Single malt Japanese whisky
MASH BILL – unknown
PROOF – 86
AGE – 12 years
DISTILLERY – Hakushu Distillery (Suntory)
PRICE – $85 (more typically $100 to $120)
WRITERS’ TEARS DOUBLE OAK
Irish whiskey aged in American and French oak barrels
MASH BILL – unknown
PROOF – 92
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Walsh Whiskey
PRICE – $65
Why compare these, a Japanese and Irish whiskey? It was a hunch. Something about their personalities, their easy intensities, also their similar adjacency to scotch whisky. We’ll see after the tasting! First, notes in brief:
HAKUSHU – pale yellow straw with a faint dash of orange
WRITERS’ – pale orange
HAKUSHU – honey, peat smoke, pineapple, small fresh flowers, bit of vanilla, fresh white bread
WRITERS’ – fruity caramel, warm cooked banana, cream, custard
HAKUSHU – peat smoke, mild iodine, tangerine, nectarine, watery texture
WRITERS’ – a tannic oaky edge around a vibrant but thin fruity caramel center
HAKUSHU – peat smoke, bit of iodine, fruity caramel, fading warmth
WRITERS’ – slo-mo burst of pepperiness, then warmth, sweet and tangy tannic oak, with a very slight synthetic edge
HAKUSHU – pleasant but unremarkable
WRITERS’ – a congenial, slightly revved up variant of the standard Writers’ Tears
HAKUSHU – No
WRITERS’ – No
I am much more versed in scotch than I am in either Japanese or Irish whiskeys. I have yet to explore Japanese whisky extensively because of the cost in combination with the lack of rules around Japanese whisky, which means one could actually be drinking scotch that’s been exported to Japan to be blended, bottled, and/or aged. There is very little transparency. With Irish whiskeys, my lack of exploration has been because those I’ve had have all been fine, seeming cousins to certain mainstream scotches and some light American bourbons, but never terribly memorable.
I was curious about the Hakushu 12 because, when it was announced last year that it was being discontinued, there was a sudden frenzy in whisky circles reminiscent of hungry sharks quite suddenly thrashing upon the final few tuna in the sea. And yet for a “discontinued” whisky it sure has kept showing up on shelves. One shop keeper told me that distributors were dolling out their remaining stocks slowly. Turns out Hakushu 12 has not actually been discontinued, just reduced in quantity. A manufactured scarcity?
I was curious about Writers’ Tears Double Oak because I’d had the standard Writers’ Tears and enjoyed it as a good “Horatio” whiskey—meaning, gets along with most anyone, a bit boring, but perfectly enjoyable early in the party, just like Horatio, Shakespeare’s trusted sidekick to Hamlet. That the Double Oak version is 92 proof to the standard’s 80 proof, as well as not chill-filtered, with one barrel being American oak first used for Kentucky bourbon and the other French oak used for cognac, and that the two whiskeys in the blend are a single pot-still and single malt whiskey—all this promised some kind of step up and outward for Writers’ Tears. Might this Horatio have become a Hamlet?
Turns out Hakushu and Writers’ Tears Double Oak are both Horatian, with the Hakushu providing a smokier, brinier experience and the Writers’ Tears a fruitier, more caramelly experience. But both provide a light, undemanding experience. The Hakushu might make a good introduction to peat—a divisively particular flavor in whiskey—since it offers such a light, even pretty, peat smoke. Whereas Writers’ Tears could be an easy entry into Irish whiskeys, obviously, but also to the general flavor and intensity areas of mainstream Highland scotches with their gamut of floral, earthy, and fruity profiles. Of the scotch regions, the Highlands are arguably at the center of the mainstream. I find Irish whiskeys, despite their distinctions, to be recognizable cousins of these centered scotches. I’ve yet (key word yet!) to experience an “out there” Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey is as broadly agreeable as Irish music. It knows how to take it easy and have some lively fun, with the occasional bittersweet romance or regret.
What I’ve been calling “Horatio” whiskey has become a sub-category for me. The range is truly international. Horatian whiskeys can be found around the globe. I appreciate them. Personally, they are not what I reach for often. I prefer surprises, absurd comedies, intense dramas, mind-bending abstractions. I enjoy those dark or saturated side streams that veer off from the sunny, as-expected mainstreams. I enjoy a character like Hamlet. A difficult character, sometimes even harsh. But also funny, smart, stimulating, multifaceted, never one for half-measures.
This comparison has me thinking about how a whiskey can help us articulate our tastes beyond whiskey. There is a parallel between my taste in whiskey and my taste in theater, friends, movies, games, and other experiences. I do sometimes want a relaxing, mindless, undemanding sunset. Other times the sunset takes me to deeply romantic, deeply thoughtful, even deeply troubled places. The meaning a sunset takes on for me is influenced by my own mood. Similarly, my mood draws me to one whiskey or another on a given evening. Am I ready for a party with balloons and streamers? I’ll go for Bank Note or Writers’ Tears or Jim Beam Repeal Batch. Am I ready for an intense and passionate conversation? I’m going to reach for Booker’s or Stagg Jr. or Old Potrero Rye.
There is a place in the world for Horatio. We need a wholly agreeable friend from time to time, who doesn’t ask much of us in return for the congeniality they offer. Hakushu 12 and Writers’ Tears Double Oak are two solid Horatian options. Unfortunately the Hakushu is now priced about three times its worth. Similarly, the Writers’ Tears Double Oak I might invite to the party at $50, but would prefer it at around $40 like its standard cousin.
Toward the end of writing up these notes, I poured a glass of Weller Special Reserve:
Weller Special Reserve is an American Horatio bourbon that, like Hakushu 12, has suffered the over-pricing that comes with being tragically fashionable. Weller pushes its bright caramel flavors with an American forwardness that leans into you more than either the lively yet still polite Irish Writers’ Tears, or the notably reserved Japanese Hakushu.
So we get a sense of what it might mean to cast an American, Irish, or Japanese actor as Horatio! In our whiskeys, as in our art and in our own individual personalities, there swirls something of our national character. I have no doubt the more I get to know Japanese and Irish whiskeys, the more I’ll understand of them and the more I might recognize their particular distinctions. Not unlike when I lived in Japan, and came away with a far greater understanding of Japanese people and culture than I’d had when I arrived, as well as a clearer sense of what about me is American.
To future “travels” in Japanese and Irish whiskey:
Cheers! Kanpai! Sláinte!