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.
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
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
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.
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.