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.
Suntory Toki is an unusual release. With the overwhelming demand for Japanese whisky in recent years, all the major Japanese distillers have moved the bulk of their core lines to new no-age-statement (NAS) expressions. As a result, it is rare to see classic age-statement expressions outside of Asia. See for example my review of Hibiki Harmony from late last year.
But Toki is something a bit different. Rather than a NAS of an established line, this is a brand new entry-level blended whisky – and one that is specific for the North American market.
As usual, this blend contains whiskies from Suntory’s two malt distilleries – Hakushu and Yamazaki – and its “heavy grain” Chita distillery. While most blends have historically been weighed toward Yamazaki malt, Suntory confirms that Hakushu malt (aged in American white oak) is the first “pillar” supporting this whisky. The second is grain whisky from Chita. Yamazaki malt is only a minor component, and is coming from both American white oak and Spanish oak. So, no classic Japanese Mizunara oak is in here.
As expected from that sort of mix, this is a light-tasting whisky, suitable for drinking neat and for those who enjoy highballs or scotch-and-sodas. It is interesting to me that they have chosen to release a highball-style light whisky exclusively to North America – although all is welcomed, given how Japanese whisky has gotten exceedingly scarce here.
Here is how it compares to some other entry-level Japanese blends and grain whiskies:
Hibiki Harmony: 8.40 ± 0.61 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Kakubin (Suntory Whisky): 8.14 ± 0.86 on 4 reviews ($$)
Kirin 50% Blend (Fuji Gotemba): 8.35 ± 0.49 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.57 ± 0.50 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Nikka From the Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.39 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Gold & Gold: 8.16 ± 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Nikka Super: 7.98 ± 0.49 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Suntory Old Whisky: 8.29 ± 0.32 on 7 reviews ($$$) Suntory Toki: 8.24 ± 0.63 on 5 reviews ($$$)
White Oak Akashi Blended: 8.01 ± 0.43 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Given its restricted geography, there are not a lot of reviews for this whisky yet. But as you can see from above, the current 8.24 on 5 reviews puts it about typical for this class of blended Japanese whisky. But it shows higher than usual variance, suggesting a wide range of reviewer opinions on Toki.
Now available at the LCBO for $60 CAD, Suntory Toki is lightly coloured, and bottled at 43% ABV. It comes in an unusual brick-shaped glass bottle (with screw cap).
Nose: Honey is the predominant characteristic, followed by green grapes, green apples and a touch of coconut. Gummy bears. Slightly floral, with fresh hay and a bit of oaky vanilla. A slight hint of old sweat socks detracts, but it is very mild. No alcohol burn.
Palate: Similar fruits to the above, but some added pear and lychee fruit. Definite ginger now. A bit perfumy, but with a good oaky core. Has a classic blended whisky mouthfeel, with the grain whisky spreading over the tongue. Also a bit of tongue tingle, which is unusual. Feels like a predominantly grain blend (but a quality one).
Finish: Short to medium. Some lingering sweetness, like slightly flat ginger ale. A bit citrusy. No bitterness or off-putting after-tastes, crisp and clean.
As usual, I only checked the official notes and production history for this whisky after compiling my own tasting notes above. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a close concordance (and this is the first time I’ve ever detected green grapes :). I would also have predicted largely Hakushu malt and Chita grain as the principle components of this whisky, consistent with what Suntory reports.
While not as complex as other Suntory offerings, it has some interesting notes and is pretty flawless for this type of blended scotch-style whisky. I would consider it a mid-range blend, similar to some of the Compass Box offerings (and higher quality than the current Meta-Critic score indicates). Certainly an easy recommendation for a “light” whisky at this price point at the LCBO. But do try the Hibiki Harmony if you are interested in a more typical Japanese blended profile, with more flavour.
Nathan the ScotchNoob has a positive review of Suntory Toki. André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky are both negative on this whisky. While waiting for further reviews, you could check out some of the ones on the Reddit whisky review network – I recommend the ones posted by Tarquin_Underspoon and Lasidar. Again, early reviews are very variable on this whisky. I’m sure there will be more to come.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.