Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Whisky Review: Hakushu 12 Year

Hakushu is Suntory's second single malt distillery, located in the forested hills below Mt. Kaikomagatake. Built in 1973, it produces a wide range of different spirits using both peated and unpeated spirit run through a dazzling array of different pot stills. This has come about because Japan's different whisky companies are much much closed than their Scottish counterparts, forcing them to produce all of the different whiskies needed for making blends 'in house' instead of trading casks between distilleries.

Hakushu 12 Year is put together from a mix of unpeated spirit aged in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks along with a smaller amount of peated (25 PPM) spirit aged in ex-bourbon casks. The spirits are married together and cut down to 43% with local water before bottling.

Many thanks to Ian of PDXWhisky for the sample.

Hakushu 12 Year

Nose: malty and sherry savory notes dominate, vanilla syrup, berry compote, green fruits (apples, pears), light vegetal peat and green tea, polished oak, very creamy, floral esters,  a touch of barbecue sauce. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes much more ester-focused, with tons of ripe fruits (peaches, pears) balanced by vegetal notes of peat and used tea leaves, and drier oak, while retaining a malty core.

Taste: very peppery and sweet throughout, green fruits (apples, pears) and berry esters come in just behind, oak comes in strong from mid-palate with some caramel until it fades near the back, giving way to very mild peated paired with malty/sucrose/floral sweetness. After dilution, the structure of the flavors remains largely the same, though the sweetness is a bit more syrupy and yet restrained, the fruits become riper, while the oak provides more counterbalance.

Finish: sucrose, cotton candy, fresh wood and polished oak, floral,

I will have to admit that I find this whisky to be a little bit too sweet. It almost tastes like some straight table sugar got dumped in, though I'm sure it's just the spirit and casks. The nose manages to strike the right balance between malt sweetness and oak tannins, but the palate is a bit too much of a rollercoaster, with huge sweetness front and back, with balance only achieved in the middle. More oak or peat on the palate would help a lot, though I can see why this style would be appealing to a lot of people. Water helps, but doesn't quite tip the scales far enough for my taste. Given that a significant amount of Japanese whisky is consumed as mizuwari or highballs, as with frozen blender cocktails, more sweetness may be necessary to achieve the proper balance with significant amounts of dilution.

I feel like this is an excellent example of the good/bad vs. well crafted/poorly crafted debate. I can tell that this whisky is extremely well made and probably accomplishes the goals that were set out for it; there's no way that I can say that it's bad, it just doesn't fit my own tastes.

It does, however, make me very tempted to try the more heavily peated expression of Hakushu, which might be just the thing for me. Sadly they're also wicked expensive ($150 for an NAS bottle is more than I can swallow), so I'll have to take a pass for the time being.


  1. This is interesting. My two experiences with Hakushu 12 couldn't be more different from each other, yet they're both different than your experience. Then when I look at other people's reviews, they in turn look unique to themselves enough that I'm beginning to wonder if there's some batch variation going on with this one. We're all going to get different notes, but this particular whisky makes me wonder.

  2. One problem might be expectations, especially peaty expectations.

    Some retailers prominently bill this as "Peated" in their product listings, despite the label itself—at least not mine—not mentioning peat at all. If you're expecting peat, you might look for it harder. Or you might just be disappointed that it's hardly there. I was in the second camp.