It has happened to most of us at some point…just as the party is really getting started, the host runs out of alcohol. Well, that’s piss poor planning. <Humpth>. Nowadays running dry is far less of a snag than it used to be – a restock is only an app click away – “Your order has been accepted.” “Your order is on its way”. Fantastic – let’s get this show back on the road again. But, over at the House of Suntory where the festivities have been underway for several years now, there are some serious supply issues. The delivery app is showing “expected sometime in 2030”; what little booze there is remaining feels like a shadow of what was served earlier on; and the clamouring guests just keep on arriving in ever greater numbers. The toilet is blocked, someone’s been sick on the cat, and to top it all off, most of the newly arriving guests only seem interested in nabbing the doggie bags and then beating a hasty retreat.
Blended whisky Hibiki was introduced by Suntory in 1989. The name in Japanese means ‘resonance’ or echo’, and the bottling was brought in to rationalise Suntory’s blended whisky offering from a diverse range of expressions into what would eventually become a single line under the Hibiki brand. Hibiki bottles are immediately recognisable, coming in 24 sided decanters that are designed to represent the 24 seasons of the traditional Japanese calendar. They also have 12 sided heavy glass stoppers signifying the dozen periods of change within that same calendar.
Whilst the biggest concern for any dedicated whisky enthusiast should always be the quality of the liquid itself, bottle design also has a part to play. It can reflect the overall brand of the producer and distillery, can help a bottle stand out on a crowded bar shelf, and in some cases even influence the way you experience a whisky. Whilst many new and recent Japanese whiskies have been produced in what you’d commonly describe simply as a bottle, back in the 1970s and 80s producers created a huge array of more unusual glassware and decanters. Often created to mark special occasions, distillery birthdays, golf tournaments and industry conferences – there’s a veritable treasure trove of older peculiar containers – and some are much more visually attractive than others.
Toki doesn’t literally translate from Japanese to English as ‘time’ (it’s more about the precise moment when things happen), but it’s nevertheless a similar concept that Suntory have taken in the naming of this blended whisky. Released for the US market in 2016, and somewhat plugging the gap left by the discontinuation of the Hibiki 12 year old, Toki is a slightly different Japanese blended whisky – both in its components, and how Suntory are suggesting it be served.
Discontinued whiskies are a market unto themselves. And discontinued Japanese whiskies currently seem in a different league altogether. You only have to look at Hibiki 12 year old to realise that the whisky market is in a very strange place right now. What was once a £40 bottle now commands £200 on the secondary market and at least £350 (for a 50cl!) from retailers – I defy anyone to justify why that is not completely batshit mental. Whilst both discontinued whiskies and the secondary market in general follow their own set of rules, we’ve reached a point where the status of some whiskies far outweighs the actual contents of their bottles. Chase expressions used to be the liquid gold of the whisky world – now, we’re fighting over the ordinary and the mediocre.
Whilst the discontinuation of Suntory’s Hakushu 12 year old was met with resigned sighs worldwide, I’m not sure that most folks felt the same way about Hibiki 17 year old. For several years now you’d rarely see Hibiki 17 out in the wild (and if you did, your eyes would pop out of your head at the price tag) – though I’m sure there are plenty of closed examples within the growing number of liquid museums worldwide. Allocations have been so limited (and buyers so quick) that for all intents and purposes, outside of auction houses, this bottling might as well have been discontinued already. So, when the official announce came last month, I exhibited not an ounce of surprise.