With much excitement we set off early one sunny Sunday for a visit to Yamazaki Distillery. Located between Osaka and Kyoto it's Japan’s oldest distillery, it opened in 1923 and is part of Beam Suntory. We do, of course, get to visit lots of distilleries but this was our first one overseas and we couldn’t wait to take a look around!
The Yamazaki buildings are visible just a short stroll from the train station and it’s in a lovely position at the foot of Mount Tennozan. The location is no accident and was chosen by Shinjiro Torri, the founder, for the climate, the position, not too far from company headquarters in Osaka and most importantly of all, for the water. One of Japan’s most revered tea masters, Sen no Rikyu built his teahouse in Yamazaki in the 16th century and the area is famous for its' soft water. We did get to try the famous water during our whisky tasting and I have to say it was amazingly pure.
Inside, the whisky museum tells the incredible story of the distillery, the whisky and the man behind it all. Shinjiro Torri was a successful businessman who imported European wines as well as distilling his own. He wanted to bring something new to Japan, a whisky for the Japanese people. At the time, many must have doubted his sanity but he managed to overcome any opposition or obstacles in his way. A great example of tenacity, resilience and determination to learn from today. As luck would have it, another young Japanese man had recently returned from studying distilling and whisky making in Scotland, Matasaka Taketsuru. (the founder of Nikka whisky) He was to spend 10 years with Shinjiro at Suntory, becoming Yamazaki’s first distillery manager.
You can still sense that feeling of excitement there must have been, of doing something no one else had done, through the exhibits at the distillery today. I particularly enjoyed reading about the trouble they had with the first pot stills. Just in front of the distillery lies a train line. The pot stills which were 5.1 metres high and weighed about 2 tonnes had been transported up the river and from there were to be rolled to the distillery. They had to wait till the middle of the night to attempt crossing the tracks as no one could predict how long it would take and they couldn’t risk possible collision with a train!
Not only was there no history of whisky making, there was no tradition of barrel making either. The first “cooper” in Japan self learned the craft by apparently studying the make up of imported barrels and then passing those skills on to his son. It was interesting to hear the story of Mizunara casks too, During WW2 imports were hard to get so attempts were made to use local wood to make barrels. Mizunara or Japanese Oak was originally used to make furniture and when first used in barrels there were issues with leaking, these were overcome and now Mizunara casks are highly prized for their aroma. They are also extremely expensive as the oak trees used to make them need to be at least 200 years old!
The first whisky, released in 1929 named Suntory Shirofuda or White Label was really peaty and didn’t match Japanese tastes at the time but with perseverance and trial and error, Suntory whisky has evolved through time into what we know today. There’s a fantastic tasting bar at the distillery so we had to try some award winning whisky while we were there!
We sampled the Yamazaki 18 year old, double gold medal award winner at San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2015 and the Hibiki 21 year old, the International Spirits Challenge Supreme Champion Spirit Award winner in 2017. Both were superb, nothing ever beats tasting whisky where it’s made!
All in all, it was a great visit, and we’ll be sure to return next time we’re in Osaka. Ja mata ne, Yamazaki!