A few days ago, growing tired of my work, I set off clicking across the internet. I don’t remember what exactly happened on this convoluted path, but I ended up researching Japanese whisky. (The path probably went something like this.) Well, after a refresher of what I knew as well as some new found information, I had firmly resolved to head out and buy a bottle of the stuff for myself and left early to do just that. I try not to make random impulse purchases like this very often, but near the start of each academic quarter that stipend money just burns a hole in my pocket. Plus, since I run a semi-regular cocktail party with friends, I can chalk this up to research.
Hopefully you’ve already read my Whisky 101 post, but if not, here’s the skinny. Japanese whisky is made in the Scotch style (distilled from malted barley mash and aged in used bourbon or sherry oak barrels for about a decade or more), but since it ain’t made in Scotland, it can’t legally be called Scotch. Some Scotch lovers poo-poo Japanese whisky since it seems preposterous to them that anything made outside their beloved isles could even pretend to stand up. But it turns out that several parts of Japan are closer to Scotland than you’d think. The climate can be rather similar and there are peat bogs, misty mountain highlands, salt-water spraying coasts and many of the other geographic features often thought to lead to the classic Scotch characteristics.
So, I thought I’d see how a Japanese single malt stacks up. I picked up Yamazaki Single Malt 12 year which is produced by Suntory (the makers of Midori, the honeydew melon liqueur). The Yamazaki distillery is the oldest and largest distillery in Japan and their single malt is available in a 12 year ($37) and an 18 year ($85). Being the biggest single malt produced in Japan means that it is the easiest to acquire; I was unable to find any other brands in the store and a quick check online of Chicago’s big names (Binny’s and Sam’s) reveals that Yamazaki is the only Japanese whisky available here at the moment.
So before I get to my reaction, here’s a disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know how to properly taste whisky. I don’t know what a good single malt Scotch tastes like. I don’t have the fancy single malt glasses that help trap and direct aromas. Basically, what I’m about to tell you should be believed at your own risk.
If you are still reading, though, I guess you really do want to hear what I thought. I thought it was very good. I can’t say how it stacks up versus other single malts, but I certainly am glad I picked it up and I think I’m going to enjoy the bottle thoroughly.
Now I’m not going to grade this Pitchfork-style on a 1-10 scale with decimal resolution, but I’ll present my tasting notes and reactions. I tasted at full strength, slight diluted with water and then further diluted. (Full dilution was probably around 1:1 whisky to water.)
Appearence: The color was darker than straw, but more pale than gold. Surprisingly, it did not seem very viscous and only slightly coated the glass when swirled. Upon diluting, there was almost no coating of the glass at all.
Aroma: At full strength, it was prickly with a strong/sharp alcohol smell that is slightly off-putting. Diluted slightly, the strong alcohol presence remained, but diluted still further it released buttery aromas.
Mouthfeel: At full strength, it was slightly warming, but not overly so and there was no strong burn which surprised me considering the strong aromas. Diluted slightly, it seemed to become significantly more viscous and decidedly creamy and smooth. Diluting further, the feel weakened and became more watery.
Taste: At full strength, the initial tastes were of honey and cream which faded slowly. At slight dilution, the creaminess increased fading to a very pleasing buttery taste and then a drier, leathery taste. At further dilution the creaminess was weaker and the taste faded to dried fruit. This was the first notice of any fruity flavors.
Overall, this is a very nice whisky that I can see myself enjoying from time to time at a slow sip. I think that the sweet spot was around slight dilution, maybe 2-2.5 parts whisky to 1 part water. There the mouthfeel actually peaked and the most pleasing flavors came out. I was most surprised by how strong the alcohol aroma was, but how lacking the alcohol taste was (a good thing).
Now if you read all the way through this post, you should get some reward. I’m willing to share my whisky if you’re willing to share your two cents. (Your thoughts, that is. I don’t want your pennies.) I can only extend this to friends in Chicago, but if you haven’t come to visit me in awhile, here’s some incentive. (Wait a minute! If all it takes to get you here is the promise of a $2 shot of whisky, why haven’t you visited yet?)