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Monday, August 14, 2017

Assessing 5 Current Whiskies from Nikka and Suntory

Aside from some of the work done at Shinshu Mars and Chichibu (and Nikka from the Barrel!) the Japanese whisky industry remains the politest shitshow in the whisky world.

No, I'm not going to back up Serge's recent complaints about the mixing of Scotch and Japanese whiskies. I have no problem with this practice—unless the products are labelled "Japanese whisky"—though it would be appropriate for the producers to disclose when this was happening. The foulness of this method falls far short of actions regularly practiced by the American and Scotch whisky industries.

Instead, my ire continues to be focused on the two major players in the Japanese whisky industry, Nikka and Suntory, emptying their warehouses when the rush came, not managing the outgoing assets and having no thoughtful plans on what to do next. Their strategy has since been revealed as: release inferior young whisky mishmashes at a higher price point than the beloved age-stated stuff, and market the hell out of it. Just like the scotch industry. But with a 0% success rate and without any age-statements in the portfolio.

In 2013 and 2014, I was happy to call Japanese whisky my favorite whisky in the world. At this point, the whiskies by the two majors don't match up to most of the results by the Scotch, American, Canadian, English, Irish, Indian, Swedish, Dutch, French, Belgian, South African and Taiwanese industries.

Hell, my naïve 2-liter barrel cockups are better. And yours are too.

No, I'm not bitter. You're bitter.

Our Columbus Scotch Night crew did a Japanese whisky tasting this past Monday, and it inspired me to compare and contrast a handful of the majors' current whiskies to see what's worth drinking, and if my above grievance still holds true. Here are the suspects:

Nikka Coffey Grain, 45%abv - This corn-based single grain has been on the market, along with a Coffey Malt, for a few years. I tried it once at a tasting and found it to be a so-so bourbon imitation. For those wondering why I keep misspelling coffee, it's because "Coffey" is the type of continuous still used to distill this whisky's spirit.
Available worldwide, priced $55-$70

The Nikka 12 year old blended whisky (2016), 43% - Released to celebrate Nikka's 80th anniversary in 2014, this blend came on the scene relatively quietly considering it has an age statement. I almost bought a bottle of it blindly when I was in Japan since it was 60% cheaper there than in Europe.
Available in Europe and Japan, priced $45-$55 (Japan), $100-$130 (Europe)

Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master's Select blended whisky, 43% - Please note, this is not the widely available Japanese Harmony. The Master's Select edition hit the Travel Retail shelves in 2015, functioning as a premium version of the Harmony, or at least a more expensive version. According to the Internets, this is a mix of 10 different whiskies from five different kinds of casks. Take that as you'd like.
Available in Europe, Asia and Travel Retail, priced $70-$130.

Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve, 43% - This is the NAS that has replaced the 12yo. I've had it twice before and have nothing nice to say about those experiences. Like the above Hibiki, this is another mashup whisky. It has American oak, Mizunara, sherry casks AND French oak ex-Bourdeaux casks. I've seen a wide range of age claims about the whiskies inside, from three years to 20 years. May we all assume there's a pittance of 20 year old and Mizunara whisky in this? Yes, we may.
Available in Europe and Japan, priced $40-$60 (Japan), $60-$100 (Europe)

Hakushu Distiller's Reserve, 43% - During my visit to Yamazaki distillery in 2015, the tour group received pours of Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve and Hakushu Distiller's Reserve. No one, and I mean no one, finished either pour. I found the Yamazaki to be flat and hot, and the Hakushu was somehow worse. Later in the trip, I tried them side by side at a bar and had the same sensory experience. I have my expectations for this Hakushu set the lowest of these five whiskies.
Available in Europe, priced $60-$100

Whisky Notes
Nikka Coffey GrainStarts off like a floral cheap bourbon. Cardboard, vodka, paint, vanilla and caramel. It picks up a hint of barbecue sauce, then a whole lot of vanilla after some time in the glass.
The Nikka 12 year old blended whiskyFruity! Cantaloupe, honeydew and plums. Some caramel sauce too. It shifts gears with some air, picking up barley and earth notes. Horse stall. Vanilla bean.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Master's Select blended whisky
Lots of apples. Then cinnamon and pears. Rice pudding. Hints of smoke and barley. Taffy, pound cake and some raisins.
Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve single maltFlat. Yeast, brown rice and carob. Bubblegum and Elmer's glue (a duo indeed). Picks up more grains, flowers and vanilla with time in the glass.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve single maltFresh pears, cinnamon and hint of wood smoke. Toasted grains, plums, cherries and ocean air.

Whisky Notes
Nikka Coffey GrainFlat hot bourbon. Vanilla, barrel char, black pepper and paint. Then salty pork. More and more vanilla with time. Almost all cask.
The Nikka 12 year old blended whiskyEarthy and herbal, with no sweetness at first. Then it sweetens slightly. Light bitterness and acidity. Hint of hard toffee. With time, the earthy note gets almost Ledaig-ish. A hint of sherry cask.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Master's Select blended whisky
Hotter than expected. Very sweet. Vanilla and caramel. And that's it at first. But it softens up with some air. Tart apples, grains, toasted oak, nutmeg and almonds.
Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve single maltOoh. Better than the nose. Confectioner's sugar and marshmallows. Very malty and toasty. Limes, pecans and toasted coconut.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve single maltLight smoke. Low on oak aside from a vanilla hint. Ashy in the back. Marshmallows, apricots and ginger. Has a mineral edge to it too.

Whisky Notes
Nikka Coffey GrainSalt, bitter oak, vinegar, vanilla, barrel char and tangy acidic lemon candy.
The Nikka 12 year old blended whiskyLight bitterness, low on sweetness. Some salt, barley, hint of smoke. Vanilla and lemon cake.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Master's Select blended whisky
Not much. Grains, vanilla, wood smoke, salt and toasted nuts.
Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve single maltLimes, marshmallows, vanilla and toasted coconut. A little sweet and acidic.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve single maltSmoke and barley. Tingly but not sweet. Mineral and lean.

Whisky Notes Rating
Nikka Coffey GrainThis is one step away from being a total embarrassment for one of the world's best whisky producers. Or formerly one of the best. I'd bet Evan Williams Green Label would knock this over in a blind test, at 1/6th the price.
The Nikka 12 year old blended whiskyPerhaps Nikka is best at blended whiskies. This beats the new NAS Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Taketsuru. It's complex and spirit forward. Only at the finish does it start to falter. Though it's well ahead of the other four whiskies here, it would be a hell of a thing at 46%abv. Is it worth $100? No. But at $45 in Japan, it's a decent deal.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Master's Select blended whisky
The nose is very good and is the only aspect that can compete with the late Hibiki 12yo. The palate starts to fizzle and the finish plotzes. Could have used more whisky and less water. Not bad overall, but it doesn't inspire me to try their regular Harmony.
Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve single maltA rare example of a palate that far surpasses the nose. It smells like immature (redundant?) American craft whiskey. It tastes decent, but falls so very short of the great Yamazaki single malts available only yesterday.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve single maltMUCH better than the version I'd tasted in Japan two years ago, and could serve as a gentle lightly smoky daily drinker. But while Hakushu 12yo is often available for a lower price, I don't see why anyone should chase this.

This wasn't the disaster I was anticipating. The Nikka 12 is legit. And thank goodness Hakushu wasn't gross. Other than the grain whisky (which I may have graded too highly), I would try any of these again. But, aside from The Nikka 12, these are all just so-so. And that's more than just one step backwards for these companies. We may need to wait another decade to find out if Suntory and Nikka are motivated to get back to the high quality of their premium whiskies, or if they're satisfied with cranking out cheap blends for the masses indefinitely. The people making the whisky take pride in the whisky, but will the ownership ever follow suit?