Served Neat: An Astounding Introduction to Japanese Whiskey

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the latest installment of Served Neat, a monthly dive into the wild-and-wondrous world of fine spirits. In honor of June’s theme, “Away We Go,” we’re reviewing a far-flung favorite: Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt Whisky. The first—and perhaps the greatest—of the Japanese single malts, this Suntory-made spirit was designed as an homage to classic Scotch whiskey. But can it live up to its lofty ambition?

Before we dig in, a quick clarification: There are two main categories of single malt scotch. There are island scotches, which have a powerful, peaty flavor, and highland scotches, which are smoother, fruitier, and more delicate on the palate. Yamazaki 12 Year emulates the latter. It also happens to be my first Japanese whiskey, so the stakes were high from the start.

As Japan’s oldest whiskey distillery, Yamazaki has been making fine spirits since 1923, and they’ve become rather good at it. This single malt is made in the traditional Scottish fashion, but it supplements its oak-barrel aging with a turn in bourbon and sherry casks. This serves as its unique differentiator, and the factor that most impacts the flavor—for better or for worse.

The nose, from the get-go, is abundantly sweet. I really can’t stress that enough. The whiskey's stint in sherry casks gives it a fruity bouquet, but the contact with bourbon adds a rich note of caramel that really accents the flavor. The sweetness carries over to the palate as well, though it doesn't lack the smooth body and floral notes you’d expect from a highland scotch. The finish—fittingly complex—is slightly spicy and burnt, a second nod to the charred bourbon barrels.

The result, all-in-all, is a sweet and sippable whiskey—one that retains the complexity that makes single malts great. The blend of bourbon and sherry offers a truly distinctive flavor, though it might be off-putting if you’re partial to island scotch, and the minimal sweetness it carries. For those who like scotches with a smooth, fruity character, like The Balvenie, or MacCallan (also aged in Spanish sherry casks), Yamazaki will deliver. Kanpai!

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