gavin smith

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Rising Suntory

by Gavin D Smith

For many years, Japanese whisky was considered something of a joke by sophisticated Scotch whisky drinkers. But then back in the early 1970s, many people in Britain held similar views about Japanese cars - and look what's happened since.

Eventually, word began to spread that the Japanese were actually making some pretty decent whisky, and after decades of concentrating on blends, they started marketing single malts. In 2001 the quality of the malts was confirmed in triumphant style when a Yoichi whisky from Nikka distillers was voted 'Best of the Best' by Whisky Magazine. Now it was official, not only could the Japanese make good whisky, but they could make whisky that a distinguished international panel of tasters considered the best in the world.

Subsequent endorsements came from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which bottled a Yoichi, followed by a Hakushu and a Yamazaki, both produced by Japan's biggest distilling company, Suntory.

Stylistically, Japanese distillers have traditionally taken Scotch as their model, and today, the UK whisky drinker can purchase around a dozen Japanese malt whiskies from specialist retailers, with ranges available from both Nikka and Suntory.

The oldest working distillery in Japan is Yamazaki, founded in 1923 by Suntory, and as well as Yamazaki, Suntory also owns Hakushu distillery, the largest malt distillery in the world. Both operate an array of Scottish-style pot stills, which are direct-fired.

the whiskies

Suntory, Hakushu 12-year-old (Japan)
A floral nose, slightly smoky, with some brine. Huge flavour in the mouth, toffee, fruit and peat smoke. This could almost be Caol Ila. The finish is medium, smoky, with drying notes of oak. An extremely well structured, traditional malt whisky. 43.5% ABV, 70cl, ?45.99, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Hakushu Heavily Peated Single Malt (Japan)
Drinkers of Japanese whisky are more familiar with Suntory?s Yamazaki range than malts from its sister distillery of Hakushu. Hakushu is located on the edge of the Southern Japan Alps, west of Mount Fuji, and was established in 1973. It is an extremely flexible distillery, with stills of varying shapes, sizes, configurations and heating methods. The latest Hakushu release is of heavily-peated spirit, which carries no age statement and is not chill-filtered prior to bottling. It has been matured in American white oak hogsheads. The nose offers sweet peat, iodine, new leather, apricots, vanilla and a whiff of coal tar soap. Fruitier with the addition of water. Peat, plus tinned peaches in syrup on the palate. More ashy with water. Lingering in the finish, with ginger and sweet oak. 48.0% ABV, 70cl, ?75.00, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Hakushu Single Malt Bourbon Barrel (Japan)
This is a parallel release to the Yamazaki Single Malt Bourbon Barrel and comes from Suntory?s second distillery of Hakushu, which is actually the largest operational malt whisky distillery in the world. As with the Yamazaki, this expression comprises various malts between 10 and 15 years of age which have been matured in former Bourbon barrels. Delicate and initially slightly reticent on the nose. Lemon, grapefruit and spice. Some gumminess. The palate is rounded and spicy, with banana, pineapple, hazelnuts and vanilla. Lingering lively ginger and subtle oak in the finish. 48.2% ABV, 70cl, ?70.00, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Hibiki 17-year-old (Japan)
A multi-award winning blend, Hibiki presents a fragrant and floral nose, with orange blossom, almonds and spices. Full bodied and creamy on the palate, with a beguiling blend of stewed fruits and spices. Long, fruity and spicy in the finish, with pleasing oak notes and a final touch of vanilla. A rich, confident blend, full of class and elegance. Scotch watch out! 43.0% ABV, 70cl, ?56.95, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Yamazaki 10-Year-Old (Japan)
Yamazaki?s single malts have finally found their way into the UK mainstream, where the best provide serious competition for many of Scotland?s own in terms of quality. Light and fruity on the nose, with a suggestion of honey, this 10-year-old expression is medium-bodied, malty and mildly spiced, with a drying, increasingly nutty finish. A lovely aperitif whisky. 40.0% ABV, 70cl, ?26.00, Sainsbury's, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Yamazaki 12-year-old (Japan)
A fragrant, sweet nose, with coconut, honey and a hint of spice. Delightfully complex in the mouth, with malt, figs and sweet spices. The finish is long, elegant and fruity, with spicy oak. A whisky that should have the Scots worried! A complex, elegant and polished dram. 43.0% ABV, 70cl, ?34.99, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Yamazaki 18-year-old (Japan)
Very floral and perfumed on the nose, becoming musky, with orange marmalade. Water releases drier Sherry notes. Big bodied and mellow on the palate. Honey and stewed fruits, plus discernible Sherry. The finish is long, remaining sweet, with sherry and a touch of oak to the end. A beautiful and profound example of the distiller?s art. 43.0% ABV, 70cl, ?58.95, specialist whisky merchants.
Suntory, Yamazaki Single Malt Bourbon Barrel (Japan)
The latest release from Suntory?s Yamazaki distillery comprises various single malts which have been matured in ex-Bourbon barrels for between 10 and 15 years prior to vatting and bottling. Just 3,000 bottles have been allocated to European markets. Well-mannered and floral on the nose, with honey and ginger. An initial sherbet fizz on the palate, lots of citrus fruits and walnuts. More oaky with the addition of water. Drying very slowly, with spicy vanilla and a squeeze of lemon juice. 48.2% ABV, 70cl, ?70.00, specialist whisky merchants.


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