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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Single Malt Report: The Yamazaki 12 years old

First, some history in a heartnut shell:

Japan’s introduction to whisky directly corresponded to the opening of its culture to The West.  Commodore Matthew Perry was said to have brought over 100 gallons of whisky with him upon his arrival in 1854.  Western trade then brought European booze to the their shores and Scotch Whisky became very popular to those who could afford it.  Chemists and wine makers began trying to recreate Scotch to varying levels of failure.

Between 1918 and 1920, Masataka Taketsuru received a thorough apprenticeship at distilleries in Speyside and Campbeltown, then returned to what would later become Suntory distilleries in Yamazaki.  From this wealth of knowledge, the Japanese whisky industry began legitimately.

In the 1930s, Japan’s Imperial Navy was drinking at such an incredible rate that the whisky industry had to grow exponentially in order to meet the demand.  Postwar, the whisky love spread throughout Japanese society, at first with the upper classes then slowly down to the working classes as the whisky supply grew and the prices dropped.  Seventeen separate distilleries arose over the years, most of which are still running.

Today, Japan is the fourth largest whiskey producer in the world and the largest non-European consumer of Scotch whisky (per-capita) in the world [citation needed because author is frequently full of sh*t].

All of the paid published whisky experts agree that Japanese whisky is delicious.  But don’t take their word for it.  Take mine.  Japanese whisky is delicious.

(For a full Japanese whisky education please visit the excellent http://nonjatta.blogspot.com/.)

For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
Suntory is one of Japan's largest whisky producers and their Yamazaki brand is one of their most popular single malts inside and outside Japan.  Like many of us, my introduction to Suntory was via Bob Harris.

A ring-a-ding-ding.
(Inconvenient fact: The whisky that Bob was shilling for was actually Hibiki, Suntory's big blend.)

Upon my departure from my previous job, about four months ago, my wonderful co-workers held a going-away happy hour for me at a nearby swanky sushi restaurant.  When the menu arrived, my eyes were instantly drawn to The Yamazaki 12yr.  'Twas love at first taste.  Two months later I bought a bottle for my birthday.  That bottle is now empty.


ProducerSuntory Whisky
Age: 12 years
Maturation: Bourbon / Sherry casks (?)
Country: Japan
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

The flavors in Japanese whisky can be very bold when sipped neatly.  That's because in Japan, more often than not, whisky is enjoyed on ice.  In fact, one of the classic afterwork drinks is the Mizuwari: Water + two large ice cubes + whisky, stirred 13 1/2 times.  The drinker still has to be able to taste the drink underneath all of that cold water, thus the intense flavors.

But let's start with it neat and naked, as I prefer it because I'm a gaijin.

Neatly:  The color is a very dark amber, almost mahogany.  The nose is lovely.  Ginger, crème brûlée, heavy vanilla, fizzy malt, prunes, bourbon toffee, and bananas.  I believe the technical term is "yum".  The palate is thick and buttery.  The ginger in the nose becomes gingerbread on the tongue.  There's some granulated sugar, dried apricots, and fresh cherries.  It has a medium-length finish, with some continuing cherry and sugar cookies.

Yeah, it's a big delicious dessert whisky when tried neatly.

Adding some water (1 part water to 3 parts whisky) and lowering the ABV to about 30%:  The nose becomes herbal, very gin-like, so maybe that's juniper?  It's a little peppery.  Some maple syrup.  Then ginger has now become ginger ale!  I actually like the nose better this way, with more subtlety.  The palate becomes very creamy.  Smooth, moreish, light.  Vanilla wafers that stick around through the mild finish.

For relaxing times indeed.

Now, let's fix up a Mizuwari:  All of those bold scents and flavors go to sleep, or are suffocated (depending on one's opinion of whisky on the rocks).  What remains are strong notes of vanilla and maple syrup in both the nose and palate.  It's an undemanding social drink, probably good during the summer, definitely appropriate after work.

The Yamazaki is a very versatile malt.  It works neatly, with water, as a Highball, or as a Mizuwari, depending on the drinker's preference.  The price is quite right.  I definitely recommend it as an introduction into Japanese whisky.

Pricing - Good at $38-$48
Rating - 87


  1. Just recently picked up my first bottle of Japanese whisky. It was the 1999 K&L Karuizawa. Don't suppose you also grabbed a bottle? I might need to get a bottle of Yamazaki 12 to get an idea of what Japanese whisky tastes like before I crack that one open.

    1. No, I missed out on that one. Their pre-arrival price was reasonable compared to the overseas prices on Karuizawa casks, but between my sherry issues (which have since improved) and finances at the time I passed that one up. Yamazaki 12 is a very good any-time whisky and has a bunch of fun oak stuff going on in it. The price has gone up on it (of course), but you can probably find it in your neck of the woods for $50.

    2. Weird, I was just visiting Beltramo's when I noticed Yamazaki 12 for $50. It's definitely very Scotch-like with some good oak. Karuizawa is supposed to be a sherry bomb (in fact I'd say from David's tasting notes it will be like Glenfarclas) so the comparison won't be quite the same but I'm not complaining.

    3. Ha! Good timing. Yeah, I've heard some Karuizawas are gorgeous sherry bombs. I hope that K&L '99 cask is great and word spreads. Wouldn't mind seeing some more Karuizawa in the US. And if it's under $200 it's even better!