Suntory - an intro to the distilleries and the whisky
I recently visited Suntory's Distillery in Yamazaki. I had great expectations before I travelled to Japan, and the distillery managed to surpass them all. As a whisky enthusiast it is a magical moment to see the still room with all the stills in different shapes. Now, 2 months later I attended Philipson Söderbergs Suntory whisky tasting (with one Kavalan tossed in) in Sundsvall. Now, that my senses are not clouded by the magic from the distillery, I can actually grasp the details behind Suntory's art of whisky making. Suntory has a portfolio of four different whiskies, not counting everything they own outside of Japan. Suntory Single Grain Whisky from the Chita distillery, Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky from the Yamazaki distillery, Hakushu (Hak-shoo) Single Malt Whisky from the Hakushu distillery and a blend of the three, Hibiki. Most blending companies use at least 30 different whiskies when creating a blended whisky. Since Japan don't have that many distilleries, and most of them are competitors, they do have a shortage. Here comes the ingenuity of the Japanese way of creating a blended whisky. To give Hibiki all the different components Suntory (through both Yamazaki and Hakushu) uses different levels of peated malt, different yeast strains, they have washbacks made of both stainless steel and wood, the stills have different sizes and diffrent shapes. By tweeking all the parameters they can produce many different malt whiskies, and create an interesting blended whisky. The greatest difference between the two malt distilleries is the climate. Hakushu is situated at 760 m above the sea level in the alps, and has a much colder temperature than Yamazaki. Therefore Suntory uses larger barrels at Yamazaki (450 L) and smaller (200-250 L) at Hakushu to even out the speed of maturation (which is faster in smaller casks and at a warmer temperature). After World War II, Japan did have some difficulties getting Bourbon barrels from the USA, so they started making their own barrels out of the Japanese Mizunara Oak (here is an interesting article about the character it brings to a whisky). Whiskies matured in Mizunara casks are much more expensive than whiskies matured in other types of casks, mainly because they leak a lot of their precious fluids. Suntory do carry on the tradition and are still using Mizunara casks for parts of their whiskies. At Yamazaki I sampled a 25 yo Yamazaki, a 25 yo Hakushu and a 30 yo Hibiki. When questioned about what I thought about them, I can just say really great! I didn't write down any of my thoughts since I was too captured in the moment. The sun was shining, everything was spotless, it was silent as a library, and I was sampling those great (and extremely expensive) whiskies with 7000 bottles of whisky surrounding me. Even plain water would have achieved 90+ in that atmosphere.
Back to the tasting in Sundsvall. We sampled 6 whiskies from Suntory and 1 from Kavalan (Taiwan). I tried them all neat, compared them, then gave them 2-3 drops of water each, waited about 20 minutes, and did it all over again.
- Kavalan Single Malt It has been matured for 3 years in both bourbon and sherry casks. Taiwan has a hot climate and the whisky matures quickly. No harsh notes, quite sweet, some spices on the nose at first, the taste is too thin though. The finish is really quick after the first sip, after the second sip there’s a bit of a menthol taste at the sides of the tongue. After water is added a really nice caramel scent develops and raises my initial score with 2 points. Score: 82/100.
- Hibiki 12 yo It contains more grain whisky than malt whisky, it has been matured partly in casks that have previously held plum wine (this is not the case with the older versions). The nose is sweet with lots of ripe fruits. The taste is initially sweet, then it provides some ginger spice and rounds off nicely, it has a quite long finish. After water is added I picked up toffee and some coffee on the nose. Score: 81/100.
- Yamazaki 12 yo Now we’re talking! Matured in mostly bourbon, some sherry, and a tad bit of mizunara oak. The nose is malty and fruity (mostly dried), compared to the Hibiki I can nose a scent of waxiness. The taste is again sweet with a hint of sherry spices, it rounds of nicely. With water a predominant liquorice scent develops, really nice! Score: 84/100.
- Hakushu 12 yo I believe that it has only been matured in bourbon barrels. The nose brings a substantial amount of wood smoke, citrus and vanilla. The taste is sour, lemony and brings some spices. The finish is quite dry. Score: 83/100.
- Hibiki 17 yo The 17 yo contains more malt whisky than grain. This is even more waxy on the nose than the 12 yo, there are more wood spices and dried fruits as well. There is a noticeable leather scent and there’s no question about the existence of maturation in sherry casks. The taste is prolonged and harmonious with sweet lemon and wood spice. Score: 84/100.
- Yamazaki 18 yo This is it! Matured mostly in sherry casks, some bourbon and a tad bit of mizunara oak. The nose is a typical sherry matured whisky with raisins and leather. The taste brings burned leather, tobacco, allspice and smoke. Not disturbed by lit matches. It has a long aftertaste with the typical sourness that many Japanese whiskies are known for. With water liquorice steps forward on the nose, not as much as in the 12 yo though. Score: 87/100.
- Hakushu 18 yo Some maturation in sherry casks. Vanilla, honey, sherries, smoke and plums on the nose. The taste is sweet with lots of spices (a little too much for me). It brings a long dry and sour finish. Score: 85/100.
The tasting was too fast for so many whiskies to sample, I actually left some of number 2, 3 and 4. None of the whiskies have a stressed youthfulness, they all seem to have been matured in quality casks. My favourite was the 18 year old Yamazaki. However, most of the attendees voted the Hakushu 12 yo as the best whisky, I do not agree! Sláinte! - Tobias