Hibiki 17 Year Old

Hibiki 17yo bottle

Note: This commentary has been updated with the expanded scores from the Oct 2015 build of my Whisky Database.

The Hibiki 17 year old is an interesting whisky to profile. It is exceedingly rare outside of Japan, so there were initially very few reviews of it in my Whisky Database. I initially hesitated in including it in the list at all, given how oddly low three of those reviews were – although the overall average is now a more reasonable 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews. The more budget Hibiki 12 year old (which until recently was more widely available) gets a reasonable 8.65 ± 0.27 score on 13 reviews.

Personally, I was so impressed with the 17 yo on my first trip to Japan that it became the one bottle that I chose to bring back through duty free (Canada has strict import limits). There were a number of other whiskies that I had thought I might return with – but the Hibiki 17 yo was a surprise hit for me. Since then, everyone who has sampled from my bottle has been very impressed – from newbies to experienced scotch drinkers alike. In fact, I’ve had to ration tastings from that first bottle, to ensure as many as possible could try it at least once. 😉

The Hibiki line is actually blended whisky, not pure malt. This surprises almost every experienced whisky drinker who tries it, as you do not taste any of the typical “graininess” or rounding-off of flavour common to traditional Scottish blends (even higher-end ones). Again, the age statement is only a minimum – everything in there (including the grain whisky) is at least 17 years old. Suntory certainly seems to know how to age grain whisky well. Everyone who has tried mine just assumes this is a single malt, given its flavour and quality.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet and rich aromas of raisins, sultanas and plums. Lots of toffee and butterscotch. Definite honey. A great nose, it’s a pleasure to come back to it between sips

Palate:  Same flavours as the nose, initial sweetness with the raisins/sultanas and some softer tropical fruits, like honeydew melon (although that could be the honey poking through again). Caramel/butterscotch again as well. It has a somewhat oaky backbone, with the sweet vanillins yielding to dryer woody/paper notes over time. A pleasant tingle as it goes down, with the hint of something spicy/peppery at the end. A very well balanced palate.

Finish: Remarkably long-lasting, with a good mix of after-glowing sweetness from the caramel/butterscotch, balanced with a slightly bitter oakyness, and a touch of cinnamon to round it all off.

Although heavily over-used in the whisky world, the best word I can use to describe this whisky is “smooth”. The main flavours are consistent across the nose, palate and finish (which is actually rare in the whisky world). Sweet but never cloying, well balanced with a slightly bitter hint of wood and spice at the end. There is also nothing “sharp” here either – the flavours are well balanced, leading to a very enjoyable experience (with a very prolonged finish).

This gets back to why I think it gets mediocre scores from some reviewers – it doesn’t have strong characteristics that come out and attack the senses at any point. Those craving unique experiences typically want something distinctive and unusual (i.e., sharp, not smooth). But almost everyone who has tried it in my house wants a second glass – and that is pretty rare in the structured tastings I’ve done. It definitely grows on you.

Note that the Hibiki 17 yo comes in the same decanter-style, glass 24-sided presentation bottle as the 12 yo (with a parchment paper label and heavy glass stopper). This is unusual as well, given the rather minimalist presentation of most Japansese whiskies (lucky owners of any of the Nikka pure malts – or Nikka from the Barrel – will know what I mean).Hibiki 17yo bottle

The Hibiki 17 is famous for another reason – it is the actual whisky that Bill Murray’s fictional character is seen promoting in the 2003 film, “Lost in Translation“. I can only assume the filmmakers chose the whisky given the cachet it has in Japan.

Regardless of the metacritic score here, I think anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a glass of the 17 yo (or failing that, the quite decent 12 yo) will definitely be inclined to “make it Suntory time”! 😉

For a fair review of the Hibiki 17 yo, I recommend you check out one of the best english-language Japanese whisky sites: Dramtastic’s The Japanese Whisky Review. Thomas of Whisky Saga also has a good balanced overview of this expression. Josh the Whiskey Jug has recently reviewed it as well.

 

 

5 comments

  • Hibiki 17 is definitely a keeper and it’s an important part of my collection right next to the 12. I’m going to have to try again, but I didn’t care for their 25, but sure wish I could afford a bottle of the 30. For me, the 17 and 30 both should rate very high in the world of whisky.

  • Thanks for the reply Kaichu. Definitely looking forward to seeing if I can track down the 25 and 30 yr olds to try on my next trip to Japan.

  • If you can get to the distillery (right in between Kyoto and Osaka, less than five minute walk from Yamazaki station) they’ll have both on hand for very reasonable sampling rates, not to mention the five or so components that go into the 12 and 17. Especially try the mizunara cask made for Hibiki 17. I tried hard to talk them into selling me a bottle of it, but it’s the one that they have in shortest supply.

  • Thanks for the tip. I originally planned to make it down that way to visit, but won’t be able to get out of Tokyo on this next trip after all. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Mizunara specifically. Hopefully next time! Unfortunately, I’ve been hearing that local availability in Tokyo is greatly reduced (see this blog post by dramtastic: http://www.thejapanesewhiskyreview.com/2015/05/08/buying-japanese-whisky-in-japan-nothing-but-scorched-earth/).

  • I live in Okinawa and I am currently staying in a resort(active duty military).

    This year I picked up scotch as a hobby and with that being said I have tried numerous whiskey’s? Without going off track: I love scotch, bourbon usually needs coke( there are exceptions), Irish whiskey needs to raise their standards, CANADA REALLY NEDS TO RAISE THEIR STANDARDS, and then there is Japanese whisky. Late to the party but quickly making headlines; tonight I sampled Habiki 17 YO and I was blown away. I thought I was drinking a single malt scotch, which is my preference, and I was getting this from a 17 year Japanese blend. That is crazy! A lot of Japanese single malts are very experimental (Looking at you hakashu) with that being said this whisky just made top 5 in 20 minutes.

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