Japanese Single Malt Whisky? Yes!
There are several words in the world of food and drink that are protected by law, one of which is "Scotch." The term can only be applied to whisky that's been distilled inside the borders of Scotland. There's nothing that says you can't use the same recipe to distill fragrant golden liquor somewhere else in the world, but if you do that you can't call what comes out of the still "Scotch," unless you want to find a cease and desist letter in your mailbox, sent from somewhere near Edinburgh. You could, however, call your product "whisky," or even "single malt whisky," assuming it meets all the criteria of single malt-ness. If your distillery is in Japan, you might even call it The Yamazaki. Suntory does just that.
A Wee Dram o' the Good Stuff
It's a sin to put ice cubes in a good single malt whisky, but some people like to sin once in a while!
History of Japanese Whisky
They've been distilling single malt whisky in Japan with Scottish recipes since the Yamazaki Distillery was founded by a Scottish-trained whisky-maker, all the way back in 1923. Like the Scots, Japanese distillers use a recipe that specifies pure malted barley and the finest local water to make their whisky. Also like the Scots, the Japanese whisky-makers process their ingredients in copper pot stills. The Yamazaki brand was founded by the Japanese spirits giant Suntory, who also bottle Midori liqueur, beer, and have the Pepsi-Cola franchise in Japan. Suntory also, coincidentally I suppose, holds a patent on blue roses. Suntory produces The Yamazaki in two versions, a twelve-year-old and an eighteen-year-old single malt whisky. The twelve is fairly difficult to find in the United States except in large liquor stores, and I've never even seen the eighteen.
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Bill Murray's Choice in "Lost In Translation" - It's Suntory Time!
Although it was long deemed inferior to single malts from "tha auld sod" by whisky snobs, the Japanese product often performs well in blind taste tests and so it has made significant inroads into the world spirits market in the past few years. It probably didn't hurt brand sales that this is the whisky Bill Murray's character sips so urbanely in the 2003 movie "Lost in Translation." Do you remember how he seemed to savor each drop in those commercials? There's good reason.
The pour: The Yamazaki pours up a golden-toned, clear amber; similar in color and clarity to the lighter single malts usually associated with the Highlands, perhaps single malts such as Oban and Glenmorangie. The addition of a few drops of cold still water will cloud the liquid very slightly, while releasing a floral aroma with tantalizing hints of vanilla and almond.
On the tongue: The Yamazaki does not have the pronounced peaty "bite" that's a characteristic of stronger Scotch varieties, including the smokier Islay malts like Lagavullin or Laphroaig. Instead, there is a distinct nutty character with a bare hint of sweetness. Presumably this has to do with the Scots' practice of drying the malted barley over a smoking peat fire, which does not seem to be part of the "whisky-do" of Suntory. Overall, expect a light and clean taste that should appeal to fans of many of the milder single malt varieties.
The finish: Like the initial taste, Yamazaki's finish is understated, with some caramel and a malt note. It sustains those notes nicely, however.
Get Your Own Bottle and Test the Taste
The same bottle is sitting on Murray's table in the video clip. I can almost taste it now!
Comparisons: I dug around in my liquor cabinet to compare a sip of The Yamazaki to tastes of each of several whiskies (it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it). In "burn strength," the alcohol character, this whisky is much smoother than the Islay malts (it was tasted opposite the Black Bottle 10 Islay blend), and is quite similar to a Speyside such as a Springbank 10-year-old. It has a somewhat more distinct character than a Glenfiddich Reserva 12, but it pales alongside the Balvenie Single Barrel 15 hidden from nosy guests. In overall smoothness, it ranks right around the middle of the set.
Overall, The Yamazaki 12 is a good, though somewhat light entrant into the world of single malts, one that you shouldn't overlook just because it's "not really Scotch." It will definitely appeal more to those who prefer their whisky smooth as silk, without the rough edges that the peatier Scotches bring to the glass. Fans of Macallan, Glenfiddich or Glenlivet ought to find it quite drinkable. After all, James Bond liked it; and so did Bill Murray.