Hibiki Japanese Harmony is a light well-crafted Japanese whisky that’s both accessible and authentic. Its well-defined flavors of almond, dried fruit and nougat lead to a complex, spicy finish.
Classification: Japanese whisky
Company: Beam Suntory
Distillery: Sourced from several distilleries
Released: 2015, ongoing
Proof: 86 (43% ABV)
Aged: No age statement
Awards: Finalist, 96 Points, 2020 Ultimate Spirits Challenge
- Light and well-crafted
- Accessible and authentic, while many Japanese blended whiskies have unknown origins
- Like many Japanese whiskies, it’s on the expensive side.
- Non-age statement blend and young, subtle components may put off some Japanese whisky purists.
Color: Deep gold with a very slight amber or copper note
Nose: Well-defined aromatics float among nutty, floral and earthy, with hints of light raw coconut, apricot, saline and chrysanthemum and just a hint of rosemary or sage.
Palate: A medium-bodied whisky, it opens both sweet and nutty with a hint of almond, dried fruit and coconut. By the midpalate, nougat and apricot notes appear, with hints of wood, cigar, leather and sea hitting toward the back of the mouth.
Finish: A lingering, midlength finish brings hints of spice, cigar, chocolate, dark fruit, vegetal oak and roasted nuts. Elegant tannins bring a clean, light “bite” throughout.
Hibiki’s parent company, Suntory, has a nearly century-long involvement in producing single malt and grain whiskies inspired by the Scottish whisky-making tradition. The brand’s Yamazaki distillery was opened by Shinjiro Torii in 1923. His son, Keizo Saji, opened the Chita grain distillery near Nagoya to produce more neutral and nonmalt grain spirits for component whiskies. And Suntory and Saji opened the high-altitude Hakushu distillery deep in the forests of Mount Kaikomagatake (Kaikoma) in 1973. Each is known for distinctive whiskies, employing local waters, different yeasts and distinct stills, warehouse environments and barrel types, producing more than 100 distinct malt and grain whiskies.
With Hibiki Japanese Harmony, the company blends together at least 10 malt and grain whiskies and five different cask types to create a pleasing, “harmonious” blend, with Shinjiro’s great-grandson Shingo Torii at the helm and master blender Shinji Fukuyo composing.
“Hibiki is Suntory’s masterpiece,” Fukuyo said when the brand launched in the U.S. “The word means ‘resonance,’ and Harmony is a beautiful expression of that resonance.” There was also a practical reason: The company’s inventory of age-statement Japanese whiskies was running low, thanks to increasing popularity. Fukuyo saw the blend, consisting mostly of younger whisky components, as a way to sustain Hibiki and Suntory’s presence in the marketplace with an approachable blended whisky.
The anchors to this complex blend are five specific component whiskies (all of which this reviewer has tasted individually):
- Malt whisky aged in American white oak: The brand says this creates a “solid base” of flavor. On its own, this component is brash and oaky on the nose. It opens sweet and light-bodied, with hints of tannin and spice.
- Chita grain whisky: The company calls it the “dashi” or “broth” designed to bring everything together. On its own, it is clearly young but aromatically rich with caramel, anise and honey notes.
- Sherry cask malt whisky: Working as a “dressing” or highlight, this somewhat older whisky is the only dark-amber component of the main five and provides personality, flavor and top notes of dried fruit, cigar, plum and wood. Going by the overall color of Harmony, this must be a fairly small component of the blend.
- Mizunara cask malt whisky: Another “dressing” component, this is the oldest whisky in the blend, aged 12 to 15 years in Japanese Mizunara casks and providing a “Japanese character” to the whisky. On the nose, it’s slightly vegetal with soft spices. On the palate, it is medium- to heavy-bodied and chewy, with hints of baking spice, toasted coconut and dried herbs.
- Smoky malt whisky: Just a hint of Islay-style smoky whisky is included to add complexity and depth. On its own, you get traditional notes of Laphroaig-like iodine, peat and bandages. It’s bold but with a soft, rounded body on the palate.
All together, of course, you get Harmony. If you spend some time with the anchor components and then with the finished product, you’ll detect them all there. The aromatics are pleasantly complex, with a hint of the richness of the sherry cask, the vegetal nature of the Mizunara and even a bit of the saline and smoky malt whisky. Any copper color you catch almost certainly comes from the sherry cask. The end result is ideal for sipping neat or on the rocks (you’ll want to avoid using too much ice, as you risk diluting the whisky), and it also is an easy fit for cocktails, especially those with lighter-flavored ingredients.
The Japanese Highball is the go-to for this whisky, but it also works nicely with lighter-bodied fruit juices (as in a Whisk(e)y Sour), or against less-aggressive aperitifs and digestifs such as Dubonnet, Lillet or Japanese plum liqueur.
There aren’t many negative things to say about this whisky. It’s expensive, to be sure, as most Japanese whiskies are. Fans of bolder Scotch whiskies or even extra-aged Japanese whiskies might find it too ephemeral for everyday sipping. But aficionados of the larger Japanese scene know that many of the country’s whiskies trend “light” compared to their Scotch or American counterparts. Suntory’s global brand ambassador, Mike Miyamoto, says that historically, “The Japanese aren’t very big on high-alcohol spirits. But something like our Hibiki blended whisky is so well-blended and so smooth that the Japanese love drinking it.” Certainly, the floral Hibiki character is present for people who already know the brand. Consider it as a possible introduction to the category. If you like some of the better triple-distilled Irish whiskies, you’ll have a head start.
The bottle is designed to look at, as it’s cut in 24 facets, representing 24 hours in a day and 24 seasons of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar and symbolizing the whisky’s seasonal maturation cycles.
The sourcing and origin of component whiskies has become something of a sticking point for Japanese whisky drinkers. In the past couple years, it has been revealed that a fair amount of “Japanese” whisky is actually produced overseas (generally in Scotland) and then finished and bottled in Japan. In January 2021, the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association released a set of quality standards (which are voluntary for now) to help ensure that products labeled “Japanese whisky” are distilled, aged and bottled in Japan. In response, Beam Suntory released a statement saying, “We are proud that every Japanese whisky product we export from Japan already meets the new standards.”
The bottom line: While fans of traditional Scotch and extra-aged Japanese whisky (like Hibiki 21 Year or Yamazaki 18 Year) may find Hibiki Japanese Harmony a bit soft for their tastes, the spirit is well-crafted and tasty with a long inviting finish. It’s easy to sip neat or mix into lighter cocktails where it won’t be overwhelmed by bold mixers.