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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Timeless (and Ageless) Japanese Delights: Suntory's new Distiller's Reserve Yamazaki & Hakushu

Wow, what an extraordinary month it has been for whisky chatter so far. Any more of this excitement and we'll have to take a short nap somewhere quiet and friendly -  Rum or Armagnac perhaps.  ;-) 

First up and a large contingent of the online whisky community got its knickers unnecessarily in a twist about the unknown future of Scotch whisky and the terrifying looming spectre of No Age Statement whiskies. We'd like to issue a zen-like calming call to all those bloggers concerned: Take a deep breath and pour yourself something nice (maybe even N.A.S?)...whisky isn't broken quite just yet - we promise. 

Right on cue, Diageo, (seemingly the target for much abuse this past week especially) unveil a new range of Mortlach expressions AND a monumental stepping stone in the history of Brora. Two fairly hefty (and polarising) statements in the malt whisky world, by any stretch of the imagination. Whilst we'll reserve our judgment call on the 'Mortlach Scenario' (which sounds very much like a new Dan Brown novel) until we have actually tasted the liquid (makes sense, does it not chaps?) we can at least be thankful that there is plenty of excellent whisky left out there and the prospect of the industry moving forward yet again in the eyes of the every day consumer looks extremely positive in our view. 

Then the largest players in the world of Japanese whisky Suntory announces two brand new No Age Statement expressions, which will radically change the landscape of the international appetite for its whisky. 

It seems, as if No Age Statement-itus is catching folks... Better run and take cover. 

Stirred 13-and-a-half times?
A classic Highball
Suntory's latest brace of releases focus on the specific styles of their two malt distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu. The former, widely regarded as the very first Japanese whisky distillery celebrated its 90th anniversary last year and has long been a firm favourite here, for pushing the boundaries of flavour and versatility in whisky. 

In the 12 year old expression of both distilleries, Suntory have defined, in our opinion, (with the addition of Nikka's From The Barrel) the delicate simplicity of the Mizuwari (or Highball with sparkling water) -  a drink so perfect in its construction that lengthy tomes have been written about the correct number of times one should stir the mixture of whisky, ice and supremely clear spring water - Suntory reckoning that 13-and-a-half times is the pinnacle of excellence.  

So why bring out two new whiskies- The Distiller's Reserve range - especially lacking in age statements?

Well, like every whisk(e)y company in the world, times are a'changing and global demand for aged Japanese stock has meant that there is precious little out there - especially in Europe. With such an unprecedented focus on world whisky, Suntory have been smart enough to create two distillery defining expressions that not only deliver big on flavour, but also won't cost the earth, given the inevitable price rises of the 10, 12 and 18 year old expressions.  

Suntory Chef Blender Shinji Fukuyo pointing
out his predecessors  
At a launch last week in central London, both these new Japanese expressions were formally unveiled, after a highly successful introduction in the domestic market. We were lucky enough to join Shinji Fukuyo, Chief Blender and General Manager of the Whisky Blending and Planning Department at Suntory; the man responsible for creating the new range. Introducing the whiskies, Mr Fukuyo revealed that one of his daily responsibilities is to sample 300 different casks from the Suntory inventory, so with so many parameters to play with, putting these whiskies together was never going to be easy.  

And it wasn't.  

'After my first experiment, I was scalded by my boss,' he jokingly revealed, as we began to delve into the core component parts of both whiskies. But without a doubt, his second attempts have squarely hit the mark, both whiskies delivering what could accurately be described as the core flavours of each distillery: Yamazaki, known for its rich, well-rounded red berry fruit and lighter citrus zest - and Hakushu dialling in a little smokiness alongside a malty core, surrounded by soft orchard fruit and a little spice.   

Cask samples
Both expressions are formed by careful use of different cask styles, which Suntory have explored individually in their own dedicated bottlings. In the Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve, we were treated to cask samples from a Mizunara oak cask (a strain of oak unique to the Far East) which delivers a totally original and highly flavoursome spice note, reminiscent of Japanese incense. Alongside this, a sample from a cask of sherry matured whisky aged for around 20 years, complete with its big, bold and robust earthy dryness.  But an interesting additional Bordeaux wine cask finished whisky hinted at where much of the well-rounded red berry fruits and additional dryness in the new expression comes from.  

The Hakushu Distiller's Reserve comes from a totally different flavour profile altogether. Samples of lightly peated and heavily peated Hakushu were tried alongside a frankly astonishing sample of first fill bourbon cask Hakushu - if you happen to chance on a bottle of this style of Hakushu (there are a few floating around at good indie retailers) grab it - the tropical fruit notes will change your perception of whisky making forever.  (in fact see our review of this expression here)

So individually, each cask style delivers a distinct 'colour' to the overall picture. But what are they like when combined together?  'Stupendous'  is one word we would happily use.  
Yamazaki -  Distiller's Reserve -  43%  - No Age Statement - RRP under £40

Nose: A lightness hits first, with subtle vanilla and lemon zest, leading into fresh strawberries, a little milk chocolate and some golden syrup. There is also an emerging spicy/incense note, which develops with the addition of water.

Palate: The fruit becomes more intense, with fresh fleshy white peaches, a hint of raspberry, a dryer oaky note, vanilla essence and a twist of lemon zest.  It is vibrant and youthful, but still full of fabulous character.

Finish: Sweeter fruity notes linger, with an overall tannic background.

Overall: A superb start. This encompasses all the hallmarks of the 12 year old Yamazaki, but leads it into a new fresher styling.  Very clever whisky making and a steal for the retail price.
Hakushu Distiller's Reserve -  43% - No Age Statement - RRP under £40

Nose: Wonderfully fruity with soft pears, a touch of green apple peel, fresh mint, vanilla, a slight damp mossiness and a waft of very fragrant smoke -  enough to drive the heart of the distillery character but not too in-your-face for those who find peat too much of a distraction.

Palate: A lighter fruit develops first with fresh honeydew melon, sweet vanilla, the floral smoke mixing with a charred herbaceous note. With water, it really develops, the fruit starting to integrate wonderfully with the smoke.

Finish: The smoke is left on the palate, with a subtle fruitiness and a hint of oak.

Overall: Another fantastically balanced whisky. Hard to pick out a favourite here, as both whiskies deliver so much character within their 'house' styles.  We would recommend both of these side-by-side - especially if you're planning to have a go at your very own entry into the Mizuwari/Highball phenomenon!

Make no mistake: Suntory have undoubtedly released two game-changing No Age Statement whiskies here.

Anyone still left ranting, please form an orderly queue.

Expect to see both these whiskies at either Master Of Malt or Whisky Exchange soon.