Whiskey and Airports (Dram and Drag) / by AB Mann

Couple of things up front:

  1. I swear I write cigar reviews too. I just drink a bunch more whiskey than I smoke cigars.
  2. I am writing this under the influence of delayed flights in Detroit airport.

As a Chicagoan, there are a number of things I like about DTW compared to O’Hare. It’s not gargantuan while still serving international flights. The terminals are laid out in two parallel lines joined by the single coolest audio-visual art installation I’ve ever seen. The toilets are clean (1). And I can get acceptable food in about 15 minutes while waiting for fights.

I was delayed today while flying to Boston - I’m heading to do elbow-to-elbow support for end users of my software - for 2.5 hours because of storm systems over the east coast. Personally, I’m ok with delays when the gate attendants are communicative abut the reasons so I have a concrete sense of that delay (2). Today, they were being communicative, so I went sushi and whiskey hunting.

Food in general can be touch and go in an airport, fish especially so. You don’t really know what sort of access places can get with all the security scrutiny of goods coming in and out of the terminals. It’s why, when you find a good place to eat when you have nothing but interstitial time between flights, a good restaurant can be like finding El Dorado. Just made of fish. This, oddly, seems dolly so for a restaurant that stocks good whiskey.

Today I stumbled upon Yamasaki 18 year, one of those mythologized whiskeys known for its general amazingness.

Japanese whiskies (3) hit their renaissance (4) in 2010 when Yamazaki started winning awards. Having had the 14 year before, and found it sweet and smoother than you’d expect for a 14 year, I was excited to see the 18 year. In an airport.

The neatest thing

(see what I did there?) The dram itself is probably the smoothest whisky I’ve ever had, much smoother than Johnnie Walker which is know ‘round as the smoothest of whiskies (5). And I think that’s an accomplishment given the advantage blending gives to controlling particular variables in the whisky experience.


Yamasaki is such a demure drink. It’s so soft on the nose and only aromatic of oak, maybe a little resin (like a violin resin) and kind of that pleasant alcohol nature. If I could choose one word, I’d say, “simple.” Not in a derogatory way; rather in a focused way. It’s not simplistic. Just simple. Pure.


Oak and oak and more oak and a sweetness somewhere between oranges and nectarines with some of that syrup you get at the bottom of a fruit cup in your elementary school lunch. It’s hardly overpowering in sweetness, but it certainly isn’t backing down on it. It’s just nicely balanced woodiness and sweet notes. It would make an excellent aperitif or dessert whiskey if you’re having a tame fruit tart - thing too sweet because you’d lose the best of the whisky.

It don’t think I’d call it complex. It is smart in its approach in that Yamazaki knows what the whisky can become. If you try the 14 year, you can see the start. It’s a bit more aggressive (insofar as Japanese alcohol is never aggressive) in flavors but has more acrid moments in the middle.

Those are essentially gone with 4 years longer in the cask.

The problem with airports

Buying alcohol in airports is an act of desperation. Usually, and I’m making gross generalizations here, the people drinking in an airport are delayed six ways from Sunday and are applying the best salve they can find to their over-tired wounds. Airport bar know this and charge accordingly. We are, after all, a captive and surly audience. You can expect to pay about $10 for a decent pour of Jameson which, otherwise, would cost you maybe $5 in the average bar.

Yamasaki 18 year? Holy shit. But, like I said: captive audience. I was willing to pay the price…

(And hold on a second where I realize that I am extremely lucky in that I could pay the following for a glass of whisky)

…of $32.

I know, right?

Like it was good but probably not that good.

In that, it’s a lot like the Detroit airport. If you’re going to get stuck anywhere, a linear airport terminal which feels vast and open and bright, with its i-have-been-mopped-at-least-once-this-year bathroom floors, it is pretty good.

So relative to my situation, it was a bargain to enjoy something that hugged my tongue in its unabashed oaken flavors and smooth finish while I contemplated by delayed flight to Boston which, after writing this, is still an hour from boarding.

Assuming the weather cooperates. And if it doesn’t? I think I saw a bottle of Jameson Black Barrel around here somewhere.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

1. I mean, as far as public restrooms trafficked by thousands of people in a day really can be.↩︎︎

2. If they’re not talking, I wonder how likely it is to shorten all-of-a-sudden and leave me stranded, mid slow and luxurious sushi meal. Because, really, Sora at DTW is mighty fine sushi for an airport.↩︎︎

3. “E” omitted here because Japan produces whisky in the Scottish style, generally. ↩︎︎

4. Which is weird to write because Japan wasn’t known for whisky until very recently. Yamasaki, owned by Suntory, was the first in the early 1920s. They mostly labored in local fame until 2010-ish when Yamasaki swooped in and started winning top prizes for 3 out of the 4 years following. ↩︎︎

5. Blended whiskies have the advantage of, well, being blended to adjust certain characteristics. It is like booze chemistry. ↩︎︎