Hibiki Blender’s Choice

The discontinuation of the classic Hibiki 17 year old last year was a blow to fans of this classic Japanese blended whisky. But it was softened somewhat in Japan with the release of a new Japan-only “premium no-age-statement” Hibiki Blender’s Choice last September.

For newcomers to Japanese whisky, all the recent hype can seem a bit mystifying. It is not like most expressions from heavy-weights Suntory or Nikka (or the smaller players) have some unique flavour profile. They are mainly well done examples of lighter scotch-style whiskies (both malts and blends), with a focus on the integration of delicate flavours. While certain fruit and wood notes can be distinctive, it is less a question of kind than it is of consistent quality. As discussed in my recent 5-year retrospective, I’ve watched Hibiki 17yo rise from common availability (at 7,500 Yen), to near impossibility to find (at >40,000 Yen) – due to demand, and a relative lack of aged stocks.

While this new release lacks an age statement, word spread quickly that it consists of whiskies aged 12-30+ years of age, with an average age of around 15 years. As such, people naturally hoped this would be a replacement of sorts for the discontinued 17yo. But this was clearly not the intent, as a few wine cask-aged whiskies were also included in the blend, to produce a new and distinctive profile.

Hibiki Blender’s Choice was initially intended for interior bar sale only, through Suntory’s wholesale/industry distribution channels in Japan. Of course, it didn’t take long for bottles to find their way onto some store shelves – albeit at much higher prices than the rumoured internal bottle price of 10,000 Yen.  In my recent travels in Japan, I came across only 3 stores that carried it (one without a box for 17,800 Yen, and two stores with a box for 19,800 Yen and 29,800 Yen each). The boxes suggest they were intended for retail sale. I picked one up at the lower 19,800 Yen price.

There are not many reviews of this one yet, so I’m not able to add it to my Meta-Critic Whisky Database yet. But here is how some other Hibiki expressions compare in my database.

Hibiki 12yo: 8.62 ± 0.24 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.76 ± 0.32 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki 21yo: 9.14 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.37 ± 0.52 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.29 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

Personally, I’d give both the 17yo and Harmony slightly higher scores than the average ratings above. The 12yo and Master’s Select average scores sound about right to me, and I find the 21yo score is a bit inflated.

Let’s see what I find in the glass for my bottle of Hibiki Blender’s Choice:

Nose: Reasonably sweet, with rich toffee notes and some vanilla. I get a distinctive rice pudding sensation, which is novel. Green apple, pineapple, and peaches. Also those same fruit flavours in Meiji Japanese gummies (the ones made with 100% fruit juice). Canberries and red currants. A dry bark note (woody), which is distinctive. A little rubber and a touch of glue. Something else I can’t quite place, likely from fresh wine casks.

Palate: The toffee, creamy rice pudding and green apples from the nose dominate. The cranberries come across more as dried now. Apple and pineapple juice. Wood spice picks up, mainly lighter all spice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Glue note turns slightly ashy (which I like). Very distinctive for an unpeated whisky. A touch astringent on the swallow.

Finish: The woodiness returns immediately on the swallow – not a perfumy Mizunara oak, but a softer and gentler tree bark type (if that makes sense). Caramel from the wood picks up too. Dry and astringent overall, keeps you sipping repeatedly. The fresh wine casks come through again, but subtly – reminds me of those Sweet Tarts candies from my childhood.

This is distinctive for a Japanese whisky. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it – it is very different from the old Hibiki 17yo. But it grows on you. Of note, my wife (who liked the old 17yo and is typically not a fan of wine cask finishes) quite enjoyed this one as well.

Probably the closest thing to Blender’s Choice in my experience is Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton. Both have a relatively gentle base spirit, with clear influence of fresh red wine casks. The Irish offering is a bit sweeter though, and not as drying on the finish as this Hibiki release.

Again, there are not too many reviews of this one, but you can check out Nomunication for a detailed review, and Forbes for a brief one. Personally, I’d score it one point less than the 17yo – so, say a 8.8 on my personal version of the Meta-Critic scale. A very nice whisky, I found it growing on me on successive tastings.

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