T

The Yamazaki Aged 12 Years

“When I was a boy, a bottle of Coke cost a nickel.”

When I was a boy, my father used to make this remark from time to time, in response to noticing something that he found surprisingly expensive. It isn’t that he is a stupid man; he is actually quite clever and enjoyed a long career as a physician. It isn’t that he didn’t understand inflation; his early working years were during the miserable 1970s, when the Consumer Price Index hit a blistering +12% year-over-year rate.

Rather, my father was engaged in a process called “anchoring,” which was first described in an academic paper by the behavioral economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1974. This is related to “the primacy effect,” in which things learned earlier are given greater weight than things learned more recently. These are cognitive biases; faulty heuristics to which our brains incorrectly revert. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my father’s mind, the “right” price for a bottle of Coke is $0.05.

You don’t need to be a Nobel prize winning economist to notice examples of this anchoring bias in whisky. Each round of price increases is met with the type of reminiscence in which my father engaged. Choruses of “I used to buy bottles of that for…” and “No way I’ll ever pay more than X for…” echo across social media. Yet, someone is purchasing the whisky at the new, higher price.

In the way that I have no expectation of ever securing a frosty cold Coca Cola for a nickel, there is a constant stream of newcomers to the world of whisky without any prior belief about what a fair price was, is, or should be. These folks don’t have the same anchors as the longer-tenured members of the crowd. They see a bottle, and see the price tag on the bottle, and assume that amount is how much that whisky costs.

The crazy thing is that they’re correct. Setting aside bottles marked up in excess of SRP: the price you see is how much this whisky costs today, in the here and now. For everyone who bitterly complains that they used to purchase a given expression for less, there are only two options: 1. invent a time machine or 2. shut up.

Bringing this line of reasoning on home to Malt: our mission here is to assess whether a whisky is good value for the money, compared to similar options on the shelf. Saying “this whisky is good, but it used to be a lot cheaper, so it’s not as good a value for money as it used to be” is a fairly worthless exercise for most of our readership.

Yet, that’s exactly what I did when I was presented with this whisky (or rather, the concept of this whisky). My friend and neighbor Matt Kusek texted me that his local store had a bottle, and asked if it were any good. I responded “It’s nothing special, particularly for the price they are charging now.”

Ironically, the whisky in question is from Japan, which has not seen generalized inflation for the better part of the last three decades. Until recently, Japanese consumer prices hummed along at a tepid 0.2% rate. I’m not familiar with the basket of goods and services used to calculate inflation in Japan, however I am fairly certain that whisky is not a heavily weighted component.

One of my very first reviews for Malt, back in 2018, was spent bemoaning the sad state of Japanese whisky (I recall now that I even used my dad’s Coke quip in that piece). At that time, bottles of the 12 year Yamazaki and Hakushu expressions were still available, albeit with reduced frequency, and often at prices creeping into the triple digits. I was (then) a buyer of Hakushu 12 up to around $90, though my honor forbid ever parting with a C-note.

Yamazaki 12, however, was never a favorite. Though I adore the 18 year old expression from this distillery, I cannot ever recall having a bottle of the 12 year old that I thought was much better than “good.” This was the case when I was paying $80; it was an easy “pass” for me once it went to $100, then $120. Around this time (call it 2019-ish), I stopped thinking about it, because all the bottles had vanished.

Recently, I started to see bottles around again, albeit with price tags in the mid-to-high-$100s range. I’d shake my head, maybe sigh a little, think “sign of the times” or some equivalent cliché, and move along. Never did I think I would ever want or need another bottle of Yamazaki 12.

However, Matt did not heed my aforementioned advice. Having made his excuses about “owing it to the store,” he bought the bottle which we will be reviewing together today. Though I now think a little less of his intellectual faculties (j/k, pal), I am nonetheless grateful for his continued friendship and generosity.

The Yamazaki Aged 12 Years – Taylor’s Review

43% ABV. $133 from Walmart, which also provided the bottle image below. $170 from Drizly.

Color: Medium-light golden brown.

On the nose: A vivacious, somewhat young-smelling burst of bubblegum, potpourri, and lychee. The fruity notes intensify as this is allowed to sit in the glass, becoming more ripe and sweet, almost cloyingly so. Faint hints of lemongrass and white pepper are all that this presents in the way of spicy notes; there’s perhaps a wisp of sandalwood incense if I really concentrate.

In the mouth: A watery woodiness is the main flavor element in the front of the mouth. The middle of the palate fills out with the distinct flavor of cashews, a signature Yamazaki note for me. There’s more of that floral note from the nose as this moves toward the finish, where I get a flavor sitting somewhere between chocolate and wood, if that makes any sense. There’s a drying mouthfeel and a gentle stoniness as this fades gradually, with a mild tingle on the tongue.

Conclusions:

Some interesting elements here, but not presented convincingly enough. If anything, this is maybe a little bit better than I remember mid-late 20-teens batches of this expression to be, not that that is saying much. It’s not flawed. It’s not offensive. It’s fine. It’s very, very OK, considered on its own merits.

Here’s my problem: would you pay $130 for very, very OK whisky? I wouldn’t. It’s the reason I pass on the likes of Blanton’s and Blue Run and the rest of the overhyped underperformers bearing similarly punchy price tags. In light of that, I am deducting a point from the middle of the range.

Score: 4/10

I also invited Matt, as the purchaser of the bottle, to share his thoughts on this one.

The Yamazaki Aged 12 Years – Matt’s Review

Color: Tuscany Yellow.

On the nose: Pineapple pound cake just came out of the oven and traveled an hour to your place in a wooden container that was also in the oven but wasn’t on fire, but it was warm.

In the mouth: Could there be such a flavor like brunt butter that wasn’t bitter? Just past the edge of browned butter this note cotes and almond and coconut combo that reminds one of an Almond Joy without the chocolate. It is drying on the mouth, the effect concentrates the coconut, almost pulling it onto itself like a collapsing star. The resulting supernova is fresh wood and grass. Like a sassafras tea it hangs about as you stare out the window on a rainy day. The taste haunts you and dares you to take another sip.

Conclusions:

At the old price this was a no-brainer of a pickup. Nowadays I think of all the other whiskies (plural) that I can nab for this price tag. I still love that a premium whisky like this comes in a screw cap as I loathe synthetic cork that has run amok in the American whisky category.

Score: 5/10

Lead image courtesy of Matt.

CategoriesJapanese
  1. Paul says:

    Reading thru each review I thought, “oh, bet Taylor gives it a 6 and Matt would prolly be an 8.” but holy shit those scores are brutal compared to quite lovely descriptions of a whiskey. lol One that I just bought for 170$ by the way. I enjoyed the article no matter the score. Here’s to hoping I enjoy the whiskey.

    1. Taylor says:

      Paul, I have visited the Yamazaki distillery and have enjoyed many of their whiskies. As I said in my conclusion, the 12 year old is (and always has been) just OK whisky. Not bad, but not close to justifying the price. I presume a lot of folks have heard about Japanese whisky and probably take an (expensive) flier on this, and I suspect they’re let down. I tried to make my score reflect the relatively poor value for money, which is what we do. Cheers, and best of luck with your bottle.

  2. Catherine says:

    I appreciated being able to read Matt’s thoughts on the whisky. I’m hopeful for more ‘dual’ Malt reviews on sourced bottles.

  3. Welsh Toro says:

    Very enjoyable review Taylor my old bean. Fancy telling an old codger like WT to “shut up.” Where’s the respect these days. Guess what? I used to buy this when it was £35 a bottle. Actually, I got onto the Japanese whisky wagon just at the tail end before it really took off. That take off was a shot across the bows prior to the subsequent bourbon and whisky boom a year or two later.

    I know exactly what you’re saying about our perception of price and I use your father’s barometer all the time. It keeps me grounded into my sense of worth. I think I’ve told you that my wife is Spanish and in Spain people over a certain age still judge value by the peseta and not the euro. They know when something really isn’t worth it. I think we’ve had this conversation about Weller 12 in the past.

    I’ve always enjoyed Yamazaki 12 but I became aware, quite a number of years ago, that Bunnahabhain 12 was every bit as good, if not better. Much as I enjoy Japanese whisky there was a point at which I had to let go. I always wanted Yamazaki 12 (and all the other young age statements) on my shelf but £100 was, for me, the cut off – The point my self-respect could not go beyond. Unfortunately, the NAS replacements are inferior and still cost more than that Bunnahabhain 12. However, if you want to spend £200 on a 12 year old bottle of 43% abv whisky be my guest.

    Suntory really screwed this up. They probably make far more money selling Ribena and that’s how much they valued their whisky and why they never saw the future. It became crisis control in the end and I suspect Japanese whisky will always be uncompetitive, in terms of comparisons, with any age statements moving forward. The reputation of it was soiled very badly when the world found out that a lot of Japanese whisky was in fact Scottish whisky (or a blend of such) bottled in Japan. It says something that the best value for money Japanese whisky is Suntory’s Toki, a blended Grain/Yamazaki/Hakushu bottled at 43%.

    Great review as always. WT

    1. Taylor says:

      WT, thanks as always for reading, and for your thoughtful comments. The “shut up” was directed as much at myself as at anyone else; I’m feeling the tension between living in the past and accepting reality, which includes the relaity of higher prices. Just this week, I saw Yamazaki 12 and Hakushu 12 for $200 at Binny’s. They were the 100th anniversary editions; not sure that means much but a medallion on the box/label. In any case, I can think of four $50 bottles (or, for that matter, ten $20 bottles) I’d rather have for that amount. Whatever the future brings, we’ll keep giving it to you straight, no chaser. Cheers!

      1. Jason Coates says:

        You know, if we were comparing modern whisky prices to those of the 90s I would wholeheartedly agree with this take, but we aren’t. This is not the slow, inexorable tide of inflation which has lifted my Bunnahabhain 12 from $52 to $65, or my Ardbeg 10 from $50 to $60 since I started buying them in 2017. Your point holds for those bottles, and with them I do choose to shut up. It is what it is. Prices will always creep; prices have always crept.

        But the Yamazaki story (and the larger Japanese one it’s a part of) is something different. Yamazaki 12 has more than doubled in price since the early pandemic – a scant 3 years ago – from 80usd to 170usd in my locale. Not only has it lost touch with its old place in the market, it has lost touch with everything else in the market along the way. What was once a ~30% premium over the Bunnahabhain 12 is now nearly 300%… despite both products being subject to the same macroeconomic forces over that span of time.

        I believe, given those numbers, we’re allowed to ask some critical questions about value without being made to feel old and out of touch. At the end of the day, this whisky doesn’t hold up to its price – in either absolute terms or relative ones. (And it’s a shame… Yamazaki never really did it for me but Hakushu sure did, and the economics of that bottle are identical. At least I had the wisdom to stock up on a few spares in 2018 before it got silly!)

        Anyway, cheers for a thought-provoking post and its not-unwelcome reality check concerning our economic reality. Many of us needed to hear that, even if it may not apply to this bottle in particular!

        1. Taylor says:

          Jason, thanks for the very many well-made points. Agreed that rising prices are – at least during this point in the cycle – to be expected. Agreed that Japanese whisky pricing has become completely unmoored from inflationary forces or whatever other justifications one might imagine. It’s clear that these bottles are being positioned as a luxury good for someone who wants to pay $200 for a bottle of whisky, regardless of competing alternatives. I’m just trying to inject some sanity into the conversation. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *