Friday, February 19, 2010
Review: Suntory Yamazaki Hibiki 12 Year Old Blended Whiskey
With so many fine Scotches, Irish whiskeys, Bourbons and Ryes out there, I admit I haven't given much thought or time to Japanese whiskey over the years. I don't think I've necessarily been alone in this. The U.S. profile of Japanese whiskey is hardly a towering one. But all oversights are amended eventually over time, and a combination of a visit to Whiskeyfest and the arrival of a few Suntory Yamazaki bottles through the mail afforded me the opportunity to have a good long sit-down with whiskey from the Far East.
Suntory is, of course, the Japanese whiskey distillery that even people who don't know anything about Japanese whiskey have heard of. The Yamazaki distillery dating back to the 1920s. They produce (for U.S. consumption, anyway) a 12-year-old and 18-year-old (introduced in 2004) single malt whiskey, made from malted barley sent through copper pot stills. The distillate is aged in oak barrels, usually used Bourbon and Sherry casks, but also some Japanese oak barrels. Though Japan has seen Scotland as its model since the beginning, the resultant whiskeys are very much their own thing, and taste, in my view, little like Scotch. This partly has to do with the vast differences in climate between Scotland and Japan, and partly to do with the distinctive influence of the Japanese barrels.
Overall, I find the Yamazaki single malts to be less spicy and densely flavored than their counterparts in Scotland. The 18 year old is a light whiskey, yet viscous and candied. The Sherry and Bourbon influences come through. There's cinnamon and nutmeg hidden in there, but they're easy to overlook. And to me there seems to be a hollowness at the center. Still, this is a good dram that few would complain of. And I could see it being a more agreeable companion to a steak dinner than a Scotch would be.
Any criticisms of Suntory single malts, however, seem to evaporate as the whiskey ages. I was also sent some Yamazaki 1984, which arrived on U.S. shores last fall, the first vintage Yamazaki offered here. Just as I like the 18YO vastly more than the 12YO, I liked this immensely more than the 18. It has a deep orange color, and the nose is sweet and luxurious, with orange, caramel, and mellow spice. The palate is silky smooth. The spice is subtle and burnished. Burnt orange, toast and marmalade. Beautiful stuff.
But now to the main event.
Last year, Yamazaki introduced to the U.S. its blended Japanese whiskey, the 12-year-old Hibiki. And it's a winner. It feels weird for me to say I prefer a maker's blended whiskey to their single malt, but I do here. It is smooth beyond words, yet not simple or superficial. Toffee, light caramel, cream, orange and apple and Sherry come through, and enough subtle spice to power several batches a of Christmas cookies, plus the subtle but defining influence of Japanese plum liqueur barrels, in which some of the distillate was aged. (A hint of Slivowitz, I have to say.) A solid, studied, complicated whiskey, yet completely approachable and just plain fun to drink.
If I like the 12 this much, think of what awaits inside a bottle of the 17YO Hibiki, which exists, just not on Yankee soil.