Step Aside Scotland! The Japanese Have Nailed Whiskey
“I want to create a perfect whiskey that reflects the nature of Japan and the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship’’
(Shinjiro Torii – the founder of Japanese Whiskey)
Japan now reigns supreme in the category of Malt Whiskeys. The Harvard Historian Niall Ferguson pointed to Japan’s success last year as the turning point in international power. I would not go that far, but by winning the 2014 international whiskey medal, Yamazaki, the Suntory Company, and Japanese whiskey has made a massive impact. Those of us who adore single malt have observed the steady rise of Japanese whiskey. The Yamazaki Distillery is a must see for tourists.
It is necessary to book a place on a tour before arrival. This is understandable; after all, it is a place of work. However, the distillery is definitely worth the fifteen minute journey from Kyoto. The reception is warm and the people who greet you are extremely helpful. The founder of Japanese whiskey, Shinjiro Torii, chose Yamazaki because of his preference for high quality water. Construction then began in 1923. Visitors are taken through the fascinating and delicate process of whiskey making.
This includes explaining what the raw ingredients are, and how malt is broken down into sugar before being filtered. The development of the flavor is also explained. The wooden and stainless steel washbacks can be seen developing various brands of Yamazaki whiskeys. I was very impressed with how detailed and receptive the staff was regarding the fermentation process. This continued when the group entered the distillation room. We were all hit by the lucid scent emanating from the pot stills.
However, the diversity in whiskey-making and overall flavor hit home in the storage room. There were thousands of casks with maturing whiskey, with some dating back to the 1970s. I never realized how much the shape, material, size and location of the storage casks impacted on the flavor. Indeed, those factors remain a ‘’mystery’’ to those who work in the whiskey business. This explains why the skills of master blenders play such a vital role in the final product at the Yamazaki distillery even to this day.
After the tour visitors have the opportunity to taste both Yamazaki and malt from Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery. This can be experienced straight, watered down, on the rocks or as a highball. Regardless, unless your tolerance is low, I recommend tasting both types straight. During the tasting session they delivered a short but interesting presentation about the variety of whiskeys. By the way, did I mention that it was totally free? This is remarkable considering how much effort the staff make.
The tour and the tasting session last about an hour. After the tasting session visitors have the opportunity to order many more whiskeys at a reasonable price at the distillery’s bar. A seventeen year old Hibiki and 18 year old Yamazaki can be enjoyed for a thousand yen. Just remember to take your time and compare the high quality malts. After all, you have to get back to Kyoto. I have to admit that there was a danger of staying in that bar for too long. Be careful!
Overall, I must genuinely praise the distillery. It was a great experience. The friendliness of the people that work there left me in high spirits. Shinjiro Torii not only managed to make a world leading series of whiskeys, but he also created a distillery which welcomes people from all around the world. There is nothing pretentious about visiting, and whether you are someone who likes blended, single malt, or bourbon whiskey, I can guarantee that you will enjoy your time there.
Website (in English) : http://www.suntory.com/factory/yamazaki/