Yamazaki 12-Year-Old Japanese Whisky: Why Pricing Has Gone Through The Roof
by Ken Gargett
There were a few teething problems when I first started compiling this piece.
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old from Japan is a whisky I have loved every time I have had the chance to try it. The bottle I sampled for this piece was actually one from the back of the cupboard, which I have been sitting on for far too long. When a mate saw it, he implored me not to open it.
“Way too expensive just to crack to drink,” he insisted, although I don’t buy bottles for resale so I have no idea what he was expecting me to do with it. As it has been with me for a long while, I would have picked it up when the price was still very reasonable, though I don’t recall exactly how much I paid.
Today, it is about AUD$350 (I would guess at least well over twice what I paid – it has risen more than 70 percent in the last two years and apparently is almost always sold at more than twice the producer’s recommended price, such is demand). Even worse, I recently came across a wine list in China offering a 30 ml glass for a mere $440!
But that is the problem across the board with Japanese whisky these days. Prices have gone through the roof.
There was a second problem. As soon as I started researching, I found numerous references to this Yamazaki being discontinued – many top Japanese whiskies have been, in fact, thanks to the shortages because of worldwide demand.
Non-age-statement whiskies have become much more common as, despite the construction of numerous new distilleries, they don’t have the necessary aged material and won’t for many years.
And if you think there is a problem now, the Rugby World Cup is about to kick off in Japan, bringing with it a great many well-heeled visitors who are expecting to drink and buy the best Japanese whiskies.
Even worse, next year Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics. Stock up soon or say goodbye for many years.
The good news is that my information suggests that the Yamazaki 12-Year-Old has not been discontinued, but that does not mean it will not be in the near future.
Suntory, the owner of Yamazaki and a number of other leading Japanese whiskies, has discontinued its Hibiki 17-Year-Old (which would have devastated Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation) and the Hakushu 12-Year-Old Single Malt.
Yamazaki did not release a limited edition for 2018, despite the huge popularity of these releases from 2015 to 2017.
#kenfessions: the author is a fan of Japanese whiskies
So with all that behind us, onward. No secret that I am a fan of top Japanese whiskies. Some may remember that we looked at a few of the astonishing whiskies from Chichibu, made by Ichiro Akuto. If any reader was interested, I hope you got in quickly.
Shortly after publication of that piece in May 2019, a full set of 54 bottles in Hanyu Ichiro’s Card Series, mentioned in the story, sold for HK$7,192,000 (just under a million bucks US!!).
Apparently, it was only one of four full sets remaining, although readers might recall that bottles from the series were known to languish on shelves for several years, considered almost unsalable only a few years before.
Yamazaki is part of the Suntory empire. Founded by Shinjiro Torii, it was Japan’s first commercial distillery. Opening way back in 1923 in Shimamoto in the Osaka Prefecture, the first whisky emerged in 1929, though to rather muted accolades.
The three core single malts in the range have been the 12-Year-Old, 18-Year-Old, and the 25-Year-Old, although it does seem that the 18-Year-Old is now on that dreaded discontinued list.
As much as I would have loved this to be about the 25, sadly none was to be found in the back of the magic cupboard. And with the price, if any was available these days, pushing AUD$6,000 a bottle, I am not holding my breath.
Yamazaki also does the occasional Sherry Cask, which was named in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible as the “World’s Best Whisky” in 2013; various vintage-dated whiskies; and, on occasion, others such as a 10-Year-Old and even a 50-Year-Old.
A bottle of the latter set a record price for Japanese whisky at auction last year in Hong Kong, topping $343,000 (the winning bidder remained anonymous). That whisky was originally released in 2005 at a price around $9,000, which probably seemed outrageous at the time.
It was limited to just 50 bottles and it is believed that the majority, which went to various local bars, were opened and enjoyed soon after they landed. A second release of a further 50 bottles was offered in 2007 and then, in 2011, a final 150 bottles.
The early releases from the distillery, labelled “Suntory,” were unashamedly attempts to replicate Scottish whiskies.
The first master distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, had trained as both an organic chemist and whisky distiller in Scotland (it is believed that part of this sudden and unprecedented demand for quality Japanese whisky came about because of a 2014 TV drama based on his life).
Success eventually came when Shinjiro Torii launched the Kakubin label in 1937. No Yamazaki whisky appeared until its first single malt in 1984 thanks to Shinjiro Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, the distillery’s second master blender.
In 1992 Suntory added the 18-Year-old, a Ten-Year-Old in 1995, and subsequently its 25-Year-Old.
In 2003, the 12-Year-Old became the first Japanese whisky to win gold at the International Spirits Challenge. It was the start of a cavalcade of bling for its whiskies.
Yamazaki operates with both wooden and stainless steel fermentation tanks and uses different yeasts, depending on the final flavor profile the blenders seek. They use a dozen pot stills of varying shapes and sizes and a wide range of different oak for cask-ageing, including 180-liter roasted barrels, 230-liter hogsheads, American oak puncheons, Spanish oak casks, and even casks made from Mizunara (Japanese oak).
The 12-Year-Old matures in a mix of ex-Bourbon casks and American oak with a touch of material that has seen time in ex-Oloroso casks and Mizunara oak.
Yamazaki 12-Year-Old: tasting notes
The 12-Year-Old is a wonderful whisky. Notes of honey, cinnamon, and peach with a hint of toffee. Complex. This is great stuff. The merest whiff of white chocolate. There is a notable spirity character, but it is so well balanced and delightfully smooth. Terrific length. For a score, an easy 96.
I love this whisky. What a sad day to have acknowledge that it is likely to be one of those spirits that have become a special occasion only! Perhaps my mate was right.
For more please visit www.whisky.suntory.com/en/na/products/yamazaki.