Like many people, my first introduction to the concept of Japanese whisky was via the Bill Murray movie Lost In Translation. Unlike most people, the need to find new and interesting ways of getting drunk led me to my local liquor emporium to find a bottle for myself. However, I was still new to the world of quality whisky, and was very disappointed to find that the 40-dollar bottle of Suntory I purchased tasted nothing like my beloved Jim Beam, and in fact, kind of repulsed me. I still remember, embarrassingly, the look of defeat on the faces of my friends as we sat in my kitchen, shooting Japanese whisky and chasing it with Pabst Blue Ribbon. We only did it once, and I don’t remember what happened to the rest of the bottle.
Fast forward six years and some change: my palette and tastes have developed significantly, and whisk(e)y has replaced tequila as my spirit of choice (although PBR is still my favorite beer). When we received the bottles of Suntory Yamazaki to sample, my stomach made a fist with the memory of vomiting a tasty mélange of ground beef and apples that I don’t remember eating after my last encounter with Japanese whisky. However, never one to be dissuaded by my past transgressions of better judgment and overall common sense, I pressed on.
The Japanese have been making whisky since the 19th century, but the first commercial production began in 1923 when Shinjiro Torii, an importer of western liquor who had enjoyed some success locally producing port wine, built Japan’s first whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto. He hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. Taketsuru had studied the craft of distilling in Scotland, and thus the style of whisky emulated the traditional Scottish styles. However, the trading of brands of whisky that is commonplace in Scotland—with distilleries often exchanging blends for mutual use—does not occur in Japan. Instead, blended whisky in Japan contains only malts from distilleries owned by individual brands, which generally means that the palette of each whisky is more limited. The Yamazaki 12 and 18 are each made with four ingredients: barley, water, yeast, and oak casks.
On the nose of both whiskies, two characteristics are immediately present—honey and cherries, but the 18-year contains more significant spice and wood. The 12-year is mellow and refined in the entry, with more cherry, honey, and a bit of toffee. The finish is pleasant and fairly long, but there was a bit more fire on the back end than I usually like. Water helped subdue this quality quite a bit, and this attribute may have something to do with the Japanese custom of mizuwari, which means mixing water and/or ice with whisky in a 2-to-1 ratio to make it more palatable with food. Then again, I may not know what the hell I’m talking about.
The 18-year is a bit of a different beast. It has a much heavier oak component, both on the nose and on the entry. And by ‘heavier oak’, I mean just a splinter away from licking an unvarnished dining room table, but in a good way. There are also little notes of orange, chocolate, and maple syrup, which extend into the finish. Water seems to subdue the more nuanced character of this whisky, so I would most definitely knock this one back neat.
Bottom line: Suntory has made a good whisky with the Yamazaki 12-Year, and a damn fine one with the 18. I know this is probably heresy in some circles, but I think the 18 would stand up to most of its Scottish counterparts without much of a problem. At about 40 bucks for the 12, and between $80-100 for the 18, I would also say they provide an excellent bang-for-the-buck factor, especially when compared against some overpriced, more popular brands (I’m giving Johnnie Walker Blue Label the buffalo eye here). 12 is good, 18 is great.
Yamazaki 12-Year: 80/100
Yamazaki 18-Year: 90/100