Yamazaki Distillery is where it all began for whisky in Japan. I’ve written before about Masataka Taketsuru, who went to Scotland to study how whisky was made, then would help Shinjiro Torii create in 1923 the first whisky distillery in Japan: Yamazaki. Located near Kyoto, the distillery sits in a quiet place, surrounded by nature and greenery, and with excellent quality water, required to make whisky. Whilst it was founded in 1923, Yamazaki was released as a single malt only in 1984. Though I couldn’t book a tour (already full) when I went there, back in 2018, I could, however, visit the museum, which is free, and features more than 7.000 bottles in its whisky library. I’ll show you around, and then we’ll review the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve, the 12-year-old and the 18-year-old.
Yamazaki Distillery’s Museum
Last time I went to Japan, back in 2018 (already four years ago, sigh…), I wanted to visit Yamazaki Distillery since it wasn’t far from Kyoto, that trip being mostly around Osaka and Kyoto. Unfortunately, little did I know (I should have checked way earlier!) that tours were booked months in advance, so I couldn’t visit the production side of the distillery.
I could, however, as I said, visit the museum, and it’s a great visit in itself. You’ll see many iconic bottles, old advertisements, you will learn many things about the Yamazaki whiskies and other Suntory ones. There is the magnificent whisky library, featuring more than 7.000 bottles, and the museum shop features an old still as well as a mash tun converted into whisky shelves with whiskies from Beam-Suntory. Finally, there’s a whisky bar when you can try many whiskies at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, back in 2018 already you couldn’t buy in the museum shop a bottle of Yamazaki 12-year-old or 18-year-old, but the Limited Edition was available in small quantities. No idea if it’s still the case.
And if you want to see more than the few pictures I’ve uploaded from my visit, you can even do a virtual 360° tour of the museum here. (It doesn’t seem to work when it’s embedded here, but click on the link just above.)
Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve Review
The Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve is made from a vatting of Bordeaux, Sherry and Mizunara (Japanese oak) casks. It is bottled at 43% ABV, and even though on Whiskybase it says no chill filtration nor colouring, I’m not too sure it’s really bottled without chill filtration nor colouring to be honest, I can find websites saying both. Anyway. Expect to pay £66 a bottle at Whisky Broker in the UK, from €80 to €90 in France, and €95 to €110 and more in Germany and The Netherlands.
Gentle start for the nose, soft and fruity. Apricot, peach, apple and a couple of cherries. Vanilla, honey, hints of caramel and soft spices. It’s really soft and needs some time in the glass to open up. After about 10-15 more minutes in the glass: the Bordeaux wine casks begin to appear, with light notes of red wine, some grape. A bit of citrus and some floral notes.
Adding a few drops of water unlock more citrus and slightly more oak, but it stays very soft.
Soft arrival on the palate as well. Slightly bitter and spicy, less fruity than the nose. That might be the mizunara and the bordeaux casks showing a bit more than the bourbon ones, but unfortunately we’re more on bitter oak than noble mizunara one. Pepper, caramel liquor, cough syrup. The mouthfeel is better than you’d expect at 43%.
After a small reduction, the bitter oak is toned tone and leaves the place to more caramel, grapefruit and hints of vanilla and mint.
Slightly drying, on soft oak, burnt caramel, pepper, with a medium length.
My bottle has been opened for at least a couple years and it was down to about a third to a quarter of its initial content, so there might have been a bit of oxidation over time. I didn’t remember it having “that much” of bitter oak, even though it’s still far from being undrinkable, don’t misunderstand me. Overall, both the nose and palate stay quite soft and a bit subdued. It needs time in the glass for the nose to wake up, and it doesn’t mind a few drops of water even though it’s just 43% ABV. It’s a nice entry to Yamazaki. Now is it worth the price asked for it? I’m not so sure. Too bad it’s not €50 any more.
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Review
The Yamazaki 12-year-old is made from American, Spanish and Japanese oak casks. Like the Distiller’s Reserve, it’s bottled at 43%, and once again, I’m not sure if it’s chill filtered or not, and if the colour is natural or not. What’s more important is that the price is far from the ¥6000 it once cost (that would be €44 / £37 now, but I’m not sure it was its RRP when it was released in 1986), as you’ll need to pay £135 in the UK at TWE, and €150 and more in France or Germany.
Way more expressive nose than the Distiller’s Reserve. Fruity and slightly spicy. Orange, pineapple, apricot and peach, maybe pear as well. It’s also flagrant almost like perfume. Cinnamon, honey, gentle oak, hints of smoke and sandalwood.
Soft arrival, then after a couple seconds a bit spicy. Creamy mouthfeel, but like diluted cream, it still is slightly thin. Fruits shine once again, with orange peel, pineapple, red apple and apricot. Chocolate, cocoa powder and cedar wood. Passion fruits, grapefruit and lemon juice.
Chocolate, grapefruit, a bit of passion fruit and cedar wood, medium length, slightly drying (less than the Distiller’s Reserve)
Very nice nose and palate, it’s really head and shoulders above the Distiller’s Reserve. When it was announced it would not be discontinued, unlike Nikka in 2015 with its age statements, but would be put on strict allocation, its price and its aura skyrocketed. After all, it was becoming rarer, so immediately it was more desirable, and a good number of those bottled were soon to be found on auction. Even back in 2018, in my last trip to Japan, it was nowhere to be found in all the off licenses I visited around Kyoto and Osaka. Even at the distillery itself. At today’s prices, I can’t get myself to buy one. And yes, I know I’ve spent more on less desirable bottles. I’m a man of conflicted decisions, what do you want to say?
Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Review
Like the 12-year-old, Yamazaki 18-year-old is made of Sherry, Bourbon, and Mizunara Casks. And like the 12, unfortunately, it’s still bottled at 43% ABV. The 18 was introduced in 1992, after their initial NAS (1984) and the 12-year-old (1986). Along the years, it won countless awards, including Double-Gold for 6 consecutive years at the San Francisco Spirits Competition (though they now give out Double-Gold to almost anything nowadays). While its RRP is supposed to be about £200 in Japan, you’ll have absolutely no chance to find one for less than 3 times that price or more (most likely 4 times that price). And you will have to pay close to £850 in the UK, and about the same on auction with the auction fee, to get a bottle. Or more than €1000 in Europe. Completely ridiculous.
And once again it’s cranked up in expressiveness from the DR and the 12yo. Sherry casks seem to be in slightly higher quantity versus bourbon ones than on the 12, as the nose is richer. Plum, spices, mizunara incense, rich raisin, dark chocolate, strangely it makes me think of cognac as well. Orange peel, cedar wood and some musty notes.
Oily and slightly drying mouthfeel after a slightly bitter arrival. Incense, spices, some mizunara oak spices and dark chocolate at first. Toffee. Then plum, dark berries, orange peel, roasted malt, raisin, sultanas. Throughout the palate, there are persistent oakiness and spiciness, but at the same time well defined and balanced with the other flavours, underlining these other flavours instead of hiding them nor overpowering them.
Slightly drying again on the finish. All those flavours from the palate seem to stay, the mizunara is here, the plums, the incense, the raisin and sultanas, the oak, the spices, everything. Lingering on and on and on. And on. And one last on. For the road.
This is a seriously good whisky, no doubt about it. But come on, £850+ or €1000+? That’s completely stupid. And it’s not just shops being greedy or flippers at auction. I know a bar that has it on its whisky menu, and they do pay an awful lot to get about ONE bottle a year, take it or leave it. Same with the Hibiki 21 I’ll review “soon”. Ish. So if you have a chance to try this whisky without taking a second mortgage on your house or selling a kidney, do it. But don’t bother looking for a bottle unless you’re really filthy rich. And in that case, I may be a bit jealous.
But don’t take out word for it…
These reviews are just my own opinion on those whiskies, but some of my friends also reviewed some of these. For instance, Matt @thedramble reviewed the Distiller’s Reserve and the 18-year-old. And I encourage you to go watch our guest writer Mac @kanpaiplanet‘s review of the 18-year-old on YouTube, as it is, as always, really well made and full of information.