Hikari Distillery has been around in Fukuoka, Japan since 1912, but its Hakata Whiskey brand is new to U.S. shores, a 100% single malt which has been partially fermented with koji mold, adding umami flavors to the distillate. All four expressions of Hakata are aged in sherry casks in a combination of traditional warehouses and a small number of open-air warehouses, “where they are exposed to humid summertime temperatures of 95°F and winter temperatures of around 38°F.”
Each is bottled at 84 proof in 700ml bottles — and not at all what I was expecting.
Hakata Whiskey 10 Years Old – The sherry barrel gives even this entry-level bottling a rich and deep color, setting the stage for what’s to come in the older expressions. Boldly leathery and dense on the nose, the whiskey offers notes of baking spice, ginger, and mulled wine — giving it a Christmassy quality — with some black pepper ground over the top. The impact of the koji is evident right away on first sip, where a boldly savory quality sets the whiskey on its intense, heady path. The sherry again dominates here completely — austere, leathery, nutty, and heavy with notes of polished wood. A pinch of citrus brightens up the overwhelming character of oxidized wine, but not much. It’s as unique an expression of Japanese whiskey as I’ve encountered; I’ve had Spanish sherries that had less of a sherry character than this. B / $80
Hakata Whiskey 12 Years Old – Take the 10 year old and give it some much-needed sweetness. At 12 years old, the whiskey has a similar but slightly deeper aromatic quality, while the palate shows notes of sweet tea and cola and some Maraska cherry, though that heavy, oxidized wine quality endures even longer than in the 10. A few brown sugar crystals cling to the palate on the finish, which is a plus. B+ / $100
Hakata Whiskey 16 Years Old – Jumping up to 16 years old reveals a whisky that is slightly lighter in color than the other 3 in this mix, with no explanation. The sherry is definitely muted on the nose, allowing aromas of brown butter, toasted cereal, and a sharper orange oil and peel note into the picture. Again considerably sweeter on the palate, with a sugary tea note, a mélange of fruit-driven qualities give the body quite a lift, moving into notes of chocolate and spice, and tempering the oxidized characteristics. The finish is still thick with leathery, austere sherry, but the road to getting there is brighter and more vibrant. A- / $150
Hakata Whiskey 18 Years Old – The end of the line returns us to the aggressive oxidized wine elements of the 10 and 12 year old expressions, the nose here quite intense with savory, almost meaty elements. If mushroomy umami’s your jam, this is the whiskey to seek out, full of notes of soy sauce, burnt rope, saddlebags, and walnut shells. You can push past some of this on the palate, but it takes some doing, notes of pruny, overripe fruit dominating, with a malty, dark chocolate note coming into focus. A big slap of meaty old sherry notes comes back into focus as the finish builds, giving this whiskey the boldest and most aggressive conclusion of anything in the lineup. B+ / $190
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