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.
Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select is a duty-free (aka “global travel retail”) special release of Hibiki Harmony blended whisky. Unlike some Japanese special-edition “travel exclusives” – which are simply re-labelled and marked-up versions of standard bottlings – Master’s Select is actually a different blend than the regular Harmony.
Master’s Select is reported to be a blend of 10 different Japanese malt and grain whiskies from Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries, aged in 5 different types of casks, including American white oak casks, sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks. The stronger woody character – and use of Yamazaki sherry casks in particular – are emphasized in Suntory promotional materials, in an apparent effort to increase the cachet of Hibiki Master’s Select. As with regular Harmony, there is no age statement, and it is bottled at 43% ABV.
I bought a bottle in early 2016, but only opened it recently. I paid a little over $100 CAD at the time (on sale), which was about the same price as regular Harmony here in Canada. I have always been a big fan of the older Hibiki age-statement expressions (especially the Hibiki 17yo), and am relatively positive on the no-age-statement Harmony expression – although it doesn’t fare as well among most reviewers. So I was curious to see how this Master’s Select version of Harmony would compare.
Here are how the Hibiki whiskies compare to other entry-level Japanese whiskies in my Metacritic Databae:
Hibiki 12yo: 8.61 ± 0.25 on 21 reviews ($$$$)
Hibiki 17yo: 8.77 ± 0.32 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Hibiki Harmony: 8.36 ± 0.54 on 18 reviews ($$$$) Hibiki Harmony Master’s Select: 8.19 ± 0.74 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries: 8.64 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$$$$)
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR): 8.20 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$)
Mars Iwai Tradition: 7.69 ± 1.03 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Mars Maltage Cosmo: 8.56 ± 0.27 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka All Malt: 8.44 ± 0.18 on 8 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.48 ± 0.52 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Malt: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 23 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Black: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt Red: 8.53 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Pure Malt White: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Suntory The Chita Single Grain: 8.36 ± 0.39 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Toki: 8.24 ± 0.45 on 10 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 7.60 ± 0.67 on 8 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Single Malt (NAS): 7.94 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Let’s see what I find in the glass:
Nose: Similar to regular Harmony, but with more dry oakiness up front. Not particularly fruity, but I do get light pears, plums, bananas and orange rind (plus some lemon curd). Floral, with some sort of fruit blossom. Lots of vanilla, as before – perhaps even more so. Toasted coconut, which is new. Wood spice. A slightly funky note, vaguely vegetal, which I don’t recall on standard Harmony. Definitely a bit more character here, but not all of it good. Also more acetone, which detracts for me.
Palate: Similar opening waves of vanilla and honey, with the arrival of prominent caramel now. Stronger orange citrus taste now than before. Dark chocolate (with that classic bitterness). Cinnamon and nutmeg. Something vaguely earthy, but I can’t quite place it (ginger? not quite). Simply put, it seems like a more heavily-oaked version of Harmony, especially with that lingering bitterness – which builds on each sip, unfortunately. Less of the delicate perfumy/incense notes than the regular Harmony (but they may be drowned out by the earthy wood tones). Decent mouthfeel, slightly silky in texture.
Finish: Short, but longer than regular Harmony. Nutmeg. Bitter apple. That ginger-like note from the palate is prominent, with a vague wet cardboard note. The oaky bitterness lingers the longest – rather unpleasant, frankly. Again, the complexity is up a bit, but this is the most disappointing part of the experience.
This “master’s select” version of the NAS Hibiki is no match for the age statement versions of old. It lacks the traditional subtlety of Hibiki, and seems to have gone for a flavour-shortcut, by exposing a younger blend to heavier wood influence.
If you like an earthy, oaky structure in your whisky (i.e. virgin wood), then this might be a blend for you. But for most casual whisky drinkers, I expect standard Harmony would be preferred. For me, some of the more delicate characteristics of Harmony are lost here, and too much oaky bitterness has been added.
There are few reviews of this whisky, but Dramtastic gave it a positive review with an average score (compared to a very low score for standard Harmony). On Reddit, _xile also gave it an average score (and greatly preferred it over standard Harmony). Josh the Whiskey Jug get it a slightly lower assessment than Harmony, and muaddib99 of Reddit gave it a much lower score than standard Harmony.
I’m in this latter camp, and give this a lower score than Harmony. That said, I think the Meta-Critic average scores are a little low for both NAS Hibiki expressions. In choosing between them, it really comes done to how much you like a woody presence in your whisky. But I recommend you start with standard Harmony – or the age-statement versions of course, if you can find them.
You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.
Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.
Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.
All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.
As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.
Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.
My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!
Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.
My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).
Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion
One of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.
My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.
A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.
Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.
A really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.
As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.
A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.
A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.
Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes
This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).
And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.
There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.
A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.
Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible
You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.
Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).
Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!
There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.
Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.
Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.
There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.
Canadian Rye Whisky
Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.
But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.
The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).
Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.
But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.
Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.
Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).
1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).
Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.
There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.
Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.
Following up on my Whisky in Korea article, here is my recent experience of scouting out Japanese whisky in Tokyo.
My experience wasn’t all that different from Dramtastic’s back in May of this year – although the specific selections at different stores have changed. I too was staying in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo this time – and so made a point of visiting some of the same locations he tried. Sorry I couldn’t try them all, but I had limited time on a business trip.
Keio Plaza Hotel Konbini:
First, a general comment – you can actually do okay for base expressions at a number of the larger Konbini (convenience stores) across Tokyo. Here is a pic from the whisky aisle of the Konbini located in the basement of the Keio Plaza Hotel where I was staying.
Top shelf was the Nikka Taketsuru NAS (500mL for 2,200 Yen) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (500mL for 3,080 Yen).
Next shelf was mini-bottles of the Nikka Taketsuru NAS, Yoichi NAS and Miyagikyo NAS, as well as the Suntory Yamazaki NAS and Hakushu NAS (all 200ml for 1,140 Yen).
Going down a shelf, you get the more budget whiskies: Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 905 Yen, 200mL for 285 Yen), Hi Nikka (700mL for 1,200 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,415 Yen, 500mL for 934 Yen, and 200mL for 468 Yen), and Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,680 Yen).
In terms of selection, sizes and prices, these are fairly typical of what you can find at most 7-eleven and Family Mart Konbinis as well. Of course, you will get more options (and better prices) at the larger dedicated liquor stores.
Bic Camera (East Gate of Shinjuku station):
Let’s start with the stand-alone Bic Camera, near the East Gate of Shinjuku station. Dramtastic found almost nothing there, but I did much better now. Let’s start with the miniatures. For Japanese whisky, I found:
Suntory Hibiki 17yo (50mL for 830 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (50mL for 720 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki 12yo (50mL for 780 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (50mL for 530 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (50mL for 310 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (50mL for 390 Yen).
Note there was also a fairly good collection of Taiwanese whisky miniatures:
Kavalan Single Malt (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak (50mL for 980 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Podium (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask Strength (50mL for 1,180 Yen), Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask Strength (50mL for ~1,300 Yen)
And now for the full-size bottles, starting with the two top shelves:
Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,680 Yen), Suntory Hakushi NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,150 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony NAS (700mL for 3,880 Yen).
Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,980 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,780 Yen), Nikka Taketsuru 21yo (700mL for 14,500 Yen), The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,580 Yen).
Next two shelves down were the more budget entries:
Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 686 Yen), Suntory Royal (700mL for 2,640 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,330 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 1,020 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,080), Suntory Whisky 43 The Premium (700mL for 1,790 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 934 Yen).
Kirin Whisky 50 (600mL for 934 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend 45 (700mL for 1,450 Yen), Hi Nikka (720mL for 1,080 Yen), HiHi Nikka (720mL for 1,280 Yen), Nikka Super Whisky (700mL for 3,380 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,680 Yen), Suntory Whisky White (640mL for 1,010 Yen), Suntory Royal Blended Whisky (660mL, for 2,660 Yen), Suntory Special Reserve (700mL for 1,980 Yen)
And the bottom shelf:
Kirin Boston Club 37 (640mL for 724 Yen), Kirin Boston Club 40 (640mL for 810 Yen), Robert Brown Special Blended Whisky (700mL for 1,310 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,120 Yen), Akashi Eigashima “red label” (500mL for 780 Yen), Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 934 Yen), Cherry Ex (500mL for 1,020 Yen), Whisky Koh-Kun “for highball” (600mL for 600 Yen), Mars Whisky 3&7 (720mL for 1,181 Yen), Mars Twin Alps (720mL for 1,550 Yen).
Not a bad haul overall for the current era of reduced availability – but I would have liked to have seen full size bottles of all the expressions. And of courses, a lot more aged expressions!
Isetan Department Store
Next, I headed over to the nearby up-scale Isetan department store in Shinjuku. Here you will find their whisky store in the basement food court (with tastings available). Like in Korea, large department store food courts in Japan are the places to go to get outstanding meals.
I was in a rush, but here’s what I found scattered around the whisky selection, in-between all the classic Scottish single malts and blends:
Suntory Yamazaki 12yo + Hibiki 17yo “gift pack” (50mL each, ~2,300 Yen), Suntory Hibiki Harmony (700mL for ~4,100 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 4,104 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,536 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 12yo (700mL for 9,180 Yen).
Mars blended “TSUNAGU” whisky (200mL for 3,780 Yen, 700mL for 7,560 Yen), Mars “Maltage” Cosmo (700mL for 4,537 Yen). Note that the “Tsunagu” is a special release bottled just for Isetan stores. Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL) and Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL).
Again, I may have missed some in my mad dash through the store – but the selection here was definitely limited.
Also saw a few Taiwanese whiskies: Kavalan Soloist Vinho Barrique (50mL and 700mL), Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL), and Kavalan Sherry Oak Cask (50mL and 700mL). Sorry, didn’t get the prices on these.
Don Quijote (Roppongi):
One place that I have always done fairly well at are the larger Don Quijote discount stores (affectionately known as “Donky-ote” in Japan). The small store near the East Gate in Shinjuku had slim pickings, and not worth recording. Apparently there is a larger store a bit further out, but I didn’t have the chance to visit.
Instead, I headed over to my preferred Don Quijote in Roppongi. This store has an extensive selection of international and domestic whiskies (they even carry the standard Crown Royal from Canada, ugh). Let’s see what I found here, starting with the Japanese stuff on the top shelves:
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,350 Yen), Yamazakura Fine Blended Whisky (700mL for 2,080 Yen), Suntory Yamazaki NAS (700mL for 2,850 Yen), Suntory Hakushu NAS (700mL for 4,100 Yen).
Nikka Taketsuru NAS (700mL for 2,500 Yen, 500mL for 1,980 Yen), Suntory The Chita (700mL for 3,800 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,680 Yen).
Ok, not the highest-end stuff here – and you typically can do a bit better on prices at Bic Camera.
Next shelves down:
Nikka Black Clear Rich Blend (180mL for 380 Yen), Nikka Black Clear (180mL for 285 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kaukubin” (180mL for 458 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (180mL for 980 Yen), Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (180mL for 980 Yen)
Nikka Black Clear (700mL for 638 Yen), Nikka Black Rich Blend (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Nikka Black Deep Blend (700mL for 1,180 Yen), Kirin Whisky 50 (700mL for 1,050 Yen), Nikka All Malt (700mL for 1,315 Yen), Hibiki Harmony (700mL for 3,990 Yen).
Akashi White Oak “black label” (500mL for 1,050 Yen), Suntory Whisky yellow-label “Kakubin” (700mL for 999 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 “The Premium” (700mL for 1,700 Yen), Suntory Whisky 43 (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Whisky white-label (700mL for 1,150 Yen), Suntory Torys Extra (700mL for 950 Yen).
And for those who are really thirsty, there’s a couple of 4L options:
Suntory Torys Black (4000mL for 2,560 Yen), Suntory Whisky “Kakubin” (4000mL for 5,410 Yen)
Tokyo Haneda (HND) International Terminal:
I was flying through Haneda on this trip, and checked out the 3 liquor-selling duty-free stores available past security.
The one directly across the security checkpoint had only a few mid-range options:
The Nikka 12yo Premium Blend (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Yoichi NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen) and Nikka Miyagikyo NAS (700mL for 3,750 Yen). Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Gold & Gold “Samurai head” bottle (700mL for ~5,200 Yen).
If you head down toward gate ~108, you find a smaller store with a different selection:
Suntory Yamazaki 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), Suntory Hakushu 18yo “Limited Edition” (700mL for 50,000 Yen), SunShine 20yo (700mL), Kirin 18yo (700mL for 14,000 Yen), Nikka Coffey Grain (700mL for 5,400 Yen), and Nikka Coffey Malt (700mL for 5,400 Yen).
Suntory Royal (700mL for 6,000 Yen), Suntory Old Whisky (700mL for 2,800 Yen), Suntory Torys “gift pack” of 3 bottles (3x200mL for 2,500 Yen).
Don’t be fooled by these “limited edition” 18yo Yamazaki/Hakushu – they are just the regular 18yo expressions marked up 3-fold as “travel exclusives” (i.e., you should be able to find them for ~18,000 Yen in native form). Nice way to fleece people at the airport, I guess!
The third duty free down by gate ~130 has the widest selection of international single malts, but nothing of significant note for Japanese whisky.
Ok, that was a pretty disappointed foray for the discerning single malt whisky drinker. Last time I was in Tokyo (January, 2014), I was seeing a lot more age-statement whiskies everywhere. I guess this just reflects the current international demand for Japanese whisky – there is little high-end stuff to be found on local store shelves, for the time being.
But don’t despair – at least you can get to try most things while you are there by checking out the Zeotrope bar in Shinjuku. This is a cool little whisky bar, running old silent movies against the back wall. It is a tiny hole-in-the-wall sort of place, but it stocks ~300 Japanese whiskies. I had a fun time there with colleagues. I particularly recommend the half-pour “tasting flights” as a great way to introduce newcomers to Japanese whisky. Check out the travelog review of Zeotrope on the Whisky Saga site.
I was also in Taiwan on this visit, but didn’t get a chance to try out any local liquor stores or bars. But here’s what I found at the duty-free at Taiwan Songshan airport (TSA). Note that this is not the big international Taipei airport, but the smaller one located near Taipei city centre.
There were plenty of Scottish single malts and blends, although only one Japanese whiksy – Hibiki Harmony “Master Select” (700mL for 2,650 NT$). Another example of a “travel exclusive” rip-off – although at least it’s only twice the normal Harmony price, not three times like the Yamazaki/Hakushus in Haneda.
But the star of the show was the Taiwanese whisky:
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,975 NT$), Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask gift set with Glencairn glass (700mL for 2,550 NT$), Kavalan Single Malt (1000mL for 2,380 NT$), Kavalan Concertmaster (1000mL for 1,700 NT$).
Those are great prices for the Solists – especially the Sherry Cask gift set, at ~$90 USD! Needless to say, I picked one up. 🙂 Keep an eye out for my upcoming review.
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
The 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.
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).
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.