Tag Archives: Blended

Hibiki Harmony

Harmony is the name of the new NAS (no age statement) offering from Suntory for their premiere Hibiki line of blended whiskies. It is meant to replace the entry-level 12 yo expression, which is no longer available.

Due to the widespread shortage of mature casks world-wide (thanks to whisky’s surging popularity), many distillers have had to discontinue their classic entry-level age expressions – or at least, greatly reduce their distribution. While this is certainly the case for many Scottish single malts, it seems to be even more of an issue for Japanese whisky – given its relatively recent expansion into international markets. Demand is far outstripping supply at this point time, it seems.

There is much hang-wringing about this trend online, since it portends a general reduction in quality overall. However, there is no a priori reason to assume that every NAS will be demonstrably worse than its age statement predecessor. Indeed, there are some limited examples where the opposite seems to be the case (Cardhu Amber Rock comes to mind). In the case of the Harmony, I understand they adding a small proportion of new whisky aged in Japanese Mizunara oak casks.

Being a big fan of the Hibiki 17 yo, it was with some trepidation that I opened the bottle of Hibiki Harmony that I manage to snag at the LCBO this week. Since there are not a lot of reviews online yet for this particular expression, I thought I’d provide more detailed review-style tasting notes here:

Nose: What a pleasant surprise – rich with sweet fruit and floral aromas (most especially apples, bananas and orange blossoms). I get a definite whiff of pear, which is less common (although some might consider that to be over-ripe apple). Classic vanilla of course (consistent with oak aging). A sweet incense smell as well. You’ll laugh at me, but I also detect a hint of that cheap bubble gum that used to come with sport trading cards when I was a kid. The label mentions rosewater, which I can also imagine. All told, a much nicer nose than I was expecting, and one that is a pleasure to return to in-between sips.

Palate: Given the distinctive nose, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here. Initial impression was relief – I could immediately detect the classic Hibiki “oaky” structure in the opening waves of flavour (i.e., toffee and honey). But what came next was a surprise to me – a quick shift into what I normally associate with a high-quality Canadian blended whisky (i.e., something akin to the Crown Royal Monarch). There is still some rough grain whisky showing on the Harmony, belying its young age (although it is not offensive in the way cheap young Canadian whiskies often are). But what I am detecting here is the classic integration of oaked grain sweetness with the “softer” baking spices of age ryes (which you find in quality aged Canadian blends). I doubt there is any rye in here, but I am quite happy to detect something similar to it in the Harmony, as I think it balances well with the classic Hibiki structure. I suppose some people might even compare this to a lighter/younger bourbon, given the sweetness – but the Harmony is definitely more delicate. The slight sweet perfume/incense aroma also continues into the palate, although I’m hard pressed to name it exactly.

Finish: Medium, in terms of that oaky grain whisky sweetness which continues for awhile. But the main fruity/spicy flavours trail off fairly quicky, as you might expect in a younger blend.

Having sampled more than a dozen Japanese whiskies to date, I must say that the Harmony is not what I expected – but I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As I noted in my Canadian Club 100% Rye commentary, Suntory has been integrating its recently-acquired expertise in Canadian rye making and Jim Beam bourbon blending. Given the surprising flavour profile here, I can’t help but wonder if some of that expertise hasn’t made its way back to the Japanese mainland.

As an aside, this is the first Hibiki whisky that the LCBO has stocked, to my knowledge. If the switch to NAS expressions means wider availability of this style of Japanese whisky in Canada, then I expect the local market will be glad to receive it.

Let’s see how the various Hibiki expressions compare in the Whisky Database:

Hibiki Harmony: 8.43 ± 0.94 on 7 reviews
Hibiki 12yo: 8.65 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews
Hibiki 17yo: 8.75 ± 0.43 on 8 reviews
Hibiki 21yo: 9.19 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews

Hibiki Harmony NASThe trend in mean scores is in the direction you would expect – but there are definitely some pretty great differences of opinion on the Harmony, as illustrated in the much higher standard deviation than typical. I suspect this reflects the distinctive flavour profile described above – while I like it, it obviously doesn’t appeal to everyone.

For positive reviews of this expression, check out Jason of In Search of Elegance and Dave of Whisky Advocate.  For more moderate reviews, check out Martin and André of Quebec Whisky, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Price-wise, you can easily find this expression in Tokyo for about 3900 Yen (or ~$45 CAD). It’s currently available at the LCBO and SAQ for $100 CAD.

 

Whisky in Korea

Selection from the Malt Shop

I’m just back from my second trip to Seoul, South Korea, and had a chance to look into whisky options available there.

Whisky remains a fairly popular drink in Korea, and you will find it on a lot of bar menus. However, the most commonly available choices are generally limited to scotch-style blends, with only a small number of single malts (if any). Prices for the standard scotch fare are generally a little higher than you would pay in North America, but not hugely so. The various expressions of the two common “Korean whisky” brands you will find – Scotch Blue (by Lotte Chilsun) and Windsor (by Diageo) – are typically all blends, sourced from Scottish distilleries for the Korean market.

In terms of selection for purchase, you can be well served by checking out the liquor boutiques in the basement of the major conglomerate department stores (i.e., where the excellent food courts are kept). I perused a couple, but was generally disappointed by the whisky selection and prices (i.e., mainly blends, and rather expensive at that). You do a bit better for wine here, but this is again not exactly a cheap option. Of course, across Seoul there are plenty of small stand-alone liquor stores – but these can be hard to find (and may be difficult to deal with if you are not fluent in Korean).

Your best option for price remains the airport duty free. Unfortunately, the main terminal at Incheon was undergoing renovations when I was there (September 2015), and many of the larger duty free outlets were closed – including the one that has the largest selection of liquor. However, a new large duty free shop recently opened in the Concourse terminal. It had the common whisky items for international duty free, at the usual excellent prices. While again somewhat more heavily biased toward blends than typical, there were a good number of well-known single malt expressions (especially the travel editions). Sadly, there were no Japanese or Taiwanese whiskies present on my traipse through. Also, unlike most duty frees, the whiskies were intentionally scattered across the entire store. This requires you to carefully scan every display, aisle and shelf when looking for products – and interact with a large horde of sales associates at every turn.

Another option is the small but well-organized Malt Shop, in the Gangnam district of Seoul. This store has an excellent collection of international whiskies, as you will able to tell from their website. Be advised however that not everything you see on that site is available for sale (even if it is shown as in stock). For example, while I counted 5 miniature 180mL bottles of the Hibiki 21yo on the shelf, these were all marked “not for sale”. According to the sales clerk, they were part of the owner’s personal collection. And none of the other miniature Japanese bottles shown on the website could be found in the store. That said, most of the full-sized malt whisky bottles listed were available.

The website does not list prices, and I found these to be somewhat variable in-store. Some of the commonly available single malt expressions were quite reasonable – especially the mid-range ones, which were often comparable or even cheaper to what I would pay here at the LCBO (e.g. most of the Balvenies, Highland Parks, etc.). That said, most of the higher-end and entry-level malt whiskies were typically more expensive than you will find in North America. As an aside, the listed shelf prices assume a credit card purchase. If you are paying cash, you may be able to negotiate ~5-10% off these prices.

The inventory was certainly a lot better than what I can find domestically at the LCBO. There were about half-a-dozen expressions available for each of the common Scottish single malt brands (e.g. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Benromach, Dalmore, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Talisker, Tomatin). In some cases, there were even more expressions than I expected to find (e.g., I counted 9 different examples of Arran malts). Some brands only had a couple of expressions available (e.g., Auchentoshan, BenRiach, Bruichladdich, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, Highland Park, Jura, Springbank, etc.), although that is understandable in some of those cases.

Of course, what I was really looking for was the selection of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskies. 🙂 While there were only two bottles of Kavalan (one Soloist, one ConcertMaster), there were about a dozen or so expressions for each of the Nikka and Suntory lines. Unfortunately, the Nikka ones were largely entry-level expressions (e.g., Super, Gold & Gold, etc.) – including many that I had never even heard of previously. I did however manage to snag the Taketsuru 21yo, which is one I was really looking to find.

Suntory was generally a better mix, with a range from standard Kakubin to the entry-level Yamazaki/Hakushu malts and mid-range Hibikis. Unfortunately, the prices for all the Japanese whiskies were very high, relative to most of the Scottish malts. For example, they wanted ~$300 CAD for the Yamazaki 12yo, ~$400 CAD for the Hibiki 17yo and ~$600 CAD for the 21yo! It’s true that Japanese whisky prices have been rising rapidly lately (and Korea has significant import taxes on Japanese whiskies), but I could typically find those bottles at a quarter of those prices a year ago in Japan. Even the new entry-level Yamazaki NAS “Distiller’s Reserve” was listed at ~$140 CAD. Simply put, Korea is not a place to look for reasonable prices on Asian whiskies – but you can do okay for the Scottish malts.

The Malt Shop, Gangnam, SeoulIn any case, the Malt Shop is definitely worth a visit if you are visiting Seoul and have to some free time. Some of the map links for this store on other blogs are incorrect. Here is a confirmed direct link to google maps, using the store’s address.

It is accessible by public transit, right near the Seonjeongneung subway station. You can access this station off either the yellow Bundang Line (station 214), or the light brown Line 9 (station 927). Once there, take the #4 street exit, and head due south along Seolleung-ro for about 100m – you won’t miss the shop.

Kamsahamnida!

 

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottle

If you are just starting to explore the world of whiskies, there are a few generalizations that can actually be helpful (unlike all the misleading ones that I describe here). Specifically, when it comes to blended Scotch whiskies, most of these were not intended to be drunk neat (aka, straight). While decent blends certainly exist, single malts are widely available to fill that higher-end market niche. And so, most Scottish blends are typically engineered to be best suited to mixed drinks or cocktails. Note that that this is not necessarily the case in other jurisdictions, but it is a good rule of thumb for the lower-priced Scotch blends.

But it is also important to keep this feature in mind when perusing reviews. Typically, most expert reviewers only discuss sampling their whiskies neat (with perhaps a bit of water). This is understandable, as it allows them to explore flavours in the greatest detail, in a consistent way. But you may be missing out on an important piece of the puzzle if that doesn’t match how the whisky is commonly consumed (or was intended to be consumed).

Which brings me around to the point behind this commentary – the common Scotch blend, Chivas Regal 12 year old. This is probably the second-best seller in this class after Johnny Walker Black Label, and is especially popular in the US. Yet while JW Black gets an above-average score for a blend (and is certainly quite drinkable neat, in my view), the Chivas Regal 12yo comes in fourth-to-last among all Scottish blends in my Metacritic database: 7.78 ± 0.43 on 15 reviews.

As an aside, don’t let the seemingly high standard deviation mislead you – pretty much none of the reviewers here likes it much. 😉 Only one reviewer gives it mid-range rank – the rest all place it in their bottom 20th percentile (indeed, five of them put it in their lowest 5th percentile). As described here, one of the features of scoring is that higher-ranked items invariably have a lower standard deviation (because they couldn’t be highly ranked otherwise!).

Now, back to the matter at hand: So why does this Scotch place so low in the database, when it seems to sell quite well (and is higher priced than most entry-level blends)? The secret to understanding this is to recognize that Chivas Regal 12 yr old was specifically re-engineered in the 1950s for the palate of “scotch-and-soda” drinking Americans and Englishmen.

Personally, I find it to be a generally boring whisky when served neat – except for a rather unpleasant and harsh grassiness that doesn’t balance well at all with its light sweetness. On the bright side, at least it doesn’t have much of a finish. But this is certainly not one that I want to sip neat – and neither does anyone else that I’ve served it to. This is consistent with the low expert score in the Metacritic database.

But what happens if you serve it the way it was apparently intended to be – that is, combined with soda water? For those of you not familiar, soda water is carbonated water that has some sodium in it – such as Club Soda here in Canada. The sodium component is important, as it tends provide a subjective “drying” effect, that encourages you take another sip.

Typically, scotch-and-soda drinkers mix scotch into soda water anywhere from 1 part in 2, to 1 part in 5 (i.e. 1:1, down to 1:4 scotch:soda). I have experimented on the Chivas Regal 12, and find something almost magical happens around 1:3. Suddenly, all the unpleasant characteristics disappear, and the floral and nutty notes are amplified in a refreshing mix. It’s really quite the startling transformation. When served this way, on the rocks, I’ve seen people happily finish the glass. These would be the same people who politely handed me back the Glencairn after a single sip, when served neat. 😉

My point here is that this is one low-ranked whisky where I believe the combined wisdom of the meta-critic score has it right. But that score really only applies to drinking it neat or with a bit of water. If you are scotch-and-soda drinker, I find this blend works better than most of the others I’ve experimented with.

Chivas Regal blend 12yo bottleBy the way, pronouncing this brand is actually a bit tricky. Most Scots seem to go for something that sounds like SHIV-us or SHIV-is (whereas some in other parts of the UK may go more for CHIV-vers). Americans tend to go more for a SHEE-vus pronunciation, and I’ve even heard SHEE-vass. It seems like only thing everyone agrees on is that it is definitely not to be pronounced CHEE-vis (so, no Chivas and Butthead jokes please). 😉

If you are interested in trying an inexpensive Scottish blend for sipping neat, I’d suggest Johnny Walker Black or Té Bheag. But if (like me) you were gifted a bottle of Chivas Regal 12 yo and don’t know what to do with it, I’d recommend breaking out the club soda. You could also try mixing with other popular options, like coke, ginger ale or coconut water – but I’ve found club soda to do the best job.

For expert reviews of this whisky, you can check out any of the ones on my master review list.  They pretty much all say the same thing. 🙂

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.

 

 

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