Getting bent in Bendigo

19 03 2011

I haven’t been a whisky drinker for a very long time – “whisky drinker” in the sense of cultivating an interest in the drink, in its varieties, methods of production and so forth, as opposed to merely guzzling it whilst on a teenage bender and then having your high school classmates draw a Hitler-esque moustache and an assortment of male genitalia on your face. (Just for the record, I was neither the victim nor the perpetrator of such deeds…)

Therefore, I haven’t been to many whisky-related events. Last year I attended a small function to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee at Melbourne’s Der Raum cocktail bar. Moët-Hennessy Australia must have laid down a considerable sum of pesos to provide what was an astonishing amount of complimentary Ardbeg single malt, including a 4.5L bottle of Ardbeg Rollercoaster and an assortment of top-notch nibblies. And it turns out you can make good cocktails from a heavily peated whisky, despite whatever protestations the purists may proffer.

So, it was much to my delight that I came across a whisky event as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival this year. Regrettably it was the only whisky event amongst a multitude, or perhaps an excess, of wine and beer gatherings; surely this wasn’t indicative of whisky’s popularity (or lack thereof) when compared to other beverages? Plus, it was in Bendigo. A wonderful rural town, and by no means inaccessible, but not since visiting the Suntory Yamazaki distillery in Japan have I gone to such distances for the purpose of having a dram. I attended the Saturday afternoon session of the Whisky Degustation Dinner at The Dispensary Enoteca ($95, but I believe it was worth it), hosted by the affable Graham Wright of The Odd Whisky Coy – check out his website for a brilliant list of whiskies he has in stock. With only 12 places, it was an intimate tasting event. We leisurely plowed through the following over the course of 2.5 hours:

1) Glengoyne 10 43%
2) Auchentoshan 3 Wood 43%
3) Macallan 12yo Sherry Oak 40%
4) Talisker 1998 Distiller’s Edition 45.8%
5) Riverstown Laphroaig 12yo 1998 57.4%
6) Longrow 7yo Gaja Barolo 55.8%

A Saturday stroll around Scotland.

Following this, some generous chap shouted everyone a round of Highland Park 12, which was followed up by another Highland Park, I think it may have been a HP 1990 16yo.

Anyway, Graham furnished the session with a steady stream of whisky history and trivia, enough to satisfy both the recent whisky initiates and the seasoned malt fiends. I was unaware that Macallan and Springbank send much of their profits to charitable causes – all the more reason to drink good Scotch! As for the actual malts we tried, I was particularly impressed by the Riverstown Laphroaig; needless to say, Islay malts are renowned for their smoky and peaty characteristics, but I’ve never come across a whisky with such a colossal waft of tobacco ash on the nose. Remarkable stuff. I also greatly enjoyed the Longrow; it had the expected punch of a young peated whisky, although the nose and palate (presumably) resulting from its time spent in Italian Gaja Barolo wine casks was something completely new to me.  It’s apparently a spectacular wine, although I hear the price tag isn’t for the faint of heart. Of the remaining whiskies for the day, I was sold on the Glengoyne. Very clean, very light. Subtle but delicious.

Proceedings wrapped up at 5:30pm, but with an extra hour to kill until I had to hoof it to the train station I decided to change tack and hit the beer. I went for a Dead Guy Ale from the Rogue Brewery in Oregon, USA.

You know a purveyor of alcoholic beverages takes their trade seriously when they have branded glassware to match the drink.

Don’t ask me for tasting notes, I’m sure you can appreciate the fact that by this point, I simply couldn’t be arsed. Alternative, you could check out the official tasting notes here. What I will say is that I was enjoying this beer so much, I made it back to the train station in time to catch my return train to Melbourne with barely a minute to spare.

In closing, I’d like to extend my thanks to Graham Wright for hosting a solidly enjoyable afternoon and for selecting some excellent whiskies, and here’s hoping it all happens again next year.

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A tribute to Bar:Colon

16 02 2011

(Head straight to the bottom of the post if you’re after Bar:Colon’s location/contact/website/etc.)

Those of us inclined to crapulence often fantasise about the perfect bar. At least I imagine others do; I certainly spent enough time doing so. And I say “spent” because I believe I’ve already encountered my perfect bar, or something very much resembling it.

From April 2009, for a period of about 10 months, I lived in the southern Japanese city of Kumamoto as an exchange student in my third year of university. At the commencement of Golden Week I’d emerged from the starting blocks a little too fervently, ending up a fraction worse for wear than I had expected, not to mention giving myself a subconjunctival hemorrhage in the process (click the link for some terrifying pictures of eyeballs). This was unfortunate, as an old accomplice of innumerable sozzled evenings and other disorderly mayhem from my earlier days in Tokushima was coming to visit. On his second night in Kumamoto I declined his invitation to trawl the downtown area for watering holes, however, later in the evening I received a message on my phone. It was a picture of a bar signboard saying “Bar:Colon”, accompanied by my friend’s comment of “nuff said”.

Not a chance we were going to let that slide. This presented us with an opportunity to carry on in the most puerile manner about entering the colon, wondering how many people could fit in the colon, discussing whether the colon had a brown interior, and a miscellany of other comments testifying to our sophisticated and erudite characters – all whilst blundering around town trying to rediscover the location of Bar:Colon the following night.

Diving into any given bar in Japan can be a bit of a gamble. You could be slugged with a seating charge, a charge for the snacks you thought were complimentary, a charge for the hostess who you thought was just a tap jockey, or end up generally paying an exorbitant (or extortionate) amount for what seemed like a couple of beers. Of course, you could ask if there are any such charges, but let’s face it, no one wants to look like a miserly skinflint. Then there’s also that unspoken belief that states, “If you have to be asking these sorts of things then you probably shouldn’t be here”.

All these trepidations were dashed by the time we’d parked our arses at the Bar:Colon counter, filled to nearly-overflowing with hundreds of liquor bottles (predominantly whisky) that didn’t fit on the shelves. The bartender handed us each a rolled-up oshibori, a moistened towelette. Something felt very comfortable about the venue; very intimate and clearly dedicated to the art of drink, but also relaxed, and not at all stuffy like a number of other bars where you’re petrified of ordering the wrong tipple, laughing too loud or leaving a fingerprint on the finely-polished counter.

I’m actually at a loss to remember my first drink order at Bar:Colon beyond the fact that it was a whisky, although it may have been a Yoichi single malt. The man administering the amber manna introduced himself as Takeshi, and asked us how we managed to end up at his establishment this particular evening. My friend answered outright, “The name, Bar:Colon… it’s a little unusual”. Apparently Takeshi was aware of the English meaning of “colon” in the physiological sense, although he was after a name with a slight contemporary flair, hence styled the bar name after the punctuation mark featured in all internet URLs. Regardless, we persisted with our infantile quips until the well had truly run dry.

Takeshi igniting a glass of Pernod absinthe. Absinthe connoisseurs say you shouldn’t light it on fire. Then again, I’ve never been one to listen to self-professed bohemian types who have funny moustaches and revel in wearing ill-fitting rags. Not that I like to stereotype or discriminate, or anything.

A number of customers rolled in and stumbled out over the course of the evening. One particular fellow, with whom I am still in contact to this day, spoke particularly good English and was a regular face until his job took him to greyer pastures in Tokyo. Takeshi eventually let slip of a special Bar:Colon deal whereby you could have all the Johnnie Walker Black Label you could drink for 1000 yen ($12USD) as long as you took it neat with no mixer nor chaser. Had I been even more of a dedicated souse, this could have been financially ruinous for him given my affection for this particular blended Scotch. Only on one occasion do I recall visiting his bar without taking him up on this deal. At present I’m no longer certain as to whether this sublime arrangement with the Striding Man from Kilmarnock is still in place.

My whisky-related Japanese vocabulary was (and still is) disappointingly meager, but we managed to talk at length about our favourite drams. Takeshi showed me some photos of his visit to Scotland. Broaching the topic of glassware, he picked out a Glencairn whisky glass from behind the counter, etched with The Glenrothes logo, and wrapped it up in newspaper for me to take home along with an Ardbeg drink muddler. My friend elaborated on the current crop of sumo talent, expressing his fondness for the 265kg behemoth Yamamotoyama Ryuta. Takeshi rifled through a stack of papers, producing a banzuke for the upcoming sumo tournament featuring Yamamotoyama’s name, and handed it over as a small souvenir. We each also received a Suntory Kakubin bottle keychain, which plays an old whisky jingle when the cap is pressed down. Rarely had I experienced this kind of hospitality and generosity in such a situation.

We eventually sauntered back to our two-wheeled iron steeds. My university dormitory had a socially crippling midnight curfew, which could theoretically be circumvented by “signing out” for the night, although the overnight caretaker never appreciated being awoken by rowdy and thoroughly sauced exchange students at 3:00am. Nevertheless, it was an occurrence that he was all too familiar with, and I was certainly no slouch at playing my part in this recurring ritual.

Another refined and sensible night in at Bar:Colon.

For the remainder of my time in Kumamoto I visited Bar:Colon on a regular basis, and was treated extremely well by Takeshi and everyone else who frequented the venue. If the bar was quiet he’d close down for anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, and haul me around to numerous other magnificent hideaways where he’d treat me to a drink or a snack. Particularly memorable was one evening when the conversation turned to things that could be steeped in liquor. Takeshi made a phone call, and barely a minute later he was dragging my English roommate and I out the door and into a nearby izakaya, where the owner pulled out a bottle of Suntory Kakubin whisky in which a small viper had been stewing for about four years. We were each poured a shot, accompanied by one of the snake’s organs placed at the bottom of the glass. Thankfully, after spending some time pickling away in alcohol, whatever venom was left behind in the snake had evidently lost its potency.

(Above is one of many videos on YouTube of Takeshi, in this one he’s discussing whisky trivia, such as the differing spellings of “whisky” and “whiskey”.)

Another great outing was to the local Suntory brewery, where The Premium Malts is brewed. Apparently this trip was Suntory’s gesture of appreciation to the Kumamoto Bar Society after they’d collectively purchased and bottled a cask of Hakushu 10 for a special “Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice” release, an event they managed to turn into a full-length documentary film. Foregoing a meeting with a representative of a local elementary school where I was scheduled to present a talk a few weeks later (the talk went down rather splendidly, if I may say so… I just have priorities) I accepted Takeshi’s invitation to accompany the group out to the brewery. A morning tour was accompanied by a remarkably civilised tasting session, followed by obscene amounts of beer with a barbecue lunch.

Such recollections, whilst standing as fondly-remembered testaments to one of the most tremendous guys I’ve ever met, are a mere fraction of the abundance of memories I possess of spending time in Bar:Colon itself; encountering a enthralling array of characters, such as the doctor who invited me to his home for dinner with his family, or the woman who was so utterly blotto she was convinced my name was “Mash”. Then there were those nights of blasting out new wave on the stereo when nobody else was around. Trying Johnnie Walker Black Label from a half-gallon bottle that was older than I am. Getting pied in the face on my birthday (or anyone else’s birthday, for that matter). Cognac tasting sessions, and being sent home with a complimentary bottle. Impromptu flamenco dancing demonstrations. I could drag this out extensively, as you can probably imagine.

Takeshi getting, uh, creamed in the face.

By the time it had come for me to leave Kumamoto, Takeshi was preparing to move Bar:Colon into a slightly roomier locale. I missed the opening night by a week, made all the more agonising by the fact that he was planning to open a 4.5 litre bottle of Ardbeg Mor for the occasion. Anyway, I was sent off with a grand multi-course, multi-booze feast at a nearby izakaya, attended by the Bar:Colon regulars, and then of course, one last round of drinks at the bar where it all began. Without wanting to sound excessively schmaltzy (or too much of a degenerate barfly), this place was my home-away-from-home in Kumamoto, and whilst I was looking forward to returning to Australia, having to say farewell to Takeshi and Bar:Colon was a mournful affair indeed.

Thus, I am ruined for other bars. Shoddy decor, heinous drink prices, impersonal service, abominably offensive and/or intrusive music, stagnant atmosphere, loathsome patrons; I sit there in petulance, quietly reeling off a list of grievances about whatever contemptible dive I’ve chanced upon. (Perhaps I ought to be a touch more discriminating in my choice of drinking establishments, given my indiscriminate willingness to drink any old gut-rot at times…) Melbourne has a profusion of outstanding bars – and I certainly don’t go to them expecting freebies from the owner – but I’m yet to come across one that echoes the intimacy and warmth of Bar:Colon.

I’m aiming to return to Japan sometime in 2012 for a brief visit, as I’ve been invited to participate in the 25th anniversary concert of a Kumamoto taiko drumming group that I joined during my time as an exchange student. I’m hoping there won’t be any early-morning starts, as it’s unlikely I’ll be in any state to deal with loud drums and intense physical activity with a prodigious hangover. No prizes for guessing where I’ll have been the previous night.

Myself with the man himself.

Here’s to Bar:Colon – kanpai! 絶対にまた一緒に飲もう。

Bar:Colon info

Website and contact details – http://www.barcolon.com/

Access map – http://bar-navi.suntory.co.jp/shop/0963566652/coupon_map.html

Bar:Colon blog – http://barcolon.seesaa.net/

Kumamoto Bar Society – http://www.ku-bs.jp/ (also featuring information on Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice Hakushu 10 including videos, plus a list of other great bars in Kumamoto)