Mike Miyamoto explains Hakushu Japanese whisky
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.