Hibiki Japanese Harmony Tasting Notes Review

hibiki-japanese-harmonyIt shocked the world when Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, named The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the best whisky in the world. It was the first time, in the 12 year run of The Whisky Bible, that the first place spot didn’t go to a whisky from Scotland. In fact, Murray didn’t put any Scotches in the top five!

Yamazaki is a product of Suntory, which also makes The Hakushu and The Hibiki. Yamazaki and Hakushu are both single malts, Hibiki is their blend and means harmony in Japanese (fitting for a blend). Today, I had the pleasure of sampling Hibiki’s latest no-age statement whisky – Hibiki Japanese Harmony.

In Japanese culture, there’s a reverence of craftsmanship. If you have Netflix, watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s a documentary that chronicles the life of 85yo Jiro Ono, considered one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. He runs a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station and was awarded a 3-star Michelin Guide rating. That’s astounding, until you watch the painstaking detail and world class craftsmanship involved.

I bring that up because harmony with nature is another highly regarded belief, one that’s harder to demonstrate (certainly in a documentary), but that harmony is what Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo was aiming for in the Hibiki Japanese Harmony blend. The best way to give you an idea of what they were trying to achieve actually comes from their manufacturing notes:

Hibiki Japanese Harmony is heralded as the foundation of the Hibiki range, leveraging the same key malt and grain whiskies from the original Hibiki blend, Hibiki 17 Years and Hibiki 21 Years. American White Oak malt whiskies create a solid base. The rare Mizunara (Japanese oak) and sherry cask malt whiskies are the dressing. The smoky malt whiskies enact as subtle accents to create depth and further complexity. Grain whiskies from Suntory’s Chita distillery act as the “dashi,”or broth, to complete the personality of the malt whiskies and enhance their overall harmony.

There’s a lot going on in the blend and the fun part is that they tell you.

Tasting Notes:

  • Nose: Floral sweetness, emphasis on the floral, some pine and sandalwood
  • Palate: Caramelized honey akin to sherry (it’s one of the sweetest I can remember), candied orange, cinnamon (think about the baking area of your spice drawer… that whole smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, etc), rosemary, a little smokiness that surprised me
  • Finish: Medium finish and clean, some dark chocolate sweet bitterness, lingering honey

Overall, it’s a light whisky with a lot of fun flavors, heavier emphasis on the floral which is fun because you see that’s what they were going for with Harmony. The aspect I wish I could recognize is the characteristics imparted by the Mizunara (Japanese oak) casks. It’s like knowing there’s a new type of stringed instrument in the orchestra but not being able to hear it because I don’t know what to look for.

I’ve had some of Suntory’s other creations and I see this one as a good way to get into Japanese whisky if you’ve never had any. It’s bottled at 43% abv and retails for $68 locally – if I can find one, I’m getting one.

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Does the bottling or distillation year matter for Scotch or other whiskies?

Macallan 18yo 1980Not really and definitely not in the same way as it does for wine.

When it comes to wine, the year to year seasonal variability in the grape crop can have a big impact on the final product. Different wine producing regions experience different weather, from year to year, so sometimes you get more rain, sometimes you get colder or warmer temperatures, and that all impacts how the grapes grow.

Just check out this list of Bordeaux vintages, going back to 1959, and how the different each year can be. Bordeaux is any wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France, though nearly 90% of it is red wine.

2005 Bordeaux is considered a “stunning vintage from top to bottom in all appellations and in all price ranges. If you have the money, this is one of the best Bordeaux vintages to lay down in your cellar. These stunning wines will only get better and more expensive. Hold 100 Pts.” (of their rankings, only two years were ranked 100 – 2005 and 2000)

Just two years later, 2007 was categorized as “Overpriced, early drinking vintage. Drink or hold 87 Pts.”

With wine, it is intuitive that the weather plays a huge role in how good the grapes are. The grapes are mashed and fermented. The end product can be immediately bottled or aged in barrels for a few years and then bottled. Generally speaking, from grape to your mouth, it’s usually only a couple years at the most.

With scotch and barley, I’d argue that year to year crop yields doesn’t matter.

I believe it doesn’t matter to the end product because:

  • Barley is pretty much barley, weather can impact the overall yield but I think variations don’t impact the flavor of the end product because…
  • .. the malting process. Malting involves tricks the grains into germinating through a water soak, then halted by drying with hot air. This process helps convert the grain’s starches into sugars, which are fermented. In grapes, the sugars come from the growing process; in barley, it’s created during the malting process.
  • Whisky is distilled, so now we’re talking ABVs in the low 60%s (usually 62.5%) before aging for many years (3+).
  • Lastly, unless it’s single barrel, they will blend different barrels to achieve the characteristics they want.

So… the distillation date and the bottling date are fun to know, but they really have little impact on the end product.

That said, there are two caveats:

  1. If the characteristics of the distillery have changed, the bottling year will give you an idea of what they were going for in that time period. Tastes change, production techniques change, so there value in knowing the date if it’s many years in the past. But it’s not for the same reasons as wine.
  2. Single barrels and batches can vary from one another in a single year. It won’t be a huge difference (I’d argue you couldn’t tell if you had them independently on different days), but there are subtle differences if you try them side by side.

That said, I’d love to get my hands on a bottle with my birth year. :)

Do you think bottling or distillation year matters?

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Syndicate 58/6 12-Year Old Tasting Notes Review

Syndicate-586When I first heard about Syndicate 58/6, I was a little skeptical at the name.

Where are the Glens? What’s this Syndicate? I can pronounce it too easily… what’s with the numbers?

Let’s talk about the name, the Syndicate 58/6 refers a group of six original members of the group (hence the six) and how the origin dates back to 1958 (hence the 58), when a blend of whiskies was discovered in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is said that after the discovery, six of the founding members of the Syndicate went on to bottle it and replicate it for future years.

Names are fun but what about the whisky? Syndicate explains that the blend consists of 18 single malts and 4 single grains, mixed with some of the original 1958 batch, and is aged in a Solera system. Solera is an aging process where older and older whiskies are blended in and aged, with the average age increasing with each blend. The younger spirit is transferred to a new barrel, with the older spirit on the bottom. A lot of dessert wines, like Sherry, Madeira, and Port; are aged this way. (you may recognize the name as it appears in Glenfiddich’s Solera Reserve)

After all the blending is completed, they finish it in Oloroso Sherry casks for up to two years. The 58/6 has a 12-year old age statement and 40% abv.

I’m a little hesitant to fully buy into the idea that there’s much of the 1958 batch included in each blend, unless there was a tremendous amount or the production runs of 58/6 is tiny (neither of which seem too plausible) and Oliver at Dramming did a little research on the company and its constituents. I personally am not that skeptical or cynical but I saw his writeup and felt it warranted a mention.

That said, it’s about the whisky.

Tasting Notes:

  • Nose: Light fruit on the nose and alcohol, give it some time in the glass and it opens up. There’s malt, vanilla, sugar, bit of grass
  • Palate: Some grassiness and wine, probably from the Oloroso finish, along with molasses and cinnamon.
  • Finish: Somewhat short finish with the vanilla and cinnamon coming through

All in all, it’s a fun blend that isn’t overpowering in any particular area. It’s lightness, likely owing to its single grain blend, is comforting and lets you really investigate some of the subtler flavors. It’s a delicious dram.

The budget minded consumer in me thinks that at $160 a bottle, it’s a stretch strictly based on dollars. The whisky is good but I think the exclusivity premium is a wee bit high. If you’re into collecting and want something that isn’t always available, this would make sense on your shelf. If you’re looking for a daily drink, this is a fine one at a not so fine price.

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Whisky Sour Cocktail Recipe

whisky-sourOne of the fun things about food, and drink cocktails, is that there are a series of ratios that almost always work.

For example, there’s a ratio of 5:3 when it comes to dough. 5 parts flour to 3 parts liquid (usually water). You add other things to it, such as yeast to make it rise, but the ratio is 5:3. These ratios exist everywhere.

For cocktails, the 2:1:1 ratio. Two parts spirit, one part sweet (simple syrup) and one part sour (lemon). Like bread, you can add other things to it but the base is the same – 2 parts spirit, one part tartness and one part sweetness – you’re good to go.

Have you ever heard of the old rhyme – “one sour, two sweet, three strong, four weak” – that’s a ratio for a punch. Sour and sweet refer to the obvious, strong refers to the alcohol, and four refers to water. Boom – punch ratio.

With the whisky sour, you have the 2:1:1 ratio with some added fun like bitters for aromatics. Garnishes are fun to add a little complexity as well, but don’t go crazy because too many ingredients can muddy the waters.

My friends from Usquaebach sent me this simple recipe (keep an eye out for tasting notes on their whisky soon once I open the bottle!) for a classic Whisky Sour:

  • 2 oz. Usquaebach Reserve Premium (or your favorite whisky)
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • Angostura Bitters

Mix everything in a cocktail shaker and shake like crazy! Then strain into a glass, add two dashes of Angostura Bitters, and garnish with lemon peel and a cherry.

Enjoy!

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How to Make Your Own Simple Syrup

There’s nothing like having a batch of simple syrup on hand for cocktails.

Stirring in sugar is … OK. But it never dissolves and you’re left with not enough sugar at the beginning to a sugar bomb at the end.

Fortunately, making simply syrup is simple. Just boil some water and stir in the sugar.

What are the ratios? For cocktails, it’s one part water to one part sugar.

Here are the dead simple instructions, in case you need them:

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring water and sugar to boil.
  2. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Let simple syrup cool to room temperature then move to a sealed, clean glass jar.

Sugar is a preservative so it can stay for a while. Eventually, mold will find a way in there so discard if you see any mold. Fortunately simple syrup is completely clear so if you see anything in it, toss and make it again.

Want to get fancy? You can infuse flavors into the simple syrup. After the sugar dissolves and has been removed from the heat, drop in your favorite aromatics (cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, peppers, whatever) and let it sit for thirty minutes and then strain it out. Don’t leave it in there once you store it in the fridge.

Enjoy your simple syrup!

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