Should a whisky fan make the lengthy trek across the Pacific in search of the secrets of Japanese distilling, one would be wise to start at the source. That’s what I did anyway, on a recent pilgrimage to Yamazaki, the first whisky distillery in Japan, which was built in 1923 and is still going strong today.
Yamazaki is located between Osaka and Kyoto, two major Japanese metros, a short half hour train ride from either city. It’s a great place to start exploring Japanese whisky because of this location. Unlike many whiskymaking regions, there’s not really a “whisky trail” to guide you from one distillery to the next. That’s in part because there are only a handful of distilleries in the entire country, they’re not really configured for tourism, and the major competitors are known to be bitter rivals. Many Japanese distilleries are located in far-flung parts of the country, well off the typical tourist path. A visit to each of the nine or so distilleries in the country would take at least a full week (vs. two or three days in Kentucky).
No matter, though. You can (and should) spend a whole day on and around a tour at Yamazaki, whether you intended to or not. Again, that’s what I did.
The story of Yamazaki is famous, beginning with Shinjiro Torii, a wine and beer importer who decided to get into the world of whisky in the early part of the 20th century. To help him out, he shrewdly hired Masataka Taketsuru, who had apprenticed in Scotland and put his skills to work at recreating the Scotch experience on Japanese soil. It was a bold experiment, but it worked. By the 1930s, Yamazaki was a major name in whisky, and in 1973 it opened its second distillery: Hakushu. Both are still going strong, and though Hakushu is only a few hours away by shinkansen, its style of production is much different than Yamazaki’s.
On the day of my tour at Yamazaki, I took the JR Rail from Osaka to the appointed stop, where I was the only one to exit the train and, apparently, the only one at the station at all. Could this sleepy village, with nary a soul in sight, be the right place? I was beginning to get nervous when I finally saw a small sign pointing the way to the distillery, just a few hundred meters down the road. Walking the short distance in a moderate rainstorm, I crested a small hill and finally saw it: A series of red brick buildings with tiny windows, overall relatively nondescript, but boasting the Yamazaki name in all caps up top. I checked in at the visitor’s station and amused myself with various artifact exhibits before our tour began.
Most of Yamazaki’s tours are in Japanese, though the distillery provides prerecorded translations for a variety of languages. Our tour of about 30 people was about half Japanese, half foreign. The tour is quick and informative, but if you’ve taken a whisky tour somewhere else in the world, a lot will sound familiar, as Yamazaki is relatively traditional on the whole, from grain sourcing to fermentation to distillation to aging.
What’s different at Yamazaki? The stills in the scorching hot distillation chamber, which total 12, for starters. Unlike many distilleries, all of these stills are quite different, some tall and lean, some short and fat. Yamazaki uses the unique characteristics of each of these stills to produce different product, which takes another twist when you get to barrel aging. In the warehouse you’ll find all manner of casks, smaller and larger, made from European, American, and — of course — Japanese oak. This mizunara casks impart a slightly different character to the whisky than New World oak casks, and when they are used in blending, as they are at Yamazaki, the magic they impart to the finished product is palpable. It’s a big reason why Japanese whisky has exploded in popularity in recent years: These complex, dense, and umami-laced flavors just can’t be replicated anywhere else.
Yamazaki’s tour guides stress its location — as all distilleries do — which is situated at the confluence of three rivers. Cleanliness, as everywhere in Japan, is also critical here. This is the only distillery tour I’ve been on where everyone was asked to sanitize their hands before entering the fermenting room. In Kentucky, no one cares; they usually let you dip your fingers in the mash to taste it.
THE TASTING ROOM
There’s a saying here that, due to the current madness over this spirit, there is no Japanese whisky in Japan, and the week I spent in country before visiting Yamazaki bore that out. I found precious little whisky to be bought no matter where we visited, and even once-common bottlings like Yamazaki 12 Years Old were completely sold out just about everywhere. The one bottle of Yamazaki 12 I did find at retail was encased behind a glass door and ran 30,000 yen — about $300.
Yamazaki ends its tour with a tasting, of course, with four small drams placed at communal tables, along with snacks. The first two tastes in my tour were single-barrel offerings; one pulled from white oak casks, one from red Bordeaux wine casks. The first was quite fruity and full of toasty wood flavors, while the wine casks sample was big with florals and bolder plum notes. Taste three and four are both Yamazaki’s NAS expression, which is widely available (but not all that prized). It’s not common in the U.S., and you can quickly see how it differs from the much more complex 12 year old version. While fresh and lively, it’s not really deep. Some cinnamon, malt, and vanilla notes all lead to a quite sweet finish, touched with fresh fruit. What to do with sample #4? It goes into a glass with ice and soda, which are the three ingredients in the unofficial national cocktail of Japan: The highball. It’s a pleasant enough drink (needs a lemon slice, really), that will slow down your whisky consumption, but for my money, when drinking anything from Japan, neat is the way to go.
But there is. It’s downstairs, in the small tasting room. Here, menus are provided and drams are sold (25ml per serving, about an ounce) at a counter. You can buy up to three drams at a time, which you then take to a hightop or table to enjoy and reflect.
The secret is that Yamazaki sells virtually everything it makes here, along with experiments, more constituent component whiskies like those tasted in the tour, and new products that have not yet been released. The prices are incredibly reasonable, from 200 or 300 yen for basic stuff to under 1000 yen even for rarities. Once you get to 30 year old whisky you can expect to pay about 3000 yen per pour, but this is still fairly reasonable considering the market today.
I started by sampling new make spirit (a whopping 100 yen), then Suntory’s “old man” whiskies like Suntory Old and Suntory Reserve, and then moved on to bizarre oddities such as The Essence of Suntory Whisky Hakushu (photo above), which is made from rye, and an Essence-branded grain whisky from Suntory’s Chita distillery, which was aged for four years in wine casks. My highlight beyond the Yamazaki 18 and Hakushu 18 might be a special version of Yamazaki 12 aged exclusively in mizunara casks, deeply woody and spicy, with ample notes of licorice, clove, and cherry. The Hibiki 21 Years Old I sampled was filled with umami and dried fruit, and was simply gorgeous in its elegance and balance.
The tasting room is a friendly place. With my first tray of whiskies I was motioned over by two Japanese gentlemen to sit with them, one of whom promptly offered me a taste of his (not inexpensive) Hukushu 30. I’m sure my refusal — it was just too expensive for him to give me half before I’d even met the guy — was a huge insult, though a wholly unintended one. Don’t feel too bad, though. Five of us — including a couple of English-speakers I’d met along the way — ended up sharing plenty of whisky over the next couple of hours, chatting using web-based translators and arcane hand signals. God knows how many photos ended up being taken.
Eventually I had to leave, as bittersweet a departure as ever there was, made even more so for me because, after all the revelry, I managed to leave my bag behind. It had in it these notes, a gift of a pen and pencil from Suntory, and a small bottle of unnamed, distillery-only whisky I’d purchased in the gift shop. While the whisky was just 1400 yen, I was sad to lose it. Ultimately, Suntory shipped me my notes and the pen/pencil, but the whisky was unable to be shipped internationally due to Customs restrictions.
Presumably, you can sample the lost Drinkhacker bottle when you go to visit.
IF YOU GO: Yamazaki is easily accessible from Osaka or Kyoto. Book your tour well ahead of time, and confirm the day before — my tour was postponed two days because of a major earthquake in the region. The tour price is 1000 yen, just $10. Make sure to allow time for the tasting room! Study the menu carefully, but explore widely. And for god’s sake, eat something before you arrive.