The Japanese have a knack for taking things made famous by other countries and duplicating them perfectly, often improving them. Think of the sports sedan, outdoor gear, tea, and the diver’s watch. But when I received a bottle of The Yamazaki 12-year old single malt as a birthday gift from some Japanese friends, I was skeptical. Though no expert, I am an avid Scotch drinker; my tastes generally range from the smooth Highland malts to smoky draughts from the Isle of Skye. It seemed like blasphemy to suggest that single malt outside of the hallowed islands of my ancestors could claim to be as good. Considering my preconceptions, this Japanese iconoclast pleasantly surprised me as I think it will most Scotch drinkers, if you can find it.
The Yamazaki comes from the venerable Japanese Suntory distillery (remember Bill Murray in Lost in Translation?), a company more known for its blends, which are best served on the rocks, with water, or in a mixed drink. But little-known in the West until recently, Suntory also distills a line of high-end single malt whiskies and they’re starting to give the Scotches a real challenge, even winning prestigious awards in blind tastings. I suppose it should come as no surprise that good whisky can come from Japan. Much of the climate in the northern part of the country is mountainous and cool, with spring-fed icy rivers cascading to the sea… much like Scotland.
The bottle came in a classic whisky presentation, requiring the reverent opening of a stately box, wrapped in tissue and with a small information booklet brimming with the requisite hyperbolic history and descriptions. Unscrewing the cap (sorry, no cork to pop) the aroma released is fruity with a hint of caramel. No sign of smoke or peat here. The color is light honey and this is reflected in the taste, which is creamy and smooth, not unlike a Macallan 12. I like my Scotch, er… single malt, with one ice cube to cool it down and temper the bite. But The Yamazaki is excellent “neat” (straight) as well; so smooth that it encourages a second glass.
I suspect this review will inspire a long train of comments from Scotch fanatics who want to see me tarred and feathered for such heresy. But I ask that you withhold judgment until you try The Yamazaki yourself. It’s not readily available yet in the West but just wait. Suntory is starting a marketing push of their single malts in the coming year and there are a few online sources for it. Just remember, you saw it here first. Kanpai!