Named after the surrounding region, the Yamazaki Distillery was the pioneer of Japanese Whisky. Today it's still the uncrowned queen of Japanese whisky distilleries – both in terms of production and popularity.
The Suntory blends only rarely reach Europe but are mainly sold domestically. They are blended from malt and grain whiskies that the owner, Suntory, produces in its two distilleries Yamazaki and Hakushu. The Scottish tradition of using single malts from “foreign” distilleries for your own blends hasn't been adopted in Japan. There's no exchange, so each company produces their own malts in many different styles.
In Europe Suntory mostly sells single malts. At the moment mainly the Yamazaki single malt whisky without an age statement is available from Yamazaki Distillery. It has fruity aromas and strong vanilla and crème brûlée notes. A short finish characterises this light whisky. The Yamazaki 12 years old, which was the first Japanese whisky to be awarded the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003, is only available in very limited quantities. The 18-year-old Yamazaki has already become a rarity. After Jim Murray had appointed the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 'whisky of the year' in his Whisky Bible in 2013, Japanese whisky started to boom, and the stocks of old casks dwindled drastically.
Yamazaki Distillery produces approximately 6,000,000 litres per year, so Yamazaki whisky is presumably going to be widely available worldwide in the coming years.
In 1971 Yamazaki mothballed its malting floors and has since then been buying grain from all over the world. The barley is malted to different degrees. The malt is usually unpeated, but every now and then some slightly peated malt or even heavily peated malt (up to 40 ppm) is used.
Two large mash tuns with a capacity of 4 and 18 tons, respectively, take in the malt and the soft water - water that comes from different sources in the region. Suntory boasts about the particularly pure, soft water and even use the renowned 'master of the tea ceremony', Sen no Rikyu, for their marketing: He makes tea with Yamazaki water in a Japanese advertising campaign.
The Yamazaki Distillery has eight wash backs made of Oregon pine wood with a capacity of 40,000 litres each and ten stainless-steel wash backs with a capacity of 50,000 litres. They operate 24/7 to secure the supply of fresh beer for distillation.
Since Suntory needs whiskies in many different styles, already the fermentation process is varied in order to produce different aromas. The process takes between 64 and 80 hours, producing a more or less fruity beer.
What strikes the eye of a visitor first are the completely different sizes and shapes of the stills at Yamazaki Distillery. Some are squat, some tall; some have the shape of a ball, others have bulges between the lower part and the neck. Some are directly heated, others indirectly. The condensers work differently, too. Some are traditional worm tubs, the others modern shell and tube condensers. All this variation in stills and condensers only serves the purpose of creating different styles of whisky.
The modern warehouses at the Yamazaki Distillery can't be compared to the traditional Scottish warehouses. They are large multi-storey buildings that span several hundred meters. Not all casks of Yamazaki whisky are stored on site. Suntory distributes them over different warehouses, some of which are located at Lake Biwa.
Most casks are ex-bourbon casks, but there are also other types of casks, such as sherry casks or Mizunara casks made from fresh Japanese oak.
Yamazaki has its own cooperage, which can look back on a long tradition. In 1934 Gennojo Tateyama started his career as a cooper in the Western style at Yamazaki. This art had been unknown in Japan until then, and he learned his trade by examining imported casks and through learning by doing. His son Noboru followed in his steps, and so did his grandson Ryuichi, who developed the style of the Yamazaki cooperage further.
When Shinjiro Torri announced his plans to establish a Japanese whisky distilleryin the 1920s, he met with amazement and incredulity among his fellow countrymen. But Torri's plans weren't the result of a whim. He was an experienced businessman, imported European wine among other things and also produced his own plum wine. In order to provide a solid knowledge base for his distillery, he sent one of his workers to Scotland to learn the art of distillation. Masetaka Taketsuru gathered experience in different Scotch whisky distilleries over the course of three years and then returned home - his newlywed Scottish wife Rita at his side.
Knowing that the Scots put a lot of effort in choosing the right spot for a whisky distillery, Torri and Taketsuru went searching for the ideal terrain for a Japanese distillery, which had to provide enough soft water above all. The spot at the foot of Mount Tenno between Osaka and Kyoto was Torri's preference since he also saw it as the ideal site in terms of logistics. (Taketsuru had recommended the Hokkaido peninsula, whose climate is similar to the climate in Scotland. He later left Torri's company, founded Nikka Whisky and erected his own distillery on Hokkaido: Yoichi.)
1923 is the founding date of the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1924 the first alcohol was produced under the direction of distillery manager Masetaka Taketsuru. Torri's company was called Kotobukiya back then. It was renamed Suntory in 1929, alluding to Torri's Japanese title 'Torri-san'.
The first whisky ever sold,'Suntory White, emulated the Scottish style of the time, being very peaty, which didn't go down well with the Japanese taste. Suntory decided to cater more to the Japanese taste by creating less smoky, fruitier whisky, and so the success story of the company started.
In 1932 the first blended whisky from Suntory was released, which was blended from the company's malt and grain whiskies but also from Scotch single malts. It wasn't until 1984 that with Yamazaki 12 years old the first single malt whisky of the distillery was released.
In 2010 Suntory was appointed Distiller of the Year by Whisky Magazine, and when Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask was appointed 'whisky of the year' in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, the run for Japanese whisky became unstoppable.
Opening hours of the visitor centre and the shop at Yamazaki Distillery:
10 a.m. - 4.45 p.m.
Guided tours are offered between
10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The tours are in Japanese, but once a day there's a tour in English. You should ask for the starting time of this tour via phone. Audio guides are offered in English, French and Chinese.
During the 90-minute tour of the distillery all steps of whisky production are explained. The tour, which includes adram of Yamazaki whisky, was free until recently. It is now 1,000 Yen per person. Participants must be 20 years or older.
The distillery also offers a comprehensive tasting in the museum (subject to a charge).
Admission into the Yamazaki Whisky Museum, which tells the story of the distillery, is free.
Phone: +81(0)75 962 1423