Japanese Pair – Hibiki 21 & Sushi

We’re back again with a new “Japanese Pair” instalment, to make your mouths water and your bellies rumble. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, have a look at our first piece of the series, where we pair the wonderful Yamazaki 18 with the rich and satisfying tastes of Wagyu beef.

Today we’ll be looking at a very different Japanese whisky and food pairing, one that focuses more on the subtle, smooth flavours of the pair, as opposed to the rich, fatty, meaty flavours found in the first part of our series.

It’s sushi and Suntory’s world-renowned Hibiki 21 blend, and the delicate balance found here is what makes this a match made in heaven. While some bolder flavours will come through, subtlety is key here, with the combo keeping things fresh, light, and tasty all the way through.

Let’s dive in.

Hibiki 21 Year-Old

Ah, the Hibiki. If there was one dram in the entire Japanese whisky industry to truly showcase the amazing blending skills of Japanese distillers, this would be it. Created by the company’s master blender, the Hibiki range is Suntory most popular and successful blended whiskies, known for the smooth, harmonious flavours it brings to happy palates everywhere.

The entire Hibiki range is wonderful, but standing at the very top of them all is the Hibiki 21. Named the World’s Best Blended Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards in 2010, 11, 13, 16, and most recently in Spring 2017, one can quickly understand that there’s something special about this dram. Winning five times in such a competitive category in the whisky world is no small feat.

Blended with whiskies aged more than 21 years, the balance of age is important here. What’s more, the whiskies chosen for blending come from all different types of casks, including Mizunara, American Oak, Sherry Oak, and Bourbon casks. Elegance and harmony are of the utmost importance, which is why the Hibiki blend was created and is closely monitored by Suntory’s chief blender, Shinji Fukuyo.

This combination of cask ageing brings an abundance of stewed, rich fruits to the palate, followed closely by warm spices from the sherry presence. Apples and cherries meet, as the malt flavour stands firm, and a touch of floral incense comes through. It’s an experience that will slip by gently, and before you know it you’ll be reaching for the bottle again.

Sushi

Have you been to Japan? Do you like sushi? Those questions almost always go hand-in-hand. Japan may have countless specialities, each prefecture in the country with their own, but sushi is the leader of Japanese cuisine.

There are many different types of sushi, even more, if we include the Western twists of the dish. Think California rolls. Today we will be focusing on nigirizushi, and on the closely related, sashimi.

Nigiri-style sushi is the most popular type eaten in Japan, and is the classic style of a piece of seafood, vegetable, or meat placed on top of a neat, oval-shaped ball of Japanese sushi rice. Sashimi, on the other hand, is served without the rice base, and instead presented on top of a garnish, usually daikon (oriental radish).

Nigiri sushi is served in all the best sushi establishments around the world and is greatly bound by tradition in Japan. Becoming a sushi chef in Japan takes dedication and a lot of hard work, and securing a position in a high-end restaurant is a very difficult task.

The freshness and texture of the seafood is perhaps the most important part of a good sushi meal, and if you’ve eaten sushi in Japan, you will understand the importance of quality. There are many types of seafood used in sushi-making, with the more fatty and rare cuts of fish costing more.

The fattier the tuna in Japan the more expensive the bills get. Maguro is affordable, but the Otoro cut, which is the fattiest part of the tuna, can set you back a few bucks.

The Pairing

So, with an understanding of nigiri sushi, and an idea of what makes the Hibiki 21 so great, let’s move on to the pairing.

An assortment of nigiri sushi or sashimi will work perfectly. The choices are up to you, as most seafood you choose with pair wonderfully with the Hibiki. I’d recommend sticking to lighter choices, and avoid extremely fatty cuts of meat that may alter the “lightness” of the experience.

Tuna, salmon, freshwater eel, octopus, shrimp, yellowtail, halibut, and mackerel are all great options.

The light, smooth texture, and delicate flavours of the fish, accompanied by the palate-washing ginger in between, will leave your palate on edge with fresh and delicate sensations all around.

A mouthful of the Hibiki 21 will only further add to the experience, as the harmonious flavours seep through, allowing sherried fruit to further stimulate the palate.

The combination of proteins, fats, and vinegar (from the rice) in sushi makes the high acidity of the Hibiki 21, with the notes of sherry and fruit, a perfect match.

It should all come together, and the balance of the pair should surprise you. Make sure to cleanse your palate with ginger and water in between different sushi pieces, and do your best to focus on each and every part of the experience.

The texture of the cut, the combination of the rice, the aftertaste, followed by the note of the whisky – It should all blend together and make the experience great.