When asked to name the world’s most popular whisky, most people would say Scotch–and they would be correct. The source of the second most favored whisky on Earth is more surprising: Japan.
Japanese whisky has exploded in the West over the past decade. Part of its success is a never-ending series of awards, but the phenomenon can also be traced to a huge and growing global demand for the best distilled spirits. Most of the whisky is made by a single company, Suntory (now known as Beam Suntory, after their acquisition of Beam Inc. for $16 billion in 2014).
Suntory was founded in 1899 by Shinjiro Torii, who began by selling imported wine out of a store in Osaka. In 1924 he opened the country’s first commercial distillery, Yamakazi, on the outskirts of Kyoto. From the beginning he took Scotland as his model, using only pure spring water and hiring a Japanese distiller who had been trained in the Highlands. The Hakushu distillery opened in 1973; in 1989, to commemorate the company’s 90th anniversary, Suntory founded Hibiki. Yamakazi and Hakushu are single malts, while Hibiki is a blend of spirits from different sources.
Popularity breeds demand, and demand drives prices. Hibiki has received its fair share of accolades, with the 21 Year-Old named the World’s Best Blended Whisky back to back in 2010 and 2011 by the U.K.-based World Whisky Awards. When I reviewed the Hibiki 12 Year-Old several years ago, it retailed for $65; the going rate is now $85. The 17 Year-Old costs $165, and the 21 Year-Old fetches $500-600, when you can find it. If you succeed in locating a bottle of the extremely rare 30 Year-Old, expect to pay no less than $3,000.
Hibiki’s newest expression, Japanese Harmony, is a comparative bargain at $70. Released in March, the spirit is a blend of 10 whiskies from the three Suntory distilleries, aged in five different types of casks. There is no age statement on the label. It was bottled at 86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume.
Japanese Harmony has a pale amber color and a sexy, inviting nose with scents of sweet oak and spring flowers. It enters the mouth smoothly and expands in the mid palate with flavors of vanilla, toffee, pepper and citrus zest. The long finish resonates with echoes of white pepper. Enjoy it either neat, with a splash of water or a single ice cube.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com