The discontinuation of Hakushu 12 year old shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone – the stock pressure on virtually all Japanese whisky is already well reported, and this particular expression had seen its availability become limited over the last couple of years. And yet, I’m still a little melancholy about it – not because it is my favourite Japanese expression, but because it was my first. Way back when, Hakushu 12 year old was my earliest experience of whisky procuded outside of Scotland, and at the time, I remember being quite stunned not only by the differences I found between this and the Scottish single malts I’d been tasting, but also, importantly, the by the similarities. It was the catalyst that lead me to explore the category further.
The discontinuation of Hakushu 12 year old is unlikely to be permanent. However, to my mind its 2018 demise has wider implications for the current state of play of the Japanese whisky industry.
We’re already well into the realm of age-statement Japanese whisky being covetable - indeed, I’d now described it as a commodity. With every announcement of diminished stock, limited allocations and bottle withdrawals, this becomes situation compounded. Those of you who cannot live without your beloved Hakushu 12 year old (or any other recently discontinued bottle for that matter), fear not - the market will provide you opportunities to acquire some still - via auctions and some of the less than scrupulous retailers - at ever increasing mark-ups. My first bottle of Hakushu 12 year old cost less than £40 - last year, I was seeing it being sold for closer to £90 – already, since the discontinuation announcement auction prices have soared to £160 (plus fees). Yikes.
Yes, yes, I know that’s just the market – simple economics in action – but don’t you all think that this sets precedents for the future? When a new Hakushu is released (perhaps in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – which I know many of the producers have their eyes keenly on) will it cost £40, or even £90? I think that’s highly doubtful. Likewise, will the new the stock sustain the market demand? Again, I have my questions about that too. Interest levels are enormous, and I was taken-aback by the news outlets which decided to cover the announcement of the demise of Hakushu 12 year old and, at the same time Hibiki 17 year old (which we’ll talk about and review shortly) – well-read, well-distributed mainstream news. Brand visibility and success. But at what price?
Regardless, this the world we live in, and when it comes to Japanese whisky, it’s a particularly strange one. The category is in very odd situation right now – there’s ample ‘introductory’ NAS expressions out there with which any budding enthusiast can start to explore Japanese whisky, but then what? You commence your journey with Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve (perfectly decent enough) – and then move onto Hakushu 18 year old at somewhere in the region of £250-£300 (even assuming you can find a bottle)? Similarly with the Hibiki range – you sample Hibiki Harmony (and don’t think much of it because it’s a rather insipid) – do you then take the plunge and try to locate a bottle of the 21 year old at £500? Neither of these situations seem very likely. Whilst there’s still breadth in Japanese whisky, there’s currently little depth. How long can that situation be maintained before interest and fashion (both being fickle things) moves elsewhere?
Anyhow, back to the business of the day – reviewing the Hakushu 12 year old.
Nose: Fresh, crisp and quite leafy – mosses, lichen and forest pine. Fruits are drawn from a similar basket to the Distiller’s Reserve bottling – peaches and citrus – but they’re deeper and riper in their outlook. There’s tartness here – grapefruit and, after a short period of resting, some gentle tropicalness. Smoke is light and fresh as one might expect – part heathery/floral, part forest/grass. Aromas of tobacco and mint provide some additional interest. The addition of water brings out some savoury character – pitta bread – as well as both earthiness and a heightening of the light tropical – nothing much, but a touch of spit-roasted pineapple is discernible.
Taste: A silky arrival (not quite viscous, but certainly not thin) that is initially quite on the sweet side – pear drops and ripe apples are joined by chocolate, grass and spearmint. The smoke is more prevalent in the mouth than on the nose, but it’s still quite relaxed and serene – gently smoked lemons and grapefruits – which both add some sourness to temper the initial sweet flavours. In the back palate, some earthiness and minerality – wet slate. Water reduces the already light smoke and allows the fruit elements more room to shine – juicy and pronounced, but at the expense of complexity.
Finish: On the short side of medium and with light pepper, touches of vanilla and eucalyptus.
Make no mistake, Hakushu 12 year old is indeed a step up from the Distiller’s Reserve, offering deeper and more expansive flavour and improved overall balance. The finish is less successful here, being shorter than I’d personally like and without any sense of lingering. Nevertheless, the fresh and foresty profile of Hakushu comes through strongly in a bottling that is driven by high quality spirit-led aromas and flavours.
So, £160? Of course not – that’s completely preposterous. Even when this was £90, I’d still be suggesting other bottlings which to my mind represent better value for money. However, if you’re interested in Hakushu, especially if you’ve already enjoyed the Distiller’s Reserve expression, this is still worth looking out for in bars with buyer friendly dram prices.