Hibiki (12 year) Japanese Whisky

I have not had the best of luck with Japanese whisky up to this point. I had read that the Japanese love of artistry, obsessive technical prowess, and passion for the Scottish style of whisky made for a confluence of whiskymaking excellence. However, something about Yamazaki (Japan’s premiere single malt) and I don’t mix. Luckily, I found what I was looking for in Hibiki 12. 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!

If you’ve been holding back from trying Japanese whisky, I suggest starting with this one instead of Yamazaki. It’s not cheap (I paid $65 for a very attractive 750ml bottle), but don’t let the fact that it’s a blend deter you from paying for it.

Hibiki (12 year) Japanese Whisky
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $55 - $65
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) masterofmalt.com
Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , ,
11 Comments

11 Responses to Hibiki (12 year) Japanese Whisky

  1. Frank W. says:

    Even more expensive here in Illinois at $69, but I confess to having bought and drank three bottles already…I was hoping to keep this one quiet. One of the tastiest whiskeys out there, in my humble opinion.

  2. Ben says:

    Frank, where did you find? I’m in Peoria. Can’t find at local stores or Binny’s website.

    • Frank W. says:

      Fairview Heights, IL. Randall’s. Long drive from Peoria…I know because I have to drive up there in Oct for Cross Country State meet. Any good liquor stores I should visit?

  3. Martin says:

    I would stay away from japanese whisky because of such high volume of radiation. Suntory distillery is very close to the 2011 tsunami area.

    • David says:

      I dont think Suntory would risk its entire brand on whisky, I am sure that they would have conducted proper tests and would not release any whisky that could even have possible trace of radiation. Just does not seem like Suntory to take that sort of risk.

    • Search Google for “Japanese whisky radiation” – there are a few good points of view on the subject. I agree with Nonjatta (the premiere Japanese whisky blog) – when he says that even if the whisky were contaminated AND was somehow not tested between the distillery and the retailer, that radiation levels (based on publicly-available measurements) would still be lower than what the average traveler is exposed to at TSA security checkpoints in airports. There’s also an article from Master of Malt’s blog that states that Number One Drinks, the biggest importer of Japanese whisky into the US, has voluntarily submitted samples of all of its Japanese whisky products for voluntary testing. I don’t think they import Hibiki, but they do import most of the rest of the brands. Their third-party lab revealed no contamination whatsoever.

    • V says:

      Maybe that will be something to worry about in some years (though I doubt it), but the grain for the Hibiki whisky you’re buying today was grown long before the Fukushima accident, and it was distilled no later than 2002 (I’m writing this reply in 2014). Heck, even most of the aging happened before the accident.

  4. Eric says:

    I’ve yet to try this whisky, but it is on my to buy list. That said, I am sorry to hear that your experiences with Japanese whiskies have been mixed overall. Have you tried Nikka Yoichi 15 yet? It somehow manages to be mellow and easy drinking, yet bold with peat and sherry influences . . . all at the same time. It’s a bit pricey at around $120 where I live, but it is a top 5 all time whisky for me.

  5. Jason Debly says:

    Hibiki 17 is the single finest whisky I have ever had, bar none. Simply outstanding and it is a blended whisky! Tastes like the greatest of Speyside single malts though.

    Unfortunately, Hibiki 17 is not available in the US, but if you get to Japan, you must seek out this magical gem of a whisky.

  6. EricG says:

    Just tried some of this stuff. Very good; it’s priced like a single malt, but it’s as good as one. In addition to having been partially aged in plum wine barrels, it looks like it spent some time in Japanese mizunara oak barrels. If my experience with Bastille 1789 is any indication, once you move away from the basic American and European oak, things start getting really interesting.

  7. GeneN says:

    Happened to see a bottle of Hibiki 12 at Costco on July 20th 2014 (apparently Costco got a small batch of this stuff distributed, get it while it lasts). It is priced at $57 or so which makes it great deal. Not to mention it’s absolutely fantastic whiskey! Best I can describe it as ‘flawless’, as in lacking any flaws. Don’t let relatively young age scare you, there are plenty older whiskeys that are nowhere as good and very few that are on the same level. Very highly recommended both for a beginner and connoisseur.

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