Yamazaki Distillery. Japan's 1st malt whisky producer.
Just a quick foreword before I write about my Yamazaki Distillery visit:
This is my last Japanese Distillery write up- for now. The only story I have left is on Daimon, a sake brewery, which should be really fun to write. I have had a few people reach out to me in regards to public transportation advice for all of these Japanese distilleries. I did not rent a car at any point during my month in Japan. I traveled alone and took buses, trains and short taxi rides. I also speak very little Japanese. I found my way through Google maps, hand gestures, polite begging and missed connections. With a lot of smiling and a heavy dose of Arigatou gozaimasu (thank you’s), I actually found it quite easy and people were quite helpful. Please write to me through Her Whisky Love at any point on the contact page. I would love to help people navigate to see these awesome distilleries!
Yamazaki. This is probably the most visited distillery in Japan. Yamazaki is also the brand that opened the world’s eyes to Japanese single malts. In 2014 Jim Murray gave his infamous “Whisky of the Year Award” to the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013. If the Scotch industry was ever humbled, this was the moment. A Scotch single malt had always won this title and now what was this crazy name of Yamazaki doing at the top? Japan hadn't been recognized as a top producer yet and all the while in the shadows they had been aging incredible malts. Although most of their techniques came from Scotland, they put their own quality, terroir and expertise into their recipes and styles which has led to a very high regard for Japanese Whisky. It in turn has of course also caused a high demand and a severe shortage.
Yamazaki was Suntory’s first distillery and the first malt whisky distillery in Japan, beginning production in 1924. Shinjiro Torii was the founding father of Suntory and its Japanese single malts. He was determined to produce a whisky that was suitable for the Japanese palate. Up until this point Suntory was making port wines. There were a few times during the historical part of the tour that you would see Torii’s favorite words, “Yatte Minahare”. This phrase means; Go for it. You won’t know unless you try. It wasn’t until 1929 that their first, authentic, Japanese whisky would be ready and it was called Shirofuda or White Label. Since 1929 they have released multiple, award winning product lines including brands you may have heard of such as: Old Suntory, Tory’s, Hibiki and of course their Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts. A few of these product lines would be a blend of all the Suntory distilleries including Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts along with Chita, their grain distillery.
Yamazaki is located just outside of Kyoto and is right next to the Oyamazaki train station. This is by far the easiest distillery to get to by public transportation in Japan. It is quite an industrial area now, but when it opened in the 1920’s the site was chosen for its natural resources. It sits between two mountains and three rivers. The mountains are Mt. Tennōzan and Mt. Otokoyama. The three rivers are Katsura, Uji and Kizi. The area is also known for high humidity in the summers and frequent fog. They have one large and one small mash tun. Both vessels have beautiful wooden sides with stainless steel tops. The wort smelled incredible and there was a mash-man checking the wort run off while we were in the mash room. Almost all of their malt whisky starts from two row barley.
All of their washbacks are wooden, but apparently in another building they have a few additional stainless steel ones. Their fermentation period lasts about three days. I was told that their wash is only about 7% ABV when it is transferred to the still, which seems low compared to other malt distilleries. Their still room is truly breathtaking. I think I took about 30 pictures just of these stoic copper stills. Almost all of the stills were running and there were six spirit and six wash stills. All different shapes and sizes in order to achieve the flavor profiles they need for each brand. This situation is still mind blowing to me how they don’t have other distilleries to trade malt whisky with, so they produce every style they need in house for blending.
I then moved in to one of the dunnage style warehouses. Immediately you see mostly port and sherry casks and as most of us know, sherry casks play a very important role in the aging of a Yamazaki single malt. They also use other style casks such as ex-bourbon and a few different finishing casks including Mizunara oak. They do not temperature control any of their warehouses. You could see the Yamazaki stamp on the cask heads, but you could also find a significant amount of Chita stamped casks. Chita is Suntory’s grain distillery I mentioned earlier. Chita does not have their own warehousing facilities, so that grain whisky will age here at Yamazaki. In this one warehouse there were about 2,000 casks. The current master blender is Shinji Fukuyo and his job is to carry on Torii’s tradition of producing high quality malt and blending these malts. Yamazaki is their unpeated style and Hakushu is the peated.
Hibiki is also an important whisky created by Suntory. Hibiki is a combination of grain and malt whisky and has won multiple awards for the company. I have been a huge advocate for people to visit Yamazaki Distillery and not just because of their amazing whisky and accessibility from Kyoto. At the end of the tour you are welcomed by a large, wooden bar and a menu of Japanese whiskies that will take your breath away. I only allowed myself to pick four drams and I have listed them below. Keep in mind that not one of these whiskies I drank was over 900Yen/8USD. I can sense you all planning your trips to Kyoto very soon since these are also whiskies that are incredibly hard to find in the States. Unfortunately for us Americans, it looks like the Japanese happen to like their own whisky and have no need to share it with us like we had hoped. Who can blame them!
Hibiki 17 Year Old
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Honey, ripe pear, waxy, toasted notes and super sweet (in a good way).
Palate: Apples, banana chips, oak and dark chocolate. Definitely feeling the Mizunara on this finish.
Hibiki 21 Year Old
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Raisins, yellow raisins, almonds, vanilla custard and cranberries.
Palate: Grapefruit-honey finish, with caramel and some smoke on the end.
Hibiki 21 was named World's Best Blended Whisky at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards.
Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Brown/bruised apples, jam, oily and a creamy vanilla malt.
Palate: Brown sugar, plums, some tannin on the finish but such a nice creamy chocolate.
This deserves every accolade it gets. An incredible dram.
Mizunara 12 Year Old Single Malt - Distillery Only
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Cinnamon, figs and berries, apples and a charred wood/campfire smell.
Palate: Chai spice, clove, dried berries, coco, cashews and a bit of peppery finish.