2021 BRINGS GOOD NEWS FOR YAMAZAKI AND HIBIKI DIEHARDS
Trends in the world of alcohol tend to ebb and flow, but Japanese whisky seems to be here to stay. Within the last few years, the spirit has grown considerably in popularity. Part of that might be due in position to a rarity factor (scarcity is perhaps one of the world’s best and oldest marketing tactics), but it might also be because Japanese whisky is just really good.
When you see the phrase whisky, it’s easy to think about Scotch, but Japanese whisky is closer in taste to something akin to bourbon than it is any single malt scotch. This factor makes it great to enjoy, regardless of how you ultimately decide to enjoy it, grabbing a bottle of Japanese whisky is a great way to try a new and legitimately exciting spirit that you might have otherwise missed out on.
Each year, the Yamazaki distillery would release a new edition of their 12 Year Old Yamazaki Single Malt. While the label and box changed often, the incredible liquid inside remained the same. This whisky has now picked up more awards than one would care to count and that only goes to highlight it’s supreme quality. Sadly, there was no release in 2019 and 2020.
The hard luck story didn’t stop there. Production of age-stated Hibiki whisky, one of the most popular premium blended ranges to come out of Japan, was also stopped. The bottles are iconic, veritable decanters featuring 24 facets that represent the 24 small seasons of Japan and the hours in a day. The core range previously included the Hibiki 12 Year-Old, its youngest whisky, which was discontinued in 2015, before the Hibiki Harmony NAS was introduced.
The rise of shochu and the steep drop of whisky consumption in Japan during the 80s saw many producers reduce production output, a move that has turned around and hit the whisky world of today. A Nikkei Asia Review showcased the huge sales growth Japanese whisky has experienced in the past 15 years to meet an ever-growing demand. The focus is on age-stated expressions which, according to many online retailers and stores in Japan, sell out immediately after being placed on the shelves, both real and virtual, cost no bar.
Lessons learned, the major Japanese whisky maker will not commit the mistake of running out of stock again. Since 2013, Suntory has invested over $182 million in ramping up production. Stills have been added to both the Yamazaki and Hakushu sites and the company’s Ohmi Ageing Cellar has undergone a large expansion. An extra $80 million will be invested through 2020-21 to expand the Hakushu ageing facilities.
Touch wood, that situation has changed. Suntory, which owns both brands, has stated that they will be launching two of their most popular expressions this May, the Yamazaki single malt and one from the Hibiki Harmony blended range. The primary market will be the USA, where Trump imposed a blanket 25% tariff on Scotch single malts and liqueurs, ramping up their prices and forcing a 20% drop in sales if the Corona virus is not factored in. As always, the new Yamazaki will feature a new and modernised look, also promised for the Hibiki.
The new Yamazaki, a limited release, will return to its taste of the 1996-2005 era casks. The new make has been aged in virgin Mizunara Japanese oak casks, aiming to recapture the banana, incense, and coconut notes Mizunara is best known for. Rich sherried fruits, subtle spices and a plethora of other intriguing notes should also be found in a glass of this exceptional whisky. It will comprise single malts 12 years old or more.
The 43% ABV 75° proof (86° in the USA) is programmed to be ceremonially released on 25 May, at a cost of 8,000¥ (US$75), initially at home before winging its way into its established main markets globally, USA first.
The Hibiki Harmony Blended Whisky returns: The new Hibiki Harmony is back albeit in a slightly different avatar, the Hibiki Blossom Harmony. The Blossom comes from the cherry blossom casks used, the first time ever. The primary single malt remains the Hakushu, buttressed by the Yamazaki and the grains revolve around the Chita. The blending was done in Sakura (cherry blossom) casks. The incredible decanter hasn’t changed an iota, being Hibiki’s USP. The carton and label have changed, to stress subtle nuances of Japanese beauty and the essence of the multi-faceted word, blossom.
Also a limited release, Suntory avers this expression was primarily created as a gift. Accordingly, its sales will be spread across Japan more widely, even if in limited numbers. The trend of Sakura cask-finishing is nothing new and has been used widely across numerous brands in Japan. Suntory has also used a Sakura cask in its single grain release from its grain distillery, Chita under the expensive Essence of Suntory three-bottle range of February 2018. We can expect signature beguiling aromas of apricots, orange blossom and marmalade, bolstered by the subtle spiciness of cinnamon and clove. The generous fruit, with oranges and apricots in abundance and the peppery spice should integrate well with the outflows from the wood.
The Hibiki Blossom Harmony is bottled at 43% ABV and will accompany the Yamazaki in the ceremonial release slated for 25 May, again at a cost of 8,000¥ (US$75). A global release should follow.
New Releases From MARS Distilleries
Located between Japan’s soaring Southern Alps and the towering Central Alps, at just over 2,600 feet, Mars Shinshu is Japan’s highest whisky distillery. The Hombo family have been distilling for more than a century and added whisky to their repertoire in 1949. At that time the distillery was located in the Tsunuki region of Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern-most island of Kyushu.
Until 1984, it was the southernmost whisky made in Japan, which ended when the Hombo clan moved the distillery to the idyllic alpine setting of Miyada village in southern Nagano Prefecture, Central Japan. They chose this site for its cool temperature, which slowed maturation, and the plentiful soft granite filtered snowmelt fed aquifers.
In 2016, Hombo Shuzo reopened and introduced new pot stills to their first distillery location in Kagoshima now known as the Mars Tsunuki Distillery, once again Japan’s southernmost distillery. They also built an ageing facility on a tiny island known as Yakushima, a National World Heritage site, where they now age spirits from both Shinshu and Tsunuki distilleries.
Mars recently announced the release of three new whiskies nationwide in the United States through its importer. These include one bourbon styled brand, the IWAI 45, and two single malts, Komagatake 2020 and Tsunuki the First.
Tsuniki The First 59.0% ABV 700 ml
The first release from Tsunuki Distillery has finally arrived! The climate at the Tsunuki Distillery is drastically different being near sea level, with higher humidity and fluctuating temperatures. The goal of the new distillery is to not necessarily increase production, but to experiment with terroir. This is the first ever Mars release that has been both distilled and aged entirely at sea level. This anticipated single malt is aged for 4 yrs in ex-bourbon and sherry barrels and does not disappoint.
Distilled in 2016/17, this superb expression was then laid to mature in bourbon barrels. The distillery workers would have tasted the whisky along every step of the way before deciding that they had it just right for bottling in 2020. It comes in at 59% ABV and brings citrus fruits, vanilla and fresh bread on the nose, followed by more sweet fruits, grassy notes and gentle spices on the palate. The finish is of medium length with a soft sweetness and cracked black pepper.
It’s a truly memorable and exciting new whisky that highlights the expertise and knowledge of those working at Mars, though with them having so much experience in the industry that’s hardly surprising. The First kicks off the Mars whisky range in style and given it is literally ‘the first’ whisky from the distillery, a lot more is expected to come from them in the coming weeks, months and years, as they look to carve their niche in the Japanese whisky market.
2020 Shinshu Mars Distillery Komagatake Limited Edition Single Malt Japanese Whisky (700ml) 50% ABV
Released to celebrate the newly reconstructed distilling site at Nagano (pictured on the label), this limited edition has been aged in Sherry casks and American oak. According to at least one reviewer, it's the best Komagatake annual release yet! Very limited stocks. 50% Alc./Vol. Non chill filtered.
Matured in ex-Bourbon oak and then new American oak and Sherry Oak. The whisky is lightly peated to 3.5PPM imparting a slight earthiness to the whisky.
Nose: A very clean malt that expresses fresh green apples and pears, citrus and vanilla with some toasted hazelnuts. Really pleasing seeing as it’s so young.
Palate: Oak reveals itself first and marries with spice. Lemon meringue pie, melon balls and vanilla dominate the palate.
Finish: Oak and citrus, orchard fruits and spice.
Bartender Spirits Awards Whisky Of The Year: Meiyo 17 Japanese Whisky Kumesen Distillery Bags Whisky Producer Of The Year
From Japan’s Kumesen Distillery in Okinawa, Meiyo Single Grain Japanese whisky is aged for 17 years in ex-bourbon barrels has won the Whisky of the Year award by bartenders and mixologists of the USA.
Aged for 17 years in ex-bourbon casks, Meiyo is distilled, aged, and bottled at the Kumesen distillery in Okinawa, Japan. Meiyo is the principle that represents Honour in Bushido, the Samurai code of conduct. The 42% ABV Meiyo whisky raises discipline and stability to a higher level.
The Bartender Spirits Awards judge spirits across the parameters of Mixability, Balance and Versatility, Taste, Mouthfeel and Finish, Package and Price. This competition recognises that bartenders are the true influencers – their passions and tastes provide direction for the consumer, especially via their recommendations of wine, beer or spirit.
The 2020 competition saw submissions from 34 countries including some new additions like Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Switzerland. The United States had the top
submissions where 251 brands were entered followed by Mexico and Australia.
As more turn to the world of Japanese whiskies, we have seen price tags skyrocket. What was once a modest interpretation of Scottish malt whiskies has become an industry where it isn’t surprising to see a bottle with a £1,000 price label. In fact, for many bottles coming from Japan, this is a reasonable figure! One way of getting into Japanese whiskies is to start with brands available at a reasonable by our standards price.
Suntory Toki Blended Japanese Whisky
Toki has a different composition to another Suntory blend, Hibiki, as the main components thereof are Hakashu single malt and Chita grain whisky. It should work really well in a highball. Suzuki works to spread Japanese bartending philosophy through seminars in countries across the world including the London Bar Show, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and Whisky Live in Taipei.
Toki means "time" in Japanese. It's a concept rich in meaning the world over, but particularly in Japan where respect for tradition and reinvention sparks a powerful creative energy. Inspired by that interplay, Suntory brings together old and new -the House of Suntory's proud heritage and its innovative spirit- to create blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.
Chichibu Ichiro’s Malt and Grain Japanese Whisky
Founded in 2008, Chichibu has quickly made a name for itself with its Malt and Grain Japanese Whisky. Made from a blend that combines Japanese single malt whisky, Scotch, Irish and American whiskey and Canadian rye, the blend is aged and then matured to provide an inherently bold flavor. It’s the only blend from Chichibu offered as a truly global endeavour, one that’s decidedly unique.
Hardly able to keep up with the ever-growing stateside market (much less those of Scotland Ireland, and Canada), Japanese whisky has stayed indefinitely on my back burner, not helped by its often hefty price – though that’s likely to change for me after trying Ichiro’s Malt and Grain.
While a product of a Japanese company – specifically Ichiro Akuto, founder and master distiller of Ichiro’s Malt with Chichibu Distillery northwest of Tokyo – Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is “an all world whisky” as Akuto put its in a postcard enclosed with a sample.
While the short product description is vague, it briefly explains that those foreign whiskies are aged in their countries of origin for three to five years and aged for another one to three years in Chichibu. While Ichiro’s Malt has only been producing whisky in Chichibu since 2008, it already had built a name for itself by that point through the legacy of the Akuto family’s defunct Hanyu Distillery.
With the family already renowned for their sake, Ichiro Akuto’s grandfather reportedly founded the Hanyu distillery in the 1940s and rode hot whisky demand for decades until succumbing to a recession in 2000. Ichiro Akuto, however, scooped up the aging Hanyu stock and eventually began selling it, most notably the highly collectible and highly sought-after Ichiro’s Malt Card Series, a 54-part collection that includes a whisky named for and adorned with each of the cards in a standard deck (including the two jokers). A full set was on sale at one point in 2015 for nearly $500,000, and even a collection of 13 bottles in the series was going for nearly $44,000 in 2016.
The Takeaway: A blend of whiskies with the Japanese Ichiro’s Malt as the base combined with whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States, each blended for four to eight years in various locations. The final blend is bottled at 46.5% ABV and sold for an average of $106 per bottle.
Appearance: Brighter than
the average whisky with a pale gold hue.
Nose: Starts like a sweet but delicate vanilla that then quickly develops into a tart bouquet of orange and apple with the alcohol manifesting a bit like a sauvignon blanc. That eventually tones down to a more subdued combination of toffee, pear and plums – again with a twinge of alcohol that’s like white wine, only this time a bit like pinot gris.
Palate: Very similarly to the nose, the first sip starts off like a very delicate vanilla with just the faintest hints of sweet tropical fruit and flowers. That gradually transitions to more of a hazelnut-like vanilla with a flare of ginger to it, gradually building in spiciness as a notes of pepper and peat develop. Swallowing takes an interesting turn as it leads to a wave of a nutty, pepper in the back the mouth, which then quickly ebbs away. That leads to a brief pause before another wave gently rolls tasting first of honey, then of a firm but gentle surge of pepper. That finally fades into a honey-like coating on the tongue with a very faint tickle of ginger.
For being an “all world whisky” of distillates from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the United States, few whiskies from those countries can match this blend. Ichiro’s Malt and Grain does everything one wants and rarely finds in a whisky: it’s on the sweeter side but in a way that’s not overpowering – allowing for a range of earthy and spicy flavors – while taking the drinker on a journey between distinct yet subtle waves of flavours.
KAMIKI WHISKY 48% ABV
Yoshino Sugi is considered to be the best wood for making local drink casks because of its scented refreshing flavour and wooden aroma. This blend is rested for a second time in Yoshino Sugi casks to capture a perfectly smooth taste, a scent of sandalwood on the nose and a zest of green tea in the finish. This second maturation makes the whisky unique.
Their Shrine: Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara is one of Japan's oldest extant Shinto shrines. It is a tutelary shrine of the Japanese alcohol producers. Most well-known alcohol producer families are in Nara and these families have a centuries-old tradition of producing alcohol for Ōmiwa. The alcohol produced by these families is served as blessings at Shinto temples.
The Ōmiwa Shrine lies at the foot of Mount Miwa, a holy mountain guarded by the shrine. Mount Miwa has many legends, and has been worshipped from ancient times as a sacred Mountain of the God. Inspired by beautiful breezes coming from the Mountain of the God, we named our whisky KAMIKI whereby "KAMI" means "GOD" and "IKI" means "BREATH".
Yoshino-sugi (Japanese cedar) is the unique ingredient in this blend of worldwide whiskies, with casks made from wood claimed to be the first ever used in whisky production. And while it has a typically Japanese lightness, the flavour is unlike any other whisky we’ve tried. It’s like taking your tastebuds on a wander through a cedar sawmill, speckling them with dry sawdust and resins, with a subtle smokiness adding to the effect. Green pepper and a hint of stewed fruit add to the complexity, while some peppery spice adds a touch of warmth to your sipping pleasure.
Extraordinary ! Demure aromas of freshly cut wood and button mushrooms are decidedly earth driven. Much more intense on the palate the flavours explode with toasted tobacco, sweet cinnamon, and background notes of cedar. Sandalwood aromas are robust and exhilarating on the nose. The cedar cask influence is immediately apparent in the mouth, filling the palate with spicy wood flavors. Robust coffee and hints of dried fig deepen the layers.
First whisky brand in the world with Japanese Sakura Tree and Cedar cask finish. As well “First triple cask finish whisky in the world, first matured in Oak and aged second time in Cedar and later in Sakura casks.
Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky 45% ABV
This whisky is made from 100% malted barley and was distilled in a Coffey, or column, still rather than a pot still. Coffey stills are typically used to produce grain whisky, and they can distill proofs as high as 95% ABV. They tend to be more pure than whiskies produced in pot stills. The column still was much more efficient compared to the traditional pot still, producing higher proof spirit about ten times more in volume compared to medium sized pot still distillery. Since the malting, heating and maintenance costs were a fraction of those of a malt distillery, the column still grain spirit cost about 50-70% less compared to pot still malt whisky, even if the set-up costs were included. Scots and northern Britons were not used to the light column still whisky and at the beginning large quantities were sold to rectifiers and gin distillers, who spiced the spirit and sold it as gin or imitation brandy or cognac.
During the latter part of the 19th century several factors caused the rise of the column still whisky. Branding and advertising became important at about the middle of the 19th century Britain. Several traders begun blending the products of different distilleries and sold them under their own labels. Blending enabled the inclusion of raw grain column still spirits into the mix and on the other hand blended whisky was easier to sell in the big English markets used to lighter non-smoky spirits.
Nikka Coffey Malt comes from Taketsuru’s company Nikka Whisky. The sweet tasting Nikka Coffey Malt has an ABV of 45% and goes well with pastries. This unique expression was developed in 2013 as a result of Nikka's continuous experiments to widen the variety and offer more excitements to aficionados. Made from 100% malted barley, whisky distilled in a Coffey still is matured in old casks to enhance the rich maltiness, complexity and a silky texture. This expression is not categorized as “malt whisky” but as “grain whisky” since it is not distilled in a pot still. Lively and citrusy, the Nikka Coffey Malt is not to be missed if you enjoy sweet whisky with strong fruit aromas.
Note: This product does not meet all the criteria of “Japanese whisky “ defined by the Japan Spirits & Liqueur Makers Association.
The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced a new set of industry-wide regulations on 16 February 2021, effective 01 Apr 2021.
The new regulations are designed to create more certainty around Japanese Whisky and bring it in line with the strict laws and regulations that other whisky-producing nations follow.
Although these regulations are not binding, it is certainly a step in the right direction for the industry. These “non-binding” regulations took effect from 1st April 2021. However, whisky brands have until 31st March 2024 to adhere to them.
- The only raw ingredients allowed for use in production are malted grains, other cereal grains, and water extracted in Japan. Malted grains must always be used.
- Fermentation, distillation, and saccharification must take place in a distillery located in Japan, with the alcohol volume of the distillate not allowed to go above 95% in strength.
- Wood casks with a maximum capacity of 700 litres must be used for the maturation of the distilled product and have to be matured in Japan for a minimum of 3 years.
- Bottling must take place in Japan, and the whisky has to have a minimum ABV of 40%.
- Plain caramel colouring (also known as E150a) can be added; this is a common practice in whisky around the world.
The move by the Japanese Whisky industry to put in new regulations around production and labelling that add to transparency was welcomed globally. However, as these regulations are non-binding and considering the fact that three fifths of all Scottish Whisky imported into Japan is in bulk containers, it is unlikely that they will quickly adapt to the new ‘rules’.