This is the bottle that really needs no introduction but we’ll do one anyway. The Yamazaki 12 certainly has a reputation that precedes it – almost synonymous with the category that is Japanese whisky (allow me to dispense with the “e”, it’s just far easier to spell it this way).
The Yamazaki 12 first made its appearance in 1984 and soon became Suntory’s flagship expression, its likeliness – the light cream yellow label, the Japanese calligraphy characters and the amber hue of the malt, have since become instantly recognisable. Stop by any Japanese Izakaya and you’re sure to see bottles of the Yamazaki 12 adorning the walls. It almost has the ability to verify the authenticity of a place looking to dabble into anything Japanese. It’s just not complete without a bottle of Yamazaki 12.
Is it even an authentic Japanese Izakaya if there isn't a Yamazaki blended into the wall decor? (Image Source: Tokyo Calling)
There was for a period of time – about 3 years, where the Yamazaki 12 was discontinued, fuelling secondary prices to rocket up, but has since been reinstated, this time with a new packaging.
As a spirits and beverage giant, Suntory has a very wide breadth of resources to play with. The Yamazaki distillery itself is massive, which has led to an encyclopedia of styles that the Yamazaki has been expressed in. Be it different casks, ranging from Sherry to Puncheon, or even Spanish Oak, to the variety of ages it has been showcased in, and then the blends emanating from the massive permutations of these styles.
Region: Osaka Prefecture, Japan
Distributor: Original Bottling (OB)
Classification: Malt Whisky
Style: Single Malt
Cask: American Oak, ex-Bourbon, Mizunara, ex-Oloroso
Age: 12 Year Old
Behind the Label
On the left, Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory, and on the right, Masataka Taketsuru, who would later start Nikka. The two Fathers of Japanese whisky could not have diverged further, but both shared their origins at the Yamazaki Distillery. (Image Source: Dekanta)
Suntory itself made its first foray into whiskies with the establishment of the Yamazaki Distillery in 1924 (you can read much more about it here). The site of the distillery was of huge importance, with Shinjiro Torii, the founder, and his trusty lieutenant Masataka Taketsuru (who later left to start Nikka Whisky), having spent significant time looking for the perfect location.
Taketsuru had originally selected a location in Hokkaido (where Yoichi Distillery is now located) which he believed closely resembled the climate of the Scottish Highlands, Torii instead settled on Osaka, near the renowned Minase springs. Ths springs were of legendary status as it was favoured by Japan’s tea ceremony masters and sake makers for its pure, soft waters.
While Masataka was heavily influenced by his training in Scotland and wanted the distillery to be in Hokkaido, Torii had wanted to move away from the Scottish style and be uniquely Japanese in his whiskymaking. (Image Source: Suntory)
Torii had also envisioned a uniquely Japanese approach where he would make whisky in a climate completely different to that of Scotland. He felt that this was a more authentic Japanese landscape and would better embody the heart and soul of the Japanese people.
Suntory eventually produced their first whisky, called the White Label, which was not such a great hit, because it tasted like Scotch. Ironic isn’t it? But the Japanese palate had at the time favoured softer, more delicate textures, coupled with more floral flavors. And Scotch at the time was known more for a more peaty, medicinal style (though that is not the case these days) and a rougher texture.
The first Suntory whisky, the White Label, was a commercial flop because it tasted too much like Scotch. (Image Source: Oak and Barley)
We cover this difference in palate more in our feature here.
Y’know how sometimes you put a lot of effort into something but then someone overrides your work? Grating isn’t it? Well, that’s how Taketsuru felt.
First, Torii chose his own site, Yamanashi (in Osaka) over Hokkaido, and subsequently was unwilling to stick with the unpopular White Label. Taketsuru was not having it, and eventually left to start Yoichi Distillery under the Nikka brand.
We know this feeling far too well... (Image Source: The Office)
This paved the way for Suntory to come back at it with a new bottling, the Kakubin (which you can still find today), designed for Highball cocktails. However, as whisky became increasingly popular in Japan, there was a growing interest in single malts. Thus in 1984, Yamazaki was born under the watch of Torii’s son, Keizo Saji.
The Yamazaki 12 remains at the heart of Yamazaki and is basically you gateway drug into the world of Japanese whisky. It is a blend of Yamazaki malt matured in ex-Bourbon cask, American oak, as well as some fragments of ex-Oloroso and Mizunara oak cask – this is certainly punching way above its weight, it is no wonder supply shortages have been regular and prices have steadily increased.
The holy trinity starts with the Yamazaki 12, the ultimate gateway drug. (Image Source: Gear Patrol)
Colour. Maple syrup or manuka honey gold.
On the nose. Just as it is on the eyes, you get sweet honey – dollops of it. Quickly you find the honey is merely just the coating on what is essentially a massive fruit orchard. Right in the forefront you immediately find wonderfully fruity scents of red apples, honeydews, apricots, peaches – really, really fruity stuff.
(Image Source: Ful-filled)
The fruitiness is so fragrant that it almost comes off as perfumery, or perhaps what would be the equivalent of nosing a freshly blossomed flower. Plumerias, jasmines, frangipanis come to mind. The aromatics are really on point.
Light sweet florals compliment the honey drizzled fruits that dominate the nose.
On subsequent nosing, other more delicate notes appear, you get a light dusting of cinnamon. There is a light crispness of pears and white grapes (y’know that crunchiness) followed by a slight tartness.
Alongside that is just a very gentle waft of smoke, but a very sweet, fragrant one, which is most likely the sandalwood notes from the Mizunara oak talking. It’s gentle, polished agarwood with just a slight singe – the leftover plumes when you blow out some incense sticks.
Light wisps of smoke add a touch of bitterness to the otherwise fragrant perfumery.
And just to round it off there’s a slight bitterness of cocoa powder, which again I think comes from the Mizunara, so the influence here is certainly noticeable. It’s very light and approachable, very delicate and bright, and for the most part a real fruit basket.
The palate. A lot lighter weight than you’d imagine, it’s thinner than most whiskies so less chewy in the mouth. Very fruity still, but more on the tropical fruit side of things because of the citrus notes that come through. Oranges, grapefruit, yellow kiwis, and maybe some apple or pear fruit jam. The sweet fruity notes have more depth here in contrast to on the nose, where they were a lot brighter.
Stewed fruit on pastry adds more depth to the palate. (Image Source: Food Network)
It continues to be fragrant, both with the sweet smokiness as well as the florals. Vanilla, caramel, and pastries form the body. It is still very honeyed and kind of feels like adult (spiked?) jasmine green tea.
Just a little drizzle of alcohol and you're good to go. Now high tea is fun for everybody. (Image Source: Lakota Coffee)
One thing that really stands out here is that there is really a good balance with these flavors (a testament to Suntory’s prowess in blending), because you are mixing 3 or 4 different Yamazaki styles but yet there really is no sharp edges to be found. It is very rounded and shall I say harmonious? If anything, there is obviously a clear bias towards the sweet, fruity, florals which almost makes it feel like a dessert spirit.
The finish is very delicate but very long and warming as well. The smokiness continues to linger even as the palate recedes. But all throughout you still get very fragrant touches of oriental spice, with little notes of clove, cardamom, black pepper, star anise, and light bits of fresh pine shavings.
A spice market all up in here. (Image Source: Bois de Jasmin)
It’s heartening that the fruits remain as well, but more on the drying side now, with some tannins showing – reminiscent of Turkish apple tea. Dried tropical fruit slices such as oranges and kiwis round the finish off.
A drink you'll find commonly in Turkish bazaars, tea made from dried apples, lemon zest and cinnamon. (Image Source: Turkey Tourism)
A truly evocative whisky that is very much part of the full whisky experience. It is not only the cornerstone of Japanese whisky, but is certainly one you must try to complete your understand of whisky in full.
Although it now enjoys its reputation as almost a nomenclature in the whisky world and maybe even Japanese culture, it has really stood the test of time and has consistently proved itself a wonderfully complete whisky. Whether you’re a novice or an expert, you’re not ever going to say no to a Yamazaki 12.
Understandably prices have simply rocketed, but so has the entire category. If you’re going to overpay, at least it might as well be a damn good whisky.
It is a masterclass in eloquence, wonderfully well-balanced, easy to drink, accessible to the palate and one that is steeped in history. Personally, I love whiskies that are floral and fruity and lighter, so this was a real treat for me. It really is like drinking jasmine green tea for adults.
The smokiness is very characteristic for Japanese whiskies as it originates from the use of Mizunara rather than peat, so it’s definitely unusual for those more accustomed to Scotch and might take some time getting used to, it is much closer to that of a Buddhist temple.
For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
Frankly, the only criticism I have heard about it since I first tried it years ago, is to do with the price. Apart from that, critics are merely thrifty fans in disguise.
Rating: This is the gateway to a lifetime of fascination with Japanese whiskies, it get's a major three whirlwinds cos that's how you gonna be once you hit one of these 🌪 🌪 🌪 .