An incredibly rare whisky is coming to the U.S. from legendary Japanese whisky maker Suntory and its flagship Yamazaki distillery: Yamazaki 55 is a Japanese single malt with history dating back to the ‘60s, earning it the distinction of being the oldest whisky ever released by Suntory.
Yamazaki 55 comprises individual casks of Japanese single malt from 1960 and 1964, the former aged in Japanese Mizunara oak and the latter aged in more common white oak casks. The pedigree of this whisky is amazing: it was distilled when the founder was still alive, and has been carefully watched by several generations of master blenders.
This is big news for a whisky brand that, in the last five years, has seen exponential growth in demand while simultaneously seeing substantial hurdles to meeting it.
Yamazaki isn’t just one of the most prominent names in Japanese whisky—it’s the first. Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii set the stage when construction began in 1923, just outside Kyoto. In the decades since, Suntory has grown to include the Hakushu distillery, and several more brands (not to mention its acquisition of Beam, which includes a substantial number of bourbon brands, including Jim Beam, Booker’s, and Maker’s Mark).
Normally we don’t give much attention to a bottle’s packaging, but the crystal decanter for the Yamazaki 55 is gorgeous, with sandblasted designs and touches of gold dust and lacquer in the final design. It’s also wrapped in handmade Echizen washi paper and bound with a Kyo-kumihimo plaited cord, which is a traditional Kyoto craft.
The piece that’s most interesting, however, is the box, which is made from mizunara oak wood that gives great Japanese malts their unique character. It’s a similar packaging decision to Booker’s 30th release, which was sold in unique boxes made from reclaimed lumber from a warehouse being disassembled when the liquid was finished.
At 46 percent ABV, it’s a restrained single malt in true Japanese fashion—nothing punchy or overpowering for the liquid’s aromas and flavors to contend with. And that’s good, because the deep amber liquid is, according to Suntory, aromatically lush with well-ripened fruit and sandalwood on the nose. Official tasting notes highlight intense woody character from the mizunara before a finish of smoke.
If that doesn’t sound particularly descriptive, well, we agree, but these ultra-old whiskies have a way of being indescribable, even for the masters. Fifth-generation Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo had more to add, thankfully: “Throughout the process of blending Yamazaki 55, I used as inspiration the passage of time and ‘Wabi-sabi’—the Japanese belief that imperfections can help to ultimately contribute to perfection,” explained Fukuyo. “While I often view other extra aged whiskies as art, I consider Yamazaki 55 to be more like a Buddhist statue: calm and mysterious, requiring time to truly enjoy the inner beauty.”
Of course, for most of us, tasting it will be a pipe dream. Yamazaki 55 is (as you probably expected) available in profoundly limited quantities. The liquid actually began selling in 2020 to Japanese consumers in a separate 100-bottle release. This year’s release is the same size, but is available on a global scale, including the United States, United Kingdom, China, and Taiwan.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle, we can’t tell you cracking it open is a good idea anyway. The collector’s value of a release like this is substantial. Of course, to hold such a rare liquid and not give it a taste?
That sounds like a terribly sobering decision, too.
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