Thursday, May 24, 2012

Yamazaki 12 rises like a phoenix with heat and citrus floral beauty

Yamazaki 12 is a another delicious dram from Suntory that surprised and delighted me. Surprised, particularly because I had a bottle of Yamazaki 12 back in the early 90s that wasn't very impressive. That one suffered from a lack of density of flavor and a very shy nose. Yet from the very first sniff of the current stuff I knew that two decades had been too long a wait to give this one another try.

Suntory's cut sheet says:

"Yamazaki whisky is the first Japanese single malt whisky. Handcrafted at Japan’s oldest distillery, built in 1923, Yamazaki is made from barley imported from Scotland, distilled and matured in Japan. Yamazaki’s secret lies in the harmonious marriage of a single malt matured in three different types of oak – Spanish Oak, American
White Oak, and Japanese “Mizunara”– which gives the whisky its complex taste and unique flavor."

Let's see if that's true...

Yamazaki 12 43% abv

(sampled a 50ml miniature provided by Danielle of Exposure)

Color: full gold with a slight amber tint.

Nose: Lush floral vanilla perfume over banana and caramelized overripe pineapple. I also get bee's wax, honey, sweet butter, cooking pancakes, and some bit of citrus and almond like orgeat syrup. Wonderful

Entry is sweet with treacle syrup but then immediately spicy. The mouth feel is light but silky. Mid-palate bites with a bit of heat and a lemon-tangerine citrus burst that fades a bit with extended air - replaced by a smooth sweet creaminess. The floral vanilla of the nose arcs over the whole shebang. Then honeyed malt and oak take over at the turn to the finish. Oak tannins show gently at the finish along with baking dinner rolls and a gentle herbal tang. It's agile and youthful feeling - very sweet. Yet it also has balance, poise, and some complexity.

A few drops of water heightens the citrus and almond notes in the nose (banishing the banana). A bit of classic juicy Scotch Highland fruit basket nose emerges (stonefruit, pear, salted butter marzipan). It keeps evolving in the glass and I keep getting more.

On the palate a few drops of water ups the sweetness and helps it to carry through the peppery heat of the expansion into the mid-palate which still pops with citrus burst, but more softly. Theres a mellow glow of tropical fruits in the fade of the spicy citrus burst. Bees wax, butter, toffee and malt waft around. The finish is gentle and softly malty-fruity like the aftermath of chewing juicyfruit gum.

Given that the nose and entry and mid-palate spice hit are all much bigger than the finish, I'm anxious to try older expressions. I imagine an august presence develops and more wood and flavor in the finish would enhance the balance overall.

Still, what's here is glorious. The nose is lovely, complex and involving. The entry seductive and the mid-palate spicy, rich and sweet. The gentle soothing finish is a salve after the mid-palate heat. Just a lovely and involving whisky overall. What happened in the past 20 years? How did they do it? A sea change. Yamazaki 12 transformed itself from a forgettable 2 star to a vibrant and delectable 4 star treat.



  1. Yamazaki 12 is definitely a great whisky. I tried a dram a few months ago and really enjoyed it. Interestingly I picked up some flavors and smells that I associate with spirits aged in small oak barrels, but I don't know if this is coincidence or if some of the barrels Suntory uses are smaller than the standard 53 gallons. Clearly I'll have to try it again to see if I find any of those characteristics on a second pass. I'll probably pick up a full bottle the next time I order from Hi-Time because it'll only be ~$40 with shipping, which is a pretty good deal period for a 12 year old single malt.

    1. Jordan, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You always have extremely intelligent and insightful things to say.

      1) Great point about the flavor signature of small barrels. I have no idea if this is going on with Yamazaki, but it might explain how mature this whisky tastes at 12 years. I'll research the point.

      2) Great point, too, about the value. K&L has Yamazaki 12 for $39.99. It's mid $40s here in NYC. That's fantastic value.

    2. FYI Jordan, Neyah White (West Coast brand ambassador for Suntory) e-mailed me to set me straight about the barrel size issue. He said (in part):
      "While we use American Oak, Spanish Oak and Japanese Oak in both age statements, they have a vastly different focus from each other. These are, very purposefully, different whiskies. I will leave the tasting notes to you but here are the technical differences.

      o The 12 yr is, obviously from color and nose, mostly American Oak, both ex-bourbon and new oak in the form of giant puncheon. We have our own cooperage so the puncheon are easy to come by for us.

      o The 18 yr on the other hand is mostly Spanish Oak. The color, the nose and the dry leave all point to this.

      · As for your reader that wonders about barrel size, we do not use anything smaller than the standard size. As a matter fact, we use a lot of very large barrels. Attached is a slide of the range we use."

      (I'll figure out how to put the PDF up - but it shows that all the casks used in the neighborhood of Hogshead on up to Puncheon.

  2. Yama 12 is a fun one for me. I think there's a bit of Japanese Oak influence at play on the spirit. To me, last I recall, it had a bit of pepper to the wood influence but it was balanced by some of the really well-done sweetness.

    Last I recall, the 18 was actually showing a little peat on it. It's been some time since I had it but I actually think it's one that works nicely as a highball.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Yes, that heat is coming from the oak, no doubt. I know the French Sessle oak is what makes Compass Box Spice Tree and Oak Cross hot. I imagine that the Japanese oak is doing the same for Yamazaki 12. But, it is indeed the sweetness that you really remember. It's a great combo. I'll be trying the 18 soon. I don't think I'll make a highball - but that's a great tip if I do a full bottle. You know you're a real whisky maniac when you're making highballs with expensive exotic hooch like Yamazaki 18!

    2. Hey, it's just Yamazaki 18, not a '72 Caperdonich. ;) It's not an everyday thing but when it's right, it's right..

    3. Yeah, your right. It's just whisky for heaven's sake. Where in the rule book does it say you MUST make a highball with $20 rye? Where, actually, is the rule book at all. I'm about to make a Manhattan and I'm going to use the best bourbon in the house. Why NOT a Yamazaki 18 highball?

      That being said, if I get my hands on a '72 Caperdonich it's NOT going in a highball... ;)

    4. Admittedly, some of the best Manhattans out there are made with Rittenhouse Bonded, which is roughly $20. But those diamonds in the rough are few and far between.

  3. Josh, you know what is next up for you? Yamazaki 18yrs!

    1. Yamazaki 18 indeed. I have a sample on the way. The next review, however, is Hakushu 12 - the last Suntory 12 year old distillery expression.

  4. Great review, and it sounds delicious. I had heard other nice reports on this one and looked for it at my local liquor emporium just last week. Despite their web site's claims, it wasn't in stock. My search continues...

    1. I just picked up a bottle of Yamazaki 12 in Berkeley at Ledger's on University. They have an astounding collection and Ed was incredibly nice and knowledgeable. K&L lists it for the best price, however $39.99.