Two of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory). He started importing western liquor and he later created a brand called “Akadama Port Wine”, based on a Portuguese wine which made him a successful merchant. However, he was not satisfied with this success and so he embarked on a new venture which was to become his life’s work: making Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Despite the strong opposition from the company’s executives, Torii decided to build the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, an area so famous for its excellent water that the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū built his tearoom there.
Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. Taketsuru had studied the art of distilling in Scotland, and brought this knowledge back to Japan in the early 1920s. Whilst working for Kotobukiya he played a key part in helping Torii establish the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1934 he left Kotobukiya to form his own company—Dainipponkaju—which would later change its name to Nikka. In this new venture he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaidō.
The first westerners to taste Japanese whisky were soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force Siberia who took shore leave in Hakodate in September 1918. A brand called Queen George, described by one American as a “Scotch whiskey made in Japan”, was widely available. Exactly what it was is unknown, but it was quite potent and probably quite unlike Scotch whisky.
Ironically, this is a blended whisky. Japan has a vibrant history of whisky blending. Much like in Scotland, early market successes were inexpensive blended whiskies in a light style. Social drinking in Japan these days focuses on whisky highballs – cooling drinks made with blends or lighter malts mixed with ice and soda water – because Japan’s very hot and very humid climate demand a lighter style of whisky, devoid of heavier (or peated) flavors.
Hibiki 12 is a widely-acclaimed blend of 12 year-old (or greater) Japanese whisky from global giant Suntory. It includes malts from Yamazaki and Hakushu and grain from Chita distillery, along with whiskies from several other Japanese distilleries. The components are aged in a variety of casks including ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and casks that once held Umeshu, a plum liqueur (making Hibiki 12 unique, as this bottling is the only Suntory product with malt aged in Umeshu casks). The vatting of these whiskies is then filtered through bamboo charcoal and bottled at 43% ABV.
Nose: Orange peel, and some very aromatic florals (cherry blossom?). The grain component is soft and yeasty, and an altogether foreign aroma pervades – this is when I race to my computer to learn this whisky is partially matured in plum liqueur casks. That explains it – now I can’t get plum sauce out of my nostrils. At any rate, it’s all very well-balanced and artful.
Palate: Not as creamy as expected, but the grain is soft and there is a pillowy texture to it. Light malt, light wood (marshmallow), and a teasing bright, acidic young fruitiness. The little bit of oak present here is nothing more than a frame for holding the canvas of grain on which these flavors are painted. Woah, apparently Japanese whisky makes me wax poetic. Did I already talk about cherry blossoms?
Finish: There’s the plum again, and the grain whisky yields to some really nice steamed bun and buttered scone flavors. The finish is quite short, leaving behind only a minerally taste – like good spring water. Very clean and crisp.
With Water: A few drops of water makes the nose somewhat more cereally. However, it really makes the fruit notes dance on the tongue – lots of fresh acidity and green fruits appear. This dram is definitely well-served by a small (SMALL) addition of water.
Overall: For me, this dances circles around every Yamazaki single malt I’ve had, even the 18. Where Yamazaki seems to be all about heat and banana (its effect on me is very similar to that of younger Amrut whiskies), this is elegant and poised, with high-contrast flavors rising out of a mild, subtle background of impeccable grain. The plum liqueur cask’s effect is profound yet not at all overpowering, and makes the dram refreshingly unique. For what it’s worth, I liked this one so much that I stopped in the middle of writing this post to go order a bottle. I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever done such a thing. That makes it a “Must Have”, since apparently I “must have” it enough to order it on the spot. While this whisky is particularly good in cocktails, highballs, or just with soda water and/or ice. I think it’s 100% good enough to sip and savor straight up. That said, the first thing I’ll be doing with my bottle of Hibiki 12 is mixing up a Japanese whisky highball!
Rating: ★★★★★★ 6/10
★: Drink out of a paper bag in a gutter during a storm.
★★: Terrible, only drink for a dare.
★★★: Meh, not undrinkable but best left alone.
★★★★: Best served mixed with something with flavor.
★★★★★: Reasonable, middle of the road.
★★★★★★: Tasty stuff, well worth seeking out.
★★★★★★★: Impressive, something you can proudly share with friends.
★★★★★★★★: Fantastic addition to any bar or collection.
★★★★★★★★★: Incredible, booze doesn’t get better than this.
★★★★★★★★★★: Nectar of the God’s, sell the house and move in next to the Distillery/Brewery.