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Whisky Reviews

Suntory's Yamazaki Smoky Batch & Hakushu Japanese Forest - We Taste And See If They Are Worth The Hype!


Quietly, Suntory released, pretty much unannounced, a pair of domestic duty free NAS bottlings - one from Yamazaki and the other from Hakushu - that first began begin taken noticed of when it crept into various Japanese whisky related Facebook groups and sub-Reddits.

Initially there were folks who even thought these might've been a hoax - we do live in an AI age these days, so it's not that farfetched. There's been quite a few fictitious out of this world expressions from other distilleries that have been circulating about social media as well.


At the Narita Airport Duty Free. (Image Source: u/Sherry_Bombardier on Reddit)


But alas, as the photos of the bottlings began showing up in increasing intensity, it had to be real - as it turned out, you could only pick them up from the likes of Narita Airport, as this was a domestic duty free release. These made them incredibly sought after - a smoky Yamazaki and what seemed like a Sherry Hakushu?! Way to get the crowd going!

To Suntory's credit, at least they gave us something tangible to be excited about. No marketing spin, stories or names that aren't backed with something tangibly different about the whisky itself. Sure, they're NAS, and everyone wants an age statement, but you give some, you take some right? But in any case, the point is that these weren't just re-packaged standard expressions (which for some reason or the other, they saved for their big 100th Anniversary commemorative bottlings...🤔) - they were the real deal.


Suntory's 100th Anniversary Bottles. (Image Source: Suntory)


And I've heard excitement for each of the releases - the Yamazaki fans and the Hakushu fans, almost as if these two weren't from the same parent company, which is really a testament to Suntory's success in creating two distinctly separate but equally beloved profiles of whiskies from its two primary distilleries.

For me, I was personally more excited to try the Hakushu as I had been a big fan of the Sherry Hakushu, and not so much a peated whisky fan. And so, believe me when I say I was willing to bury the hatchet, let bygones be bygones, water under the bridge, and all that stuff, if any uncle or auntie or friend's dog or parakeet could help me snag one as the world made its way through Japan. Everyone's in Japan these days - you could probably find half the world's population there.


Suntory's two powerhouses. 


I fought hard to resist the urge to pick one up from a reseller - think 2-3x retail prices - just hoping that some kind soul would pop one open and share it at a local bar or a dram share. And after months of praying (which materially just looked like me scrolling through local whisky group chats, ceaselessly refreshing webpages and from time to time bugging folks in the community) they finally showed up! Some very generous pals from the community came through and kindly allowed me to get my sample (considering how hyped they are and how much they're going for, it would've been easier to just keep them closed). It's a Christmas/New Year's miracle! Okay, okay let me screw my head back on. I'm just pretty elated to finally get my turn to try it after seeing it all around.

And you're coming with me as I taste them!

Yamazaki Smoky Batch The First - Review

For this expression, we're told in a card that comes with the bottle that this is "made entirely of smoky malts produced at the Yamazaki Distillery.", which I'm guessing - and I might be stating the obvious here - that this is made with imported peated malt (which Yamazaki has done before, as opposed to other techniques ranging from peating their own barley to using an ex-peated Islay whisky cask, the latter of which has become rather popular as of late).

Also interestingly the use of "The First", would - again I might be stating the obvious - imply a second? Is this going to be a regular batch thing? In any case, this is an NAS bottling, bottled at 43% ABV, originally retailing at 18,000 Yen (or US$124.50). 


Tasting Notes

Color: Canola Oil

Aroma: Really aromatic - mellow and all encompassing gentle smokiness, it's a really lovely bouquet that's neither hot nor sharp, really pillowy and fragrant. It's backed up by more honey sweetness, vanilla cream, flower meadows, hay, pressed flowers - floral, fresh and gently sweet. There's a light bit of smoked cream, ricotta topped with honey and pine nuts. Also a sort of light industrial grease. Light bit of leatherbound books and musty wooden cabinets.

As it lightens up, the smoke falls away and reveals this really lifted, fresh cream, hay and honey aroma that's really gorgeous. 

Taste: A little lighter than you might expect, it's just a touch lighter than medium-bodied. There's some cold ash, light bit of honey, vanilla cream, red apples, pears, maltose candy, as well as some camphor and mint. Other than the weight, it does sport a good roundedness and silky texture. 

Finish: The acidity is more prominent here, with more ash coming through. It's alittle nippy and slightly more bitter. As it recedes there's alittle more honey and vanilla cream. It's a medium-length finish that leaves you with a slight smokiness.


My Thoughts  

All in, this was a pretty decent whisky with great aromas and an otherwise fairly standard flavour on the palate, as well as finish. Within the flagship Yamazaki lineup, I'd say this ranks just a touch higher than the 12 Year Old for me, and definitely beats the Distiller's Reserve no question.

It has an amazing aroma on the nose with this perfect smokiness - bear in mind, I don't usually enjoy smoky whiskies, but this was so incredibly fragrant and mellow, but it was still very all around. It has this really great freshness about it as well, and kept developing with all these lifted gorgeous scents of cream, hay and honey - reminiscent of a certain Campbeltown whisky that everyone goes bonkers for (specifically the 70's stuff) sans the funkiness that might throw some folks off - this is just fantastic, very lovely, friendly aromas.

And that's kind of the prelude to the big BUT, isn't it? So great aromas, but that leaves you with high hopes for what's to come on the palate. Now, nothing wrong about it, I should say. But it's rather simple (which could still be a winner) and not all that impactful - the flavours were pretty gentle, and just okay. It comes off as a very standard smoky whisky for the most part - although a well integrated one at that. I just kind of wish there was more oomph. It didn't quite give me pound-the-table-I-need-three-bottles-now! vibes.

So altogether, great aromas, tastes okay.

My Rating: 6/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Hakushu Japanese Forest Bittersweet Edition - Review

This next one's the Hakushu Japanese Forest Bittersweet Edition - would that also imply other editions? Who knows. I find it rather amusing that Suntory isn't particularly consistent with the naming conventions for the pair of bottlings. In any case this focuses more on having "been aged exclusively in Spanish oak casks". So this is the one I've really been waiting for, let's get into it.

By the way, also an NAS bottling, an also bottled at 43% ABV - at least that part's consistent. Retailed at 18,000 Yen (or US$124.50) too.


Tasting Notes

Color: Honey / Burnt Sienna

Aroma: Fairly dense - prunes, figs, raisins, burnt brown sugar, alittle bit of that rancio note with a slight yeasty funkiness and some nuttiness. More on leather, musty wooden cabinets, tobacco leaves, soil - rather earthy. It gets sweeter with time, more on Port and mulled wine, with all those concentrated sweetness from stewed and dried fruits.

Taste: Good richness and depth with notes of cacao, dark chocolate, raisins, tobacco leaves, brown sugar, still quite earthy and really with those bittersweet notes. Some feared that this would be really bitter - here to tell you those worries are unfounded! It has a great balance of earthy bitterness and sweetness (think 50/50) - so not all that sweet nor all that bitter. There's more on leather, abit more woodiness as well, but really more of those Port flavours of dried prunes and figs, nuttiness, soil. It's got a medium-body but it supports well the richness of the flavours which were really cohesive.

Finish: More of those dried fruits of raisins, prunes, figs - it gets alittle sweeter here. Coffee right at the end - like a cup of cappuccino. There's some eucalyptus and mint in the back as well, and some cough syrup. Cleans out aromatically with lingering sweet and earthy notes again reminiscent of Port wine and cigars. Not particularly drying, kind of a nice velvety (slightly sweet), rounded and rich finish.


My Thoughts  

This was very good - really lived up to my hopes to be honest. To alleviate anyone's fears that it might be particularly bitter - it really was not all that bitter, in fact it came off more as earthy than bitter, sort of like a 50% dark chocolate. And the finish wasn't drying at all either!

What was even better than it not being particular bitter or drying is that it showcased a very lovely balance between sweet and earthy notes that really conveyed an incredible use of the Spanish Oak casks - it's about as precisely balanced as the slabs in the Great Pyramid really. And supporting those lovely, rich flavours was a decently hefty body that had enough body to carry all of that without ever getting thin or dry - really wonderful.

The aromas were also a nice dense and richness of your classic Hakushu Sherry Cask flavours, while the finish had this really lovely progression from dried fruits to this wonderful pop of coffee and then backed up by the signature Hakushu minty note. The finish not only managed to not be dry, but receded softly and in this really rounded, velvety fashion that was incredibly satisfying.

If I were forced to pick a point of improvement (because I really enjoyed it thoroughly), it would be that this could use more oomph and more depth to its flavours - to bring it more forward and amped up. This was simple but done very well as is.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.



Now parsing through my tasting notes, it should be pretty clear which of the two was my favourite - obviously the Hakushu Japanese Forest Bittersweet Edition was the winner.

But let's get into the nitty gritty here. The Yamazaki Smoky Batch The First had a superior aroma - absolute banger! But then sort of eased into a more standard offering on the palate. It was alright but nothing to write home about. Altogether this didn't quite give me a sense that I would be missing out that much with just the standard Yamazaki lineup.

The Hakushu Japanese Forest Bittersweet Edition was more all rounded - it had a solid aroma, taste and finish, and in particular had great balance on the palate and a really nice progression on the finish, which were rather outstanding beyond the standard Hakushu profile. And that's what really makes the Hakushu such a top pick because it's really giving you Hakushu Spanish Oak on a budget (minus some richness and depth of course), but at the same time it's beyond what you could usually find with Hakushu.

Across both bottles, they were both definitely above average, both bringing some unique aspects that were fairly outstanding, but also at the same time could use more oomph and batting heavier flavours if we're talking about climbing up the rankings. Though for what they are, that is Duty Free releases that are designed to be more entry level, they are definitely hitting above their weightclass.

Hakushu Japanese Forest Bittersweet Edition nevertheless came out on top for me!