Last January, in Hong Kong, a bottle of Yamazaki 50 year-old single malt set a new record for Japanese whisky at auction. It sold for £209,740 – more than twice the high estimate – and a thrilled Sotheby’s Wine specialist said this illustrated “a whisky market in full swing”.
Yamazaki is the flagship single malt of the legendary House of Suntory, produced at (and named for) the oldest distillery in Japan. And while spending more than £200,000 on a bottle is unimaginable for most whisky lovers, some of Suntory’s most exclusive and exquisite single malts are tantalisingly attainable.
One such is the Yamazaki Mizunara 2017 Edition. Released in London last September, this expression is restricted to 5,000 bottles worldwide, so while it launched with a recommended retail price of £1,000, you would be lucky to find a bottle for under £2,500 now.
But it’s the scarcity and novelty that make it so appealing. Mizunara is a subspecies of Asian oak (Quercus mongolica), which, despite being slow-growing, prone to leaking, hard to source, and extremely costly compared to European or American varieties, has magical properties for the maturation of whisky.
Suntory, which is now active in conserving the trees, first made mizunara casks out of necessity, when the Second World War made the import of foreign oak impossible, and although initial results were unimpressive, they discovered that in the longer term (after almost two decades in the barrel), the effects of mizunara were alchemical, transforming the raw spirit into a rich golden liquid, with a flavour that is uniquely Japanese.
The distiller’s tasting notes say that the nose of this edition is “a rich and elegant fragrance, aloe wood, cinnamon”, the palate is “a condensed sweetness, silky texture, dry fruits, coconut, orange marmalade”, and the finish “a distinctive spiciness... with Japanese incense, aloe wood, cinnamon, and tartness”. But for me, it’s like full-mouth kissing a still flaming Christmas pudding; candied figs and sultanas all the way down. And while it lingers long on the tongue, in the mind it lingers longer.