In 1987, Suntory’s Master Blender Keizo Saji decided to develop a blended whisky to reflect the sophistication of Suntory’s techniques. Suntory says that their Chief Blender, Koichi Inatomi, sampled and tasted aged malt whiskies from one million casks at Suntory. Maybe not just to make Hibiki, as 1 million casks sampled would mean 91 samples a day for 30 years… Anyway, in the end, Saji and Inatomi found the flavour they wanted by blending thirty distinctive malt and grain whiskies from Suntory distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu for the malt, and Chita for the grain. The first Hibiki, Hibiki 17-year-old was released in 1989 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Suntory whisky. The 21-year-old would follow in 1994. Whatever the expression from the range, they are always presented in the brand’s trademark 24-faceted bottle representing the Japanese seasons. So let’s try those two initial expressions from the range, Suntory Hibiki 17 and 21-year-old.
Suntory Hibiki 17-Year-Old Review
First Hibiki ever released, it was initially made from more than 30 whiskies, including some that were aged more than 30 years and some that were aged in old umeshu casks. The recipe has probably been simplified since then. Anyway, with the rise of the demand on Japanese whisky (thank you Bill Murray…) and the tension on stocks, the price skyrocketed, so expect to pay more than £400 on the secondary market and probably more on shops having a rare bottle in stock. Oh and this is bottled at 43% ABV, but I’m not sure whether it is chill filtered (probably) and coloured (maybe not?)
Very fruity from the start, with a medium intensity. Custard cream, soft spices, and a spoonful of honey. And, mostly, fruits, fruits and fruits. Tropical (mango, pineapple, papaya) and occidental ones (oranges, peach, plums). Gorgeous nose. Slight citrusy notes as well.
A bit of oak, those tropical fruits from the nose, apricot, spices from the mizunara, and a slight bitterness reminiscent of black cherry. Green apple, orange peel, bananas. Honey and hints of sherry casks.
Long, honey, oak, and lots of fruits, again.
Whilst the palate is maybe slightly inferior to the nose, everything is of a very high level. The nose is absolutely stunning, extremely fruity, with each fruit really discernable. It’s extreme precision, each element is side by side with the others, none taking the advantage, but all working in harmony (pun intended). I cannot even complain too much about the low ABV (which Suntory is unfortunately accustomed to) as the palate still delivers. The nose on itself deserved a 92, but the palate not able to be on par makes me cut a few points off. But what a nose, Cleopatra would turn pale from jealousy.
Suntory Hibiki 21-Year-Old Review
Second expression released in 1994 in the Hibiki range, we don’t know much more about its recipe. All that I can say is that it will be bottled at 43%, and even more expensive than the 17. Expect to pay at least £950/€1000 for a bottle on the few shops still having a bottle in stock, and £700 to £1000 on auction.
More intense than the 17, a little bit spicier and a little less fruity on the first nose. Have they used more mizunara casks on the 21? I can still find mango, papaya, bananas (I didn’t get those on the 17), mirabelles, maybe slightly more tropical than the 17 but without the occidental fruits. Freshly crushed mint leaves. Hints of lavender, nail varnish remover and a bit of earthiness.
Oaky arrival, with some bitterness and spiciness. It seems the mizunara took the lead on this older expression. Cocoa, cinnamon, wood spices, and nutty notes. Less fruity than the 17 once again, but still a bit tropical with mostly pineapple and banana, with a few drops of pure orange juice.
Long, with spices, cocoa, a bit of mizunara bitterness.
I first try this whisky blind from a flight of three great whiskies (knowing what were the three whiskies but not the order), and I recognised the ‘typical’ Hibiki nose immediately without fail. By itself, it is stunning, but now that I’ve compared it to the 17-year-old, I think I prefer the slightly younger expression, mostly because of the fantastic nose of the 17. Don’t misunderstand me, the 21 does have a great nose, but it feels a bit darker, a bit sherrier and heavier on the mizunara, and whilst I often look for those notes, I prefer the summery freshness of the 17, and the same applies for the palate. A must try anyway, if you can find a bar selling a dram at a reasonable price.