If a trip to Daiso or the bento box at your local Sushi Sushi no longer excites your waning case of Japanophilia, then this range of Japanese whiskies by Suntory might just be the jolt your system needs to get back into exploring flavours of Japan and haphazardly singing “I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so”! That jolt is exactly what happened when I attended Suntory’s Exclusive Takeover Event at the Hihou bar in Melbourne on 21 May 2014, though I waited until my trip hope until I started singing.
The evening commenced at 5:30pm with a private tasting led by Mike Miyamoto, the Global Brand Ambassador for Suntory. Mike was the opposite of what you would expect of a brand ambassador, because he spoke with a refreshing honesty that relied on the science of whisky production rather than marketing spin. This reliance on whisky science was a theme throughout his discussion of the Suntory whiskies on tasting (tasting notes of which are below). Equally interesting as his discussion of the history of Suntory and its beginnings in 1923 was his elucidation of the influence of the environment on Suntory’s two major brands, Yamazaki and Hakushu.
The Yamazaki distillery sits near the location where three rivers merge and the resulting “fog” helps reduce angel’s share (the evapouration of whisky) among the ageing casks and ensure those casks remain in a good environment that is not overly dry while ageing. Hakushu is a forest mountainside distillery and this seems to impart “green” or minty notes into the whisky, because oak breathes and the whisky within the casks appears to absorb some of the aromas and flavours surrounding the warehouse as it sits ageing.
The main difference in themes between the Yamazaki and Hakushu is that Yamazaki whisky is made with slightly harder water than Hakushu and Yamazaki (at least the 12 year old and Distiller’s Reserve) has a more pronounced Mizunara oak (Japanese oak) influence, which gives the whisky a distinct spicy kick similar to cinnamon. Hakushu, on the other hand, is made with softer water than Yamazaki, and a theme in the whisky is a gentle campfire smoke that wafts amid layers of green leafy notes, soft fruit and a light creaminess. Put simply, Yamazaki tends to be bolder, zestier and spicier with more expressive Mizunara than its cousin Hakushu which tends to be softer and leafy with hints of smoke. Of course, Yamazaki and Hakushu have different expressions but this seemed to be the distinctiveness of the brands as tasted on the night.
With this in mind, the event showcased the Suntory range available in Australia and paired these whiskies with a selection of delicious Japanese foods from Hihou – oysters, spicy tuna cigars, caviar temaki rolls, sesame brioche with arabiki sausage, grilled wagyu and kingfish ceviche. A particularly enlightening feature of the night was the popularly of highballs, which I am told are very popular in Japan and are simply a measure of whisky with soda water, ice and some mint. It may sound simple, but they are absolutely delicious and remain true to what makes Japanese cuisine great – freshness, simplicity and high quality ingredients (if you use a good whisky!).
Throughout the evening I had the opportunity to taste all six expressions available. Below are my thoughts of each whisky offered on the night, starting with my favourite and ending with my least favourite:
- Yamazaki Distillers’ Reserve: The highlight of the evening in my opinion, Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve is a marriage of whiskies that have been aged in Mizunara oak, Sherry oak and Bordeaux wine barrels. The result is a robust whisky with rich and slightly drying sherry notes that meld nicely with mixed red berries, stone fruit, vanilla and the nip of cinnamon – a delightful introduction into the flavour of Mizunara (Japanese oak).
- Hibiki 17 Year Old: This whisky had that discernable factor that made me want to have another dram, it is first harmonious with no obvious flavour descriptors leaping out. After a while the flavours unfurl with lots of fruit, cereal, vanilla custard, wood, mild hazelnut, cherries, raisin and a drying citrus theme with chocolate.
- Hakushu 12 Year Old: This is a whisky made from very soft water, and it is intended to be quite a gentle dram as a result and perfect for a highball, with its gentle signature campfire smoky character that underpins fruit, citrus, barley and floral notes that shine with hints of mint and a delectable layer of creaminess.
- Yamazaki 12 Year Old: A lovely crisp smoothness fills the palate with candied fruit, soft layers of vanilla and hints of cinnamon that cut through the tang of citrus with apple softening that spicy Mizunara.
- Hakushu Distillers’ Reserve: Heavy raisin and bourbon notes intermingle with cooked apple, mint, blood orange with lemon rind and the classic, but much gentler, Hakushu smoke and the mossy herbal undertones common to this forest distillery.
- Hibiki 12 Year Old: A delightfully smooth blend with a great balance, but lacking in that discernible factor that made me want to have another dram. There was tropical fruit, vanillas and hints of spice but this seemed to be interrupted by a bitter twang.
Overall, the night was very enjoyable but perhaps the most exciting thing to come of it was a confirmation on the evening from a Suntory rep that this is only the tip of the iceberg and there will be more Japanese whisky heading for Australian shores. Now that is something to look forward to, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy Mike’s below video on Suntory!