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Whisky Reviews

Two Grail SMWS Japanese Whiskies: ‘Raspberry Imperial Stout’ SMWS 119.14 Yamazaki 2003 and ‘Sweet, fragrant and satisfying’ SMWS 120.7 Hakushu 1999


Ah two Japanese single malt expressions from the famous independent bottler, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), that I thought I'll never be able to try - these two expressions were my grails for a long time. Until now.

One of the amazing things about the spirits community is just how generous fellow spirit lovers can be, one moment you're enquiring about an expression, and the next you're invited to try them. Well, not quite so few steps, but you get the idea.

I hadn't even dared dream of ever owning these highly sought after expressions, and even the chance to try them was long thought by me to be a sheer impossibility. After all, these aren't even standard expressions released by a distillery, nay, these are single cask expressions as is the modus operandi of SMWS.


The batch of SMWS Japanese expressions from which this came, not pictured is an 11th expression, a 20 Year Old Yoichi. (Image Source: Nonjatta)


With just over 500 bottles each, having been released in late 2014 when you could find double-digit aged single sherry cask matured Japanese single malt expressions (each descriptor raises the impossibility by a notch) for about £200 - and back then folks were complaining about it being expensive... pfft! - the outlook of trying them today was all but bleak.

Most would have been opened and enjoyed at the time (whilst simultaneously complaining about the prices then), after all it was a time that just narrowly preceded the massive Japanese whisky fever, and as such the collectible market hadn't yet materialised in full.

Nonetheless, by a massive stroke of good fortune, I was very generously offered a couple of drams of each expression by a gentleman who too was a big fan of Japanese whiskies.


The SMWS, founded by Pip Hills, has done a phenomenal job of staying relevant by constantly staying on the search for new world whiskies to bring into the fold, despite their original Scotch centered mission.


Some might beg the question - what's so special about these two expressions besides the more obvious value driver being that it's a couple of well-aged (by Japanese standards) single sherry cask Japanese single malts? 

When SMWS had first released this pair of Japanese single malts (Yamazaki and Hakushu, by the way), there were in fact 11 expressions that were launched in the same batch, and already then, the excitement around them was palpable. However, these two stood out then, and even till this day, as probably the only instance of the use of Bota Corta Spanish Oak Butts (more specifically 1st Fill). 

"Bota Corta" is a reference to a specific size for a Sherry butt and actually translates from Spanish as "Little Boot" or "Short Boot", and as the name suggests, is a smaller sized Sherry butt, and given that this was 1st Fill (the whisky being filled in right after Sherry was emptied out), you can bet this was a pretty active cask - and thus the myth around them is that these stand out as remarkable examples of the use of Sherry casks which has imbued them with fantastically rich and deep Sherry flavours.


Bota Corta Sherry butts are not the most common sight!


As mentioned, while these may just be Sherry cask aged Japanese single malts, the fact that they've been so raved about and the highly unusual usage of the "Bota Corta" reference, has made them quite the grail for Japanese whisky lovers and SMWS fans. And while Suntory has bottled similar Bota Corta Sherry Butt matured single casks for their private buyer's Owner's Cask program, these two stand out as having been the only to be bottled independently.

 And with that, let's give them a go!

Yamazaki 2003, 11 Years Old, SMWS 119.14 ‘Raspberry Imperial Stout’ - Review



First up, we have the SMWS 119.14 'Raspberry Imperial Stout', that is a Yamazaki 2003, 11 Years Old, bottled at 53.9% ABV, with a total of 538 bottles.

Doesn't that already sound ridiculously enticing, Raspberry Imperial Stout, wow!


"Deep notes of sherry trifle, black coffee and dark chocolate with cherry. Spicy fruits of the forest, Vimto, sweet, earthy beetroot, and imperial stout with raspberry. Water brought ginger preserve, malt loaf, raspberry concentrate, chocolate prunes and Fisherman's Friends to the fore. Very moreish... "

SMWS Label


Tasting Notes

Color: Mahogany

Aroma: Deep, deep cooked fruits of plums, figs, cherries, raspberries. Also lots of rich, dark scents of mulled wine, leather, tobacco leaves and cacao nibs. Over time it lets up to a brighter note of raspberry jam and lacquered wood. There’s also some mellower, more earthy notes of coffee powder.

Taste: Really powerful stuff - it’s still punchy and bold, with a deeply sherried character of the same cooked fruits of plums and figs, as well as raspberry jam. This comes in tandem with those mulled wine, tobacco leaves and cacao nib notes. Deep layers of coffee candy as well. A perfect continuation of its aromas. Incredibly rounded and full-bodied, with an absolute cohesiveness. 

Finish: There’s a slight funkiness here of rancio, nuttiness, as well as a slight touch of brie rinds. This is all layered atop a rich, sweet base of mulled wine that fades out into a more acute quality of espresso.


My Thoughts

This was an incredible sherry bomb - you couldn’t find a hair out of place. It had big and bold flavours that were perfectly balanced and expressed - but what struck me was how cohesive and rounded it was, never for a moment slipping. It was a ball of classically sherry flavours - dark, dense, sweet and earthy. Into the finish, there was a growing funky rancio quality along with more noticeable coffee qualities that unveiled itself.

My Rating: 8/10

Hakushu 1999, 14 Years Old, SMWS 120.7 ‘Sweet, fragrant and satisfying’ - Review



Now for the Hakushu, this is SMWS 120.7 'Sweet, fragrant and satisfying', this was distilled in September 1999, 14 Years Old, with a total of 517 bottles released, and bottled at 55.5% ABV.

What's particularly fascinating about this pair is the ability to compare how the Yamazaki and the Hakushu takes to the Bota Corta cask at 1st Fill, and while there is a significant difference in years of maturation, they're fairly similar in proof - a solid head to head in the works!


"The nose carries fragrant blossom, deep Pedro Ximinez notes as well as sweet, rich rolling tobacco. There’s treacle spiced buns, rum and raisin fudge, dates, blackcurrants and spices galore. Espresso with lots of brown sugar was quickly replaced and complimented by coffee cream dark chocolates. To taste we found kirsch cocktails with burnt orange skin, liquorice, caraway seeds and teriyaki glaze. “It has everything!” 

SMWS Label


Tasting Notes

Color: Deep Amber

Aroma: A distinctive Sherry profile but alittle brighter and lifted here - cooked plums, figs, raisins, tobacco leaves, alittle bit of cherry twizzler candy. Here there’s less of that mulled wine denseness. In its place there’s more spices revealed, of nutmeg and cloves. There’s also a light woodiness of casks resting in a dunnage. Nosing the empty glass gives lots of bright, juicy red berries and currants.

Taste: Most certainly sweeter here, with more of a Port quality - there’s those cooked plums, figs and raisins, and also more earthy notes of coffee. It has an incredibly deep and silky texture that extends into infinity. More on chocolate sauce and molasses. More sips reveals brighter red berries and currants, raspberries, cranberries and hawthorns.

Finish: There’s more raspberry jams here, still keeping that sweetness, before a gentle rancio note comes through - it almost melds into a Cognac quality. A deep, long warmth that comes with a slight farmhouse funkiness. A final touch of leather comes through.


My Thoughts

Certainly it goes without saying that the cask influence is remarkably strong here, but that makes it no less tasty. This possesses a sort of elegance with how the whisky takes all that richness and sweetness from the cask without going out of balance. On the palate is an incredibly silky and never-ending depth that’s as intense as it is breathtaking. 

My Rating: 9/10


Between the Yamazaki and the Hakushu, it is without a doubt the Hakushu that steals it for me - while both of them are Sherry bombs with great balance, body and power, the Hakushu has an elegance to it, where the cask influence, while strong, is not overly dark and thick. This allows all those gorgeous berries and currants to come through, as well as showcasing more nuance and complexity. It also has an unbeatable depth to its palate that extends infinitely.

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.