Sunday January 20, 2013
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Welcome to the Yamazaki Distillery, the birthplace of Japanese whisky.
IT is said that a whisky reflects its location and draws its essence from its surroundings. That saying couldn’t be truer for Yamazaki.
From afar, the vast greyish white main building of the distillery dominates the landscape, lording over the smaller Japanese huts and houses that surround it, much like its position at the very top of the Japanese single malt whisky market.
But as domineering as it may seem, it remains in the shadow of Mount Tenno, from which it indirectly gets its name (Yamazaki means “foot of the mountain”), drawing parallels with Japanese whisky’s global position, where it is constantly being overshadowed by its more famous Scotch brothers.
It’s not hard to see why Shinjiro Torii, founder of Suntory Holdings Limited, chose to build his first whisky distillery here almost a century ago – nestled on the fringe of a beautiful bamboo forest, the climate around the complex is cool, the air is crisp and fresh, and despite the sound of the occasional passing train chugging along the tracks right in front of it, there is a peaceful, relaxing tranquillity to the entire area.
Again, the gentle surroundings of the distillery draws further comparison with the whisky it produces – Yamazaki whiskies tend to be very smooth and delicate, with a light, gentle character.
Of course, Torii didn’t choose this particular spot just because it looks pretty. “This location was chosen because it is the perfect place to make whisky. It is where the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu Rivers meet, which creates a damp, misty climate that is good for ageing whisky,” said the distillery’s general manager Makoto Sumita.
“There is also a very good source of pure spring water here, which we use in our whisky. Senno Rikyu, the ‘father of the Japanese tea ceremony’, used this same water to perform his tea rituals.”
Torii goes for it!
Located in the vale of Yamazaki close to the town of Shimamoto in the Osaka prefecture, the Yamazaki Distillery is about an hour’s bus ride from Osaka, probably faster if you take the train. There are regular daily tours of the complex, which includes an optional tasting (at an extra charge) at the distillery’s museum.
Our tour of the distillery started at the courtyard just outside the visitors’ centre-cum-museum, which is graced by statues of the two stalwarts of the Yamazaki distillery – founder Torii, and his son Keizo Saji, who produced the first Yamazaki single malt bottling.
The story of the Yamazaki distillery goes all the way back to 1923, when inspired by a love for Scottish whisky and armed with an indomitable Yatteminahare (“Go for it!”) spirit, Torii decided to start his own distillery to produce whisky for the Japanese market.
Unfortunately, his early attempts were not quite successful – launched in 1929, the distillery’s first product, the “Shirofuda” (white label) Suntory Whisky, was a disappointing failure.
“At the time, not many Japanese people were familiar with whisky ... They were mostly drinking sake and beer,” said Sumita. “Our early whiskies also had a lot of smoky flavours, which did not suit Japanese palates.”
Undeterred by this initial setback, Torii slowly began changing his whisky, reducing the smokiness gradually and making it gentler and lighter in flavour. The breakthrough finally came with the 1937 introduction of the “Kakubin” (“square bottle”), which became a hit. Today, the blended Kakubin is at the forefront of another whisky revolution in Japan – the popular HiBall long drink (basically a long drink comprising of whisky and soda), has helped increase the popularity of whisky further in recent years, while helping to convert non-whisky drinkers to the cause.
In 1973, Keizo Saji opened Suntory’s second distillery, Hakushu, in the forests of Mount Kaikomagatake, thus beginning the process of further revolutionising the Japanese whisky market. Having solely supplied the malt whiskies for Suntory’s blended whiskies for decades, the Yamazaki Distillery finally released a single malt bottling in 1984, which again struggled initially in Japan.
“Today, everyone knows what a ‘single malt’ is, but back in 1984, no one knew such a thing existed!” said Sumita. “We had to label the first Yamazaki single malt as ’pure malt’, because the word ‘pure’ is more acceptable and recognisable to the Japanese then.”
One of the key components of Yamazaki’s success is their ability to produce a good variety of single malt whiskies at the distillery. The tour included a look at their fermentation process, where they ferment the malted barley (obtained from Scotland) using different types of yeast in both traditional wooden and stainless steel wash backs; as well as a visit to the impressive still house, where six massive differently shaped pot stills rumble merrily, distilling the liquid using different heating methods. This diversity of equipment and ingredients all come together to create the perfect palette of new-make whisky with various rich, distinct flavours for the distillery’s blenders to draw inspiration from.
“Unlike the Scotch distilleries, which only make one sort of spirit, we use different shaped stills to get different sorts of spirits. We don’t have a culture of exchanging whiskies with other distilleries here, so we have to make our own variety of flavours,” said Sumita.
Moving on, we came to the maturation warehouse, where the heavy scent of evaporated whisky (also known as the “angel’s share”) permeates the air. Amongst the usual American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks in the warehouse, is another distinct characteristic of Suntory’s whiskies – casks made with Japanese mizunara oak wood from Hokkaido. “We started using mizunara oak barrels after World War II, because we could not import any wood from overseas,” said Sumita.
Tasting the difference
Compared to the other whiskies we tried during a tasting at the end of the tour (which included the fruity, sweet one matured in sherry casks, and the deep, bourbon-like American white oak-matured one), I found that the whisky aged in mizunara oak had a light, pleasant sweetness with a hint of lychee, and surprisingly, a nose that reminded me of incense, which somehow made it seem more, well, Japanese than the other whiskies.
Of course, the mizunara oak is only one of the whiskies that go into a bottle of Yamazaki – Yamazaki 12-Year-Old for instance, is a blend of liquid from sherry, American oak, and mizunara casks. While there are familiar scents and flavours from all three whiskies (the incense nose is still quite distinct), it also has hints of coconut, dried fruit, persimmons and a buttery smoothness that finishes with a sweet, woody, vanilla sweetness.
Moving on, the Yamazaki 18-Year-Old was a fantastically rich dram of concentrated raisin and dried fruit flavours, with a chocolate apricot nose, and a palate that brings to mind strawberry jam, toast, and baked custard pudding, which then goes into a deep, rich, creamy long finish.
“The 18-Year-Old goes very well with chocolates,” said Sumita. “It uses predominantly sherry cask whisky, but there is also mizunara and American oak whiskies in it.”
The highlight of the tasting for us, however, was the limited edition Yamazaki 25-Year-Old, which comprises 100% sherry cask-matured whiskies.
“It’s not easy ageing a whisky for 25 years in a sherry cask ... if you keep it too long, it might be too intensely sherry-like,” he said. “We only have very limited quantities of the 25-Year-Old, which is why it is so much more expensive than the 18-Year-Old.”
Nevertheless, the Yamazaki 25-Year-Old is a truly remarkable whisky. While the sherry influence is predictably apparent, it does not overpower the gentle characteristics of a typical Yamazaki dram, and gives a pleasantly subtle dried fruit, sherry nose. It is on the palate that this whisky truly excels, though – deceptively light at first, the flavour explodes and expands into a deep, rich nuttiness with a little fruitiness on the side, and a supremely delicious grassy finish that makes you long for more.
According to Sumita, Suntory is constantly changing their whiskies to suit the consumers’ tastes. The popularity of the HiBall, for instance, has prompted the company to come up with non-age-statement versions of the Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts, so discerning HiBall drinkers can choose a higher grade of whisky to go with their favourite drink.
“Whisky drinkers in Japan have changed a lot (since Suntory first started). Now, more and more people are enjoying single malts,” he said. “They might still drink Kakubin on ordinary days, but they will also like to have a single malt for special occasions.”
Today, Suntory’s whiskies, from the Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts to the exceptional Hibiki blended whisky, are known all over the world, and are regularly compared to the best that Scotland has to offer.
In 2003, the Yamazaki 12-Year-Old was awarded the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge (ISC), the first of numerous other global awards to come, and the final proof that Japanese whisky had finally arrived on the global stage came when Suntory was awarded the Distiller of the Year award at the 2010 ISC.
So, the next time you order a glass of Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, or even a Kakubin HiBall, take some time to think about how one man managed to defy an entire nation’s perception of whisky with his Yatteminahare spirit, and raise your glass to Shinjiro Torii, and his remarkable distillery at the foot of the mountain.