- On January 7, 2016
It’s easy to be mired in ennui the first week of January. It’s cold, you’re partied out and you perhaps have a resolution hanging over your head. How and when can we break through these doldrums? Easy. It’s Suntory Time.
After winning much critical praise and many awards, Japanese whisky has truly come to the forefront of modern craft spirits. Suntory produces a number of Japanese products, but the ones we see exported are three brands: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Beam-Suntory owns a number of whisk(e)y distilleries around the globe, but none are as hot right now as the malt coming from the Yamazaki distillery just outside the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, in Shimamoto. Suntory Yamazaki was opened in 1923 by company founder Shinjiro Torii, and represented the first commercial distillery in Japan. Torii was influenced by classic Scottish production methods and styles and built his distillery to suit. Generally, most Japanese whiskys are quite reminiscent of Scotch, and could easily be mistaken for a mild Highland or robust Lowland. The US imports about 60% of what Yamazaki exports, with the bulk of their stock remaining in Japan. As the popularity of these whiskys has rapidly increased, supplies are quite limited. This has led to vast scarcities and a loss of labels across the board. Yamazaki 18 has become a ghost, and the 12 year has become the ingot of gold one seeks hungrily for. The 12 pours a pale gold color, with big fruit and flower aromas on the nose. The palate brings a soft spice characteristic with some nuttiness and demerara notes. The finish stays with you for a while, all marzipan and citrus zest. ($79.99)
Suntory Hakushu was built in 1973, half a century after Yamazaki opened its doors, and was founded by Torii’s son Keizo Saji. The distillery is at a much higher altitude, nestled in a mountain forest. One of the signature differences between Japanese whiskys and others around the world is the wood they age their spirit in. The Japanese have experimented with Japanese Oak (aka Mizunara), which is a very porous wood with a huge amount of vanillin. This gives the spirit a fruity, sweet flavor that is almost akin to a very weighty rum. Mizunara is used cautiously and carefully in aging as barrels made from it are prone to leaking and/or damage, thus it is primarily used the finishing barrels for the malts. Now, the biggest difference between the Hakushu and Yamazaki malts in specific is the peating taking place at Hakushu. The barley malt is very lightly dried/smoked with imported peat moss, giving it an earthiness. Suntory calls Hakushu “the verdant distillery” and their whisky definitely has a green, herbaceous flavor to it. Their 12 year is a shade paler than the Yamazaki. The nose is bright and green with apple and conifer notes. On the tongue it dances around with a gentle peat and menthol quality as well as signature Suntory fruitiness. The finish is light, but long, with tea notes vanishing in a puff of smoke. ($79.99)
The final whisky we will discuss is perhaps the most emblematic of the Suntory whiskys, as well as the hardest to find! Hibiki 17 is all but gone. Hibiki 12 has (possibly) been discontinued and replaced with a NAS (non age statement) Japanese Harmony. Even this spirit is impossible to come by. For the sake of completeness, we will walk through this whisky, but alas we have none on the shelves. Such a tease, we know! Hibiki is a blended whisky, with malts coming from the two previously mentioned distilleries and grain whisky sourced from the Chita site. In a strange twist, some of the included whiskeys spend the final stage of their aging in plum liqueur casks. The final blend is inherently a bit on the sweet side, but not in a cloying or unwelcome way. Ripe tropical fruit with malt powder and cream burst forth across your tongue. Marzipan resurfaces with a bit of light pepper and honey. All wrapped up with an incredibly light, refreshing finish. An impeccably balanced, malt-heavy, gulpable blend if we may so. (12 year $79.99)
The ennui will pass, hopefully in time to stop down to the Trylon on February 1st or 2nd to take in Sofia Coppola’s fantastic Lost in Translation, which features the fantastic Hibiki 17 amongst other great Suntory whiskeys. When it’s Suntory Time, we’ll be there. Will you?