The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, single malt heaven!
Ian D. Robinson.
I’m not a great drinker but I do enjoy my single malt whiskies from time to time, although I do have to admit that I’ve always been rather sceptical of the idea of whiskies made in Japan, that might be unfair but after all, can you imagine the Scots making sake?
Still, ever since arriving in Japan I have heard fans of whisky sing the praises of Suntory’s Hibiki, Yamazaki and Hakushu whiskies, and passing the distillery on the train from Osaka to Kyoto one day I decided it was time to put my pre-conceptions aside and give Japanese whisky a fair chance.
Shinjiro Torii founded Suntory in 1923 after working for a pharmaceutical company that also imported liquors from abroad. Despite is youth Torii was fascinated by the aging process and he further developed a special skill for blending oriental herbs with imported wines and spirits. At just twenty he started his own company which imported wine and canned goods, this company would later become the giant corporation of Suntory and Shinjiro Torii would earn himself the mantle of ‘the father of Japanese whisky’.
Believing in himself in the face of opposition from those around him Torii built the Yamazaki distillery at the town of Shimamoto, a suburb of Japan’s historical treasure house; Kyoto. There were two vital reasons behind his selection of the Yamazaki site; one was the high quality of the soft ‘Rikyu’ spring water named after the tea ceremony master Senno Rikyu. The other is the Yamazaki glen’s damp climate, ideally suited to the aging of whisky. Over ninety years on and Suntory whisky has established Japan as one of the world’s top five whisky producing nations along with Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States. In 1973 Suntory opened its second distillery in the mountain forests of Hakushu.
The Yamazaki Station is only a short train journey from either Osaka or Kyoto, from the station follow the signs along the street lined with some old, traditional style Japanese houses and a Shinto shrine to the distillery, easy to spot across the rail lines. The hour long tours are free and run every hour on the hour seven days a week from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon, although these times may vary with the seasons, so check when you make the required reservation.
The tour starts with a visit to the museum, which has displays relating to the founding of the company as well as some wonderfully kitsch old advertising posters, and the whisky library, which is exactly that, row upon row of different whiskies and distillates in various stages of production, if fact there are over seven thousand bottles, a whisky drinker’s dream come true! There is also a tasting bar where samples can be purchased for a very reasonable rate, though perhaps it’s better to save your stop here until after the tour along with the gift shop stocked with samples of Suntory’s products from both the Yamazaki and Hakushu factories, souvenirs, books and drinking paraphernalia.
Tours of the Yamazaki factory are a popular outing as the more than twenty guests in my group attests, and this is on a Monday morning! An audio commentary is available free of charge in English if your Japanese is as poor as mine. Setting off we first head through a garden and past a statue of Shinjiro Torii then it’s into the ‘Mash House and Fermentation Room’. Inside the deep malty smell propels me momentarily back to my childhood when my mother would make me eat spoonfuls of liquid malt for some supposed health benefit, (perhaps this is where my fondness for the Malts began?).
It is here that the process of making Suntory’s award winning whiskies begins with carefully selected barley being germinated, dried and malt extracted. The malt is then ground, or ‘mashed’ and mixed with hot water, yeast is introduced from a collection of thousands of types depending on the desired flavours the final product will be expected to have. These operations are carried out in vats of stainless steel or wood, again depending on the results desired.
We then head on for a quick visit to the ‘Still House’, quick due to the heat inside which keeps everyone moving through the hall lined with great shiny brass stills, an adults version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Copper is used for the three types of gleaming stills; straight, bulge and lantern head, as the metal has the property of removing odours and this produces a finer flavoured final product. Varying the process here enables an array of characteristics to be created.
After the heat of the ‘Still House’ the cool of the ‘Warehouse’ is a pleasant contrast. Rows and rows of white-ended oak barrels stretch into the darkness amid the musty coolness, here there is a air of waiting and patience and overlaying this are the rich vapours of maturing whisky, so strong they can almost be tasted and can easily be felt on the back of the throat.
“Some guests tell me they want to live in here!” Tanizaki, one of the young Suntory tour guides tells me, “I like coming here when I have a cold, this room is a great cure for a sore throat!”
The barrels used are handmade by traditional craftsmen using time-honoured techniques. One hundred year old oak is selected from Spain and the United States although it is the use of Japanese Mizunara Oak that sets Suntory’s whiskies apart from Scotch. During the ageing process the Mizunara barrels bring out a sandalwood like flavour, this produces something exceptional in the world of single malts; an especially Oriental whisky. The ageing barrels can be used for up to seventy years, they are then, with an eye on the environment, recycled into amber hued furniture and even single malt stereo speakers!
Outside again the group passes a trickling ornamental fall of clear Rikyu spring water emerging from the greenery of Japanese summer maples.
“We can the water ‘Mother Water’,” Tanizaki explains, “the water is the mother of the whisky.”
And finally we come to what we’ve all be waiting for; ah yes, the ‘Tasting Room’! The tour itself is fascinating and well worth the visit alone but let’s be honest, we’re all here for a dram. A generous selection of the differing single malts are served both straight and over ice while the characteristics of each is explained.
“Kanpai!” The group choruses ‘Cheers!’ Whisky on the rocks at one in the afternoon and after a few sips the group of formerly strangers starts chatting, a camaraderie sharing a quality drink inevitably produces. I ask an older gentleman next to me why he decided to come on the tour today;
“I’ve been drinking Yamazaki for years” he explains, “at my company we always ordered it when we were entertaining clients and we used to present our best customers with bottles at the end of the year, and I’ve been past the factory a hundred times on the train, now that I’m retired I’ve finally got the time to come and visit!”
We clink our tasting glasses again, inhaling to enjoy the luxurious aroma and that deliciously wicked burning taste, too good to swallow it has to be savoured first.
Most of the group head back towards the station while I and a few others can’t tear ourselves away just yet and selectively sample a couple more malts at the counter before wandering along to catch the train, it might be my imagination but one or two of us stragglers look a bit wobbly on our feet, and I sleep almost all the way home!
Okay, so you’ve won me over Suntory, the Scottish will probably never even attempt to make sake but the Japanese at Yamazaki are making some pretty fine whisky!