There are few better examples of the expression “overnight success” then Japanese whisky, which skyrocketed from obscurity to collectible, coveted, beloved and hard to find in less than 20 years.
Until 2014, if most Americans even knew there was a category for Japanese whisky, it was because of the success of Sofia Coppola’s comedy/drama hit Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray plays a U.S. actor turned pitchman for Japan’s distillery giant Suntory, with his signature line, “For relaxing time, make it Suntory time.”
But then out of the blue, in late 2014 it was announced that a prized Suntory label, the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, had won the industry’s most coveted title, Best Whisky in the World, with expert and World Whisky Bible author Jim Murray calling it a drink of “near incredible genius.” Suddenly Japanese whisky was hot, and in the years since, Japan’s distillers have racked up dozens of the industry’s top titles. Just a few prime examples include another Suntory single malt, Hakushu 25-Year, winning World’s Best Single Malt (twice!), Nikka’s Taketsuru winning World’s Best Blended Malt, and my personal favorite, Hibiki, has won World’s Best Blended Whisky half a dozen times – just since 2010 (for the 21-year version).
I’ve been covering Japanese whisky for nearly its entire life of popularity in this country, and while there has been significant growth and newcomers in the category – leading to a big regulatory tightening of labeling and production rules last year – there have been few launches as notable as the 2022 Yamazaki Limited Edition Tsukuriwake Selection. Basically, the House of Suntory has taken Japan’s best-known single malt, the Yamazaki, and broken apart its four components, or “pillars,” bottling each on its own. This can be confusing, because many consumers think of single malt in the same even as single cask or single barrel, but the term means entirely the product of one distillery, which often includes mixing different ages, sizes and types of wood barrels of the “same” whisky. Innovation in Japan’s whisky industry, where the ingredients and distillation are modelled on the Scottish process, is focused on the back end, maturation and blending. Tsukuriwake means “artisanship through a diversity of making,” and in the case of Yamazaki, the four pillars are Puncheon, Peated Malt, Spanish Oak and Mizunara, a rare and suddenly trendy Japanese wood.
Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii built Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in Yamazaki in 1923, hence the name. Now part of global spirits giant Beam Suntory, the rich legacy continues, as The House of Suntory has won Distiller of the Year at the International Spirits Challenge in London four-times in the past 12 years. “What excited me most about this launch is that just one year before the 100th anniversary of Suntory Whisky, we can finally share the full story behind our Tsukuriwake way of whisky making, which was born from the Founding House of Japanese Whisky,” says Suntory’s Fifth-Generation Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo. “The 2022 Yamazaki Limited Edition Tsukuriwake Selection honors the fact that greatness comes from diversity. And in doing so, we unveil what truly makes Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky the authority of Japanese Whisky.”
The Yamazaki Limited Edition Tsukuriwake Selection was released in Japan in 2020, but just hits select global markets this month, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria, Spain, Singapore, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Thailand and Australia. Each of the expressions is bottled at 48% ABV with suggested retail prices of $450, except the Mizunara, which is $620.
These are the company’s description and tasting notes for each:
Yamazaki Puncheon: The Puncheon is considered the heart of Yamazaki Single Malt, and the Yamazaki Puncheon Single Malt Whisky is comprised of meticulously selected malts aged exclusively in puncheons crafted by Suntory artisans from hand selected American oak. With a capacity of approximately 480 liters, these large casks allow malt whiskies to mature slowly, imbuing them with a complexity and vibrance. The Puncheon cask malt whiskies impart their subtle notes essential to the delicate base of the Yamazaki Single Malt. Color: Pale gold. Nose: Green apple, mature pear, acacia honey with hint of vanilla. Palate: Clean, velvety and mild, with delicate butterscotch notes. Finish: Oaky woodiness with subtle sweetness.
Yamazaki Peated Malt: The “hidden accent” giving Yamazaki its complexity and lingering finish. The Yamazaki Peated Malt is comprised of meticulously selected heavily peated malted barley. The Peated malt whiskies impart their subtly smoky, earthy notes essential to the complexity of the Yamazaki Single Malt. Color: Bright gold. Nose: Subtly smoky with green herbal notes. Palate: Gently peated with hints of earthiness, pineapple and citrus notes. Finish: Complex with lingering peatiness.
Yamazaki Spanish Oak: The depth-enhancer giving Yamazaki its quintessential multi-layered full flavor with mature fruity notes. The Yamazaki Spanish Oak is comprised of meticulously selected malt whiskies matured in the highest quality oak casks originating from Northern Spain. The Spanish oak cask malt whiskies impart a delicately rich and decadent palate with subtle acidity and fruity aromas, essential to the multi-layered flavor profile of the Yamazaki Single Malt. Color: Rich reddish amber. Nose: Dried raisins and prunes, with hints of sundried tomatoes. Palate: Delicately rich and decadent with subtle acidity. Finish: Buttery with lingering acidity and hint of bitterness.
Yamazaki Mizunura: Mizunara is a species of oak native to Japan and is considered the signature enhancer giving Yamazaki its quintessential Japanese character and elegance. Whiskies which undergo a long maturation in Mizunara casks take on a distinctive spiciness and incense-like flavor of sandalwood and agarwood. The Yamazaki Mizunara Single Malt Whisky is comprised of meticulously selected long-matured malt whiskies showcasing the rare, distinctive beauty of the hand crafted Mizunara casks. The Mizunara cask malt whiskies impart their enigmatic spicy notes essential to the signature taste of the Yamazaki Single Malt. Color: Amber Nose: Rich and elegant top note, custard cream, cinnamon. Palate: Gentle on the tongue, aromatic and round with spiced sweet notes. Finish: Distinctive deep woody notes reminiscent of Japanese incense.