After an enthusiastically hailed debut of the Yamazaki Sherry Cask of 2013, which raised the stature of Japanese whisky worldwide, the House of Suntory is following up with the 2016 version, which is sure to garner similar notice. The new single malt boasts two added years of age to its original components and the addition of extra-old whiskies in the mix.
While this latest edition to the Yamazaki Cask Collection makes no age statement, the producers divulge that casks from the selection used to meld the 2013 were retained and continued to age a couple more years to make the 2016 version. The newer release also contains whiskies as old as 25 years.
For the House of Suntory, which acquired Jim Beam in 2014 to create Beam Suntory, Sherry is a longstanding tradition. The firm began in 1899, selling imported wine. In 1924, it started distilling whisky at its Yamazaki distillery, using Sherry barrels it had employed in making a sweet wine. The company added a grain distillery in 1972 and the Hakushu distillery in 1973. However, the focus had been on producing Suntory blends, and Yamazaki single malt was not released until 1984, followed by Hakushu in 1994.
Shinji Fukuyo, the chief master blender, oversees all life cycles of the Sherry casks, which are made of Spanish oak and sent to Sherry bodegas for curing by storing Sherry in them for three years. The casks are then sent to Yamazaki for whisky aging. Sherry casks are not, however, the sole wood type used by Yamazaki. Former Bourbon barrels as well as an indigenous wood—mizunara—are other examples.
A pure Sherry-matured whisky makes a bold statement. In Scotland, those vessels are typically utilized in marriages of whiskies, typically including a percentage of Bourbon-barrel-matured spirits. Fukuyo suggests sampling the whisky on a three-station plan: first taking it neat, then adding ice and finally a bit of water. Ice and water are not strangers to the Japanese enjoyment of whisky as highballs and other whisky cocktails have a long tradition in the country. (See the Good Life Guide in Cigar Aficionado magazine, April 2016, for a look at Japan's well-engineered barware.)
Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 Edition (96 proof, or 48 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $300 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: With no added coloring it achieves a rich, dark, reddish-brown molasses hue. Thick, lumbering legs.
NOSE: No mistaking Sherry on this huge nose, but go below the surface and find rum notes, black tea, slightly pungent licorice and some hints of chocolate.
PALATE: Again, it is tempting on first flush to pronounce this a Sherry bomb, but seconds after that flavor foray you start to register more subtle notes of dried fruits, pear, walnuts and hazelnuts, as well as lots of caramel and chocolate. And then, of course, there's still the Sherry.
FINISH: The very long finish is where the whisky continues to open up, suggesting heartier and spicier notes as well as sour hints with Stilton cheese and maybe some peat. It is remarkable for its transformation from what at first seems to be a very good, but one-note whisky, into something so complex.
Note: The suggested addition of ice and then water contributes new dimensions, which strikingly follow Fukuyo's tasting notes: first an opening of flavors and then an apple component.
CIGAR PAIRING: Rocky Patel Sun Grown Torpedo (Honduras; 6 1/4 inches by 52 ring gauge; $9.15; 91 points; Cigar Aficionado February 2016).
A symmetrically rolled torpedo that imparts a medium-bodied smoke. It's meaty and peppery throughout with touches of chocolate and an earthy finish. The plan here was to balance the earthy, hearty quality of the cigar with the sweet and fruity notes of the whisky, with the possible bonus of highlighting the shared cocoa. And that's exactly what happened. The Yamazaki's sweetness filled out the Rocky and put its chocolate on showcase. The spice on the smoke elicited the same component in the spirit, only much earlier in the process. The dance between the two had a number of subtle moments, including dips and turns in which the malt conferred a nuanced smoothness on the sun-grown edges of the cigar and was repaid with a bit muscle.