Production

Japanese Harmony

America tunes into Hibiki whisky
By Liza Weisstuch
The room on the top floor of the sleek New Museum in Manhattan's Chinatown is bright and stark, a study in crisp lines and architectural purity. Vast windows offer astonishing city views. There is a very Japanese tone to the design, making it a perfect setting for the New York debut of Hibiki Japanese Harmony, the latest no age statement whisky from Suntory.

It's composed of at least ten malt and grain whiskies, aged in five different types of casks, from Suntory's Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries. (They're the same malt and grain whiskies used in the original Hibiki blend as well as Hibiki 17 and 21.) And on a gorgeous night in June, Suntory's celebrated chief blender Shinji Fukuyo took the spotlight to lead a tasting of five of Harmony's components whiskies.

It was an exercise that would make anyone realise that the spirit isn't called 'Harmony' for nothing. Sampling the constituents could be equated to listening to the various orchestra sections play their respective parts of, say, a Mozart symphony in isolation.

Then, when the conductor starts directing, it's easy to understand how the sounds intertwine in, well, harmony.

Most of the evening was as cerebral as it was sensorial. Fukuyo, great-grandson of Suntory's founder, Shingo Torii, provided a capsule history of the Japanese whisky industry, explaining how the Japanese largely took their distilling cues from the Scotch. But according to the longtime master blender, there was a natural factor in the eastern nation that has allowed them to enhance the product: water. The water in Scotland is heavier. The water in Japan is clear, clean and pure. And, of course, no discussion of whisky is worthwhile if there's no mention of climate. The climate in the east is one of valuable extremes: boiling summers, frigid winters. In other words, optimal ageing conditions.

Purity turned out to be the theme of the entire evening, which featured a highly anticipated dinner paired with the component whiskies prepared by David Bouley, the acclaimed chef who started his career at New York City institutions, like Le Cirque and Montrache, and rose to celebrity status, opening several Michelin starred restaurants. Also in the kitchen that night, Isao Yamada, who's worked with Bouley for years.

Just as Japanese whiskey-makers borrowed a page from the Scotch industry's playbook, so it goes with French food, which, as Bouley explained in dramatic detail, is largely inspired by Japanese culinary customs.

"Chefs are concerned with purity. Mother Nature should support everything they do," Bouley told me, going on to explain how the nouveau cuisine movement in France was directly influenced by Japan, from the progression of the courses (in terms of flavours and textures) to the prix fixe concept of pricing. Tasting menus didn't even exist prior to the 1960s, said the chef.

"Chefs have to know the importance of the seasons, which change frequently. A big thing you learn in Japan is which course serves which purpose. Raw vegetables stimulate the appetite. Then you heat your body with broth, then go into grilled foods for something smoky or fried. A food with vinegar cleans everything out. Then you have fruit, which provide water-soluble cells so they leave the body faster," he explained. "That's important because for a healthy design, you have to think about absorption, which is based on compounds in food. And food, after all, is there to transmit nutrient density to the bloodstream. Japanese cooking is clean and healthy. It should give you energy, it should be interesting, and it should have a positive effect on your DNA."

So how does any of this relate to Japanese whisky? The courses, which were presented in the traditional order he spelled out, were each prepared with a whisky, so the Colorado lamb, which fulfilled the grill portion of the meal, was cooked in a Hibiki red wine garlic sauce. And, it should be noted, that the Instagram feed of nearly everyone in attendance turned into a stream of veritable food porn as the meal progressed. After all, it's hard to resist photographing a dish as seductively photogenic as smoked salmon and five lemon foam dish with spring veggies sprinkled with translucent salmon roe and flower petals of technicolor purple and yellow. Its accompaniment - a highball.

That dish embodies smoke, fat, salt and acid/ph, four of five characteristics that Bouley deems essential in nature and aims to exploit in his cooking. The fifth is fermentation. ("We need more fermentation, which fortifies and fortifies" Bouley asserts). As you can see, these are all attributes commonly discussed in conversations about all kinds of whisky.

"We can match food and whisky based on compounds," Bouley explains, equating Fukuyo's blend to a really good dish because of the conscientiously blended components. "The ingredients should feed off each other. There's a lot of food out there that's a compilation of beautiful things, but that's not gastronomy. With gastronomy, every ingredient enhances the whole and develops its own personal contribution to create a new strength."

Bouley made a strong case for pairing whiskey with food, a concept that some culinary and drink experts often approach hesitantly. "Water down to 8 to 12 per cent alcohol, then it's like a wine or beer," he said. "You're always building to the bloom. With a chef's efforts and the quality of food, a dish can bloom to a high level of performance. When you choose (to serve whisky) with food, bring down the proof. You'll learn flavours that you never knew were there. The more you chill whisky, the more it blooms. And you'll see it plays well with food."


Tasting Notes



1. Chita Grain

A fragrant oceanic mist battles - albeit gently - with freshly mowed grass aromas to dominate the nose. But all mildness vanishes on the palate as lush, ripe pineapple notes pile onto heavily roasted grain notes. Described by Fukuyo as the 'organiser' of Harmony, it finishes up neatly and dashes off quickly. Its work is efficient, setting the stage for the rest of the company to shine.

2. American White Oak Cask Malt Whisky

This spirit, which Fukuyo explains as providing Hibiki's 'Hibikiness,' makes up greatest proportion the formula. A lightly toasted nose gives way to a nearly buttery, only mildly vanilla-tinged, full-bodied palate. The no-nonsense finish which resounds with a sweet graininess.

3. Sherry Cask Malt Whisky

Considered the 'dressing' element of the blend, this spirit is a bit of an exhibitionist, a quality that's justified by its maturity. It comes on heavy with a conspicuously rumesque nose, resonating with molasses and berries. A rich cocoa essence rules the full bodied spirit on the palate. All the sweetness evident at the start is just a mirage by the time the slightly sour, bitter dark chocolate finish fades.

4. Mizunara Oak Malt Whisky

Musk, incense and ripe melon animate the nose, giving you the sense that you should be drinking this in a vibrantly coloured chamber behind a beaded curtain as flute music plays. Sweet yet earthy coconut unfurls on the palate and then, as if manipulated by a juggler's slight of hand, spins out into a hot cinnamon heavy finish.

5. Smoky Malt

Aged 10 to 12 years, this 'hidden player,' to use Fukuyo's term, is a sneaky rascal. The vibrant stone fruit notes on the palate belie the smoked milk chocolate that defines the nose.