There is no dispute that Japanese Whisky can trace its roots back to Scotland. Nearly a century ago, Masataka Taketsuru famously went to Scotland to study and get hands-on experience distilling Scotch in the Speyside and Campbletown regions. After returning to Japan, Taketsuru joined forces with Shinjiro Torii and they built the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923 near Kyoto. Taketsuru left Yamazaki in 1934 to build the Yoichi Distillery in a different part of the country to better mirror climate conditions he had seen in Scotland. Since then, the Japanese have become well versed in distilling the water of life and even today these two founding visionaries continue to dominate Japanese whisky as their companies have grown into Suntory (Torii) and Nikka (Taketsuru).
Japanese whisky is often compared to Scotch and this is a natural comparison given its previously discussed roots. This comparison, however, is a disservice. While inspired by Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky stands on its own and the varieties of whiskies emerging from the Land of the Rising Sun are sophisticated, multilayered, and creative in their own right.
One of these whiskies is Yamazaki 12 year old single malt (43%ABV, $100+). The 100% malted barley distillate is aged in a combination of ex-bourbon casks, sherry casks, and mizurana oak casks. Visually, the coloring is golden to amber, shimmering in the light. It’s inviting you to come on a journey.
Nose: Citrus, tropical, and floral. A touch of spice.
Palate: Creamy butter up front followed by a balanced sweetness that continues through the finish. Layered with cinnamon, citrus, raisins and more floral notes.
Finish: Oily, medium finish. Zest with a little char.
Summary: In many ways, the Yamazaki 12 appears to be full of contradictions. It is an easy drinking single malt but also complex and multilayered. It is delicate but strong enough to hold its own. Take another sip and one realizes that these are not contradictions at all. Rather, the many layers are complimentary to each other, providing a harmonious whisky that is multifaceted yet wonderfully well balanced.
Japanese whisky has experienced a significant uptick in popularity over the past several years (especially following Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible naming a Yamazaki Sherry Cask as whisky of the year in 2015). This has put some pressure on the Japanese distilleries to keep up with supply/demand and caused the price point to rise rather significantly. The Yamazaki 12 is now over $100 and rather difficult to find, because the supply appears to wax and wane throughout the year. And while this may give many people a bit of pause, it’s an excellent whisky that is worth the price.
Arigato Mr. Torii. Arigato.
In early-March 2016, I was fortunate to visit Yamazaki Distillery, which sits just outside of Kyoto. I had attempted to get reservations for the guided tour (which are required), but it was booked solid for quite some time. The popularity of Yamazaki whisky along with an apparent mini-series about the founding of Yamazaki have dramatically increased tourist numbers to the distillery. So, I decided to take a chance and visit anyway. I knew that I could visit the museum on the grounds (which does not require a reservation) and frankly, just visiting the distillery was a Japan bucket-list item. So, off I went.
Just a short train ride from the Kyoto station, I went to the Yamazaki stop (well, myself and a few friends who seemed to be a bit amused at my excitement). From the stop, it’s just a short walk through the local neighborhood to the distillery. Yamazaki sits at the base of a mountain (largish hill) and it is really quite a beautiful area. I approached the ticket building and asked the very friendly woman if there was an opening on one of the tours. She turned and said something to her coworkers in Japanese (I’ve always imagined it was something like “look at the pathetic American”) and then jackpot…I was told that I could join an official tour group in a few hours!
My friends and I decided to take the opportunity to visit the museum in the Visitor Center. This is truly an amazing place and takes you through the history of Yamazaki. The highlight of the museum (in my opinion) was the whisky library. It is here that everything that Yamazaki has ever made sits in sample bottles on multiple shelves. Think university library but instead of books, it is bottles of whisky. After the museum we went to the tasting bar, which also sits in the Visitor Center. My friends and I enjoyed a couple samples as we sat outside in the sun. These friends had never had Japanese whisky before and I was happy to introduce them.
The time for the tour approached and I headed upstairs to where the tour starts. I joined a group of what looked like Japanese business people and off we went. As an English speaker, I had a headset that helped guide me along since the tour was primarily in Japanese. I wandered behind the group a bit as they pressed forward. Yamazaki had two staff people with the tour. Up front and leading the tour was the main guide and then behind the group was another person to make sure nobody wandered off. The best part of this tour was that this gentleman spoke English and the two of us had a wonderful conversation about Yamazaki and the whisky-making process. A true delight, because in many ways it ended up being a private tour.
The tour goes through the basic whisky-making process, starting at the Mash House/Fermentation Room where large tanks begin the process. From there, we went into the Still House to see several large, copper pot stills. It’s an impressive process. After loitering around the stills we went to the Warehouse where everything is stored. It’s such an interesting endeavor to walk through a storage area that has been aging whiskies since the early-1920’s. I looked at those early barrels and wondered how much was left, how much the angels had already taken, and mostly, just how delicious it must be. Again, I lingered and talked to my new friend before we headed to the tasting room where the tour would end. We sat and had some snacks and then they gave us several samples to taste. The perfect end to a wonderful experience.
Should you get the chance to visit the distillery, I highly recommend going. You will not be disappointed. It was truly one of the highlights of my trip to Japan.