*Sincere thanks to DK & NR from Exposure PR for the sample, and to Suntory’s Neyah White for the sage advice.
Last month, March, Suntory celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Yamazaki Distillery and the House of Suntory Whisky. Shinjiro Torii founded his first distillery in March of 1923, establishing a whisky-making empire that would grow significantly over the years and is today one of the more highly regarded and consistently awarded in the world. The House of Suntory Whisky has taken a somewhat different path to its success, contrary to the all-too-common distillery tradition of changing owners often and eventually succumbing to multi-national conglomerate ownership. Indeed, it’s remained a family affair with Torii passing the torch to his son, Keizo Saji in 1961, and in 2002, Torii’s grandson, Shingo Torii becoming the Master Blender of the House.
While Shinjiro Torii (along with Masataka Taketsuru) is considered the “father of Japanese whisky”, a similar argument could be made for Keizo Saji being the “father of Japanese single malt whisky”. In many ways, he proved to be nearly as pioneering and influential as his father. He changed the company name from Kotobukiya to Suntory in 1963 and greatly expanded the company’s production capacity by completing the Hakushu distillery in 1973. Saji saw the potential in creating “premium” whiskies and it was he that created the Yamazaki line of single malts and laid the groundwork for the Hibiki range, of which this 12 year old is the only one widely available in the U.S. In the last several years, Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskies have gathered up so many awards, the company is probably going to have to build a warehouse just to house them all, proof enough that history has been kind to the House of Suntory Whisky and the three talented men who have led the way.
The Hibiki 12 Year Old is a distinctly Japanese blended whisky, created to accommodate Japan’s particular style of whisky drinking which often includes lots of ice and water (see below). The expression is made up of more than 20 components including single malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries and grain whisky from the Chita distillery, ranging in age from 12 years to 30 years. These various whiskies are aged in a combination of American oak ex-bourbon barrels and European ex-sherry butts. The Hibiki 12 Year Old is the only Suntory whisky which finishes some of its malt in American oak barrels previously used to mature Umeshu, a traditional Japanese plum liqueur. Interestingly, these type of casks were originally used for efficiency’s sake, not for any additional flavoring the barrels might impart. The resulting influence was a welcome by-product, however, and now helps gives this whisky its distinctive flavor. Once all these 20+ components are vatted together, they are filtered through bamboo charcoal.
The Nose: A quite fruity and lively nose full of orange marmalade and red berry jam laced with wonderfully floral honey. Behind those initial aromas are a nice balance of orgeat syrup, almond cookies, and cut cedar. Going even deeper, there are hints of warm chocolate sauce and that jammy quality gets a little tannic and winey, like a high-alcohol California Merlot. Dusty, mildly sherried, soft woodspice notes of vanilla, clove and cinnamon round things off nicely.
The Palate: Smooth, silky mouthfeel, still fruity but now there’s more citrus, ripe orange and sweet Meyer lemon, with just a touch of that berry jam. Honey drenched malt, vanilla, and candied almonds leads to much more spice than the nose hinted at. Very subtle even at the beginning, sawdusty hints of fresh-cut cedar swirl throughout, helping to unify the early sweet tones and ending spice notes of clove, candied ginger, and white pepper.
The Finish: Lingering and full of dry, winey spice and malty honey.
Thoughts: A beautiful and meticulously well-crafted whiskey. If you’re a scotch drinker, there’s much about the Hibiki 12 that might seem familiar, but there’s quite a bit that will seem unique and beguiling. The honey and cedar notes run throughout the dram with other flavors joining in along the way to give this a wonderful balance and progression. The use of the plum casks is subtle but present, adding to that dark fruit quality, complimenting the tannic spice of the sherry casks and the citrus and vanilla of the bourbon casks. Though this was not necessarily a whisky created to drink neat, it is excellent stuff on its own, quite satisfying and complex and worth every penny of its near $50 price tag. I’ve heard people remark that it’s overpriced for a 12 year old blend, but I’m guessing those people have never tried this, nor do they understand what it’s about and how it was made. Highly Recommended.
***BONUS TASTING ROUND!***
Hibiki 12 Year Old in the Mizuwari style
One of the preferred ways of drinking fine whisky in Japan is Mizuwari, meaning “mixed with water”, which is essentially a highball glass filled with ice, sparkling (or sometimes still) water, and whisky. However, there’s much more to having a whisky mizuwari than just dumping all the ingredients into a glass and knocking it back, there is recipe and there is ritual as well. I thought it fitting to have some Hibiki in this style to honor Suntory Whisky’s 90th anniversary and a visit to Camper English’s Alcademics led me to this recipe as told by Suntory’s ambassador Neyah White. The recipe (and the ritual) is as follows:
- Add ice to a highball glass. Stir with a bar spoon to chill the glass, then pour out any resulting water.
- Add 1 to 1.5 fl. oz. whisky to the glass. Stir thirteen and one-half times clockwise.
- Add 2 – 3 times as much sparkling (or still) water as whisky and stir three and one-half times clockwise.
Yes, you read correctly, you are to stir half stirs to prepare this properly…it’s simply part of the ritual. I can’t say for sure if stirring this 14 3/4 times counter-clockwise would make this drink taste like an old pork chop, my guess is it would not, by why risk it? There is a lot of water and a lot of ice in a tallboy like this. I was almost wondering if any whisky was going to make it through at all. It does, and more to the point, it’s a delicious way to enjoy the Hibiki 12, as much of the whisky’s character comes through. There’s floral honey, tannic red fruits, almost incense-like cedar, and slightly bitter clove and ginger, all lightly presented in this effervescent, mouth-watering way. That this whisky holds up so well with so much water and ice speaks to how well it has been crafted. I could drink a one-gallon pitcher of this and still need another round. I love the ritual of this Mizuwari, but if I ever get to Japan, I’m ordering two, because when I quickly get finished with the first one, they’ll only be about half done making the second.
Hibiki 12 Year Old Japanese Blended Whiskey
お誕生日おめでとうございます Suntory Whisky!
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