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

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  • 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.

    • 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?

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

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Just turned 21 a few weeks ago, and have a bottle of this and a Glencairn on the way as my first nice whisky to experience!

    I’m told it’s uncommon for inexperienced drinkers to appreciate whisky, but having a taste of Crown Royal and Goerge Dickel 12 really piqued my interest. The depth of flavor and complexity in whisky is amazing, and I can’t fathom how people can stand to just drink thin yellow beer all their lives.

    I’m thinking maybe try Highland Park or maybe a good Bourbon next! (:

  • Agree with all comments above about the Hibiki 17 – the 12 is very nice, but the 17 is just outstanding. My main problem is that my current bottle probably won’t last until my next trip to Japan this year (especially now that some of my friends know that I have one). Certainly don’t hesitate if you ever see either in your travels.

  • Where I live the liquor stores are state controlled, so the only price I can get this stuff at is $90, is it still worth buying at this price?

    • I guess that depends on what else you can buy for $90. If your prices are higher than mine across the board, then I’d say my recommendations hold, but you have to adjust your price expectations upwards by 50%. If Hibiki 12 is especially expensive, while other whiskies are more in-line with my prices, then I’d say no, I wouldn’t pay extra just to get my hands on Hibiki 12. Another example, I can buy Laphroaig 10 year Quarter-Cask here for $43. My friend on the East Coast of the US can’t find any Laphroaig for less than $60. I wouldn’t pay that much for it because I have lower price expectations for it.

      • Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Laphraoig 18 (plus $10 left over), Lagavulin 16, Glendronach 15, Redbreast 15, Glenfiddich 18 (when it goes on sale), Laphraoig cask Strength (with $10 to spare). That’s why I’m pretty hesitant to get it when I can simply get another bottle of what I listed above. At $70 and under it would be a must buy for me, but at that price it has some really tough competition.

        For japanese malts I’m actually looking into getting the taketsuru 21 (it won best blended malt 4 times, narrow category but still) with my tax return if I don’t get the glendronach 21 or laphraoig 25.

  • I just pick a bottle up for $49 at total wine in Dallas. It’s pretty good, light, easy going . However, I have some beef with you Scotch Noob. Since I followed your recommendation and picked up a bottle of Talisker 10, nothing else I have is the same. Doesn’t even come close to the Tal. Not even my beloved Abelour abunadh brings me the joy it once did. I’ve tried Glenmorange, Glen Grant, Nikka 12, Aberlour abunadh, Macallan 10, Glenmorange De Nectar, Glen Dronach 12, habiki 12. Where do I go from here? Laproigh 10?

  • Anyone know if the price of this have gone up? I can’t find a bottle under $95 for the 12 and $65 for Harmony in my area. Still picked a bottle up, but I can’t help but think I over payed by a lot.

    • Hi Matt,
      Since the 12 is being replaced by the Harmony, my guess is that some places have increased the retail price due to the perceived rarity (they’ve been told by distributors that this was the last batch they’ll receive).

  • Hibiki 12 is available at several places in San Francisco. The 17 I have only been able to find at one mom and pop store, and it’s nearly $200.

    Back in May 2015, the local Costco had several cases of the 12 and 17, going for $59 and $119 respectively.

    If anyone knows a place in Northern California to get the 17 for less than $200 please let me know!

  • Sadly in Central Europe the Hibiki 12yo costs around 100€ which seems way too much.
    Have you tried the Hibiki Japanese Harmony? If so, how does it compare to the 12yo?

      • Too bad! I’ve read that the Harmony was a little flatter…

        Anyway, thanks for the answer and keep up the good work! 😀

  • Check out small liquor stores in the Bay Area… you’d be surprised to find some Hibiki’s. Went to a liquor store in Union City (sorry, forgot the name) and they had their last 3 Hibiki 12’s on sale for $80 (from $100; maybe they couldn’t sell it which is surprising). I bought them all. They’re becoming scarce, so stocking up on aged bottles since there will be no more. It’s actually fun hunting for them!

  • The current rage on Japanese whiskies borders on downright silly. As noted, this bottle is increasingly hard to find, but I recently stumbled across some bottles in the northeast US for around $120 (!!!) As for the quality, yes it’s pretty good. The nose is simply spectacular with the plum influence shining most brightly, but the finish doesn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain. It’s shorter than Donald Trump’s temper, in fact. I admit I love the way the 12-sided bottle it looks behind glass and under a spotlight in my bar, but alas the Harmony bottle is identical in stature with just a slightly different label…and for half the price.

  • I believe that the Hibiki 12 (along with pretty much all of the Yoichi and Miyagikyo whiskies) are no longer in production. That could be a reason for the increase in price

  • Love the Hibiki 12. But with it being around $100 and hard to find, I keep looking for a Scotch/Irish/Bourbon alternative. Anything you can think of with a similar taste profile? Hibiki 17 is currently my beesknees but it’s going for aroun $200-220.

    • Hi Joe, nothing really is going to have that plum wine / sandalwood character. In terms of light-and-subtle, the non-finished Balvenies are close, as are Auchentoshan (the 10 and classic are pretty bland though) and even Glenmorangie 10 or 18. Hibiki is a blend, so probably the closest you’re going to find is a high-quality blend, like the Ballantine’s 17 or (probably the closest) Great King Street: Artist’s Blend. Bourbons and ryes will all be too potent to compare well, but Angel’s Envy is light (and port finished), so that’s probably closest among bourbons. Lastly, there’s American Single Malt like the St. George single malt from California, which is light and fruity (aged, depending on the batch, in eau de vie casks). Lastly, some Canadian blends are light and subtle – the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is cheap and has a similar profile. Hope that helps!

      • Funny. Because my favorite closest whisky is Balvenie single barrel 15 … which I fell in love with right before I found out it was discontinued, for a sherry finished version.

        They did release a SiB 12, so I’ll try that next.

  • I love this Scotch, and drink little else. I keep several cases of this, Toki, and all the Auchentoshans handy. Even better, all free! (Neighbor does marketing for Jim Beam)

  • I haven the had the 12 year, but the Hibiki Harmony is excellent, IMHO. Have been a whisky drinker now for some time, and haven’t found anything (reasonably priced) topping johnny walker black aside from hibiki. (Suggestions welcome!)

    So glad you mentioned the plum casks! Couldn’t place the flavor, but my wife loves plum wine, and after reading the article, the flavor profile couldn’t be clearer! (Drinking it now 🙂 )

    Bought a bottle of yamazaki 12 year sometime recently, but I agree the hibiki feels more nuanced – the spice and plum flavors merge incredibly well…

    Anyhow, thanks for your post!