Japanese whisky intrinsically feels more elite. It comes from far away and tends to be pricy, before it even gets to these shores. Japanese whisky also possesses a singular level of refinement, elevating the juice, and the price, to rare heights. And while Japanese whisky is inherently tied to Scotch whisky traditions, the terroir, water, grains, yeast, and process (fermenting, distilling, and aging) are purely Japanese.
The best way to experience the beauty of Japanese whisky? Try some of the good stuff, of course.
Luckily, there’s a new set of Japanese whiskies from Suntory that allows you to sample four incredible bottles from Japan’s oldest (commercial) whisky stills at the Yamazaki Distillery. The 2022 Limited Edition Yamazaki Tsukuriwake Selection includes four bottles of the really good stuff, including a bottle of Yamazaki Puncheon, Yamazaki Peated Malt, Yamazaki Spanish Oak, and the fleeting Yamazaki Mizunara.
Naturally, you’ll pay a premium for the experience, as each bottle in the set costs $450, plus $620 to add the Mizunara bottle. And that still might be a steal, considering it totals up to $1,970, for a set of whiskies that easily cost three to five times that much each on the secondary market. What sets this set of whiskies apart is that it’s actually available in the United States this year (along with only 11 other countries worldwide).
While whiskies at this price are largely collectible bottles that end up in vaults for trades, flips, and profits, these whiskies are also incredibly drinkable. Which is why I’m cracking open each bottle and telling you what’s inside. Let’s dive in!
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Average Price: $3,930
This is classic Yamazaki whisky. The juice is made from malt whisky that is aged in large puncheon barrels (480 liters, compared to around 200 liters for a standard barrel). The barrels were made by Suntory from American oak specifically to age this whisky.
There’s a softness on the nose that leads toward floral honey with dried apple chips, pear skins, acacia bark, and a smidge of vanilla beans dipped in toffee with this slight hint of sour butter under it all. The palate is lush and leans into the toffee with a flake of salt in the mix as the pear stews toward a line of saffron with a buttery underbelly and more of that honey tied to a hint of dry bark. The end layers the honey and bark together with soft vanilla and pear in the background.
This is one of the easiest drinking whiskies out there. It’s so soft and supple with a clear sense of orchard fruits and honey that it’s sort of iconic. That all makes this the perfect easy sipper.
Yamazaki Peated Malt
Average Price: $3,999
This “hidden” gem is made from heavily peated malted barley. Once barreled, those whiskies are left to mature until they hit a stellar flavor profile (not a year number). Those casks are then masterfully blended and just touched with local spring water.
The smoke comes through like a thin line slowly inching into the sky from a cabin chimney on a rainy day next to dried fennel and caraway with a sense of whole grain toast, salted butter, and maybe some orchard bark ash. The palate starts off sweet, with grilled pineapple and salted papaya that gives way to an earthy burnt dirt vibe next to burnt orange rinds and lime leaves. The end circles back to that thin line of fireplace smoke while singed cedar and pine turn to coal and the citrus darkens towards a hint of leather and vanilla.
This is a subtle yet complex peated malt. It’s very peated but leans into so much more than that. Overall, this is a stunningly easy drinking whisky that challenges your palate into actually liking smoky whiskies if you don’t already.
Yamazaki Spanish Oak
Average Price: $5,120
This single malt is all about marrying Japanese whisky with Spanish oak. The malts are aged exclusively in oak from Northern Spain. After the flavor profile hits the exact right depth, the barrels are vatted and proofed with a dash of water for bottling.
The nose opens with a medley of sultanas, dates, prunes, dried cranberries, and maybe some candied grape before veering toward a big umami note that’s halfway between a sun-dried tomato and a dash of powdered mushroom. The palate opens with a rich sticky toffee pudding with plenty of winter spices, black tea-soaked dates, and almost creamy toffee next to orange oils and a hint of dark roasted espresso beans. The end takes on a buttery vibe as creamy dark chocolate attaches to those espresso beans and a final hint of orange sneaks in late.
This is one of my favorite pours on this list. It’s complex and comforting. It also really blooms with more creaminess, citrus, and cacao with a little water.
Average Price: $5,230
This is one of the most sought-after whiskies from Yamazaki. The juice spends over 12 years maturing in Mizunara casks only — this isn’t some whisky that’s “finished” in old Mizurana casks for a few months. After over a decade of mellowing, the casks are hand-picked for their excellence, vatted, and just proofed before bottling.
There’s a sense of winter spice that meanders from woody cinnamon bark toward cloves, allspice, anise, cardamon, and even some soft nutmeg before light yet. creamy vanilla custard leads to a thin whisper of sandalwood and lavender. The palate hints at agarwood with a dash of old potpourri next to sweet cinnamon and allspice in a slightly sour mulled wine with a bit of brown sugar lurking in the background. The end leans into the woodiness of the spices with a bit more floral incense burning beneath it all.
This is so complex and well-made. I’m not in love with this whiskey — it’s too floral for me — but I can see why people adore it. It’s just a perfectly made whisky with a really unique vibe.