Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Changing Of The Guard - Suntory Hibiki Harmony Sydney Launch

22nd June both fellow DTWC member The Proxy and myself saw the launch of the Suntory Hibiki Harmony into Australia. This change of the guard has been eagerly anticipated by many as rumour spreads about the removal of the age statement Hibiki's from our shelves. It is true the whisky has been available to purchase at some retail chains some weeks prior to this date, though this launch can be considered the official start date. Mike Miyamoto, Global Brand Ambassador for Suntory, returned to our shores to present the whisky while affording us the time to also deconstruct the whisky in a stand up tailored tasting. Read more about Mike Miyamoto’s last visit to Australia: Bringing The Swagger Back - Suntory Launches into Australia.

The Suntory Hibiki Harmony is a NAS (No Age Statement) created firstly to patch the problem of stock issues for the brand globally, as well as amend the profile to fit the target audience. Yes that is right “amend the profile” deliberately for Japanese consumers. In speaking with Mike after the presentation, he expressed that he feels that the home land audience should always be considered first. Though the original Suntory Hibiki was in fact a NAS in it’s original form, since the early 90’s it has developed into those amazing blends we all so know and love. I cannot in anyway confirm what the original tasted like as I have only been appreciating the virtues of the Hibiki 17yo for the last 13 odd years. One has to assume in 25 years things have evolved considerably.

These developments from the original blend though had created short comings for the local markets tastes. This opportunity to solve the stock related issues also allowed for changes to the Hibiki formula. During the presentation, as well as after when I spoke with Mike, he indicated a series of blind tastings within the Japanese audience preferred the profile of this current Hibiki Harmony over the Hibiki 12yo. Indeed this whisky is actually between 8 to 12 years old but the formula has obvious differences in nose and taste. A high vanilla sweetness and low spice are combined to deliver a shallower mouth feel and pillow like finish.

During the presentation Mike deconstructed or one might better say constructed the Hibiki Harmony with a tasting of 3 primary foundation whiskies. These whiskies were: Chita Grain Whisky; Sherry Cask Malt Whisky; Mizunara Cask Malt Whisky.

The Chita Grain Whisky was presented at 55% ABV. Striking similarities on the nose to a Teeling Single Grain with huge vanilla ice cream scents. With such similarities I can assume corn is the primary base for the grain but I failed to ask the question of Mike when I had the chance. The palate though was ordinary with some dryness and very little spice or alcohol warmth. The Chita Grain Whisky was noted as being a primary ingredient in all of the Hibiki family. I must say even before tasting this whisky, my pre-nosing of the Suntory Harmony displayed extremely obvious vanilla grain highlights.

The Sherry Cask Malt Whisky was a bit of a an outstanding item. At 50% ABV the nose was huge with sherry that instantly reminded me of a Glendronach cask strength. This truly was a whisky to be enjoying for the nose alone. A pity we have not seen it released on it’s own merits but reading on you may understand why. The taste though was a bit of a let down with the same typical smoothness and mellow finish as the Chita Grain. Clearly this whisky is designed for the mellow profile displayed in the Suntory Harmony, and also why it probably would never be considered to be bottled independently. Mike did comment there is not enough of this Sherry Cask Malt Whisky to bottle independently anyway.

The Mizunara Cask Malt Whisky was also presented at 50% ABV and displayed far more juiciness in the palate with notes of grated fresh coconut. The nose of course had the seasoned plum wine effect with an exceptionally smooth finish. Again the mouth feel was slight and soft as the previous 2 whiskies. Mizunara is historically a cask used to age particular plum wine. The wood though has major flaws in its make up and tends to leak a lot. To age whisky for any period of time in these casks would mean more was lost through capillary action than it would through the angels share.  Often these casks always see plum wine added first to season the wood and plug up the grain enough for whisky maturation.

Now to looked to the Suntory Hibiki Harmony bottled at 43% ABV. Nose is sweet with vanilla while the body is velvety reasonably interesting but lost a lot through an average finish with almost no spice. Rounded and mellow but characteristically a bit empty that lacked wood refinement. It is hard not to criticise this whisky in the negative because I really love the Hibiki 12yo and Hibiki 17yo. Because it carries the family name of Hibiki it does make for certain expectations. Is it fitting my tastes as well as the age statements do? Clearly not but this is not to say it is of poor pedigree. On its own merits it is a great blend priced just below $100 AU. I cannot put it into the classification of one of the best blends I have ever tasted unfortunately as I must retain this for the Hibiki 17yo, but I won’t deny myself a bottle purchase here and there in the coming years. Obviously the Japanese market has spoken and kudos to Suntory for looking after their own first. Mike said to myself that we may see the Hibiki age statements return in 5 or so years but this should be taken very much as speculation until stocks are sound.

Mike Miyamoto is a great guy to chat with and it had been over a year now since we last meet. I was amazed at how Mike recalled who I was and how I had spoken with him including my questions about the bottle of Suntory Mellow Harmony I had squirrelled away. Mike was also obliging to sign a couple of bottles I lugged into the city. The look on his face when I pulled out the Hibiki 17yo was to die for. Clearly access to the 17yo is getting to be a pretty rare thing the world over and Mike could not help but ask where I got it from. I think he almost fell over when I mentioned how many other bottles I have stowed into storage to weather the coming years. If I only open one bottle a year I may just last the drought that is about to occur.

Closing off this post we cannot forget the location itself. Suntory spend a great deal on presentation. Not only are the bottles icons in themselves, but the company never holds back on ensuring the utmost attention to detail in all they do. The event space was as fabulous as last years launch though ever so smaller in size. No gimmicks to be seen and the space allowed for the whisky to have its moment. The food was excellent with many items created specifically to match the Suntory Hibiki Harmony. It would have been great to sample the new and the old Hibiki's side by side but I have  few bottles of my own so I can wait until then.

Thanks to Beam Suntory and Mike Miyamoto for the amazing night and hope to see you again sometime in the future.

The Baron

D.T.W.C. was invited as a guest this event. All views and opinions are our own unless otherwise stated.