The Yamazaki 18 Year Old has become one of the most sought-after single malt whiskies in the world. It is commonly recognized as one of the most beautifully crafted single malts and often referred to as a “near perfect” whisky by many single malt enthusiasts. It has won numerous awards including Best Japanese Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards and a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Regardless of whether you value or reject expert opinion such as that of the big spirits competitions and the whisky elite, one cannot ignore The Yamazaki 18’s glittering reputation. As such, prices for this whisky continue to soar. Just a few years ago, The Yamazaki 18 Year Old was priced at roughly $130 is the USA. Today it rarely found for less than $500 USD. Want to find a better deal in Japan or perhaps at the Osaka distillery itself? Good luck. The world has fallen in love with Yamazaki and any adjustments to the production of this expression will face an 18 year lag. Simply finding the whisky on a shelf is an accomplishment in its own right. But is it really worth it?
For those of you who know and love The Yamazaki 12 Year Old, the 18 Year Old is not just a mere linear continuation of the introductory expression. It is produced using a combination of 80% Spanish ex-sherry oak, 10% both new and ex-bourbon American oak, and 10% Mizunara oak. Compared to other types of wood used for whisky maturation, Mizunara is more rare, more fragile and more expensive. It adds a distinctive incense-like aroma that when produced in tandem with the dark fruit and sulfur-like flavors of Spanish sherry and the sweet, mellow vanilla and citrus notes of American oak, make for one incredibly complex, mysterious dram.
From what I am told, and from what I am detecting in the glass before me, the 18 Year Old is made from a higher proportion of sherry casks than the 12 Year Old. It may even have a higher proportion of Mizunara oak but it is difficult to tell on top of the additional sherry oak and six years of maturation. Either way, this whisky is much different than its younger sibling and that’s important to keep in mind as we go into the tasting.
When we approach a single malt, especially one like this, it is important to take the time to properly assess its aromas before we taste it. The nose is the strongest sensory organ in the body and it would be a shame to neglect it when it comes to experiencing a whisky this complex. The aromas stemming from this glass rich and dense with deep layers of cocoa, raisin and apricot. The sherry notes come forward immediately but it’s not long before the emergence of a mysterious incense aroma, likely derived from the Mizunara oak. Everything is in balance and nothing seems out of place. It’s remarkable that an aroma can be described in terms of texture but this one is unmistakably thick. Beautiful really.
Moving on to the palate, ok wow! A much different flavor profile than the 12 Year Old. Dark fruits such as cherries, prunes and plums are interlaced with nutmeg, allspice and a slight sulphuric note. There is a bit of vanilla and a hint of orange peel but much of that lives in the background. It’s all very elegant and refined in a relatively calm, 43% ABV package. When I add a few drops of water, some, just some of that lush, citrus note found in the 12 Year Old begins to surface but it’s time is short lived. Perhaps I’m only imagining it. Hard to tell when there’s an orchestra of seduction performing on my palate.
The finish is, for me, the best part of the whisky. Everything is smooth, everything is balanced and the delicate smoke of the Mizunara oak perseveres along with the deep richness of the lingering sherry notes. It is a long, elegant conclusion to a harmonious tasting experience.
Let’s go back to The 12 Year Old for a second. This is, as I have hinted, a very different whisky. It is young and vibrant with a sticky-sweet delivery. It is, for lack of better words, a happy dram with a unique character, one that stands aside from many of the 12 Year Old single malts on the market. The Yamazaki 18 Year Old on the other hand, exists in a much different arena, one in which balance and refinement is the name of the game. It is an arena shared with classics such as the Highland Park 18 Year Old, The Macallan 18 Year Old and my personal favorite of the lot, the Glendronach 18 Year Old. As far as whisky goes, these are very serious single malts produced with the slimmest margin of error. For me, The Yamazaki 18 Year Old is right up there. It’s a beautiful, luxurious whisky that falls in line with what most people “want” from a whisky. That is of course, if they can find it and justify the hefty price tag.
Personally, and this is bound to be an unpopular opinion, I tend to prefer the 12 Year Old. The 18 Year Old is a more layered whisky with greater depth but it’s lost some of that brightness and individuality that I have come to appreciate in its younger sibling. Balance and harmony are attributes that most drinkers look for in a whisky. And if that’s what you seek, The Yamazaki 18 is one of the best. For me, it’s all about uniqueness and character. I like whisky that makes me feel alive. That is what I have found The Yamazaki 12 Year Old and that is why, when given the choice, I will continue choose it over the 18 year old.