Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Japanese Whisky 2: Suntory

Suntory are a mega-vendor in the world of alcohol and own big, well loved and well cared for names like Yamazaki and (through Beam Suntory) Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Auchentoshan, Laphroaig and Bowmore. Listening to Jim Mcewan speak about the acquisition of Bowmore, it's hard to fault their involvement - Beam Suntory taking over is when he started to get access to good casks. In fact I can't recall a Scottish distillery complaining about their takeover by a Japanese company (Tomatin speak equally highly of their ownership by Takara Shuzo).

Anyway there’s certainly some great whisky out of Suntory. A fair few have been through this blog, including last years’ Yamazaki and Hakushu Distiller’s Reserves, the Yamazaki DR being one of the best value whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  Sainsburys had it on offer last Christmas as £40 a bottle and it’s still available right now.  Go get some.

Hibiki Harmony, 43% A+

Hibiki in made out of various Suntory whiskies: Yamazaki, Hakushu and grain from Chita, and is matured using some plum liqueur casks (umeshu).

japan_hib11Nose- Immediately sweet and light, like kola kubes (remember, they don't smell or taste of cola). Then blonde hardwood, refreshers, orange cleaning spray and that sweet, slightly angular note you get from good grain whisky in first fill bourbon. Actually the grain character is pretty front and centre, balanced by a light touch of peat. It's a lovely, well rounded, balanced but bright and young nose. After sipping, the wood comes through more on the nose.

Body - Bright, sweet citrus - lots of orange juice and orange zest, then white chocolate and musky wood.  Actually that sweet white chocolate is quite high up in the flavour profile the more you drink it.

Finish - Medium with grapefruit, orange juice and sweet wood.

What's not good about it - A little polite, and some youth is apparent in the initial delivery.

What's good about it - It’s clean and straightforward but it has lovely balance.  And it's absolutely delicious - lots of juicy citrus, great wood, and a lovely grain character to it throughout. I could happily settle into a bottle of this for the evening. This isn’t popular with some people (“it’s good for highballs”, which it no doubt is) but come to it with your arms open, expecting a gentle blended Scotch rather than a Japanese sherry bomb and I think it’s rather good. I have to confess that I wasn’t that impressed with the other Hibiki’s I’ve tried (there’s the 12 here, but I’m remembering a Suntory tasting once where I left my notes in the venue and so didn’t write it up on the blog, but my recollection was that I wasn’t too fussed). but in any case I think they’re ditching the age statemented stuff.

Chita Single Grain, 43% A-

Chita is "the grain distillery" Suntory built to provide grain whisky for their blends.

Thanks to Mark for the smuggled sample.

Chita_GrainNose - A breath of fresh air. Sweet honey, warm cask and sweet grain. Vanilla, a touch of liquorice torpedo, some emulsion paint and glace cherries. Very good.

Body - Very oddly almost exactly like El Dorado 12 year old rum (which is a guilty pleasure of mine, god knows how much extra sugar and colourant goes into it). Sweet but oaked, dark and oily, bitter backnotes of licked wood and grapefruit zest. Even more so with water - unbalanced now and just wet and bitter.

Finish - Medium to long, a lot of spice and rum, almost chilli hot at the end.

What's not good about it - Weirdly rum like. One dimensional.

What's good about it - A really lovely nose, quite tasty too - I do like El Dorado 12. Neckable, even. Responsibly, of course.

Chita Distillery, "Suntory Single Grain Whisky" A+

10yo limited edition, Japan only. This is the first of many from Bret’s stash of Japanese auction gems, all of which are unavailable in this country.

20151015_192229Nose - Sweet and gentle, lightly iced. Flirty sherry, a little oyster. Hard grains and leather. Clean and beautiful.

Body - Gentle, perfect grain. Ice cream and oats. Absolutely beautiful.

Finish - Medium but like eating the best ice cream.

What's not good about it - Quite an ordinary (but good grain) if you look at it that way.

What's good about it - Beautifully jewelled and clean, cute almost. Refreshing and complex grain. 10? Seriously? Lovely stuff.

SMWS G13.1, A complete revelation, Chita, 4 years old, 58.3% A+

October 2009, 622 bottles, virgin oak puncheon

g13.1Nose - Just lovely. Bright, very sweet, very juicy - totally refreshing. Orange barley drink, sweet wine, beautiful pronounced old cask (despite its age - wax, orange and refreshers), and a very well integrated but not lost grain character. Makes your heart skip a beat. More pronounced wood and fruit with water, but with some savoury notes - coated peanuts, poppadum. Beautiful.

Body - Bright, citrussy and balanced, very intense. The orange juice and great cask from the nose is very present in the initial delivery. Then a knock of something musty and syrupy and very spicy, the brutal virgin oak cask.

Finish - Then a long finish, lots of bitterness and spice, and unadulterated wood. With water it's softer, some tobacco.

What's good about it - Only four years in a brutal cask has to take its toll somewhere, and it's in the later delivery. It falls apart - bitter and unbalanced, overwooded.

What's good about it - Just the most beautiful, fruity nose - Asian and intense, with elegance and age. Just wonderful at the start. And with water, it does hang together in the final delivery, it's just not what it could have been.

SMWS 120.7, Hakushu, Sweet, fragrant and satisfying, 14 years old, 55.5% A+

Hakushu is the brother distillery of Yamazaki, located halfway up a mountain and deep in a forest it must be one of the most spectacular and wonderful places to work and make malt and grain whisky - great water too, although I'm not sure how wonderful it is getting the malted barley there! Grain facilities were installed in 2013, 40 years after the opening of the distillery.

September 1999, First fill Bota Corta, 517 bottles.  These first fill Bota Corta casks are very heavy handed with the sherry and deep coffee colour, although Japanese whisky does seem to do very well in them.   I have reviewed this before but that was with a just-opened bottle in the midst of a flight of absolute blockbusters.  What’s it like after a year of living with the bottle?

120.7Nose - Sweet rum soaked raisin and wet, new oak. Whiteboard markers and burnt toast. Coffee liqueur, fried rosemary and old ladies perfume. Fresh with perfumed hand soap and big, black sherry. Very fruity too - glace cherries, stewed plums and basil. With water, some cask begins to come through and hints at how majestic this spirit could have been with perhaps twice as long in refill.

Body - Intense, dry and spiced. Soft liquorice and strawberry laces. Seriously soft and delicious with water.

Finish - Long, spicy and intensely oaked. But this is still young - the blustering sherry isn't backed by quite enough wax.

What's not good about it - A little over the top perhaps and still young. Some sharp corners in the delivery.

What's good about it - But with time and water there is some serious complexity and fun when the cask begins to peek out from behind the sherry. A sweet, intense blockbuster.

WSO-008 from the W Shop in Osaka. Hakushu single malt, bottled 2015. A+

20151015_205634Nose – Bright jewels of clear varnish, oak with strawberry laces and yoghurt raisins. Impossibly bright, very lovely. Deeply sexy.

Body - Balanced and competent… but then, disappointing. Big toffee and tannins but slightly unbalanced.

Finished - Oak complexity, black tea and tannins.

What's not good about it - significantly less impressive in the delivery than the rest of Bret’s treasures. Unbalanced.

What's good about it - Just a fabulous nose - dusty oak and varnish.

Yamazaki, sherry cask 2013, 48% A+

Yamazaki was Japan's first malt distillery, established by Shinjiro Torii (founder of Suntory) and run by the famous Masataka Taketsuru after his time in Scotland learning and working in the Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown in the 1920s. The distillery is the largest in Japan and is built in an area known for its water quality (unsurprisingly a big consideration for all distilleries, given how much of the stuff is used in the process).

This one's the Jim Murray bible winner. Thanks to Jim Rangeley (who won the bottle in a competition) for the sample!

japan_yam24Nose - Deep, sweet sherry - it's incredibly dark as a whisky. It's bright though, not flawed, but oddly muted, like it's being nosed through cardboard (maybe that's something to do with its time in a 3cl sample bottle). That's it though - no fireworks. A polite sherry bomb - you don't need me to write about fruit and nut, rum and raisin.

Body - A big, soft, mouthfilling delivery. Brown sugar, lots of tumeric and a fried chilli (although not hot). Fried honey and sesame. My friend once drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels on a plane to Australia and ended up in jail, and when he woke up, the police told him he was the politest drunk they'd ever locked up. Well, this is the politest sherry bomb I've ever drunk. A balanced and delicious delivery.

Finish - Long, some spice starts to come through - lots of spicy Oloroso, but not too dry. At the end it's significantly numbing - Szechuan peppercorns even.

What's not good about it - a little flat, oddly spicy at the end compared to the soft nose and delivery. Quite a boring sherry cask.

What's good about it - unflawed - soft and delicious. The spicy wood at the end provides some interest and it's a great sherry delivery. It's worth what it originally sold for, but not the grand it goes for now. The Yamazaki Distillers Reserve is better than this and was selling in Sainsburys for £40 a few months ago.

SMWS 119.14, Yamazaki, Raspberry imperial stout, 11 years old, 53.9% A⊕+

April 2003, 538 bottles, another first fill Bota Corta

20151027_192154Nose - Instantly epic. The kind of screamingly delicious sherry that only works by being balanced by bright toffee, perfect spirit, great wood and lots of juicy fruit. The fruit of a 35 year old highland whisky, with blackberries and red cherry and a cold drink of water. Beautiful.

Body - Absolutely beautiful and totally balanced - black fruit (cut plum, black cherry), a touch of vanilla prune. Softer with water and more obviously sherried. I prefer it neat.

Finish - Now coffee and lightly spiced sherry and sulphur. Almost perfection - the only thing not quite there is the dip in fruit levels at the end. Blended into something significantly older and refill I can imagine some spectacular NAS whisky here.

What's not good about it - unsubtle to say the least. Bruising, almost.

What's good about it - But balanced and extraordinarily moreish. Fantastic balance and intensity. Even with my current "not sure about these sherry bombs" thing going on, I'm impressed.

Mibuki: Osaka blend A+

Another Bret auction special, made by the various departments of Osaka university – each department picked a different cask and it was released as a graduation whisky as a  "joint project with Suntory".

20151015_192330Nose - Complete. Lovely depth and excitement, seasoning of peat, lots of fruit. Even, perhaps, coastal?

Body - Very HP in the initial delivery but then falls a little flat. Initially fruit and tobacco, lots of tannins, quite dry and delicious but not too well integrated.

Finish - Bitterness and disappointingly short.

What's not good about it - clearly designed by committee.

What's good about it - A seriously beautiful nose – dusty, clean and lots of hot radiator.

Next up, Nikka!


  1. What's your score on the 119.14, Ben?
    Great write up as usual mate.