend of over 30 different whiskys.  Hand carved ice balls were served with Hibiki 12, served with Wagyu Beef Jerky with wild watercress, sesame and kombu salad.  The second dish was Chawan-Mushi, a Japanese egg custard served with dashi broth.  Both were gorgeous dishes.  If forced to, I could live on a diet of just Hibiki and Wagyu Beef Jerky.  A sacrifice, I know.

Mastering the Ice Cube Roll
Rare Whisky Bar - My Kind of Bar
Photo Courtesy of Suntory/Jason Lewis
Party goers mingled through the courtyard, illuminated with candles, making their way to the rare whisky bar, and nibbled on passed chocolates.  Upon last call, we loaded back onto the buses that brought us to this hidden oasis, an island I would have been fine with staying on.  Just as long as there was a lifetime supply of  Hibiki 21 and Wagyu Jerky.

Photo Courtesy of Suntory/Jason Lewis

Want more? (I sure do.)

Watch Coolhunting's video about Gardner Dunn's bespoke carved Ice Balls (trust me, you'll want one)

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