There are few word combinations that’ll make your mouth water quicker than ‘Japanese whisky’. The island nation is widely regarded as making some of the best whisky in the world – even the country’s most affordable drops, like the ubiquitous yellow-labelled Suntory Kakubin, are fantastic. It’s pretty hard to find bad Japanese whisky.
But there’s one distillery that stands head and shoulder above all others in Japan; a distillery whose name has become shorthand for luxury across the globe: Yamazaki. Established in 1923 by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii, Yamazaki is Japan’s oldest and best-regarded distillery. Their single malts have become the stuff of legends, and regularly sell at auction for many times more than their already rather punchy retail prices.
Indeed, I used to think that Yamazaki 25 Year Old was about as good as whisky could possibly get – and at around AU$10,000 a bottle, you’d kind of hope so. So when I heard that the House of Suntory was releasing a Yamazaki 55, I was gobsmacked. If the 25 is already perfection, then something over twice as old… The mind boggles.
Yamazaki 55 Year Old is officially the oldest and most expensive Japanese whisky of all time. Officially, it retails for AU$90,000, but that doesn’t tell the whole story: a first edition bottle of the stuff sold for a whopping US$795,000 (~AU$1,111,445) at a Bonhams auction last year, smashing the previous auction record held by a first edition Yamazaki 50.
Hopefully, this all sets the scene for you. It’s some bloody rare whisky. So you can understand how nervous and excited I was to have the chance to try some of the liquid gold myself at an exclusive event at iconic Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya’s.
Tetsuya’s, one of Australia’s best and most famous restaurants, was the ideal place for such a rare and luxurious whisky. Indeed, the building that now hosts the award-winning Japanese fine dining location was once owned by Suntory. If you’ve never been, it’s a fantastical place. It’s like a parcel of Japan that’s somehow glitched into the middle of the Sydney CBD; a palatial, zen-like escape from the skyscrapers and grit of the Harbour City.
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But as good as the food and overall haute cuisine experience was (and trust me, it was good – the ocean trout, “the world’s most photographed dish”, lives up to the hype), it was background noise. No, the main event was the Yamazaki tasting flight immaculately laid out in front of us. Just a cheeky few thousand dollars of whisky. No big deal.
Someone knocked over a vase early in the night; the sense of relief that washed over the room when we all worked out it wasn’t a dram of the good stuff was palpable. You could cut it with a knife. Or with a spoon, like we cut our tuna with. Itadakimasu.
While the Yamazaki Distillers’ Reserve, 12, 18 and 25 years were all presented in Glencairn glasses, the show-stopping 55 was actually served in a large Burgundy glass – with whisky that old and rare, you want that space to swirl and let aromas develop. Like suave scientists, our waiters popped open small ampoules of the 55 and poured them into the wine glasses with a deft flick. The hardest part? Waiting with bated breath for Tom Scott, Beam Suntory brand ambassador and our captain for the night, to guide us through the flight to the big one.
So what was it like? Unlike any other whisky – hell, unlike any other liquid – I’ve ever put past my lips. First, the aroma: it was heady and pungent; stronger than any other spirit I’ve encountered. It reminded me of sandalwood; like a really good men’s cologne. The smell of Yamazaki 55 alone is intoxicating.
But the taste. Oh my days. There’s an immediate funkiness, with fruity, umami flavours dancing across your tongue. Like a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano and pear, just smokier. Then, the wonderful, slightly salty oak notes, a defining characteristic of Yamazaki’s Mizunara cask single malts, remind you that this is indeed an old and treasured whisky. Smooth as hell with a sweet and pleasantly bitter finish, it lingers on the tongue like a passionate kiss.
Stick a fork in me, I’m done. It doesn’t get any better than this. Yamazaki 55 is truly a work of art: a testament to the determination and artistry of Suntory master blenders Shinji Fukuyo and Shingo Torii. To have the chance to try such an exceptional whisky was truly an honour.
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The only problem is that now that I’ve attained Japanese whisky enlightenment and ascended to a higher plane, other Japanese whiskies can never compare. We even fell into that trap on the night: after sipping the 55, the 25 seems drab by comparison – keeping in mind that 25 already ranks as one of the rarest and tastiest whiskies on the planet, and any other day of the week I would have been willing to sell a kidney just to get my hands on a bottle.
So that’s my warning: Yamazaki 55 is worth it, but it might just make you blasé. That said, if you’re able to secure a bottle for yourself, you might have bigger fish to fry anyway. Find out more about this unbelievably good whisky at the House of Suntory here.