Monday, October 22, 2012

Yamazaki 18yr

stats: Japanese single malt whisky, 43%, $135

I find it surprising that I’ve been writing this blog for a year and a half and haven’t yet broached the subject of Japanese whisky – it’s something I’ve had a mild fascination with for several years.

Of the five major whisk(e)y producing nations, Japan’s whisky industry is the youngest and the only one whose history can be traced back to just a few men. One of those men, Masataka Taketsuru, is generally regarded as the father of Japanese whisky.

Born in 1894 to a family which had owned a sake brewery for many generations, Masataka went to work for the spirits producing company Settsu Shuzo, after graduating from the Osaka Technical High School. Just three years into his career there, he was chosen to go to Scotland and learn the secrets of that country’s whisky industry, toward the end of 1918.

He enrolled in chemistry classes at Glasgow University, and by April of 1919 had landed a brief internship at the Longmorn distillery. After marrying a Scottish native in January of 1920, Masataka and his new wife moved to Campbeltown, where he began working at the Hazelburn distillery. By November of 1920, the couple had made their way to Japan.

Whisk(e)y from the Europe and North America made its way to Japan after the 1850’s, when the country started to engage in trade with the West. In the early 1900’s many firms in Japan were trying to emulate these whiskies by producing spirits flavored with herbs, spices and perfumes. Unfortunately, the post World War I economic depression caused Masataka’s employers to continue on that path, and give up their plans to use his newly acquired knowledge to produce proper whisky. He left the company out of frustration in 1922.

But not all was lost. In 1899 Kotobukiya, a wine and liquor importing business was started by Shinjiro Torii. He was fascinated by whisky and aspired to start a whisky distillery in Japan. In 1923, Shinjiro hired Masataka Taketsuru to oversee the building and operation of his Yamazaki distillery, near Osaka.

Authentic whisky was finally being made in Japan in 1924, but Torii and Taketsuru could never agree on a house style. Masasaka remained true to the Scotch Whisky flavor profile he knew from his formative years abroad, which was powerful, robust and smoky. Shinjiro favored a much lighter style of whisky that would have mass appeal to the Japanese consumer. The two men parted ways in 1929.

Masasaka’s wife, Rita, had been teaching English for many years and it was through her connections that he was able to secure investors in his new firm, Nikka, and build his Yoichi distillery in 1934 on the island of Hokkaido. Nikka added a second distillery, Miyagikyo, in 1969.

Shinjiro Torii’s firm, Kotobukiya, became Suntory in the 1960’s. In addition to the Yamazaki distillery, they opened the Hakushu distillery in 1973.

These are the four major whisky distilleries in Japan today, although several smaller, less significant outfits also make Japanese whisky. For many years Yamazaki 12yr and 18yr were the only Japanese whiskies exported to the U.S., but that has started to change in recent years.

Enough of the history lesson, let’s get on to the tasting.

The color is a dark, rich amber, almost mahogany.
The full, complex nose has nutty, floral and malty sweet aromas.
It is full bodied, complex and evolving on the palate. It starts of nutty and slightly floral (just enough to add depth) with a malty richness, before giving way to the dark, cooked fruit flavors typical of sherry cask maturation.
Then it moves into the warming, slightly spicy, long finish with some of the earlier flavors lingering gently.

I really like this whisky, it’s well made and nicely balanced, but it has a sense of intrigue about it. Even though it could pass as Single Malt Scotch in a blind tasting, there’s still a certain uniqueness to it.

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