When whisky became a Veblen good

Posted 16 June 2017 by Matt / In Yamazaki
The Dramble's tasting notes for Yamazaki 18 year old

Bottle Name: Yamazaki 18 year old

ABV: 43%
Distillery: Yamazaki
Region: Japan Age: 18

Blame the man in the hat. Blame a string of industry awards. Blame the Internet. Or frankly, perhaps we should just all blame ourselves. Whisky has become a commodity, and perhaps none more so than Japanese whisky. The Karuizawa's and Hanyu's of this world have become statement pieces and status symbols - many bottles little more than liquid filled paperweights. But, the impact of the rise of Japanese whisky and of commodification can be felt across the market with nearly all bottlings becoming Veblen goods.

Veblen goods, named after 19th Century US economist Thorstein Veblen, are products where there is a noticeable increase in demand as they get more expensive because, the higher price must (obviously) confer yet more status. If you combine that with both a bandwagon effect (doing something because everyone else) and a high equilibrium price caused by low levels of supply but maintained high demand, then you've got a simple, but fairly accurately depressing economic model for the state of Japanese whisky right now.

Some whiskies have been affected more than others - the lost distilleries of Karuizawa and Hanyu are case in point. But, such is the power of supply, demand, bandwagoning and the Veblen effect, that even what were entry level or core bottlings have seen their prices sky-rocket over the past 5 years.

This brings us neatly onto Yamazaki 18 year old. Yamazaki 18 was not the first Japanese whisky I ever tried (I vaguely remember that being Miyagikyo), but it was the liquid gold which cemented my belief in the inherent quality of whisky produced in the country. Suntory Single Malt Whisky Yamazaki was launched in 1984, exactly 60 years after the founding of the distillery. In 1992, the 18 year old was released and over the past 30 years has, alongside a fair few distillery bottlings, picked up many international awards including 5 Double Gold Medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Nowadays, Suntory (owner of Yamazaki) have virtually all bottlings, certainly those with age statements, on a very strict limited allocation. This is part of their effort, as well as increasing production, to rebuild their aged stocks. As such, the supply of Yamazaki 18 is sadly extremely limited.

Nose: Pronounced with an immediate air of confidence. Rich apples combined with tropical mango in some form of frangipane pastry-type affair. Ginger and cinnamon along with orange blossom and a air or musky incense provide deeper aromas. Deep and complex.

Taste: Real viscosity in the body of this whisky. Sherry flavours are upfront with plums, prunes and a smattering or raisans and sultanas - high degree of sweet richness here. Almonds (frangipane right?) provide a discernable nuttiness. Chocolate alongside a real earthy umami flavour. Oak is ever-present, so spicing is heavy but not sharp and favouring cinnamon. Oozes quality.

Finish: Long, warming, earthy and spiced with an ever so slight edge of salinity providing bite.

Yamazaki 18 is a world-class rich, rewarding and luxuriant whisky. It has a reputation for a reason - it's pure quality. However, that reputation has pushed the price of this bottle up into the stratosphere, with it now regularly trading hands at auction for £300+ (as of June 2017). Considering when I was a younger lad I used to see shelves of this in the supermarket for around £60 a pop, it's hard to recommend to most people to buy a bottle in the current market conditions. This also affects my scoring - in my book, Yamazaki 18 is simply not a £300 whisky.

This all said, it is a whisky which should be on everyone's list of drams to try. So find a generous friend, or find a bar that doesn't want you to take out a second mortgage to give it a go.

Score: 90/100

Master of Malt
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