Nihon Dreamin’: Suntory Yamazaki 12y

I’d been wanting to review Suntory’s 12 year old Yamazaki expression for a while but never got around to it. Today, Josh over at The Coopered Tot reviewed Yamazaki 12 and reminded me of how much I love this one.

Most Americans seem to be unaware of Japanese whisky production (usually the follow-up question is “is it any good?“, as if it would be some sort of horribly-assembled okonomiyaki with a huge slather of mayonnaise) which is a shame. We’re starting to see more whiskies from Japan and they’re an excellent slightly different take on Scotch-style whisky. I honestly think Yamazaki 12 is one of the best value propositions among the imports – nicely developed flavor at a reasonable price.

Yamazaki is a special one for me. I’d been aware of it notionally for a while, but I’d never had it until I was – where else? – Japan. We were staying in Shinjuku, not far from Shinjuku station and looking at the absolutely stunning Mode Gakuen Coccoon Tower.

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (Yes, it's real)

Like a lot of US to Japan travelers, I found myself able to wake up around 4 AM, but staying up late was a real trick. We explored the various locales of Tokyo, starting early. Our fractured and basic Pimsleur-taught Japanese helped greatly and over the course of the week we got more confident exploring. However, I found myself absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, and usually dinner was only a short while before finally crashing for the evening.

One night, my wife convinced me to go to the skybar in our hotel at Keio Plaza. I grumbled about how tired I was but I conceded. We hurtled up to the 45th floor, entered Polestar, and grabbed a seat by the window. I ordered a Yamazaki 12 and took in the view of Shinjuku. Right in front of me was the Cocoon tower. I still remember taking in the view, the detached quietness that comes with being high off the ground, and the beauty of Tokyo at night. It’s one of those memories I can pull back with perfect clarity years later.

The moral of this story? Listen to your wife and hit the skybar after dark. You won’t regret it and you’ll never forget it.

Another major memory for me was a year ago when I left my job at the time. Several of my friends and I went to Nihon in San Francisco, a decent-to-good Japanese joint with a pretty ridiculous whisky selection. Since it was my sending-off and we had a large group, we decided to order a bottle of Yamazaki 12y for the table. This outing was memorable, filled with laughs and stories and tinged with that bittersweet feeling that comes with moving on. It was at that outing that I really had a strong impression of the taste of Yamazaki left on me and it became a favorite.

Yamazaki, as I said, is a Japanese whisky that owes a huge debt to the whiskies of Scotland in terms of taste and execution. The nose has a light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness, which is reminiscent of some older Scotch whiskies I’ve had. There were some hints of pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus influence. There’s also considerable but controlled wood influence, at a level of intensity not common in 12 year old whiskies.

The mouthfeel is slightly oily and has an immediate heat on the palate – it’s much like a strong dose of white pepper. There’s abundant maltiness, with the perceptible vanilla influence and a gentler, slightly spicy wood influence. The finish continues with sweetness and maltiness, and the wood seems bit drier and dustier. There’s more light vanilla and a mouth-feel not unlike Sichuan pepper. There’s also a slight vegetal note, like celery root.

Yamazaki is not one of the most showstopping, dramatic whiskies out there. It’s pleasingly sweet but with some spice to go along with it. It’s one I like to have on hand both for variety and for its easy introduction to Japanese whiskies.

Beyond that, it’s capable of taking me back to some special times and places. And it’s not a bad whisky to have mizuwari style sometimes.

Thanks for the reminder to hit memory lane, Josh.

At a glance:

Suntory Yamazaki 12y (43% ABV)
Nose: 
Light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness. Hints of some pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus. Considerable but even-tempered wood influence for a 12y whisky. 
Palate: 
Slightly oily mouthfeel with immediate heat – a good dose of white pepper. Maltiness in abundance, the vanilla influence perceptible and some gentle but slightly spicy wood.
Finish: 
Sweetness and some maltiness; a little bit of a dusty wood character. More light vanilla influence and some light hints of sichuan pepper. A vague, slightly vegetal note – a touch of celery root. 
Comment: 
A nice, even-tempered, gentle malt. Worth having around any time.
Rating: B

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