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Yamazaki Whisky


Yamazaki Single Malt Japanese Whisky

Suntory`s Yamazaki distillery was established in 1923 and was Japan`s first malt whisky plant. It is sandwiched between the two big cities of Kyoto and Osaka, nestled up against forested hills rising out of the Kansai plain. Yamazaki`s single malts have been described as being the "most Japanese" of the Japanese distilleries. Not sure I know what that means. Another characterisation I read focused on the "bright, fruity flavours" of its products, which fits in a bit with my very limited experience. Suntory`s own description is: "Whisky from Yamazaki Distillery has delicate taste with [a] woody yet sweet and gorgeous aroma."

The distillery

On his return from Scotland, the Grand Old Man of Japanese whisky Taketsuru Masataka had advised the wine maker Shinjiro Torii to build his first distillery in Hokkaido, because of the similarities there with Scottish geography (see Yoichi for the fulfilment of this dream). Torii ignored the advice and built at Yamazaki, nearer to the great economic and population centres of the Kansai region. It takes its water from an area traditionally famous for its good water. The great tea master Sen no Rikyu chose to have his tea house here. It is also near the confluence of three rivers ( the Katsura, Kizu and Uji), which Suntory claims meet each other at different temperatures, causing a great deal of mist. The distillers say the mist is good for storing whisky, stopping the loss of moisture from the casks.

Yamazaki was Japan's first whisky distillery. It started operation at 11.11 am on November 11, 1924 (oddly and slightly unfortunately, this 11.11.11 time is when many Westerners commemorate the Armistice that ended World War I, so you probably won't hear too much about this little factoid in Suntory's English language marketing). Yamazaki's first whisky hit the shelves in 1929. It was also the originator of Japan's first mass-marketed single malt, the Yamazaki 12, which hit the market in 1984.

The Yamazaki plant uses 12 stills of three different types. These are used to produce spirits of the wide range of different characters needed in Suntory`s blends, notably the famous Hibiki. Unlike in Scotland, Japan`s highly bi-polarised (Suntory vs. Nikka) whisky market means there is little or no swapping of spirits between distilleries with different owners for blending. This means it is necessary for makers to produce a range of styles in-house.

A shop and a visitor centre are attached to the distillery where visitors can read about its history and sample products.