The first time I tried Yamazaki 18yo (at Spirits in the Sky four years ago), I immediately bought a bottle. Now’s the time to pay homage to this Japanese classic. One of my all-time favourites when it comes to (relatively affordable) Japanese whisky, although the price has taken a big hike since it won a couple of awards.
Yamazaki 18 is composed of toasted American oak sherry puncheons, European oak sherry butts and Japanese Mizunara oak puncheons.
Yamazaki 18 yo (43%, OB 2008, L8CP3)
Nose: very very smooth, with a great interaction of chocolate, raisins and oak polish (maybe even a little glue). Soft vanilla. Luscious fruity notes, both dried (dates) and fresh (red fruits). Rather oriental as well: hints of baklava and incense, with a wonderful dampness. Herbal tea. Leather. Hints of dark rum. Syrup. Mouth: quite oaky now (with a resulting sourness) but this adds to the oriental character. Dried fruits (dates, prunes) freshened with citrus peel. Caramel. Creamy sherry notes. Bramble and honey. Tobacco. Finish: balanced sweet / dry and medium long. Maybe a hint of smoke?
A top quality dram, full of Japanese character but very rounded as well, which is slightly less common for Nippon whisky. No surprise it wins so many awards, this is highly recommended.
Be sure to shop around, because I’ve seen prices between € 85 and € 135 from retailers that usually have a similar price setting.
Nikka From the Barrel is a blend of grain whisky from Miyagikyo and malt whisky from Yoichi. Three more Japanese whiskies to go in this little series.
Nikka ‘From the barrel’ (51,4%, OB 2010, 50cl)
Nose: fruity and floral, with apricot, banana and pineapple aromas, oranges and some fresh oak. Honey. Almonds. Cinnamon sticks and vanilla, a little pepper as well. A balanced sherry nose. Mouth: creamy with plenty of punch at the same time. The grains are maybe a little too sharp around the edges, but the rest is very tasty. Malt and nougat. Caramelized sugar. Fresh lemon. Fruit tea. Drier towards the end, with spices like nutmeg. Even a hint of peat? Finish: quite long, malty and spicy with a lightly bitter edge.
This is a well-made, intense whisky that’s not easy to recognize as a blend. Around € 25 (50 cl) so great value for money.
Here’s another Japanese whisky selected by Dave Broom and bottled to celebrated the 10th Anniversary of Whisky-Live in 2010.
Hakushu 12 yo 1997 (56%, OB for Whisky-Live 2009, hogshead BJ41521)
Nose: dry flowers, hay and polished oak. Then soft fruits (apple, pear, whitecurrant). A little vanilla and mint. Mouth: sweet and fruity (candy sugar, pineapple sweets, peaches) backed by spices (vanilla, ginger, pepper) and fresh oak. There’s a light floral element as well. Clean, sweet and quite simple. Finish: medium length, half fruity / half spicy.
This is a youthful and modern Japanese whisky. As often, the oak (nice and fresh) and spices play a big role. Not too far from Scotch matured in first fill casks or Virgin oak. Around € 130.
One of the youngest Karuizawa we’ve tried so far, a 1991 released in 2007. Back then, Number One Drinks had just started the import and the distillery was still building up recognition. This bottling won a silver medal in the 2008 Malt Maniacs awards.
Karuizawa 1991 (62,5%, OB 2007,
sherry cask #3318)
Nose: very strong and slightly rubbery. Volcanic ashes? At the same time, the hotness prevents other aromas to come out, it definitely needs some time to open up. Some sherry notes (of the earthy, mossy kind) and spices (pepper, ginger). Roasted nuts and baked pie. Blackberries and dried figs. Getting more floral over time. Mouth: hot, dry and sherried, with the original malt shining through after a few moments. Sweet coffee. Plums and dates. Very spicy, quite overwhelming. Slightly smoky and salty. Not much difference with water. Finish: long, hot and spicy.
An earthy / ashy expression of Karuizawa.
Not a quick charmer, but it gains balance if you let it breathe. Around € 90 at the time, now sold out. Thanks for the sample swap, Johan.
This single cask of Yamazaki was selected by whisky writer Dave Broom to celebrate the 10th Anniversaries of Whisky Live held in Tokyo and London during February 2010. We’ve previously reviewed the Karuizawa 1990 that was launched for the same occasion.
Yamazaki 12 yo 1996
(60%, OB for Whisky-Live Japan 2009,
sherry butt AX70012)
Nose: deep sherry with fruity notes (sourish raspberry, red apples), nutty notes (walnuts) and oak resin. A little mint. Heavy sherry but faultless. Mouth: thick and compact. Starts dry and hugely oaky with dried fruits, walnuts and ginger. Evolves nicely on sweeter, creamy flavours like vanilla and chocolate ganache. Exotic woods. Pepper. Finish: smoky with great roasted coffee beans and milk chocolate.
Very big and packed with wonderful sherry notes. Not very complex though, and there are heavy wood flavours. Now sold for € 200 and more here in Europe, too much from a quality perspective.
Mizunara (Quercus mongolica) is commonly referred to as Japanese oak. There are other types of native oak in Japan though (e.g. Konara oak or Ubame oak) so it would be more precise to say Mongolian oak.
Anyway Mizunara oak is commonly used for the maturation of whisky (especially by Chichibu and Yamazaki) and was used to finish this Ichiro’s Malt whisky. Read this Nonjatta article if you’re interested in the characteristics of Japanese oak.
This Mizunara Wood Reserve is a vatted malt (undisclosed, but probably from the Hanyu and Chichibu distilleries).
Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve
(46%, OB 2010)
Nose: many woody notes, like a carpenter’s workshop. Sandalwood, mint and ginger. Soft grassy notes. Hints of incense. Some fruity notes and indeed also a faint coconut aroma in the background. Gets more aromatic over time. Not unlike some modern “oak-boosted” Scotch whisky, especially with Virgin oak finishes. Mouth: underpowered I’m afraid and lacking intensity. A little pepper and allspice. Then grows slightly sour (wood extracts) with a salty edge. Herbal and oaky but still washed out. Soft grapefruit. Finish: very short, slightly gingery.
The nose is nice enough (within its genre), but the palate fails to deliver. Hard to recommend unless you have a scientific interest in Japanese oak.
Around € 110. Thanks for the sample, Jack.
Although Yoichi is the best known part of the Nikka company, their second distillery, named Miyagikyo, is actually bigger. Malt whisky is produced there using eight stills. A Coffey Still was installed in 1999 but is only used intermittently.
This 20 years old 1988 vintage is a mixture of four Miyagikyo whisky styles, with different peating levels and different cask types (recharred casks, remade casks and a sherry butt).
Nikka Miyagikyo 1988 (50%, OB 2008, 1500 btl.)
Nose: nice and sensual, with lots of apricots and vanilla. Yellow plums. Slightly exotic. Furniture polish and beeswax. Gooseberries. A little frangipane. It shows elements of 1970’s Glen Grant, or 1972 Glengoyne, or 1970 Glen Keith. Good enough, right? Plus, there’s the softest hint of peat in the background. Mouth: starts on peppery wood, with slightly more pronounced peat. Leather. Overall rather sweet, with dried fruits (plums again) and a kind of bubblegummy / synthetic fruitiness. Evolves on a cheapish lychee liqueur (not as bad as it sounds, really). Finish: quite long, on dried apricots and old furniture.
A great nose with a slightly less appealing palate. Overall very nice, with a unique all-round profile among Japanese whiskies (subtle sherry, subtle peat, exotic fruits). Around
€ 215, still a few bottles available.