“Whisky, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink.”
The words of one of my heroes, literary great Haruki Murakami. He’s a Japanese man who loves his Scotch. And he’s not alone. Ever since a young organic chemist named Masataka Taketsuru brought the secrets of Scotch whisky production home to Hiroshima in 1920, the Japanese have been busy perfecting this favorite tipple to great success. A number of renowned Japanese whisky brands have arisen, but none so universally recognized as that of the Suntory group, whose Yamazaki distillery was the first Taketsuru helped found.
When I received a bottle of the 12 year Hakushu single malt, I was already familiar with the Yamazaki line. It’s a good day when I have the opportunity to reach for the Yamazaki 12 on my back bar, as it serves to satisfy the novice Scotch drinker, amuse the whisky veteran, and even mixes into a few damn good cocktails (ask me about the Samurai in London sometime). But I was always careful to make a distinction between the Japanese homage and the real McCoy. Despite traces of peat and the sooty caramel flavor of oak casks, Yamazaki is bright, fruity, almost tropical; that could sometimes make it a hard sell with die hard Islay drinkers. I entered into Hakushu’s 12 year single malt with a similar frame of mind.
So I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Deceptively bright and citrusy on the nose, Hakushu strikes on the first sip like Musashi. Pear and lemon quickly give way to spice and smoke, nuts and malted barley, and a woody finish with our favorite Scotch topsoil. It’s like a well-balanced meal with every sip (I think it’s the FDA who said that). And it leaves you with satisfying, lingering flavors of malt and peat. The line hadn’t been peated until this generation, so I’m happy to taste the new results.
In order to achieve this lightly peated flavor, Hakushu blends a batch of unpeated whisky with heavily peated whisky, both distilled at the same distillery from the same kind of malt (thereby maintaining its single malt status). Between that, an aging in American oak, Japanese oak and Spanish sherry casks, and the distillery’s location in the Japanese Alps, I’d say Suntory has moved from producing a mild Highland to a stout Speyside. Good on ya, boys.
A side-by-side comparison of Suntory’s two distilleries is a fun experience (and improves with repetition), but when you get your hands on a bottle of Hakushu, hang on to it. It’s only been available in the States since December 2011, and can still prove tough to find. That said, I have little doubt that this great showing will be just as recognized in a few years’ time; Japanese whisky is on the rise in the Western world. That’s something I’ll wager Murakami could toast to. Likely with a glass of Hakushu 12 year.
– 43.5% Alcohol by Volume