Three Japanese Greats
Last night I found myself in the enviable position of "needing" to taste three great whiskies all at once. You know, for a proper apples-to-apples comparison. The Kaiyo Peated Mizunara oak bottling just arrived a couple of days before some Yamazaki 12 and Hakushu 12 became available. I was volunteered as tribute to be the poor guinea pig to conduct the research and find out how the three compared. For full disclosure: The Kaiyo and Hakushu are from this week's shipment. Kaiyo is a sample, as you can tell from the bottle in the photo. The Yamazaki is a bottle I've owned for a couple of years and has been open but fairly full since the day I bought it. Here are my rather unstructured notes with a more formal summary after:
Nosing - Kaiyo Peated Mizunara vs. Yamazaki 12 vs. Hakushu 12
Kaiyo - Fruitiest by far. Tropical, salty. Second nosing: very peaty, which didn't really show up as much the first time around.
Yamazaki - Surprisingly green toned, like a sour apple Jolly Rancher, very vanilla-laden. Even more intense vanilla and riper melon notes on the second pass.
Hakushu - Shows the most cereal notes, also verdant and green. Second nosing: cool and minty, very pretty earthiness. Like fresh, moist peat and forest floor.
Kaiyo - Green apples, salted caramel, taffy, cereal, and very tropical, coconut/honey/pineapple. Sweeter still — not vanilla sweetness, but, like, brown sugar sweetness.
Yamazaki - Feels softer, but lively. Less peaty by far. Very fresh and cool. Second time around: more briny, more fruit, still lighter in body, but doesn't feel thin at all. Supremely elegant. More fruit and a little tropical coconut as well. Constantly changing — hard to pin down.
Hakushu - Very sweet - more peat than Yamazaki, less than Kaiyo. Extremely balanced. Second time around: very luscious. Spicier wood notes come through — more pepper and a touch of cinnamon. Very malty. Really rich and easy-going smoke. Just enough to liven everything up, but not overpowering smoke.
Kaiyo - clean and medium+ length. Salt, delicate fruit, wafting campfire smoke.
Yamazaki - Most grain notes on the finish, sweet malt really comes through, also big pop of vanilla, fresh fruit, bit more coconut, complex finish.
Hakushu - Longer grain tones, like a brown sugar/maple syrup oatmeal. Very lengthy. Subtle smoke helps persist. Earth/tea.
Summary - These are all damn good whiskies.
This is the fruitiest and peatiest. A very cool combination. I gather the intense fruit comes predominently from the use of Mizunara oak. NB: I don't have extensive experience with most Mizunara oak bottlings due to the outrageous price tag generally associated with the world's most expensive casks. If you love a fruity, peaty whisky then this one is for you. It's got a little bit of everything. Sea spray, tropical fruit galore, sweetness, round body, and a good finish that showcases the heavier peated notes really well without overpowering the fruit and spice. Add to all of that the fact that the Kaiyo has been finished at sea with a 3-4 month voyage, exposing it to extremes in heat and moisture, and you have yourself one incredible bottle of whisky.
The most delicate and elegant of the three. Also the most vanilla sweetness. Fruitiness is perfectly balanced throughout. This has tremendous complexity and, while the upfront character is really clear, there are tons of layers to delve into. There is no doubt why this classic is Japan's most popular whisky and beloved around the world.
Rich and full bodied, this is a great combo of sweet and savory herbs like mint and tea to go with malt sweetness and a very gentle but persistent smokiness. This is very elegant and feels the coolest (temperature, not hip, although it is also very hip). Lots of subtle complexity here too. Earth tones drive everything on this one. Depending on my mood it could unseat the Yamazaki in my book.
While it looks like the Yamazaki sold out almost immediately, there are Hakushu and Kaiyo bottles still available at the time of this posting. If you're a fan of Japanese whiskey, now is the time to add a bottle or two of each of these to your collection. Enjoy!
- Andrew Whiteley