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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ghost of Whisky Past: Hibiki 21 year old blended Japanese Whisky

In the midst of a major transitional period, a 5-8 year timespan that may prove to be the Dark Ages for its two largest producers, the Japanese whisky market finds itself with only very young stock after once being flush with numerous age-stated single malts and blends of excellent quality.  Over a three year period, with demand far outstripping supply, Suntory and Nikka, two publicly held corporations (whose annual production counts for at least 87% of Japanese malt whisky), elected to drain their aged stock quickly and entirely.

While this makes this former fanatic very bitter, I understand that at some point there was going to be a supply issue.  There just wasn't enough of the good stuff to make everyone happy.  What I do question is the management of this supply.  There are ways to regulate outturns and control the market, stretching the stock out another few years while the newer spirit aged.  Yamazaki 12 was heavily stocked at all major retailers week after week, priced at $45 (locally), until it was suddenly totally gone.  Limiting the amounts being exported and raising the MSRP -- which is being done by some Scottish and American whisky producers -- would have irritated many customers, but those same folks would have been much happier to at least have had the option to purchase it at all.  I can see how that may limit short term revenues, but would it have really been worse than tanking a decade's worth of sales just to make a good profit for a few years?

What we're left with are NASes (non-age statement whiskies) from Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibki, Taketsuru, Yoichi, and Miyagikyo.  Having tried the NASes from the Suntory brands, I don't expect to be buying their products for a long long time.  I do hold out hope that Nikka can make something decent, but what price tag will they apply?  And will the quality of From the Barrel, a dynamite blend, take a dive as a result?

Whisky is much less fun with Japanese whisky in this shape.  (No, Chichibu is not an option while its 3 year old whisky sells for $200-$300.)  I hope the recovery is successful, but when Suntory's and Nikka's aged stock comes back on line there are going to be a lot more whisk(e)y options for consumers in 2023 than there were in 2013.

From the golden years of age statements, here's Hibiki 21, a premium blend from Suntory's Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries.  Five years ago, its US average price was $145.  Today that average has crossed $500, with a number of LA retailers selling it for $800.  I always found the 12yo and 17yo to be pleasant well crafted whiskies.  I've never had the 21 until now.  Thank you to Aaron Krouse (aka aaron197172 of Booze Dancing) for generously providing this sample.

Brand: Hibiki
OwnershipSuntory Whisky
Country: Japan
Distilleries: Yamazaki and Hakushu for malt, Chita for grain
Age: minimum 21 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon casks, ex-sherry casks, and Mizunara casks
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Its color is a medium dark gold.

My first written note about the nose: "Rly fucken good." That's probably not helpful.  I suppose some specifics are called for.  Firstly, it noses like a much older single malt, like a gorgeous old 30-40 year old Speyside.  Graceful old oak, delicate tropical fruit, a toffee-coffee-baked-apple-and-apricot warm dessert.  After a while, the toffee almost takes over.  Then some salty air and small notes of tangerines and honey.

The palate feels both old and young.  There's dried fruit, ginger, peppercorns, a floral tea, very dark chocolate, and thick malt.  It's not as delicate as expected.  Nice and dry.  Brief moments of wood smoke and pipe tobacco.  A cooling sensation at the end.

There's old musty creaky oak in the finish.  Some soft sherry and roasted malt.  Armagnac dark cherries (specifically the ones I make; someday I'll have to post the recipe).  Tiny bitter notes and cracked pepper linger longest.

My goodness what a nose.  I'm talking about an all time Top Ten sniffer.  Four hours after the tasting the glass was redolent of the richest caramel sauce.  Had the palate matched the nose, this would have topped Yamazaki 18 as my favorite Japanese whisky.  That's not to say the palate isn't good, in fact it's very good.  It's never sweet, always pleasantly dry.  Very very malty.  It just doesn't stun like the nose.  I also expected a little more time and character in the finish.  But this still gets into the 90-point zone because of that nose.  Though Hibiki 12 and 17 are decent blends, this lives in a separate dimension.

Of course I wish it hadn't tripled in price over the past 5 years.  If you don't mind spending this kind of money, then there are many worse whiskies you can get at this price.  This is in fact, luxurious.  I'm hard pressed to think of a better blended whisky.

(Also, see the reviews by LAWS, Coopered Tot, Booze Dancing, and Whiskyfun for their experiences.)

Availability - Scarce in the US, easier to find in the rest of the world
Pricing - avg price in US is near $500, in Europe it's near $350. It can be found for less than $300 if you do some deeper digging
Rating - 90