The world of whisk(e)y is not short of icons, but some are so memorable, so compelling and so utterly in a class of their own they rest in singular isolated splendor. Suntory’s Hibiki 12 Japanese Whisky is one of those.
Despite my having been fully aware of Suntory, from their standard, low cost blended whisky made for heavy dilution in highballs, the customary way to drink most whisky in Nihon, all the way to the quite well made single malts of Yamazaki and Hakushu, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I had my first Hibiki 12 as a result of the gentle urging of Suntory brand ambassador and bartender of note, Neyah White.
In his peripatetic sojourn on behalf of Suntory---and few people work as hard or speak so eloquently for their brands as he---Neyah stopped by Portland and arranged a tasting wherein he revealed the Hibiki 12.
Love at first sip is possible.
In this relatively new single malt world, it’s all the rage to sing the glories of pure malt whisky, and glories are there to sing about. But the blended whiskies can be exceptional as well. Usually, the lighter grain whisky that forms the base of Blended Scotch and Scotch-style whisky and which may make up to 70% or more of the blend is oh-so-politely not mentioned in public. Fact is, though, Scotch itself did not reach its apex of popularity around the world until Andrew Usher came up with the brilliant idea of putting together the heavy pot-distilled single malts of the Highlands of Scotland with the much lighter and more delicately flavored column-still grain spirits, usually from the Lowlands. Thus Blended Scotch was born, and remains to this day the most consumed style of Scotch whisky. Over 90% of Scotch consumed, in fact, is Blended Scotch Whisky.
In Japan, which emulated Scotch whisky as the ideal, the single malts are the most revered as well. But not always. Hibiki is proudly, conspicuously, formed by precise and artful blending of different malt whiskies from different sources, aged in differing oak barrels, and then blended delicately with superbly light and lacy grain spirits for a distinctive style. And the element that makes it even more distinctive, indeed elevates it to true iconic status, is the inclusion in the blend of umeshu whisky.
Umeshu? Wazzat? Umeshu is a tradition in Japan, where it is common for families to make and age their own plum liqueur in small casks. Suntory does their own umeshu-cask aging to blend into the Hibiki. It’s deftly done so the aromatics are not heavy but are undeniably there, and after your first whiff of Hibiki you’ll have the memory of plum sauce fixed in your mind and sense memory.
There is fresh apple fruitiness and a wisp of spice as well, for this is a marvelously complex and multi-faceted whisky blend. The oak is actually a discreet background player here, yielding to the mellow fruit---for in another interesting touch, Hibiki is gently filtered (whisky puristas prefer the term “mellowed”) through fresh bamboo charcoal to further soften and…well, mellow…the textures and tastes.
Hibiki 12 is a delightful confection all by itself, but add a touch---and just a touch, no need to overdo it---of chilled water and watch the oily tangle and flow in the glass and smell the suddenly more fruity whisky, and you’ll appreciate that intriguing moment in whisky when a small dilution does not diminish but expands the intensity of the experience. Seriously, it’s akin to magic.
If you haven’t tried Hibiki, do so. Then you’ll find yourself introducing others to it, with a strange expansive since of pride in allowing others to experience the same moment of delight you enjoyed. Trust me: they will thank you for it afterwards.
When you’re literally a one-of-a-kind whisky, you can truly say “It’s as good as it gets.”