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.