This is part four of our ongoing series on Japanese whisky. To get started, see parts one, two and three.
“Pouring the hot water into whisky,
The fragrance suddenly rises
In the light of a cold white morning.”
Lines from a tanka poem by Japanese naturalist Bokusui Wakayama (1885-1928), reflecting on his oyuwari–a drink akin to a hot toddy–as he enjoyed it one cold winter morning. It struck me, not for any particular deftness of language (the poem above is a literal English translation) or enlightened nature, but because of the way he experiences whisky. That moment he shares with his dram of whisky, whether to briefly quell a pounding headache or to hush the low hum of a more profound loneliness, was at once starkly mundane and lyrically elevated, the mark of a man who savored every drop of his short life. In Wakayama’s eyes, his simple encounter with that particular glass of whisky was worthy of recording for posterity.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that today’s spirit should be taken as a toddy, though if you’re buying, I drink it how you like it. But something about this small celebration of the ritual and the experience, Wakayama’s reverence for the ordinary, resonated with me.
Meet Yamazaki 18. It’s a middle child. You can go younger with the bright, sultry and reasonably priced Yamazaki 12 Year, or you can up the ante for a bottle of the venerable 25 Year. The latter spends its entire maturation in sherry casks and is nearly an unattainable holy grail of Japanese whisky. You’d think Yamazaki 18 might have a complex, sitting in the middle of two such spirits. But as the most highly-decorated Japanese whisky, it seems to be getting along just fine. And while it’s a given, these days, that Suntory’s whiskies make great showings at spirit competitions, it’s the incredible balance that makes this one stand a head above the rest.
“Balance” is the word I continually return to as I work my way through this particular bottle. The graceful spirit nimbly presses against so many of my favorite qualities. A fiery nose gives way to coconut and demerara, reminiscent of a particular Guatemalan rum, before moving to Texas pralines and Oloroso sherry. On the palate, tropical notes slip from pineapple to melon, green fruit becomes dark berries, a burst of citrus oil heats and swells with simultaneous notes of vanilla, nutmeg and dark earth. All that eventually settles into an oaky finish that leaves a lasting memory of butterscotch. It’s exceptionally satisfying.
I hesitate to compare Japanese whisky to Scotch whisky, but in this I’m consistently reminded of Aberlour A’bunadh, a cask strength tour de force. I’m reminded in the same way I recognize an old lover’s smile in a passing stranger. The two are obviously unique and without correlation, but each contains a thread of something to make it all feel like one continuous narrative. And as someone with a palate naturally drawn to spirits in the 50-60% range (like Aberlour A’bunadh), the 43% ABV Yamazaki 18 is all the more admirable for drawing comparisons to a more potentially nuanced and volatile dram.
Yes, at an MSRP of $135, and generally more in the few liquor stores or online retailers which currently have a bottle in stock, it’s one to aspire to. But when you find a bottle, buy it, sip it and enjoy it with a comfortable, appreciative silence. You’ll then understand why I can’t help but wax poetic. And you’ll understand what was so terribly important about Wakayama’s whisky that one, cold morning.
– 43% ABV
CE Rating: ★★★★★