Since I first tried a Japanese whisky at The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show last year, I have been a big fan of that country’s products. Chichibu the First was my favourite all around dram from 2011, and I’m constantly discovering new whiskies from there which are very pleasing to the palate.
I also often find myself recommending them to new whisky drinkers as they can be a bit easier on the palate than whiskies from other countries.
Recently, I was invited to try the latest drams being released from Yamazaki distillery. The new Four Woods collection includes a Puncheon cask, Bourbon barrel, Mizunara and Olorosso sherry release, each only made with whisky from that style of cask. All four whiskies – when combined – normally make up the Yamazaki 12, so these make an interesting deconstruction of that whisky.
The new whiskies are being released without an age statement, but I was told most will have been around for about 10 years or more. All will be available for Christmas and the Puncheon, Bourbon and Olorosso bottlings have an RRP of £70. The Mizunara – made from spirit filled into a cask constructed from a very rare Japanese wood of this name – is a bigger step up, price wise, and will sell for between £250-£260.
We started with the Puncheon cask. This release is 48% (the standard ABV for the four being released) and comes from 480 litre, American white oak casks. These are larger than a Hogshead so the spirit ends up being less exposed to wood. This light straw coloured whisky was very gentle on the nose, with hints of vanilla, marzipan, butterscotch and lemon peel, while the palate was sharper than expected, with a caramel sweetness at first that dried out in the mouth, before moving into a peaches and cream flavour. With water, I found more pineapple and cherry juice notes emerged, and the vanilla notes were enhanced on the nose. The palate was ever so slightly more bitter.
Next came the Bourbon release. Surprisingly, I found this one a lot richer on the nose than the Puncheon whisky – dried papaya and butter were the two main notes for me. It was sweeter on the palate as well, with nutmeg and honey flowing through. The dram was soft and pleasing at this stage. When I added a few drops of water, I found even richer flavours burst, which I’d normally associate with a sherry cask whisky – things like brown sugar, baked pineapple and raisin on the nose. The palate was still very bourbony though – vanilla, granulated white sugar and a hint of lemongrass, with a long, woody finish.
Whisky number three was the big ‘un. Mizunara is something you won’t find over here – it is a rare, very tough oak found only in Japan, so it’s a bit like the secret weapon of some drams from there. In the glass, this was a beautiful amber colour that smelled of incense, almonds and cherries – a Bakewell tart housed in a cedar chest! On first sip, it was really mouthfilling, with a tiny bit of smokiness, oranges candied with brandy and sweet cigars. Adding water brought out green apple and papaya notes and, for some reason to me, a bit of the seaside. On the palate, tarragon, butter and cinnamon spice came through, while at the back of the palate there was a slight smoke with a cedar woodiness. It was a treat to try something so different. Questions were raised as to whether it was worth 3.5 times as much as the others though. It is gorgeous and the rarity of seeing a whisky made only from this wood will inevitably push the price up, so it’s not a surprise, I just wish more people would be able to have the chance to try it. If you see it in a bar sometime, give it a try so you can at least experience it without having to fork out for a whole bottle.
We finished on the Oloroso. Made from a first fill, ex-sherry cask this is a ruby coloured dram with a lot of character. On the nose, I got loads of sticky, stewed cherries and melted brown sugar, but there was a tinge of something salty there which I wrote down as being a bit like “soya sauce” – slightly odd, but there you go! After the heavy nose, I was expecting a powerhouse of a dram so was intrigued when it came out much lighter on the palate than I was anticipating. There were still deep flavours – they just didn’t overpower. Instead, hints of dark chocolate and tobacco leaf came through. With water, it became instantly more creamy – browned butter and caramel, along with plum notes. Delicious.
By the end, I found these were – as usual – well constructed Japanese drams. It’s hard for the Japanese to do anything but that. However, these also showed the quality of the individual casks that go into an entry level brand like Yamazaki 12 and I applaud the experimentation by Yamazaki for letting the consumer see each on its own. They are £70, though, so I don’t think many people will be going out and buying all three at that price and the much pricier Mizunara to boot. But, if you do see these around – at tastings or on a bar’s shelf – or if you fancy choosing just one of the bottles to buy as a treat, you’ll be guaranteed a good quality dram.