Suntory-owned Yamazaki is probably, and arguably, Japan’s best known whisky. And for good reason too – the distillery from which that hallowed spirit is made is the country’s first-ever commercial distillery dedicated to making whisky, and credited for opening the way to Japan making its mark in the world of whisky today.
And while its success was a long way in the making, that mark reached its apex when whisky expert Jim Murray recently awarded an amazing 97.5 marks out of 100 to the Suntory-owned distillery’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, and hailed it as “near indescribable genius” in the forthcoming 2015 World Whisky Bible. That accolade joined the slew of international acclaim the Japanese distillery had won for its whiskies.
But Yamazaki was almost never founded if not for sheer stubbornness. Founder Shinjiro Torii – nicknamed the “Nose of Osaka” for his heightened olfactory senses when it came to the palate – had petitioned the other directors of his company Kotobukiya (the precursor to Suntory) to start a distillery making whisky. He had an idea of creating “Japanese whisky for Japanese people” – not the kind of whisky the Scots or the Irish preferred, but one that suited the Japanese palate. But they bitterly opposed his plans as they didn’t believe it was possible to make whisky outside of Scotland or Ireland. In atypical Japanese fashion – after all, Japanese culture, especially in business, prized consensus above all else – Torii ignored his critics and forged ahead anyway, finally building his dream distillery in 1923.
Judging by its success, if they were still alive today they’re probably rather glad Torii ignored their advice.
Located at the foot of Mount Tenno between Osaka and Kyoto, Yamazaki’s first distillery is situated there for one major reason – access to a fantastic water source. In fact the area is so famous for its excellent spring water – which bubbles up from bamboo groves at the foot of the mountain – that the legendary Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyū built his tearoom there. That water goes into the making of the Yamazaki whisky you drink today.
Yamazaki’s first head distiller was Masataka Taketsuru, who left in 1934 and founded his own distillery, Nikka.
If you’re visiting the distillery and intend to check out the entire premises, you are advised to sign up for the free guided tours held throughout the day (do note that walk-ins are not entertained, you have to apply for a slot at least a day in advance). The tours are conducted in Japanese, with audio devices providing commentary for non-Japanese speakers.
Unlike some other commercial production facilities, Yamazaki has no qualms showing you how everything works. You’re walked through every step of the distilling process, from viewing the hallowed rooms where large washback vessels convert wort (beer) into wash, to the huge copper stills that distill the wash into the new spirit that will later go into barrels to age.
You’ll also be brought to see Yamazaki’s aging warehouse, a massive cave-like system where hundreds upon hundreds of barrels holding many years worth of spirit are quietly aging away. It’s all the more impressive because Yamazaki actually has one of the world’s most impressive barrel programs, which means it actually buys up, stores and uses some of the best sherry casks the world has to offer. See if you can spot the venerable Barrel No. 0001 – the first barrel the Japanese distillery ever bought and used – sitting in one corner of the aging warehouse.
Tasting samples are offered at the end of the free tour – you’re given highballs (whisky soda) made with Yamazaki or Hibiki, although enthusiasts should ask for the whiskies neat which they do provide for free upon asking.
The truly serious aficionado should make time to visit the whisky library, which features around seven thousand bottles of single cask (unblended) whiskies, some of which are available for sampling for a price. However, the recent popularity of Suntory – and Japanese whisky in general – means that the distillery’s stocks are running so dangerously low a number of these single cask whiskies have been removed from the tasting menu.
Even the on-site merchandise store can seem sorely lacking in variety, so if you’re hoping to score one of the older expressions at the distillery you may come away severely disappointed – when we visited even the distillery’s core range was largely unavailable. We understand that changed recently with some of the core expressions making a comeback, but that only after Suntory raised prices across the board.
In any case, any whisky enthusiast who visits either Osaka or Kyoto should deign to make their pilgrimage to Yamazaki, where Japan’s foray into the world of whisky first started.
* Thanks to Beam Suntory for helping arrange the visit.
Yamazaki Distillery is located at 5−2−1 島本町山崎 Mishima District, Osaka Prefecture, Japan, 〒618-0001.