Hakushu, the lesser known brother of Yamazaki. Both Yamazaki and Hakushu have many different still shapes to be able to produce a wide range of spirit. While Scottish blenders are able to use whiskies from virtually any of the distilleries in Scotland, Japanese blenders are typically limited to the whiskies produced by their company. Hence, many stills at each distillery for many different kinds of whisky. The big difference between Hakushu and Yamazaki whisky is that Hakushu is peated. It’s not that mega in your face Islay kind of peat but a more reasonable level of smokiness. In general peaty whiskies have not done well in Japan. Some of the earliest Japanese whisky had trouble selling due to the peat levels that were designed to emulate the highland whiskies of the time. But Hakushu brings a bit of smoke to the equation which adds to the complexity of their blends and provides a nice contrast to Yamazaki.
The Hakushu lineup has the same ages as the Yamazaki lineup: NAS, 12,18, and 25. It seems like whatever Yamazaki bottles, Hakushu gets a similar bottling. Although Hakushu may not be as famous as Yamazaki, it is certainly not in any way inferior. It has its own distinct style which I think complements Yamazaki quite well. I guess that was Suntory’s whole point of building the distillery.
It is a bit harder to find Hakushu, but I definitely recommend giving it a try.
Type: Single Malt
Price: ~£75 (£73.81 from Master of Malt)
Well this is one of the big boys of Japanese whiskies. Highly rated and award winning. There is a reason it’s in Ian Buxton’s “101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die” book. It’s not cheap and at this present moment in time (May 2nd 2015 as I write this) the 18 is hard to find and the prices at retailers are typically grossly inflated. Last time I checked, you would be lucky to find one for £200. Considering that 2-3 years ago you could get a bottle for $160 in the US, it’s hard to swallow.
Recent price hikes for Suntory products will insure that retail prices never go back to the good ole days and diminishing stocks of older whiskies may mean that this expression will jump even further or perhaps even be retired.
Well if you have a bottle, consider yourself fortunate and if you get a chance to try this for a reasonable price, do.
Type: Single Malt
Price: ~£200 (£169.95 from Master of Malt)
I would dare to say that this is the flagship whisky from Suntory. Yamazaki is the oldest true whisky distillery in Japan (1924). The distillery was designed by Masataka Taketsuru for Shinjiro Torii (founder of Suntory). For a long while the Yamazaki 12 was the youngest and most affordable Yamazaki Single Malt available in Europe and the US. That place has now been taken by the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve, but the 12 remains as one of the iconic Japanese single malts expressions. The 18 and 25 year old Yamazaki’s are now getting to a price point well above most budgets so the 12 will probably be the new “18” in terms of how people purchase and drink it.
A lot of people wonder why Japanese whiskies are more expensive than Scottish whiskies at a given age. I am sure there are a lot of factors involved including taxes and trade agreements but one fundamental reason is that whiskies age faster in Japan. By this I mean that the angel’s share is quite a bit more dear at the distilleries in Japan. Due to greater fluctuations in weather in Japan, casks breathe more which causes greater loss of spirits but also faster maturation. So because they lose more spirit faster, they get less whisky after 12 years than a typical Scottish distillery. Well that’s one reason anyway.
Type: Single Malt
Price: £65 (£63.89 from Master of Malt)
The Taketsuru 12 is a blended malt from Nikka comprised of malt whisky from Yoichi and Miyagikyo. It is named after the founder of the Nikka Whisky Company, Masataka Taketsuru. Taketsuru is known as the father of Japanese whiskies and his story is truly inspiring. I’ll write about that later.
While Nikka have released quite a few “pure malts” in the west, this one is a bit different in that it is completely Japanese. This might come as a shock to some readers but the Pure Malt Series (Red, Black, and White) actually contain whisky from the Ben Nevis distillery which is owned by Nikka. From what I’ve heard, it is actually cheaper for Nikka to produce spirit at Ben Nevis and ship it over than it is to produce spirit in Japan. Makes sense considering they mostly import their malt from Europe anyway.
Type: Blended Malt
Distillery: Yoichi and Miyagikyo
Age: 12 Years
If you’ve seen the movie Lost in Translation, you have heard of the Hibiki blend. You may recall Bill Murray holding up a glass of whisky saying “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Indeed this blend is created by the biggest Japanese whisky company, Suntory. Suntory has a long history with whisky involving the founder Shinjiro Torii and the Japanese whisky king Masataka Taketsuru. I won’t go too much into it now but I’ll write a post on Japanese whisky history later.
The Hibiki line consists of the 12, 17, 21, 30, and the new no age statement Hibiki. The 12 used to be the entry level whisky to the line up but I guess with whisky prices moving on up, Suntory felt it was necessary to introduce something that would take the place of the 12 in price range.
Recent price hikes have been implemented in Japan for Suntory whiskies. See Nonjatta. While prices in the west have soared due to the increased interest in Japanese whiskies after Jim Murray’s proclamations.
Whisky economics aside, the Hibiki 12 is an interesting blend. The word on the street is that part of the whisky going into the blend was aged in plum wine casks. As far as I know this was only done in the 12 year old expression. I really wish they would release a single malt exclusively from plum wine casks but alas they do not seem keen on it.
If you ever see a bottle of Hibiki in the shop, you’ll notice it’s excellent bottle. Some people aren’t as fascinated by it as I am but I think it looks rather smart. It reminds me of something out of an old detective movie. The bottle has 24 facets which supposedly represents the Japanese calendar with some people saying 24 seasons or months. I am not sure which but it is beautiful.
The malt in this blend comes from Yamazaki and Hakushu, while the grain comes from Chita.
Price: ~£55 (£50.80 from Master of Malt)
There has been a trend of late for new single malt expressions eschewing the traditional age statements. It has caused quite a stir in the whisky community with very good points to each side of the argument. I think it is fairly obvious that the main driver for the trend is the diminishing stocks of older whiskies. This current surge in whisky interest follows a depressing time for whisky distillers. Some people called it the whisky lake. During the 80’s and 90’s demand for whisky dropped significantly. People moved toward wine and other drinks. Distilleries were closing down. In fact Yamazaki didn’t produce any spirit in the year 2000. As a consequence, older whiskies are becoming harder to come by. Whisky companies are now relying on flavourful younger stocks to keep their brands alive. That’s the climate which has brought forth this newer release from Yamazaki. The Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve was released about this time last year (late spring of 2014) in the UK. My first taste was at the 2014 Evening with the Blenders Event. I must say I was impressed back then and I am still impressed now. This supplants the Yamazaki 12 as the entry level whisky into the Yamazaki line up.
Price: ~£45 (£44.95 from Master of Malt)
This particular tasting is a real treat for me. The Nikka 12 year old blend has been available in Japan since last September but according to Master Blender Tadashi Sakuma, it will be released in Europe in about 2 months from now (May 1st 2015 as I write this). I was lucky to try this at the Evening with the Blenders Event hosted by the Scotch Whisky Experience. It’s a great event but I won’t go too much into it here.
According to Tadashi, this blend is comprised of whisky from Yoichi and Miyagikyo. Miyagikyo has both pot stills and coffey stills and subsequently create both malt whisky and grain whisky. So this blend is all Japanese unlike some other whiskies release by Nikka which incorporate spirit from Nikka owned Ben Nevis Distillery (Pure malt series and Nikka Black).
While Nikka is known for it’s unusual selection of expressions in Europe including Coffey Malt, pure malts and “double malts” (aka the Taketsuru lineup), I believe this is the first age statement, all Japanese, true blend (using grain and malt whisky) to be released by Nikka in Europe.
Interesting information from Tadashi regarding the well known Pure Malt series, there was a lot of speculation about the use of Islay malt whisky in the Pure Malt White blended malt. He said that while they did use some in the beginning, they now mostly use Yoichi to make up the peaty profile of the blended malt. Makes sense seeing as how Islay whiskies are getting hard to come by due to high demands.
Distillery: Yoichi Malt, Miyagikyo Malt, and Miyagikyo Grain
Expression: Nikka 12 year old blend
Age: 12 Years Old