Whisky Advocate

Mike Miyamoto explains Hakushu Japanese whisky

May 11th, 2012

It’s not often that we have a master distiller visit the Whisky Advocate offices in the sleepy town of Emmaus, PA, but yesterday was one of those days. It was a brief visit–only about an hour–but Mike Miyamoto, the master distiller for Suntory, discussed Hakushu whisky and how the whisky is created.

He was nice enough to taste the Whisky Advocate office staff, not our writers, on some Hakushu whiskies. For this reason, the tasting wasn’t overly technical in nature. However, he did mention a few items you might find interesting.

Hakushu, until about a decade or so ago, wasn’t a peated whisky. Now the whisky is lightly smoky–nothing like the big brutes on Islay–but still is demonstrably smoky. When I visited Hakushu about six years ago, I fell in love with the whisky and have consistently asked Suntory to import the whisky to the U.S. They finally have, with the introduction of Hakushu 12 year old. (Of course, now I am asking them to bring in the 18 year old…)

We tasted the three main Hakushu components that go into making the 12 year old. Interestingly, they don’t use lightly peated malt to make the lightly peated whisky. Instead, they make an unpeated whisky and a highly peated whisky and blend the two together. So, in front of us (pictured) were three samples: Hakushu matured in a hogshead, Hakushu matured in a Spanish oak sherry cask, and a highly peated Hakushu.

Why make a heavily peated and a non-peated whisky and blend them together, instead of just making a lightly peated whisky?

That’s a good question! According to Mike, it’s difficult to ask a malting company to make malted barley to a specific peating level, like 8ppm phenol, to use in making a whisky. There’s too much variability. Instead, they order some non-peated malt and some highly peated malt (around 25 ppm–any higher than this becomes more of a challenge according to Mike) and blend the whiskies together to get it in the range of what would have been 7-9 ppm phenol.

Yes, that means they are making some heavily peated whisky–along the equivalent of Bowmore 12 yr. old in peating level–and could actually bottle this if they wanted. Indeed, they have done just this, but on a very limited basis. (Nice try for all of us living here in the U.S.) It also means that they could put out a heavily sherried Hakushu, which they also have just done, but only in Japan. We also had the fortune of tasting this during his visit. It was delicious: very smooth, clean, and lush–not cloying and sulphur-tinged like some sherried whiskies.

What’s new on the horizon for Suntory and their two distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu? Mike told us they are going to be introducing whiskies from both distilleries with no age statements and a lower price. It will be released in Japan only initially. We’ll see where it goes from there.

Why aren’t they selling some of these limited release whiskies here in the U.S. (or even in Europe)? Mike told us the Japanese market has suddenly become smitten with Japanese whisky, and there isn’t a whole lot their whisky to spread around to all the thirsty consumers on this planet. Hey, we’ll take whatever we can get!

One final note: the heavily peated sample we tasted, which would be on par with Bowmore, didn’t taste as intensely smoky as Bowmore. It was softer, gentler. Mike credits the water supply and environment surrounding Hakushu (affectionately referred to as the Japanese Alps) for this.

19 Responses to “Mike Miyamoto explains Hakushu Japanese whisky”

  1. Great info. Thanks John.

  2. I fell in love with Yamazaki 18 a few years back and it opened up my eyes and nose to many other Japanese whiskies. They are hard to come by in North America, luckily I have friends (who don’t drink whisky) who travel to Japan on a regular basis and recently they have started bringing me back a bottle. I consider myself fairly lucky to have a few Japanese in my collection and as much as possible I try to introduce friends and other society members to some of these delicious whiskies!

    Sadly, my Yamazaki 18 is long gone and no longer available due to the demand of Japanese whisky in Japan. I look forward to a few Whisky events and usually end up at this table first!

    Great article John and your staff was very lucky to have had that great opportunity!

    Johanne

  3. Michael Dereszynski says:

    Nice entry John,
    You didn’t mention what wood the heavy pleated sat in.Wasnt Mizunara was it? I also have become a big admirer of Japanese Whiskies and was fortunate to have found some when visiting Japan and France,including a Hibiki in a beautiful Kajani Porcelan. It seems the Japanese are the only distillers not jumping on the bandwagon to increase production to supply the expanding World Market.

    • John Hansell says:

      He did not mention anything out of the ordinary, so I was assuming it was American oak.

    • Neyah White says:

      Hello,

      Neyah White here, I am a Brand Ambassador for Suntory in the West.

      J, I’m very glad you had a chance to taste with Mike, he is a real gem and I still learn something new every time I taste with him.

      M, in answer to your question, the heavily peated, or ‘smoky’ portion of Hakushu, is aged in American Oak ususally.

      Very little mizunara is used at Hakushu. We know that whisky in Japanese Oak matures more slowly than whisky in barrels of the more usual species. Suntory also noticed that it seems to take even longer at the high altitude of this distillery. Combine these two factors with high rate of evaporation that Japanese Oak barrels tend to have and you end up with a very inefficent/expensive malt. I’m sure it has potential to taste lovely but it is just not meant to be.

  4. I love living on a border city (Buffalo, NY). Along with the Yamazaki & Hakushu, I regularly travel to Canada and always pick up a bottle of Nikka on the way back. John, you really need to convince the guys across the Pacific to send more to our shores!

  5. Ethan Prater says:

    Great writeup – thanks. I fell in love with Hakushu (the 10, 12, and 18) when I tasted it at a Yamazaki Distillery tour in Japan years ago. Used to “import” it myself at great expense, and have been delighted that the 12 is now available here. I hope it suits enough other American palates that we start seeing the other expressions.

  6. Chap says:

    John, the Whisky Exchange has two small expressions: the heavily peated cask and the bourbon cask. I can’t remember if there was an age statement but think it was ten year old or so. I was mightily impressed by the peated cask, while the bourbon cask one was good but to my taste not as nice as the Hakushu 12.

    Suntory got me with that at a Whiskyfest when they did the same “taste each part of the blend” tasting with Yamazaki. That mizunara wood Yamazaki they had, I would have bought in a heartbeat…

  7. sam k says:

    Now THAT redefines “a day at the office!”

  8. Louis says:

    I tried the Hakashu 12 at Whiskyfest NYC last fall. It is amazing how they managed to capture what the Yamazaki 12 does relative to day, the Glenmorangie 10 over to a peated whisky. There is that wonderful introspective quality that differentiates Hakashu 12 from the Islay’s we are used to.

  9. Vin Kosewski says:

    It is great to see Hakushu in the US. Japan has a lot of good whiskies and it is great to see exports.
    BTW, that’s me on page 107 of the recent Whisky Advocate at Yamazaki!

  10. Vin Kosewski says:

    Thanks John for including our picture. My Japanese friends were thrilled when I sent them each a hard copy!

  11. Jeremy R says:

    “He was nice enough to taste the Whisky Advocate office staff”, Oh no, you got licked!

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