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Whisky Reviews

Hakushu Sherry Cask 2013, 48% ABV

 

While whiskymakers can rely on several levers to imbue their whiskies with flavor - none is more reliable or as overused as cask maturation.

Of course, maturation in oak barrels itself has the amazing effect of mellowing out otherwise hot and sharp flavors associated with new make, allowing the spirit to take on deeper, more rounded and cohesive flavors, that make for a great drink.

Yet, as anyone who has ever glanced across a whisky aisle can attest, the word "cask" is mentioned probably second only to the word "whisky". That's because a whole range of casks previously holding other spirits can be used to impart flavors - oak barrels used for Bourbon is most popular, for it gives sweet vanilla and caramel flavors, and then there is of course Sherry, which is the flavor of the decade - decadent, rich flavors of raisins, fruitcake, espresso and more. There are also of course Rum (which has of late become quite popular), as well as Cognac (also fast becoming popular), and then wine and then more recently experimental casks such as Tequila and many more.

 

Suntory has even snapped up French vineyards such as Saint-Julien, Medoc's Chateau Lagrange which supplies some of the wine barrels used for Suntory's own whisky aging. (Image Source: IDealwine)

 

This is such a big deal that it's enough to lift Macallan to where it is today for its use of Sherry casks, and was certainly a big enough deal that drinks giant Diageo was apparently found to have created a task force to provide some encouragement to Scotch regulators to broadening permissible cask types in a landmark rule change in 2019. Turns out Diageo really wanted to try maturing some of its Scotch in Don Julio Tequila casks.

Unlike other levers such as yeast or barley, the effects of casks on the whisky's flavors are quick, easy, distinctive and makes for a great flashy label. More recently one Scotch expert, the late Dr Swan, even helped pioneer a way to accelerate a whisky tasting more well-aged, through the STR method. STR stands for the cask used being Shaved, Toasted and Recharred, which would expose the whisky to a more active cask, imparting flavors more quickly. This was a huge hit and was widely used by up and coming distilleries such as Kilchoman and Kavalan, both of whom are recognised for high quality whiskies. Only in the world of whiskies do folks want to skip the line and age faster.

  

 

STR is one of the hottest recent cask innovations. (Image Source: Kilchoman) 

 

In any case, cask aging is a big deal and perhaps the most used tool in the whiskymaking handbook.

So why would Japan's distillers be any different?

That's not to say they don't toggle with other details, but again the allure of a flashy label with the print "Sherry Cask" or "Mizunara Cask" is just far too much of a draw. Yet it is worth mentioning that in Japanese whiskymaking practice, the release of such a whisky is actually quite undesirable. A cultural centerpiece for whiskymaking in Japan has its focal point on a distillery's blending ability, hence the Master Blender typically holds the highest position in a Japanese distillery. To release whiskies of a specific profile would come across as one-dimensional and unbalanced and hence kind of goes against the whole art of whiskymaking in Japan. But dat "Sherry Cask" label tho...

 

One of the coolest parts of a visit to Yamazaki Distillery is a hallway that features a library of various Yamazaki styles that have been tested over the years. (Image Source: Japan Guide)

 

And so going back to 2009, Suntory began to release its Yamazaki Sherry Cask, which for awhile became somewhat of an annual tradition, later followed on by a Yamazaki Mizunara Cask, a Yamazaki Puncheon, and so forth. I suppose at some point the good folks at Suntory probably thought they should probably not veer too far off from the whole art of blending thing, as these cask editions were getting really popular.

And so in 2013, Suntory released a Yamazaki Cask Collection coinciding with the distillery's 90th anniversary - this would include a Sherry Cask, Mizunara Cask, Bourbon Cask, and a Puncheon. And as the masses had called for, Suntory's other distillery, Hakushu, would also release a set of two select styles for just as well its 40th anniversary - a Sherry Cask and a Heavily Peated expression. The narrative had then somewhat shifted to these select styles being one-off arbitrary limited releases, towards Suntory peeling back the veil and allowing fans to try the various styles that together are expertly blended together to create the respective distilleries' core expressions.

The various elements that make up Yamazaki. (Image Source: Suntory)

 

Eventually today we have what is known as the Tsukuriwake Selection from Yamazaki, which sees anything from the good ol' Sherry (sometimes called Spanish Oak), Bourbon, Mizunara and Puncheon, to varying annually, extensions such as Bordeaux Wine or Peated Malt. Unfortunately, as usual Hakushu hasn't caught up and their select styles still remain kinda one-off and sporadic, most recently a Peated Malt and Spanish Oak expression.

 

 

Going back to the 2010s, something that was kind of charming was that one of Suntory's press release regarding one of these Hakushu select style expressions detailed how the distillery's sales rocketed over 100% one year and over 300% the next on the back of a marketing campaign encouraging women to try a mint garnished Hakushu Highball (called a Hakushu Mori Kaoru Highball).

In any case back to the Hakushu Sherry Cask 2013 expression I have on hand, another thing worth noting is that with these releases, Hakushu's new make is actually fully matured in Sherry casks up till bottling. Now, of course these are nonetheless NAS whiskies, which is a euphemism for young whiskies, but still that's pretty neat, as most of the time you'd just get a Sherry finish of a couple of months at best, with the bulk of the whisky's maturation being in likely a Bourbon barrel.

    

 

Hakushu Sherry Cask 2013, 48% ABV - Review

 

Color: Deep Amber

  

 

Aroma: Ooh already so complex - wafts of baking spices pouring forth, raisins, Kyoho grapes, rich and slightly tannic. It's surprisingly very fresh and vibrant, akin to Colheita port wine, even with a touch of minerality. More on worn leather, walnut oil, espresso, cardamom and just a squeak of varnish. The classic Sherry notes are all present and accounted for, except here there is a beautiful elegance and refinement - harmonious, aromatic and fresh. Not the slightest hint of harshness.

  

 

Taste: On the palate this is more viscous than its aromas would have you believe. Fruit-forward with raisin, apricots, figs, absolutely ripe and saccharine, intensely flavorful. More spices come forth, namely aniseed. Over time this evolves into a fruit jam of blackberries, good spoonful of caramel, reminiscent even of maltose candy. Altogether well-rounded, vibrant and wonderfully cohesive. 

   

 

Finish: Long, smooth, having you feel like this symphony goes on forever. Incredibly delightful with a nice burst of menthol, chalky minerality much as you would Evian spring water. It gets more tannic, with a woody sweetness much like licorice, and then on black tea and chewing tobacco, and just a touch of medicinal bitterness right as the end.

 

My Thoughts

This was just wonderful - it is classic Sherry, supremely well done. It is well-married, rounded and integrated with the characteristic Sherry notes, with a touch of minerality and herbaceousness that the Hakushu distillate is known for, further enhancing its dimensions. It has certainly mellowed out and at least in this instance presents no harshness or heat, with just a great ember of warmth, to an otherwise delectable sumptuous Christmas feast.

 

My Rating

🕑

This is absolutely an ace at combining the distinctive Hakushu profile with a high quality Sherry cask - it is well-married, integrated and rounded. Every Sherry note is present and accounted for, fresh and vibrant.

A textbook example of how to make Sherry cask whisky at the highest level. Class is in session and Hakushu shows us how it's done.

 

So approachable, fresh and vibrant with every desirable Sherry flavor presented distinctively, straightforward and clean - it's all here served on a silver platter. This is a classy, sexy, textbook lesson on how to perfectly combine cask and distillate at absolutely the highest levels of the game. Incredible.

  

Kanpai!

  

 

@111hotpot