For Japan’s oldest distillery, Yamazaki, the release of an expression matured in Mizunara oak is always a very special occasion. Consequently, the Beam Suntory-owned whisky makers have not spared any efforts to promote their new high-end bottling Yamazaki Mizunara Cask 2017 properly. Among others, they hosted a series of prestige tastings across Europe, for which they flew in their global brand ambassador Mike Miyamoto – a seasoned industry veteran, who has 40 years of professional experience under his belt and at one point managed both Yamazaki and Hakushu distillieres. Thanks to a spontaneous invitation by Beam Suntory’s on-trade manager for the Hamburg area, Elena Fitz, whom I met at an Irish whiskey tasting the month before, I was lucky to attend the event in my hometown.
When I entered the upper-class Anglo German Club in Eppendorf, I admittedly felt a little underdressed in my worn t-shirt of Japanese heavy metal band Gorgon. But there was no way I could sport a different apperal. As Gorgon’s guitar player Jero is not only an old pal of mine but also a whisky fan, I really wanted to send him a photo of me wearing his band’s shirt at a Japanese whisky tasting. As a side effect, this also turned out to be a fun topic to discuss with Beam Suntory’s international brand manager Yo Tang, who was quite surprised to hear that this unknown band from his home country had a small but devoted fanbase in Germany. He said he liked rock music and was curious to check them out. If you read this, Yo, I hope you had a good time listening to “Midnight Highway Rider” and “(Heavy Metal) Force”! But now back to the whisky…
To understand why the Yamazaki Mizunara Cask 2017 is such a rare and special pour, it is essential to learn a thing or two about the barrels it was matured in: Japanese oak, also known as Mizunara oak, takes almost twice as long to grow as American oak. While the latter reaches a diameter of 70 centimetres in round about 80 years, the former only arrives at that size after 150 years. In addition, Japanese oak trees are also rather twining, branchy and porous – all of which are traits that make it pretty hard to create whisky casks from this kind of wood. Consequently, the comparatively few Mizunara casks available come with a hefty price tag that even outshadows the huge sums charged for top-quality sherry casks!
Nevertheless, Yamazaki has good reason to release a fully Mizunara-aged premium expression every once in a while. On the one hand, the Japanese whisky makers understandably take pride in creating a high-value bottling that is a product of their country through and through. And on the other hand, the Mizunara wood gives the spirit a flavour profile unlike any other. When asked what the key characteristic of Mizunara-aged whisky is, Mike Miyamoto compared it to the incense you get to sense in Japanese temples. As Westerners rarely get to make this sensation, he went on to describe it as a mixture of cinnamon-like spiciness and coconut-like fruitiness.
To illustrate what Japanese oak does to the liquid it encloses, our host led up to the evening’s grand finale with three cask samples: A 5-year-old Mizunara that had not yet been shaped by the wood, a 15-year-old Mizunara that already pointed at the right direction and a 30-year-old Mizunara that had too much contact with the oak. The latter I found particularly interesting, because in theory a single cask release of a Japanese whisky matured for three full decades in one of the most precious cask-types in the world sounds like an unbelievable sip. In practice, however, it was simply “too much” as Mike Miyamoto politely phrased it. The Yamazaki Mizunara Cask 2017 then turned out to be one helluva drop indeed. The wood did really work wonders on the spirit, giving it a pronounced and distinct character that perfectly aligns with Suntory’s credo of offering “subtlty, refinement and complexity” in equal shares. If you are looking for a rich, harmonic and deep whisky brought forth by the marriage of Japanese nature with Japanese craft, you have found it! All in all, only 5,000 bottles of this prestigious pour got filled and they sell from 1,000 Euro upwards. So happy hunting.
The evening, which was ably organized by Hamburg-based PR agency fischerAppelt, closed with casual talk and an open tasting at the Anglo German Club’s stylish bar, during which Beam Suntory’s brand ambassador for the GSA region, Daniel Schöll, generously poured us the five different expressions from the company’s whisky core range as well as a new Japanese gin called Roku. On the side, we were also served a variety of delicious snacks that worked well with the drinks. As is to be expected when over two dozen drammers are invited to a gathering like this, the crowd mingled quickly. I was particularly happy to finally meet Andy and David of Whisky & Vinyl in person as well as make the acquaintance of Whisky Experts’ editor-in-chief Bernhard, who came all the way from Vienna to Hamburg for this very special whisky event. While his way there was slightly longer than mine, it surely must have been worth every single kilometer!
Chita Clean Type Grain Whisky (Japan / Single Grain / NAS / 50% / Not for sale)
Yamazaki American Whit Oak Cask (Japan / Single Malt / NAS / 50% / Not for sale)
Hakushu Smoky Whisky (Japan / Single Malt / NAS / 50% / Not for sale)
Mizunara Young Whisky (Japan / Single Malt / 5yo / 57% / Not for sale)
Mizunara Aged Whisky (Japan / Single Malt / 12yo / 54% / Not for sale)
Mizunara Old Whisky (Japan / Single Malt / 30yo / 47% / Not for sale)
Yamazaki Mizunara Cask 2017 (Japan / Single Malt / 18yo / 48% / ~1,000 Euro)
The Chita (Japan / Single Grain / NAS / 43% / ~50 Euro)
Yamazaki 12 Years Old (Japan / Single Malt / 12yo/ 43% / ~90 Euro)
Hakushu 12 Years Old (Japan / Single Malt / 12yo/ 43% / ~80 Euro)
Hibiki Japanese Harmony (Japan / Blended Whisky / NAS / 43% / ~50 Euro)
Hibiki 17 Years Old (Japan / Blended Whisky/ 17yo / 43% / ~200 Euro)
Roku Gin (Japan / Gin / NAS / 43% / ~30 Euro)
Beam Suntory @ Web: https://www.beamsuntory.com/ (Spirits Company)
Yamazaki @ Web: http://theyamazaki.jp/entrance.html (Distillery)
fischerAppelt @ Web: https://www.fischerappelt.de/ (PR Agency)
Anglo German Club @Web: http://www.anglo-german-club.de/ (Location)