This isn’t your usual Yama.
I recently attended an online blind tasting which had a peated Yamazakura in it. It tasted so good that I thought it was a Longrow. The revelation instantly made me curious about this whisky. The name may seem new to us, but it has old roots. Yamazakura is merely the brand of whisky that comes from the Asaka Distillery. The distillery has been around since 1946. If you dig even deeper, you’ll learn that it’s owned by Sasanokawa Shuzo.
Sasanokawa Shuzo is an alcohol company that’s been around since 1765. They’re mainly known for their sake production, but they dabbled in whisky production beginning in 1946, hence the Asaka Distillery. It’s said that the distillery was granted the Tohoku region’s first whisky-making license.
However, the whisky or “whisky” they made then isn’t what we’d consider whisky by today’s standards. This was due to neutral spirit being mixed with malt whisky. They weren’t alone in doing this though. Back in the day, Yamazaki was also forced to make and sell what Stefan van Eycken in his book “Whisky Rising” called “ersatz whisky.” Asaka eventually made real whisky, but with stainless steel stills.
They also had a “whisky” brand called Cherry during the 1980s, but it’s said to be a mix of imported Scotch and molasses-based spirit. Japanese sake producers are known to import and use neutral cane spirit for some of their sake, so they most likely used the ones for their sake in their “whisky.”
Fast forwarding to more recent times: to meet the rising demand for Japanese whisky, Sasanokawa Shuzo finally started to make whisky again. But, since they weren’t exactly loaded, one of their sake storage warehouses was converted into a distillery. They only invested in a new stainless steel mash tun and pot stills. Their initial five stainless steel washbacks were sake fermentation tanks, but they switched to using five wooden (Douglas fir) washbacks in 2019. Their copper pot stills were all made in Japan by Miyake Seisakusho. This is unlike other Japanese whisky distilleries, who prefer to import stills from Forsythes. The distillery started production in the first half of 2016.
According to this Nomunication.jp article, there were four factors that caused Sasanokawa Shuzo president, Tetsuzo Yamaguchi, to decide to make whisky again in 2015.
- As an alcohol producer in Japan, he feels obligated to make Japanese whisky and not import it.
- It’s the 250th anniversary of the company.
- Cooperation and encouragement from Ichiro Akuto.
- Increasing global demand for Japanese whisky.
Another thing that might be of note for Japanese whisky fans is that Sasanokawa Shuzo helped Ichiro Akuto store around 400 casks from the Hanyu distillery when it closed. Ichiro Akuto is known to be very helpful with sharing his knowledge with others in the Japanese spirits scene. So, it’s highly likely that Asaka Distillery will look to him for training and guidance with whisky production.
The two Yamazakura expressions I’ll be talking about are their Pure Malt and a Newborn Japanese Spirit single cask. Nomunication.jp’s article above states that Pure Malt it is a world blend. Yamazakura’s Pure Malt is said to be a blend of various single malts which are at least five years old. These are a mix of peated and unpeated single malts aged in ex-bourbon and ex-Sherry casks.
On the other hand, the New Born is their own distillate. The New Borns are a few single cask releases that have each only been aged in various types of casks for a few months. My sample bottle doesn’t mention any cask number or type. So, using the distinctive ABV, I found out from this site that my sample came from cask #17701. It’s a first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry butt. It was aged from February 20 2017 to June 27 2017. Note that these releases explicitly say “Japanese Spirit.” This is due to it not being old enough to be called a whisky.
Yamazakura Pure Malt – Review
48% ABV. $86 locally.
Color: First steep white tea.
On the nose: I initially get bold but short aromas of barley, mangoes, mango skin, cooked pears and dried apricot. The ethanol heat can get inconsistent. At times it’s just in your face. There are times when it’s very well-behaved. After the initial aromas are light and short aromas of barley husk, chocolate malt, roasted coffee beans, browned apples and honeydew melons.
In the mouth: The sherry components are instantly noticed just as the whisky touched my tongue. I get light but stretched out tastes of coffee, dark chocolate, the chocolate and peat mix one gets from Lagavulin 16, and chocolate malt. There’s even a tingling taste of raisins and sultanas somewhere in there. After are some light but shortened tastes of kaffir lime leaves, pepperiness, lime peel, honey and coconut sugar syrup. I also noticed that the heat here is consistent. The bite is more of at the end but it feels more like it comes from a 43% ABV whisky.
There’s no mention on the label but the color, ABV and mouthfeel seem to indicate that this has no added color and isn’t chill-filtered. I like that this is a two-faced whisky. The fact that it is mostly young whisky means there won’t be much complexity in this. But the nose and mouth being different quickly gives this a more diverse feel. It’s fruity on the nose, but it’s got a more confectionery character in the mouth.
In case you’re wondering why there’s a lack of peat mentioned in the notes, I think it’s due to there just being a small amount of it. Someone like me who is used to peat wouldn’t easily detect the peat and smoke, but a non-peat head might notice it more.
Being a distillery that’s just started operating again, I can understand them sourcing whisky despite them saying they feel obligated to not import any. That, and the quality of this blend, makes the price more forgivable. They could make this blend better, though. By “better,” I’m thinking along the lines of Douglas Laing Remarkable Regional Malts good. But, I think it’s still on the pricey side. While this deserves a 6, I’m giving it a 5 because we factor in price.
Yamazakura New Born Japanese Spirit – Review
Cask #17701, First-fill ex-Oloroso sherry butt. Feb 20 2017 to June 27 2017.
$200 locally (different cask). 62.2% ABV.
Color: Chrysanthemum tea.
On the nose: Surprisingly not as hot as what the ABV and age would suggest. I get bold and a messy mix of aromas of apples, dried apricots, yellow kiwi fruit, shredded yuzu peel, cooked pears, and jackfruit. There are bits of light and brief aromas of candied bananas, lanzones, and unripe mango with skin.
In the mouth: It’s hotter now but it’s expected due to the youth and abv. I get medium tastes of apple juice, sapodilla, honey, coffee, caramel, toffee, and coconut sugar syrup. At the end are really subtle tastes of banana chips, honeydew melon and dehydrated lemon peels.
Because of only four months of aging, I was initially surprised at how drinkable and good this was. I’ve had way worse older whisky than this. After a bit of wondering, it hit me that I shouldn’t be surprised at all. This whisky was made by sake producers, after all. With most sake (nihonshu) not relying on casks for flavor, it only makes sense that these guys would make sure this fermented really well. Hence, the quality of this whisky screams good fermentation.
I also initially thought this was them making a cash grab by taking advantage of the Japanese whisky bandwagon and selling really young distillate bottled as single casks, but I’m glad I was wrong. Tasting this has made me excited and more curious about Asaka Distillery.
With my limited experience of tasting Asaka whisky, it seems to me that they have a thing for two-faced whisky. Like the Pure Malt above, this is also two-faced. The aromas are more fruit-forward, while it gives off more confectionery tastes. I don’t mind that the sherry cask influence wasn’t really taken on. How much cask influence can a spirit really take in with just a four month aging period?
Also, check out the back label. They should be applauded for this. Look at how much information they’re sharing with us. Revealing cask type(s) is nothing new under the mountain, but talking about the type of barley used and the still design is admirable and worth geeking out on. I’m only disappointed at them for not sharing anything on fermentation. Then again, they are primarily sake makers, and they can get really secretive about the type/s of yeast they use and how long they ferment.
All-in-all, this is a good spirit. Not having the palate of a termite, I really appreciate this. I want to give this a 7, but the price is prohibitive.
Images courtesy of Whisky Auctioneer and Japan Whisky.