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Whisky Reviews

Ghost Series #14 Akashi 4 Year Old, 2015, Single Cabernet Franc Cask, Eigashima

A while ago, I had the benefit of finally (after years) actually tasting one of Stefan van Eycken’s Ghost Series bottlings, specifically Ghost #9. Stefan van Eycken, of course one of the earlier writers (in English at least) of Japanese whiskies, who ran the blog Nonjatta (which, even though is now defunct, is still a terribly terrific resource, thank you Stefan) and wrote the highly comprehensive book Whiskey Rising, on Japanese whiskies.


Ghostbusters caught #9. (Image Source: WhiskyMew) 


If you recall (or as you might already know), Stefan’s now legendary Ghost Series is not just known for some unusual but also incredible and incredibly sought after whiskies (some outturns no more than 22 bottles), but also their use of Japan’s last woodprint master of the late Edo Period, Yoshitoshi’s final work “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts”, adorning the labels of the Ghost Series bottlings.


An incredible resource by Stefan. (Image Source: Rare Malt Shop)


Previously, I talked alittle about Stefan, whom really should be penning his own introduction rather than me, but yes, a man who has done a great deal in illuminating the world on Japanese whiskies. Today, I’ll go one step further and talk about the other person in the room (well, at least in spirit) – Yoshitoshi, whose work fills the labels of the Ghost Series bottling.

So let’s take a little detour from whiskies shall we?


Yoshitoshi - the last great ukiyo-e woodblock print Master. (Image Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art)


Yoshitoshi was a particularly colorful character (and not always in a positive star-studded gleam) – born to a wealthy merchant father (or the samurai class no less), Yoshitoshi had the luxury of focusing his aspirations on what was seen as a high-status activity – ukiyo-e woodblock painting. His birth status allowed him to apprentice under Kuniyoshi, the woodblock print master that came preceded his own ascension to stardom. Yet, Yoshitoshi, unlike his predecessors, had the somewhat personal misfortune to grow up in a time of great change for Japan – the Edo Period was coming to a close, the breaking down of the feudal system that protected his high status, a growing Western influence on Japan (one particular theme of which that directly impacted him was the introduction of photography, which affected him for obvious reasons), and then personally for Yoshitoshi, his father’s death when he was a young adult. Japan was undergoing massive cultural shifts, looking to embrace modernity and distance itself from the past – one where Yoshitoshi’s place in high society was secured.


It was a time of great change and Yoshitoshi's relevance was fast fading. The exposure to Western culture certainly exacerbated it. (Image Source: Tokyo Teshigoto) 


This tumultuous early life was interpreted by Yoshitoshi as almost a denial of his identity and existence. Here was a young man trained in a dying art, which was afforded to him by his family’s high status which was fast being dismantled. He, like many artists, took to his art where he expressed his grief over what he saw as a tragic loss of many fundamental aspects of traditional Japanese culture. The result of which was many series of woodprint works that depicted undesirable themes of violence, crimes and horror, but also works that glorified patriotism, traditional Japanese folklores and history. He experienced rollercoaster waves in his life of bouts of interweaving fever-pitch stardom and also social and financial desolation.

Ups and downs, and every which way around. This was a man who was trying to come to terms with the end of an era that he so enjoyed and perhaps could be seen as having gone through the five stages of grief, beginning with denial and bumping his way through anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. He deeply loved the Japan he came into but so hated what the society he loved was turning into. He was a man who had to watch the old order that was now deeply ingrained in his person fade away. 


(Image Source: The Value)


His last work was the series used in Stefan’s Ghost Series of independently bottled Japanese whiskies, “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts”.

I find it telling that Yoshitoshi’s last work, after he had gone through the highest highs and lowest lows of his colorful life, centered around ghost stories. In Japan then, unlike the West, ghost stories were a popular form of mainstream entertainment, almost pop culture even, where storytellers would each tell a tale of horror and mystery, after which they would close by blowing out a candle, and the next yarn-spinner would take his cue to begin.

Ghosts and spirits were accepted as no less part of the world living mortals participated in. In fact, the idea of ghosts itself did not even carry a negative connotation – ghosts could be friends too! These were simply larger than life parables that captured everything from terrible deeds to great heroism – all to remind the living of the ephemera nature of their life’s fragility in a time of great change, hardship and constant feudal wars. You could think of them as a coping mechanism with the great uncertainty they faced at the time. But, of course as a transitional Japan moved towards modernity – civility took over, peace became the norm, science and progress were championed, there was a revived gusto in tangibly improving society, and as you’d expect, these tales no longer held their sway. They became seen as backward and unfoundedly superstitious.


Traditional Japan not only did not fear ghosts, they treated them as part of the same world mortals lived in. These were spirits who could help as much as they could hurt, and often served as parables for the living. (Image Source: Google Arts and Culture)


Yet, it was an activity Yoshitoshi had indulged in greatly growing up, and it seemed befitting that as his life finally began to fade and he began to accept the new order, he had desired to take comfort in something familiar from a bygone era he came from – a traditional activity he enjoyed tremendously as a young man. 

Now, back to the whisky at hand. The reason, I believe, Yoshitoshi is worth understanding, is because, well, for obvious reasons – his works are chosen as the labels of the Ghost Series bottlings, but also because it seems Stefan and gang have a penchant for drawing some links between the specific work of Yoshitoshi chosen and the whisky inside. In some of Stefan’s earlier posts on his blog, Nonjatta, regarding the first few whiskies to be bottled under the Ghost Series, he would ponder upon some relationship between the whisky, or perhaps how he had come to get his hands on the whisky, and the print specifically selected from Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” that would adorn the whisky’s label.


Ghost #2, an exceedingly rare Karuizawa, known as the Rouge casks, from the one year Mercian (Karuizawa's parent) matured whiskies in red wine casks. (Image Source: Nonjatta) 


Here’s an example, for the second Ghost Series bottling, a 1995 Karuizawa, which Stefan goes into detail about how he had come across it, and how it was special given that the 1995 vintage was the one single year in the now mothballed distillery’s 45-year history when the distillery used ex-Japanese red wine barrels (of parent’s Chateau Mercian Rouge Casks wine range) to age its whiskies over its otherwise predominant use of sherry casks. These handful of casks came to be known as Karuizawa’s legendary “Rouge Casks”. More importantly (to this lengthy preamble at the least), the print titled “Kiyohime Changes into a Serpent at Hidaka River” from Yoshitoshi’s Ghost series was selected for the label.

Stefan goes on to muse that the story, which told the tale of a young woman’s unrequited love with a young monk on a pilgrimage, and upon rejection, chased after him only to be blocked by a river. She is livid and turns into a serpent and upon finding the monk hiding under a bell in a nearby temple, coils around the bell, and in her intense fury, caused the bell to melt, thereby killing them both.


(Image Source: Dramble)


“We feel there’s a certain resonance between the story and the liquid in the bottle. Even though the vagaries of time have left us with only a handful of bottles, we felt this extraordinary Karuizawa ‘Rouge Cask’ was too good to be left to the angels or to end up in the hands of just one person. As they say, sharing is caring… and we want to share this with you.”

Stefan van Eycken, Nonjatta


As mentioned, I have for years looked upon the Ghost Series with eager anticipation for the day I will get to actually try them. And in the absence of such a dram in hand, I have found much time to draw castles in the sky and ponder upon the possible motivations to Stefan and gang’s choice of selecting Yoshitoshi’s “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts” for his labels. Here’s my theory (and feel free to let me know if I’m wrong): Having fatefully come to Japan to teach music, Stefan would later find a place in Japan and himself discovering the beauty of Japanese whiskies, obviously prompting his involvement with Nonjatta.

Having been an early aficionado, he was able to get his hands on many bottles that today would require the intervention of God (or maybe a tidy bank loan) to get one’s hands on (or “spare livers” as he would say); as the scene developed, Japanese whiskies began to gain global popularity and evolved into an entire beast of its own (he even called it a “worldwide circus”) – one where prices have gone ridiculous (again, “bat-shit mental prices” was the description used), anything can easily be sold regardless of quality, people no longer really open their bottles, an open culture of sharing is now much more closed, and distilleries are cropping up every which where – not necessarily with quality at the top of their mind.


Perhaps a swan song from a keen observer of the Japanese whisky scene. (Image Source: WhiskyAuctioneer)


Gone were the good old days where an enthusiast could easily pick up a high quality bottle, pop it open and share it with friends – it is now an industry that has become a lot more commercialized and that much colder. I’ve always wondered if Stefan’s choice of Yoshitoshi’s series was a swan song – and ode to the past he loved and perhaps a slight resentment to its ongoing state of development. Or maybe Stefan simply thought the prints were pretty cute. I’m pretty curious to know.

Well, now that we’ve talked about Stefan and Yoshitoshi, I suppose all there’s left to do is taste Ghost #14, which is a 4-Year Old Akashi that was aged for 3 years in ex-Cabernet Franc casks from the Yamanashi Winery of parent, Eigashima Distillery. It was bottled at cask strength of 61% ABV.



It should be said that it carries the work of Yoshitoshi’s titled “Demon in the Form of an Old Woman Fleeing With A Severed Arm” (alittle graphic, but okay, let’s find the link here). This work tells the tale of Watanabe, a legendary samurai known for his heroism, who in protecting an important gate, was confronted with a demon (an oni), where he had slashed off the oni’s arm and kept it in a secret box. He was later paid a visit by an old caretaker of his, who had asked to see the chest and had turned out to be the oni in disguise. As such, the oni was able to retrieve the severed arm and escaped.


Some context to the scene preceding what you see on the label. (Image Source: Calisphere) 


Here’s my wild guess: Because this is the second Akashi bottled for the Ghost Series, perhaps Stefan and gang (it was bottled with WhiskyMew, if you’ve spotted any manga labels on whisky bottles, it’s probably by them) had tasted a couple of Akashi’s in the selection process of what became the first Akashi bottled for the Ghost Series (an ex-Sake Cask was #9, which I previously reviewed), and during which they also had liked and shortlisted the Cabernet Franc cask. Now that they’re coming back for it in the second round of Akashi (which would later become a recurring theme), it’s sort of reminiscent of the oni coming back for her severed arm? Both of ‘em were from the 2015 vintage of Akashi’s after all. Again, purely speculative, simply tea leaves. Would love to know, though.

Any who, it’s time for some tasting.


(Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)


Eigashima 2015 Akashi Cabernet Franc Cask, Ghost Series #14, 62% ABV – Review


Color: Maple Syrup Gold


Gorgeous fruit orchard notes. (Image Source: Jessica Gavin, Rojgar Aur Nirman, Delish)


On the nose: Immediately rich, deep and fruity, there’s good amounts of honey, Kyoho grapes, blackberries, blueberries, fruit jam. The top notes are mostly fruity, fresh and sweet, with a ripe quality about it. Very enjoyable and fragrant, much like walking into a fruit orchard. The initial aromas are very expressive of the Cabernet Franc cask.


Deeper, richer more intense woodland notes - espresso, black truffles, apricots and prunes, tobacco leaf. (Image Source: Caffe Nero, Truffle Farms Europe, Cigar Journal)


With time, more earthy notes emerge, with bits of espresso, soil, black truffles, and alittle mossy. It is quite evocative of freshly toiled soil or a forest floor. A sort of woodland kind of character. The fruits have become something more concentrates, raisins, dried prunes and dried apricots. There are some notes of tobacco leaf as well. Still very active on the nose.

Slightly prickly and hot, but nothing that would throw you off.


On the palate: Noticeably full-bodied and almost chewy in texture, the heavier dried fruit notes on the nose are transported to the palate as well – raisins, prunes, apricots; stone fruits mostly. It is also quite buttery, texturally not too dissimilar from a pound cake; throw in the icing as well, there’s vanilla, honey, simple syrup.


A nice chewy texture, buttery almost, with more ripe stone fruits, bouquets of floral notes, and a touch of orangettes. (Image Source: Freshpoint, Spruce Eats, My Loview, Taste & Flavors)


It’s quite uniform on the palate, but it does let up somewhat to more delicate floral features with notes of gardenias, lilies, lavender – quite the bouquet; sweet and fragrant as with the nose of it. There’s a light orangettes flavour as well – dark (slightly bitter) chocolate coated candied orange. Baking spices and warmth persist with some cinnamon, cloves and brown sugar.


A real warm, smooth, lush finish - buttery, orangettes and mulled spiced wine. (Image Source: Healthline, Taste and Flavors, Cookie and Kate)


Finish: Long, silky, buttery, again very much like finishing off a slice of pound cake, with more orangette and clove notes to end off. Slightly spicy, very warming. Quite comforting, I must say.


My Take

This was a superb whisky – it just is! No if’s, and’s or but’s. It has great fruity top notes and earth base notes, all of which very fresh, as if you were walking through an orchard yourself. You would have little idea this was a 4-year old whisky. It demonstrated great control, complexity and balance – really everything you’d be looking out for. Despite the rich, accentuated flavors, it is never cloying or overpowering and maintains its integrity from nose to finish. A whole lot of elegance!


 Simply superb.

Texturally it is stupidly smooth and silky, with not an off note and a whole lot of roundedness. It is almost refreshingly quenching on the finish and I would be surprised if anyone who tried this didn’t instinctively go for another sip. The flavours are clearly defined and yet there’s more than enough to make it feel like time just stopped and you got lost in the notes. This could do well as a standalone sipping dram or easily paired with any meal – wonderfully versatile, with flavors that you could not find fault with.

If indeed it was the case that Stefan and friends had first scouted this Cabernet Franc cask when choosing the first Akashi (ex-Sake cask) to be bottled, and later came back for it and bottled it for the second Akashi to feature in the Ghost Series, well, then, I’m glad the oni came back for that dang arm and made off with it.






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