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.
For many years Hibiki 12 year old was the entry-point to Suntory’s mainstay higher-end blended portfolio – the line having replaced the 1980’s/90’s ‘Crest’ blends. As interest in all things Japanese exploded, stocks of the main components from Yamazaki and Hakushu have come under immense pressure – the net result being that in 2015 the bottling was discontinued. Whilst never being touted as a world class whisky, Hibiki 12 was commonly available and pitched at an accessible price – I remember paying around £40. Since 2015s discontinuation the speculators and the collectors have pushed that price up to a new zenith of idiocy – two bottles (with damaged cartons I might add) sold for £200 each at the most recent SWA.
This phenomena is far from being limited to Japanese whiskies – ‘special’ editions from Macallan (a topic worthy of an article onto itself), Ardbeg and Highland Park – there’s a raft of expressions that are deemed by consumers to be so inherently desirable (or valuable for resale) that folks will pay nearly any price to obtain them. But, in the case of Japan, there’s a worry that this explosion of interest is a mere passing trend – that by the time the distillers have produced and laid down enough spirit to meet the new levels of demand, that desires will have moved on to the next shiny thing. It’s an awkward place for the Japanese industry to be in – they’ve committed to expansion – they’ve committed to the future of Japanese whisky – but, the near total collapse of the industry (not all that long ago) must be playing on some people’s minds – without a full range of expressions to showcase the quality of Japanese whisky, can the level of interest be maintained long enough to see the newly distilled liquid to market? Will mysticism and reputation alone be enough for the next 8-10 years?
Certainly the secondary market for Japanese market has never been healthier (or ludicrous depending on which side you butter your bread) – but that doesn’t directly support the producers. As it stands, they’re simply unable to meet demand and any new releases must be carefully selected and blended from a limited selection of generally younger casks in an effort to continue to protect their investment in a more sustainable future. But the reputation of the main Japanese producers might well be limited by more than just consumer whims and stock issues – the simultaneous explosion of ‘fake Japanese whisky’ (whisky from other countries bottled and packed up to look like the real deal) provides a real risk to an industry with a current law system more akin to the Wild West. New ‘fake’ bottlings are high price (but more affordable than discontinued expressions), and in most cases greatly inferior to the real thing (certainly they taste completely different not actually being distilled in Japan). How do Suntory, Nikka, Mars etc differentiate the genuine article from these imposers without the full backing of robust rules and regulations? Irrespective of the silly secondary price of Japanese whiskies, there’s a tangible risk that the reputation of the whole industry will be affected by what is available right now – very little of the proper stuff, and plenty of the bogus.
Back to Hibiki 12 year old – the whisky is composed of whisky from three distilleries – Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. Likewise, it is drawn from four different cask elements – ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, mizunara and a parcel of liquid matured in umesha (Japanese plum liqueur) – the actual breakdown of individual elements being completely unknowable to all but Suntory’s blenders. It’s delivered in the standard Hibiki 24-sided decanter and bottled at 43%.
Nose: Sweet, aromatic and unmistakably Japanese in its composition. Stone fruits (apricots and peaches) mix it up with stewed apples, orange liqueur and just a touch of spit-roasted pineapple. This expressive fruitiness is offset by a gluey/solventy note of grain – this more or less passes after some time spent in the glass. Fruits are a combination of ripe and fresh and slightly reduced – but all of them are pleasantly aromatic from sandalwood, incense and cherry blossom. Running throughout – golden toasted cereals, cut grass and honeycomb. A few drops of water brings out some darker fruits – red berries and currants (but not quite plums for me) and adds additional sweetness – toffee and fudge.
Taste: A decent arrival – not underpowered – but at the same time, not singing from the rafters either. Less overtly fruity than the nose, but still presenting apples, tart lemons and a healthy addition of berries (perhaps the merest hint of something approaching a plum?!). Burnt toffee and honeycomb provide some richness to the composition. The palate feels slightly resinous and certainly has plenty of wood influence – aromatic as with the nose – but feeling a little engineered now. This influence grows with the development adding ginger and pepper spicing and well as an increasing bitterness. Reduction brings out more of the sweeter elements – fudge again, sappy oak and vanilla.
Finish: Medium with orange and lemon peels, and some grainy notes of polish.
Hibiki 12 year old is a very competent whisky. It’s measured, precise and expertly crafted. But, its strength is perhaps its weakness as it feels to me to be overly engineered at times – meticulousness leading to a sense of inevitability. Every element plays its part well, and there’s no doubt that this is tasty stuff, but to my taste it’s all rather on the rails. The brand is in a tough spot right now – the (disappointingly insipid) NAS Hibiki Harmony is the only commonly available/affordable bottling outside of Japan – the 12 year old is certainly a big step up from this, but, when it’s selling for at least £200 I can’t imagine any of these bottles are actually being opened. And, if you’re spending £200 on a bottle you’re going to be drinking this is a very poor choice indeed.