Friday, March 1, 2013

Hibiki 12yr

stats: Japanese blended whisky, 43%, $57

My fascination with Japanese whisky is likely fuelled in part by the fact that very little of it has been exported to the United States. In recent months, I’ve written about all three of the Japanese single malts currently available in the U.S. The 12 yr Yamazaki from Suntory led the way in 1990, six years after its 1984 release in Japan. It was slow to catch on here, and we would have to wait fifteen more years for a second option. Finally, in 2005, it was joined by 18 yr Yamazaki, which had been available in its homeland since 1992. And, most recently, whisky from Suntory’s second malt distillery made its way to U.S. shores at the end of 2011, in the form of 12 yr Hakushu (it has been available in Japan since 1994).

The Japanese whisky industry has much in common with the Scottish whisky industry after which it is modeled. Historically, blended whisky has been the mainstay for each of them. While both have seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of single malts over the last 30 years, blends still account for the vast majority of the whisky they produce each year.

It wasn’t until 2010 that one of the many Japanese blended whiskies came to market in the U.S. When I first started to see Hibiki 12 yr on store shelves, I knew very little about it, other than the fact that it was a Suntory product. One thing that immediately stood out was the price; it was roughly 25% more expensive than Yamazaki 12 yr. I found it quite unusual that a blend would cost more than a single malt that was presumably one of its key components if they carried the same age statement. Some investigating was in order.

First a little background information. Hibiki was introduced in 1989 in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Suntory. As far as I can tell, they started with just a 17 year. A 21 year followed in 1994, and a 30 year in 1997. The 12 year was introduced in 2009. The 24 sided bottle represents the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar - perhaps an ode to the whisky's complexity. Hibiki is the Japanese word for “echo” or “resonance”. Everyone I know seems to pronounce the name of this whisky slightly differently. The closest I can come phonetically is hee-bee-kee, with no particular emphasis on any one of the three syllables. An audio clip can be found here.

Hibiki is the product of malt whisky from Yamazaki and Hakushu, as well as grain whisky from Suntory’s Chita distillery. The histories of the first two are fairly well documented, but very little information is available about the Chita grain distillery; it is barely even mentioned on the Suntory website. I wasted untold hours trying to learn more, not so much because it was important for this post, but just because I wanted to know. All I really came up with was a Swedish language whisky forum where one person listed 1972 (with a question mark) as the establishment year for Chita. Another person replied that they began making grain whisky in 1975.

Back to the subject at hand, why is Hibiki rather expensive? It is often refered to as a “premium” or “high-end” blend. Most blends typically contain 60% to 80% grain whisky. Some cheap ones probably go as high as 90% grain, and the best quality blends might have 50% or less. I found one reference claiming that Chita grain whisky comprises roughly 70% of a bottle of Hibiki. Nothing special there, that brings us down to age and cask type.

If a bottle carries an age statement, that is the age of the youngest whisky in the mix. With Yamazaki 12 yr there is probably only a small amount of whisky (if any) that is just a few years older than the stated 12 years. But Hibiki 12 yr may use a much larger range of ages to build complexity. A bit more floundering around on Google brought me to a blog claiming that 75 year old Yamazaki was a component of Hibiki 12 yr. I find that hard to believe, but not impossible. Glenlivet has bottled a 70 year old single malt, and Suntory has bottled some 50 yr Yamazaki, which retailed around $13,000. I got to wondering what would be left in a cask after that much time. I let an Excel spreadsheet do the math for me and found that a 500 liter cask losing 2% of its contents to evaporation each year (assuming it never sprang a leak in all that time) would be down to 110 liters after 75 years. More online research brought me to a site (quoting an official press release) stating that 12 yr Hibiki contained some 30 year old single malt. If the piece about the 75 year old has any truth to it, I suspect that might be the oldest malt in the Hibiki that carries a 30 year age statement.

As I’ve mentioned before, distillers will pay a premium for certain rare casks, adding to the price of the whisky. Some of the Hibiki is supposed to be aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak with a hefty price tag. Some of the whisky in the blend is also finished in casks that formerly held Japanese plum liqueur (Umeshu).

One last item of note that I came across is that Hibiki is mellowed by the additional process of bamboo charcoal filtering. This too would add to the production costs.

Tasting notes:

Medium to light golden in color.
Fairly dense nose, slightly reminiscent of bourbon, primarily with grain and oak notes.
Medium bodied. The flavors are delicate, but build nicely through the mid palate with good complexity. It comes with a little heat, but just enough to give it some backbone, not so much that the flavors are masked. Nicely balanced, with flavors of grain, oak, fruit and mild nuttiness. It has some unique characteristics in the flavor profile, perhaps that is the Mizunara coming through. Smooth transitions from the start through the moderately long finish. A well behaved, approachable blend that doesn’t come across as meek or the result of too much compromise, as blends sometimes can.


T Comp said...

Nikka has also made its way here too. The Taketsuru 12 ($69.99) and Yoichi 15 ($119.99) are at Binny's in Chicago and I heard Julio's also.

VT Mike said...

Thanks for the info. I guess I need to write faster - see my next post.