If you’re a connoisseur of brown spirits, you’ve probably heard of Jim Murray. Jim is a spirits expert who publishes something called The Whisky Bible. While I don’t know him personally, he has the reputation of being an iconoclast, and mutual friends confirm that description.
The 2015 edition of The Whiskey Bible came out a few months back, and Jim named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the world’s best whisky (the vintage designation refers only to the year it was bottled, not the age of the spirit). He rated it 97.5 points out of a possible 100, and said it had a flavor of “near indescribable genius.” The Yamakazi beat out over 1,000 other entries to win the title. It was the first time a Japanese whisky had won, and also the first time a single malt from Scotland failed to place in the top five.
Japanese whisky production began with the late Shinjiro Torii. A former pharmaceutical salesman, Torii founded a company called Kotobukiya, later known as Suntory. In 1924, against the advice of all his investors, he opened the country’s first commercial distillery—Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto. From the beginning, he took Scotland as his model, and located Yamazaki near a source of pure spring water located at the foot of Mt. Tenno.
I can’t verify whether Jim Murray was correct: In the wake of his accolade the Yamazaki Single malt Sherry Cask has become almost unavailable, with the few remaining bottles selling easily for more than $1,000. However, I did try the Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt ($75) about a year ago, and found it delicious. It is rich yet nicely balanced in the mouth, with the sweetness and floral component giving way to pepper and spice in the mid palate, and the spice notes offsetting the opulent texture.
Murray’s ranking of the Yamazaki inspired a spate of stories in the press, and not just the beverage media—the news was picked up by major outlets around the world. Most were gleeful in tone, with the theme of “Take that, Scotland!” Regardless of whether the subject is sports, politics or whiskey, it seems that everyone loves an underdog.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com