Whiskey Review: The Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt Japanese Whiskey

I used to work with a couple of guys who loved Japanese whiskey, particularly from Suntory. They would buy a bottle whenever they found one, and frequently insisted that I try The Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt. Naturally, I started keeping an eye out for the distinct box, eagerly anticipating the day I would get to taste what all the fuss was about. And lucky me: today is that day.


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History

As a country, Japan has a long history of isolationism. Wary of outside influence — including foreign traders — there are numerous examples of governing leaders enacting policies (even creating entire islands) to minimize and control this growing influence over the years. And they were pretty successful… that is, until Commodore Perry arrived with his American battleships in 1853 and forced the country to be more open to outside traders (an action which would later coin the term “gunboat diplomacy”).

Throughout the decades that followed, foreign goods and especially foreign spirits started appearing on Japanese shelves, making quite a bit of money for the Japanese importers and distributors in the process. One such business named Kotobukiya was run by Shinjiro Torii, who had founded his wine importation business in Osaka, Japan in 1899. The business was extremely successful with its importation operations, but Torii wanted to do more than just import whiskey from other countries — he wanted to make Japanese whiskey specifically designed for the Japanese people.

Against the wishes of the other executives in the company, he started working with a man named Masataka Taketsuru to develop this new kind of whiskey. Taketsuru had spent a great deal of time in the 1920’s traveling to Scotland and learning from the masters about the process of whiskey distilling. He brought that knowledge back with him and applied it as master distiller when Torii founded the Yamazaki distillery on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1924, using some of the same water sources that had attracted famous traditional tea houses to the area centuries earlier. And while the production process would be similar to the Scottish style, the Japanese influence of soy sauce brewing and shochu distilling can still be seen in the end result. After his contract expired, Taketsuru would leave to found his own distillery that would eventually become the Nikka brand we know today.

Production was temporarily halted during World War II but re-started in 1946 and became a popular brand in Japan. The company expanded into brewing beer in 1963, and re-named itself Suntory after the brand name of whiskey it had been producing. It briefly entertained the idea of being purchased by the Kirin Brewing Company (the same company that owns Four Roses) before terminating those negotiations.

Over the years, the company would continue to diversify its portfolio, buying the popular Orangina beverage brand in 2009. In 2014, the company purchased the American spirits giant Jim Beam, creating the third largest spirits producing company in the world and renaming itself Beam Suntory.

Product

Japanese whiskey is typically a blend of multiple different varieties of spirits produced at different distilleries all owned by the same company. This allows for specialization in the distilleries for their specific flavor and precise blending by the manufacturers to get the exact flavor profile they wanted every time. For most spirits from this manufacturer, that means starting out life as a combination of malt whiskey and grain based whiskey from the Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Chita distilleries that is blended together and aged for an undisclosed period of time.

The Yamazaki once again breaks with tradition, just like its headstrong founder. It’s a single malt whiskey, meaning that is must be produced at a single distillery using a single variety of malted grain. It was distilled at the first and oldest malt distillery in Japan — and in order to call it Japanese whiskey, the entire process takes place within the country and is proofed down only using water from Japan.  

The only part of this whiskey that does not have to come from Japan is the barrel. In this case, the whiskey is aged in barrels made of American oak, Spanish oak, and Japanese Mizunara oak. Some varieties are aged for 18 or 25 years, but this particular bottle was blended after 12 years in a barrel. 

Packaging

Like many higher-end Scotch whiskies, this bottle comes packaged in an ornate box. In this particular case, it’s jet black with the name of the whiskey and distillery in English in smaller white text at the top, and “Yamazaki” in kanji much larger on bottom two-thirds of the box in gilded lettering.

Opening the box, you find a clear glass bottle adorned with yellowed labels and cap.  The information on the box is repeated on the bottle, as is the kanji for “Yamazaki”.  Rather than the bright foil gold used on the box, this is a dull uninspired yellow. 

The bottle itself is relatively common. It’s a round bottle with a slow curving shoulder that tapers to a medium length neck.

Overall, the bottle is kind of drab and boring. The label is so large, and the neck wrapper goes down so far, I thought at first it was a brown glass bottle – not realizing that what I was actually seeing was some of the whiskey. The fact that you find this bland of a bottle in a more ornate box feels like putting lipstick on a pig.


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Neat

Woah – the aroma coming off of this whiskey will certainly wake up your nose. The first thing I noticed can be best described as the aroma of grain alcohol… and not in a good way. After letting my nose settle from that abrupt surprise, I did start to get the aroma of fresh baked goods. It reminds me a little of a the inside of a bagel shop, but with the fresh smell of garlic too. Which would great if you were looking for a garlic bagel and coffee… but this is a whiskey. So we’re off to a surprising start.

I was a little concerned about this first sip, but I was pleasantly surprised. This tastes very good, and not like a liquified garlic bagel (as I had been anticipating from the aroma). It reminds me of a Scotch in that there is not much sweetness to it, but there are also some different, complex flavors at play.

Initially, I picked up a lot of oak with a very strong buttery quality. There are notes of coconut, ginger, cinnamon, and bitter vanilla — like you just took a sip of vanilla extract — and a long, warm finish to this whiskey that lingers on your tongue with just a hint of ginger.

Overall, this is pretty good. I was really thrown off by the initial aromas, but everything eventually came together. 

On Ice

Normally, we expect ice to mellow out the rougher parts of a whiskey. This can be especially helpful when drinking a less expensive whiskey or one that is on the rough side. And every so often, even with a nicer whiskey, I think a little ice might do a lot of good (in this case, especially to tone down the vampire-repellent-aka-garlic qualities of the aroma).

I was wrong. 

The ice seemed to have taken everything out of the flavor of the whiskey and not just the garlic aroma, sadly. It’s just bland. Most of the more unique flavors have disappeared and left behind bland, oaky liquid. It’s smooth to drink which is a plus, I guess… but there is just little complexity to it. 

I would have expected a whiskey that spent 12 years in a barrel to stand up to a measly bit of ice a little better. 

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

Is okay-ish a word?  I hope so, because that is how to describe this old fashioned… it’s okay-ish. There aren’t a lot of flavors from the whiskey, but it’s still a decent old fashioned. It just tastes like a generic whiskey with some bitters, sugar, and orange. 

What’s the problem with an acceptable, generic old fashioned? For me, it’s that this a $100 bottle of whiskey. If I use it in a cocktail, I don’t want it to just be okay-ish. It should be great. I should know that I am drinking a good whiskey in a cocktail and feel great about my choice. 

In this case, I feel that you could spin the wheel of bourbon and get a better cocktail with just about any random bottle from your shelf. 

Fizz (Mule)

The dreaded Kentucky Mule. One of my least favorite cocktails, and this time with a whiskey that has been underwhelming after sipping it neat. 

So of course it comes out of left field, resulting in a delicious cocktail.

The strong oak flavors add a lot to this cocktail, doing a great job of taming the bright effervescence of the ginger beer. The whiskey surprisingly does not shrink to the background of the flavor profile, it stands up tall like a proud oak tree. It adds a lot of great balance to the overall drink.

In this case, it turns out having one primary flavor on the rocks is a benefit.


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Overall Rating

I do not get the hype surrounding this whiskey. I will have to follow up with my friends to find out what exactly they like about this, because I just don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good neat sipper. However, it’s oak flavor is bold and in your face, while the other flavors can’t even stand up to a little ice. 

There is also the bigger problem of how it tastes in a cocktail. After writing as many of these reviews as I have, I have a general issue using a higher end bottle of whiskey for making cocktails… and this bottle needs a warning label to never use it in a mixed drink.

This will most likely be one of those bottles that sits on my shelf and gathers dust until an inquisitive guest comes over and wants to try it. But you better believe when we dust it off, we will be sipping it neat.

Yamazaki 12 Years Old
Produced By: Yamazaki
Owned By: Beam Suntory
Production Location: Japan
Classification: Single Malt Whiskey
Aging: 12 Years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $139.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 2/5
Like most tweens, this 12-year old whiskey from Japan’s first and oldest distillery is still trying to find its way in life.


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