Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Yamazaki 18 year Single Malt

The Japanese Suntory Company has a long history in the production and marketing of spirits in Japan, and abroad. If you don't know it, the Japanese have been big whisky drinkers for decades, though they were slow to enter the aged malt whisky market. All that has changed recently.

When we lived in Japan in 1985, it was common to see company picnics in city parks, laid out on big blankets or tablecloths, the gentlemen still in their work-suits, each with a quart of whisky at his side (or in his hand). I'm not sure this should have surprised me. The Japanese love their bar-scene, and in the "lively" urban districts you're likely to encounter groups of drunk friends, lurching about and carousing through the night.

In the last 20 years, better quality Japanese Single Malt Scotch distillations have begun to show up in the American and European markets. Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky is actually produced in Japan, though Japanese interests also have holdings in Scotland, which they use for their blended varieties.

The Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt is an impressive whisky. with a price to match. One crucial quality in any whisky vying for acceptance in the exclusive universe of preferred malts is balance, and this whisky certainly has that. This may be evident in the wide range of kinds of flavors that tasters may report, when waxing romantic about its general quality. Any single taste "note" predominating in a whisky can spell its doom.

Yamazaki is sold without date, standard 43% alcohol, color bronze/brass, nose spiced sherry and flower notes, flavor vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch and sun-cured raisins, mellow mouth feel, and a smooth, firm candied finish, substantial body, with peppery traces on the tongue. Probably best drunk before meals, or by itself. Would go nicely with sweet deserts or salty snacks.

Distilleries may attempt to market separate yearly barrellings, or they may strive to replicate a desired target product year over year (as Yamazaki does with its 18 year). Generally speaking, either strategy may work, though there may be higher highs for separate batches, as against consistency and marketability (and availability) for set annual production runs. It's fun to find "unique" bottlings, but they're not repeatable, which can be disappointing. Variety is the spice of life, but a sure thing is good too.

Most popular Single Malts are sold at about 13 years of aging (in oak or other wood), and the older the seasoning, the more expensive the result may be. Really long agings of 18 to 30 years can be a real rare treat, though age isn't a guarantee of quality by any means. Still, complexity is more likely to develop with age, and complexity is one of the hallmarks of great whiskies, assuming (again) a degree of balance. And, of course, individual tastes differ widely. The chemistry of the individual human mouth is unpredictable. Taste, after all, is the interaction between the chemical taste elements in the food, and the receptive surface of the mouth and tongue. I find that my taste capacity for whisky fades gradually over a tasting session, becoming somewhat duller and generalized as I proceed. Inebriation plays a part, as well as the "burnt" quality of my taste-buds, especially for whiskies with higher alcoholic content (characteristic of small, "unadjusted," "barrel" bottlings).

Professional Single Malt Tasters often do not even taste the liquor itself, but only sniff it for flavor and finish. Perhaps that explains why it takes so little of the stuff to have a distinct experience of it. A full shot, for most people, is quite enough, thank-you. But tolerance, as well, is an individual thing. At 6'4" and 2?? pounds, I probably have a larger tolerance for alcohol than many people. Nevertheless, I see no reason to sample more than about half a shot of high quality Single Malt at any one time.

I briefly belonged to a small Single Malt Tasting group for a while, but we were so spread out that it was difficult to get together, and it spontaneously dissolved. Single Malt enthusiasts can be very devoted. The Malt Maniacs Whisky Collective contains a wealth of information about separate bottlings and labels, with reviews of hundreds. Their very exclusive world-wide membership totals only 33 at present, but those are definitely maniacs! No doubt any one of them could drink me under the table with little difficulty.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


what do you think of Canadian wines from Niagara region (in Ontario)?

Craig said...

I've still got about three fingers of a bottle of Yamazaki 12 in the back of my liquor cabinet. It's what's left of the first bottle of single malt I ever purchased about five or six years ago. If the bottle was made of oak instead of glass, the contents would be Yamazaki 18 by now.

My wife's job involves lots of air travel and time spent awaiting flight connections in airports where duty free shopping abounds. Many of her destinations are routed through Hong Kong, the duty free capitol of the world. She's often gone for anywhere from 2 or 3 days to 2 or 3 weeks, and she greets me on her return with a bottle of single malt, usually one I haven't previously sampled.

I like single malt. Right now I have a dozen different single malts I could sample on a moment's notice, though about eight are in bottles that haven't been opened yet and four of those are the 50 ml variety that only contain about two shots.

I often end each day with a shot of whiskey just before bedtime, but my nightcap is only rarely a single malt, as the malts are generally reserved for occasions when we have guests. My usual nightcap is either a Jim Beam Black or a Seagram's Seven Crown, imports that I can purchase locally at roughly ten dollars a bottle.

The single malt I have open now for entertaining guests is a Balvenie Port Wood 21. It's down to about two fingers at this point, so I'll probably open another bottle and keep the dregs for a special occasion as I did with the Yamazaki 12.

I think the next bottle I'll open will be an Ardberg 10, an Islay, considered the ultimate for peat bog connoisseurs. A twenty or thirty year old Ardberg would cost a small fortune and be far smoother and less peaty than the Ardberg 10. A ten year old Islay runs about $50 a bottle. Aged thirty years the price goes up by a factor of ten.

Craig said...

I should mention also that the Yamazaki 12 is the only liter sized bottle of single malt I've ever owned that comes with a plastic screw cap fitted with neither a cork nor a plastic stopper as would be found on any single malt produced and bottled in Scotland.

J said...

Is Sir F. getting a lil somethin somethin' from Booze bidness? :]

Disclosure, Sir F.

Hard booze be Babylon. A bit of vino or decent brandy at times works---the drink of heroes per Dr SJ, right. But ginwodka/whiskey--Eevil. It's part of the british-zionist plot to take over ...the non-british-zionists. And conquer irishmen for that matter. Those old Temperance hags were not completely mistaken.

Yr fave Ports, Sir F? That's the drink of bum poeticals

Curtis Faville said...

I think I could make a fair bartender, if it ever came to that, but no, no proprietary connections here.

But if I like a certain poison, I'm happy to name names.

Credit due.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.