On May 8, 2014, Miracle Max and I attended an event in New York called “The Art of Hibiki. A Blend of 24 Seasons”, the official launch of Hibiki 17 and Hibiki 21 in the United States. Much like last year’s Suntory 90th Anniversary event at the Noguchi Museum, the organizers had something very special for us to experience which made the same day roundtrip journey from Philly to New York so so worth it! Here are just a few of the highlights…
A Deconstructed Tasting of Hibiki
Three years ago, the Booze Dancing crew did a “deconstructed” tasting of the Sam Adams Latitude 48. In a nutshell, the Boston Beer Company released a 12 pack which contained their Latitude 48 IPA (made with several different hop varieties) along with a series of single hopped IPAs. The whole point of this release was to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of each hop variety when used on their own, and to show how they work together to make a better IPA when used to make the Latitude 48.
This “deconstructed” Hibiki tasting, which was led by Seiichi Koshimizu, Suntory’s Chief Blender, was very similar to the “deconstructed” Latitude 48 tasting, but with one significant difference: while a few of the single hop IPAs were rather ho-hum, the component whiskies that go into the Hibiki blend are like a Japanese Whisky All Star team (think 2012 USA Olympic Basketball Dream Team) that join forces to take on the best in the world when blended together to create Hibiki.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard of the Yamazaki single oak whiskies that are used to make Hibiki (click here to see what Miss Whisky had to say about these whiskies back in 2012), but it was the first time that I had the opportunity to actually experience them. During this tasting, we sampled the Chita Grain Pure Whisky, Yamazaki American White Oak Malt Whisky, Sherry Cask Malt Whisky, and Mizunara Cask Malt Whisky (the Hibiki 17 and Hibiki 21 served as the grand finale). While all four component whiskies were delicious, I was most intrigued by the Chita Single Grain Pure Whisky which smelled and tasted absolutely fantastic (luscious vanilla buttercream comes to mind). When you first start learning about whisky, you are led to believe that grain whisky is like adding breadcrumbs to meatloaf, i.e. it’s just a filler or binding agent. Take a sip of Chita or Compass Box Hedonism and you will quickly learn that beautifully crafted grain whisky can easily hold its own against many a Single Malt. In case you couldn’t tell from my not so random keystrokes, this tasting was a truly eye opening experience which not only taught me the importance of blended whisky, it also taught me to appreciate all of the care that goes into balancing each of the individual elements that go into the finished product.
Water and Ice Matters
If you’ve read any of my whisky reviews or heard me talk about my whisky drinking habits on a WhiskyCast Virtual Tasting, then you already know that I rarely add water or ice to my whisky, regardless of ABV. There are two reasons for this: (1) I really like the intensity of whisky served neat, and (2) adding water or ice makes the whisky way too easy to drink, which leads to me drinking way too many of then in too short of a time. Basically, drinking it neat helps me pace myself and not get COMPLETELY schnockered.
The Japanese have a very different view of water and ice as it relates to whisky drinking. Throughout the evening, we were schooled on the art of drinking whisky with water and ice. In addition to the ice ball carving demonstration by Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo’s Bar High Five that you saw in the above YouTube video, we were also given the opportunity to sample Hibiki 12 Highballs, which were a refreshing change of pace from my usual whisky drinking habits. While I still prefer to drink my whisky “as is”, I have definitely learned to appreciate the subtle flavors that come through when you dilute your whisky a bit (I was enjoying a Cutty Sark Prohibition Highball during the photo editing process. Yum!). Watering and cooling it down also makes it much easier to pair your whisky with food, which leads to the next highlight of the evening…
Finger Food Pairing with Bouley & Brushstroke
The first rule of drinking is that you gotta eat! Thankfully, the event organizers thought of everything and had us covered on the food front. They once again secured the services of Chef David Bouley and Chef Isao Yamada of NYC’s Brushstroke (they handled the food/whisky pairing at last year’s Suntory event). We were treated to ten different snacks that were walked around throughout the night by a cadre of well dressed and highly professional waiters. “Slow Poached Pink Shrimp with Ginger Aromatic”, “Canadian Fuji-Pork Belly Confit with Peach, Sweet Ginger Vinegar Sauce”, “Barcelona Anchovy with Artichoke Puree, Aged Balsamic Reduction on Toast” (my favorite of the night! I must have had around 20 of them. I’m not kidding!), “Kuzu Crisp with Aligote, Black Truffle”, “Wagyu Sirloin Beef Jerky”, and “Hibiki 17 Infused Vanilla Macarons” were my personal favorites of the night, but truth be told, everything was beautifully prepared, beautifully presented, and absolutely delicious. A drink in one hand and a delightful, bite sized snack in the other. It was like I died and went to food and whisky pairing heaven!
Spending Time With the #WhiskyFabric
While the whisky and food was an absolute delight to taste and experience, what makes every trip to NYC truly special is spending time with the #whiskyfabric family. All of the usual suspects were in attendance: Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast, Josh Feldman of The Coopered Tot blog, Susannah of the What Tastes Good blog, and Allison Patel of Brenne and The Whisky Woman blog. In addition to these wonderful people, we also had the pleasure of finally meeting Sarah of the Beautiful Tangible Things blog. Without people like this to share in the experience, this event would have been just another whisky tasting!
In keeping with the Hibiki inspired themes of harmony and balance, I would like to give my #whiskyfabric family members an opportunity to chime in with their impressions of the event. Here’s what they had to say..
It was a great event with everything being practically flawless, i.e. the space, the whisky, the people, the food, the generosity, and the hospitality were all excellent, but to me that wasn’t the most important part of the evening. I used to believe that the master blender’s job was to miraculously take a variety of ingredients that were a bit “off” and magically hide their flaws to create something at least “drinkable”. “This is too dry. This is too sweet, blend them. This is too woody, this is too flavorless, blend them!” Similar to how I try to make a meal using left-overs, a little of this. A little of that. OK! That’s “good enough”.
Don’t get me wrong, in the past I’ve been very pleased on numerous occasions by a blended whiskey, but my preconceived notion was that the ingredients were flawed, and that the blend was a great solution to their underlying issues. Those ideas of mine are now gone! Sure, that may be the case with many blended whiskeys, but not with Suntory’s Hibiki whisky. It was all laid out before us. Here are the component whiskies used to make the blend, they are great on their own, now we use them to create an even better product (and that’s saying something based on those component whiskies). This wasn’t hiding flaws, this wasn’t using left-overs, this was assembling an orchestra using the best musicians. A supergroup of kick-ass rock stars! I can’t believe we have to wait until the fall to get more of these great whiskies, but I’m sure glad they’re on the way. Maybe I’ll get a bottle of the 12 for the wait. :)
Sarah of the Beautiful Tangible Things Blog
Being a “newbie” to whisky events, I think I’ve been set up for disappointment in the future because this whisky tasting was just phenomenal!. It was so special to taste all of the components of Hibiki, and to hear Allison and Josh’s tasting notes (Max & G-LO kept their thoughts to themselves). I really loved the variety (and quantity!) of the passed finger foods (pork belly!!! Anchovies!! Truffles!!!). And of course, the company shared trumped it all. I was honored to be able to travel to Tokyo with you, friends, for the evening!
Susannah of the “What Tastes Good” Blog
Suntory brought together a disparate crowd of whisky buffs, media people, and Japanese ex-pats with surprising grace and elegance. The industrial space worked well, incorporating a nifty video installation and killer bar setup (with beautiful, Godzilla-sized, hand-chiseled ice cubes) and encouraged conversation among attendees. Passed hors d’oeuvres, focusing on simply presented seafood, nodded to Japanese culinary tradition and paired very well with the Hibiki, available in the 12, 17, and 21 year old expressions. Especially classy: the 21 year old Hibiki (rather than a younger, less expensive pour) was the “passed whisky” that roving servers brought around.
Even though I missed out on the educational part of the evening, I enjoyed hearing from the Master Blender and brilliant, entertaining bar owner who was overseeing the drinks (both of whose names escape me at the moment). And Josh Feldman (The Coopered Tot) had saved a few drams of the component whiskies that go into Suntory’s 17 year old so I could taste them. I particularly enjoyed the spirit aged in mizunara oak—a brand new set of flavors and aromas for me that I hope I’ll get to taste more of in the future. I’m looking forward to Suntory’s brands becoming more widely available now that they’re moving more deeply into the US via Beam Global.
Also: the theme of balance that pervades Suntory’s whiskies perfectly underpinned the evening to the point that I didn’t even overindulge! That’s how you know it was a superb event.
Allison of “The Whisky Woman” Blog
Suntory is a name that, to me, is becoming synonymous with: extreme attention to detail, elegance, and fun. No detail was too small to overlook and all seemed to be done with absolute perfection for a seamless and truly fantastic event. A few things of note: the origami tied silk scarfs around the press kits, the perfectly angled spot lights-meet-dim-mood-lighting, the music that was never too loud or jarring to take too much notice, but was never too quiet to make the event feel stuffy … it’s easy to think of every detail and be in awe (should we talk about the food!? Delicious and plentiful!), but at the end of the day, what we were all really there for was the whisky. And it was fantastic!
I most appreciated the guided tasting hour prior to the party. I found it extremely fascinating to explore the various whiskies as individuals that go in to making the Hibiki blend and certainly liked some more then others, though it would be hard to choose a favorite (however, let’s not pretend the ample pours of Hibiki 21yr weren’t divine!!!). Very grateful to Suntory and the amazing people at Exposure for inviting me to participate in such a special evening. It’s always wonderful to have some time to hang with members of the #whiskyfabric! I’m talking to you, G-LO, Susannah (What Tastes Good), Josh (Coopered Tot), Mark (WhiskyCast), Miracle Max, Sarah, and Bram! Can’t wait for Hibiki 17yr to be available in the US!