Type & Region: Japanese Whiskey, Japan
Composition: 100% malted barley
Aged: 18 years
Price: $250 MSRP, more like $550-900 in reality
From the back of the bottle:
“Spiritual and deep, made at Yamazaki Distillery, the soulplace of Japanese whisky, its signature multi-layered taste is highly praised by whisky connoisseurs all over the world. Today, Suntory Single Malt Whisky Yamazaki® Whisky is not only the No.1 single malt whisky in Japan, but is enjoyed in more than 35 countries.”
Yamazaki 18 Year Japanese Whiskey is one of the older Japanese whiskeys you can buy today, if you can even find one in real life. I hate to use the term, but it’s a unicorn now when the popularity boom has made all age-stated Japanese Whiskeys (the ones 100% distilled and aged in Japan) fly off the shelves and/or get marked up 2-10x. It’s bad in the US, and even more severe in Japan.
If you know anything about Japanese Whiskey, you’ve probably heard of Yamazaki, the widely-known distillery owned by Suntory-Beam, who also owns Hibiki and Hakushu (while you’re at it, check out my Hakushu 12 Year review). Yamazaki is best known for their sherry maturation and lack of smoke, although they do dabble with other types of maturations and finishes (limited releases) that most of us are too poor to buy, let alone find.
Since I’ve harped on how Yamazaki 18 is expensive and difficult to find, I should mention how I got my hands on some without raiding my bank account. I happened to find a store in Japan that was selling 30mL samples poured from the actual bottle into sample bottles (limit 1 per person), and took advantage to get 60mL (thanks for my girlfriend for being there).
So for $32, I got the to-go sample, a useful glass bottle, and still have money in my bank account for good measure. I’m very excited to review this, so let’s not wait any longer and begin this Yamazaki 18 Year review.
As an FYI, I bought and use these Glencairn glasses from Amazon for my reviews and comparisons (because they’re the best): Glencairn Crystal Whiskey Glass, Set of 6, Clear, 6 Pack. Full transparency, this is an affiliate link, so I may earn a commission if you buy this or something else from Amazon.
Whoa, that first sniff is a wall of dark fruitiness that’s date, prune, and blueberry. Then comes the dark honey, this floral and slightly grassy note (probably from the barley), pear, peach, and a spritz of fresh orange. Yamazaki 18 Year has very captivating darkness, yet still maintains a brighter and lighter side to it that makes it so interesting and expressive, and with absolutely no heat to get in the way.
I could sit here all day and smell it. At the same time, I also do notice a lack of heft and viscosity to some degree because of the 43% ABV. I absolutely despise that ABV.
Swirling coaxes out a brighter personality with cherry, grapefruit, pear, and honey up front followed some lightly toasted grains, vanilla, fennel, orange, mint, and just a slight oak char. The swirling seems to push the darker and heavier date and prune to the back, but it re-emerges over time as the whiskey settles (not a bad thing, just an observation).
It’s dark, fruity, bright, vibrant, refreshing, and absolutely captivating all at once. Yamazaki 18 Year smells incredible, spanning so many different scents, constantly shifting, and making me want more with every subsequent smell.
Yamazaki 18 comes with a nice burst of dark honey, malty grain, dates, berries, orange, dry oak, dark chocolate, cinnamon, grape skins, creamy vanilla, and grapefruit that reinforce that it was primarily matured in sherry casks (maybe only sherry casks?).
It has the creaminess I expect from a single malt whiskey, but with a bit of dry roastiness that is not as common even in 18 year old Single Malt Scotch. There’s absolutely an interesting and expansive range of flavors, but they again lack the heft and roundness of a higher ABV whiskey. Yes, the ABV is intentional, but it’s really not my preference.
“Chewing” gives me dark honey, slightly toasted oak, dark chocolate, roasted prune, date, dried cherry, creamy vanilla, dried orange peel, grape skins, slightly toasted cracker, mint, and kiwi. There really is a superb range of sugars, dark fruit, tropical fruit, grain, oak, and spice that show off the age, sherry influence, and overall blending; the problem is just that…the ABV has me wanting so much more. The flavors themselves go two steps forward, but the ABV takes it back one.
Honey, date, blueberry, and orange sweetness mix with some of the roasted oak, grape skins, and mint in the aftertaste. It’s very similar to the flavors themselves, and it just keeps going. The date, grape skins, orange, and mint really linger the longest. The minty sensation is so noticeable that it kind of makes me wonder if I just brushed my teeth (but not at all in a bad way).
Chewing leaves honey, prune, grape + skin, kiwi, mint, slightly roasted oak, dark chocolate, and orange. The aftertaste again is very refreshing and pleasant, with the mint lingering the longest. This will leave you wanting more and more, then make you sadly re-realize that you can’t get more of it.
Yamazaki 18 Year leaves me terribly conflicted and is yet another byproduct of outrageous demand, too much money, and not enough whiskey. Don’t get me wrong, Yamazaki 18 is an amazing single malt whiskey in its own right, beautifully blending dark and bright fruits, sweetness, oak, floralness, and refreshing mint into a fragrant, delicious, and expansive package that should be savored till the end. It truly is that excellent and I would absolutely drink it all the time if I could. The ABV just leaves me sad about what it could have been, because the scents are mesmerizing but the flavors suffer from it.
Yada yada yada yes people may want the lower ABV, maybe it’s “best” at that ABV, maybe I’m just too used to higher ABV whiskey, and/ or maybe I’m a snob…whatever. Maybe all of those things are true, but it’s crystal clear to me from actually drinking this whiskey that the ABV does a massive disservice to this outstanding whiskey, power washing away so much of the richness that’s in there.
It’s like preparing an amazing A5 Wagyu steak (had it it in Kobe and it’s delicious by the way) and lathering it in ketchup, or going to Jiro’s restaurant (3 Michelin Stars) and drowning every piece of sushi in soy sauce. Japanese whiskey makers have a weird fixation with 43% ABV.
Before I get off my high horse, let me finish my last thought. Is this a great $500-600 whiskey? Not even close. Is it a $900 whiskey (based on prices in Japan at this moment)? Absolutely hell no. Honestly, it’s not even a great $300 (MSRP) whiskey. At this point, Yamazaki 18 is more of a status symbol than whiskey you actually drink. Then again, any whiskey this expensive has exceeded rational behavior.
There definitely are $100-200 Single Malt Scotches out there that probably offer a similar, but better experience, especially in Japan where there’s an epic selection of Scotch for the buying. I don’t know exactly what those “better than Yamazaki 18” Scotches are, but my best guess is that a 15-20 year old sherry cask matured Scotch (maybe Ben Nevis) is a good place to start to get similar dark fruit character. Rant over, thanks for reading.