Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve vs Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve

I think that perspective is extremely important. And I believe that it applies to any art form, including the art of whisky-making. So many times, I find a review of a single malt aged in a sherry cask, which references the flavours of dried fruit, vanilla, and caramel. Still, it does not give you a full taste profile because there is no perspective. You take another single malt aged in a sherry cask, and sure enough, there will be references to dried fruit, vanilla and caramel again. But perhaps one is sweeter, softer, or rounder than the other. How can you tell from a single review? This is why in my journey, I compare two drams, side by side, with perspective between them. I’ve got a great pairing today, but first, music! Now playing: Markus GuentnerExtropy.

I want to start off by mentioning that the Hakushu and the Yamazaki distilleries are both owned by the House of Suntory Whisky. The Yamazaki is an older brand, opening its doors in 1923 as Japan’s first commercial distillery. It is located in Shimamoto (between Osaka and Kyoto), almost in the middle of the country. Hakushu is a much younger distillery, opening its doors in 1973 in the forest of Mount Kaikoma, a bit more north, equidistant from Nagoya and Tokyo. It was created by Suntory specifically to create a different whisky than the Yamazaki, looking for another source of water, which the founders located at the foot of “Southern Japan Alps”. Both of these distilleries produce outstanding single malt, with skyrocketing prices reflecting supply and demand, approaching outrageous figures, leaving the “regular” market for auctions where punters and collectors keep bidding them up. But few will admit that a bottle of an 18-year-old from these two distilleries would outshine another 18-year-old made in Scotland, while the delta in pricing is [now] half a grand. So today, I am tasting the Distiller’s Reserve of these whiskies, which are both younger, coloured whiskies bottled at precisely 43% ABV.

Compared to the Yamazaki, the Hakushu is more floral and grassy, a “green” single malt with plenty of fruit. It’s lighter in colour and taste on the palate, but lands in a rounder, fuller arrival. I keep smelling strong notes of sweet bourbon as if maze has been added to boost up this blend. It could be young wood, or it could be some crafting since laws in Japan haven’t defined or legally regulated their terms for a malt [this recently changed as of April 2021 – although it still allows distillers to include other cereal grains in “Japanese whisky“]. The Yamazaki is spicier, sweeter, but thinner, with flavours of caramel that were absent in the Hakushu. It also uses some mizunara (Japanese oak) matured whisky in its mix, which comes off as incense and light toasted wood. The most significant difference is the alcohol vapour – the Yamazaki is stronger and rougher, with a slightly harsh burn on the smell and the taste. It’s somewhat surprising for a 43% whisky, but then again, that’s why some 12-year-olds are reported as “smooth”. This is the opposite in these two expressions – again, a sign that in a non-age statement bottle, you’ll get a younger spirit. Both bottles have screw tops, with the Hakushu currently going for £67 while the Yamazaki at £70.

I know my Yamazaki pretty well, and yes, I own the 12 and the ridiculously expensive 18-year-old. I used to buy both when they were so much cheaper, but now, I guess I’ll just hold on to the bottle of the 18 (mine is still closed) and see where it goes. I’ve had the Hakushu once before, but never a full bottle. I could see how a giant ice cube could soften these both. But neat, although good, they’re a little bit coarser, with the Yamazaki in particular, a bit raw out of both. And once I gave up on demanding pure malt from Hakushu, I have accepted its sweet bourbon taste. With that, I will conclude this fun pairing and say that the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve wins this round.

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