Japanese whisky has been increasing in international popularity in recent years, however the country has been producing whisky since 1923, when Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii founded Japan’s first whisky distillery in Yamazaki. The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is still operating in the same location today, in a picturesque valley with access to clean, soft mineral water and a climate that’s well suited to the aging process.
I discovered Japanese whisky a few years ago, when I was introduced to the Yamazaki 12 and was an instant convert. About a year later I tried the Hibiki 12, which became my favourite whisky. The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is only a 15 minute train ride from Kyoto’s main train station so when I was planning my trip to Japan, a visit to the distillery was a must.
The tour is free and includes tastings at the end. It’s quite popular, so make sure you book online or by phone before you visit. The tour is run in Japanese, however audio guides in English, Chinese and French are provided.
After meeting outside, we were taken to a room where mash tuns convert the starches in the crushed grain into sugars for fermentation.
Once the mash tuns have done their work, the resultant product, wort, is drained into the washback vessels below and has yeast added to it, which allows fermentation to begin. Different yeasts result in different flavours.
After about 3 days of fermentation, the “wash” is distilled in one of several bronze stills. The shape of the still and the temperature and heating methods used can all have an effect on flavour.
We then had a walk through the aging warehouse which contains tens of thousands of casks at various stages of aging. The unpleasant smell of the fermenting grain from the earlier rooms gave way to the smell of actual whisky. The whisky is aged in casks made from a variety of types of wood, with different wood imparting different flavours to the whisky. For example Japanese oak (Mizunara) from Hokkaido is used for some blends and gives the whisky floral undertones particular to that part of Japan.
The first ever cask (now empty) of Yamazaki single malt from 1924.
With the main part of the tour over, the group was taken to the tasting room, via some Japanese gardens.
Included in the tour are tastings of the Hakushu 10 and 12 and the Yamazaki 10 and 12. While the Yamazaki single malts are smooth and light with floral aromas, the Hakushu (distilled in a facility located in the forest on the slopes of Mount Kaikoma) uses snow melt as its water source and has a peatier, smoky taste. The Hibiki blends combine elements of both of the single malts.
Once tasting was over, we found ourselves where we began, in the main room which contains both the tasting counter and the whisky library on the ground floor and the gift shop upstairs.
The whisky library is impressive, housing a collection of over 7,000 types of whisky from around the world.
My wife and I decided to try the Hibiki 17, 21 and 30, as well as the Yamazaki 18 and 25. Samples at the tasting counter are not free.
We enjoyed all 5 of the whiskies we tried, however my wife and I both agreed that the Hibiki 21 was the standout of the lot. This was not too surprising as it’s one of the most awarded whiskies in the world, including World’s Best Blended Whisky at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards and with a “Trophy”, which is the highest award at the International Spirits Challenge 2014. It’s currently my favourite whisky. From Suntory:
- Color : bronze amber
- Nose : cooked fruit, blackberry, ripe banana, caramel
- Palate : sandalwood, honeycomb, dried apricot and Mizunara (Japanese oak)
- Finish : long, rich and incense
I was very happy with the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery tour. The setting is beautiful and makes a nice change from the city. Given that the tour is free and you get samples at the end, visiting is a no-brainer for anyone with a passing interest in whisky. One word of advice though, if you want to purchase one of the standard range whiskies, you’re better off not purchasing from the girt shop but from a liquor store/the airport instead as prices are inflated.
If you do visit and are looking for a feed, I strongly recommend this place. The distillery is about a 5 minute walk from Yamazaki train station and right near the train station, on the first side street across the road, is this place which serves some brilliant food. I was surprised that there weren’t more people from the tour eating here – as far as I could tell my wife and I were the only non-Japanese people here.
…sorry, but I couldn’t resist.