[Note]- This page is highly picture intensive.
Let's talk about one of my budding interests today, and that my friends is Whisky
(or Whiskey depending on where you are from).
Yamazaki Distillery is "the distillery" to go to since it's the oldest (and first one built in Japan).
After Yamazaki won the title of World Whisky of the Year Award for their Sherry Cask (2013), demand and interest for Japanese Whisky has suddenly surged.
Access to the distillery is super easy.
There's no way you can get lost after getting off at the Yamazaki station as there's signs everywhere.
- The walk from the Train Station -
Once you get off the train, it feel like you are stepping back in time.
It's Autumn so the leaves were starting to change colors.
Makes for a nice short walk through residential areas.
The first sign + arrow.
See, here's already another one.
After following the signs, you check-in at the reception (little shack on the top).
Confirm you reservations, pay, then cross the road.
I got the audio guide in English but they do have ones in Chinese and French.
- Tour meeting place -
The meeting place for the factory tour is on the 2nd level of the museum (library).
Since there's a bit of time before our tour began, we roamed about for a bit.
Very thoughtful of them to have umbrellas for you to borrow in case it rains during the tour
(from museum to warehouse).
Go up to the 2nd floor to the tour meeting area.
There's plenty of English signage so you won't get lost.
- The Tour -
Try to arrive a little earlier than your scheduled tour time.
The entire tour will be conducted in Japanese but after the tour was over,
we found that the guide could answer some questions in English.
To begin, we exited the museum.
Immediately, you see the very first "Pot Still" the distillery used when it opened in 1923.
It was founded by Shinjiro Torii and was called Kotobukiya back then.
The short story of why this particular spot was selected for the distillery was due to it's climate, strategic location (it's at the bottom of Mt. Tennozan), and magnificient water source (where 3 rivers meet).
Please see their official page for a complete history outline.
Even though Torii founded the company with Masataka Taketsuru's help (a chemist who was the first Japanese to study whisky making in Scotland and later became a master blender), there is no mention of Taketsuru even though he spent over a decade overseeing the production and setup of Suntory Whisky...
But I get it-- this is the Suntory Distillery and not Nikka.
- Mash House & Fermentation Room -
At this point, I was distracted by all of the wonderful aromas of the mash house.
To (overly) simplify, they basically use two types of tanks (Stainless steel + Wood)
to ferment their mash (wort + "mother water" from the land + yeast).
The mash is then distilled and malt is created. Heat is then applied and depending on the type of pot stills used in the distillation process along with storage in different casks to mature, different flavors are produced.
You can find a chocolate set outlining the steps of the whisky-making process in the giftshop later.
[Pot Still Room]
The whiskies are distilled twice by direct heat (fire underneath) or steam.
Peat coals may also be used to give it more smokiness.
- Yamazaki Whisky Warehouse -
Next up, we check out their Warehouse.
The smell is just intoxicatingly incredible in here.
Not to mention, super nice and warm.
They even have the original 1924 cask in here too.
Did I just walk into a fairytale?
The air is so clean and there's so much greenery everywhere!
This is where Yamazaki's pure water source ("Mother Water") comes from.
Wait, what's this?
Turns out, Yamazaki was built on top of an existing shrine (Shiio Shrine) 椎尾神社.
I found a listing of it in Japanese, (from the Oyamazaki tourism page)
so I promise I'm not making this up.
- Tasting Room -
They will seat you by groups.
Every seat was already set up with 4 whiskies (one is actually a duplicate meant to be mixed).
Complimentary snacks (nuts & chocolates) were included as well.
There's a recommended order on the whiskies you should taste and how.
The whisky notes are already provided for you so more time to just enjoy.
Personally I really enjoyed their White Oak Cask Malt (the very first glass),
which I'm guessing is in the style of their Mizunara Single Malt. It's very clean and delicate.
I'm warning you now, there is none to be found at their gift shop to take home so just enjoy it.
But I doubt they would serve their actual Mizunara Single Malt as the current going MSRP for that
looks to start at $1600+ usd per bottle (...if you can even find it that is).
The guide(s) take turns walking you through the tastings one-by-one.
with their no-age statement Single Malt (glass #3 & #4).
I scratched my head for a moment after I tasted it.
I immediately thought this was their Distiller's Reserve (see my review)
as it tasted very similar, not to mention the label and box looks 99% alike.
It is indeed listed as so on their official webpage now so I was correct.
The only difference is the Japanese version had Kanji on the very bottom
while the exported ones have English (we have collected several bottles previously).
With the soda in hand, let's make a highball!
Since there's instructions, lets follow it.
During the tasting, they mentioned that their Whisky Bonbons are now available.
Good marketing Suntory!
Little did we know just how AWESOME the Bonbons truly are.
At this point, they collect your audio guides if you've borrowed one.
- Gift Shop -
While the gift shop itself isn't very big.
We did spent a bit of time in here deciding what to buy as we wanted
a little of everything.
Even though there's miniatures on display, they were not for sale sadly. Shucks!!!
Aside from the usual items such as pens and postcards, here are some items we saw on our visit.
Their giftshop takes foreign credit cards (so, kind of dangerous).
But I thought the free ones (that came with your purchase was good enough).
I was very tempted though. Aren't these just so pretty?
Whisky Bon Bons (for sale during Winter time only). If you see this, you must buy!
We got a bunch (I think our group practically cleared the shelf) but regretted not buying more.
They are so delicious and contains real Whiskey (Suntory Royal) within the chocolates.
There's Suntory Old Whisky for sale.
They only showed one of this Suntory Royal bottle, so of course we had to buy it!
It's a psychological thing I know.
You can also stock up on their Chita (Grain whisky); no limit!
But we decided to buy more of their Distiller's Reserve
(one per person).
So we may have a bunch at already,
but way more inexpensive compared to buying it online overseas and paying shipping and duty.
Since we had 5 adults in our group, each of us bought at least one whisky.
I think these might be the exact same whisky as the Single malt above but in different bottles (and smaller).
Miniature Chocolates (which I mentioned briefly earlier).
Like the ones included in the tasting but full collection.
You can't bring meat back from Japan but this Cask-smoked bacon sounded amazing
if you want something to snack on while on your trip.
There's these whimsical looking "whisky voice" booklets. Too bad they were entirely in Japanese.
They also had many types of coasters for sale.
Do you want ones made from paper?
Or do you prefer metal?
My biggest question is...who's Uncle Tory??
Play on words from Torii or Suntory?
Or both to revere Shinjiro Torii?
It reminds me of Bill Murray in Lost in Translation when he's filming the commercial for Suntory.
They've got that covered too-- in-fact 3 different laser-engraved ones. Take your pick!
You can even take home a mini replica cask.
I bet none of your friends have one of these.
You can also buy imported Whiskies through Suntory:
Canadian Club, Connemara, Macallan, Laphroaig, whiskies from Jim Beam (Knob Creek, Makers Mark),
Ballantine, Glenfiddich, Bowmore.
You know, I'm starting to like this Hexagon pattern.
This was behind their register area.
They have these really unique pins right by the register.
Clever impluse-buy product placement.
But, you can actually buy the bamboo bento (lunch) box.
I actually got a kick out of their description.
"The bamboo lunch box that brings joy inside and out."
It goes on to say that "...it's simple design and perfect proportions make anything you put inside look beautiful."
I was mildly tempted until I saw the price.
Yours for 7560Y.
Expertly hand-crafted and made by a quite famous bamboo maker though.
They had several types of postcards and paper goods available.
I guess you could use these envelopes for when you eat at a high end restaurant or stay at a fancy ryokan
to hand out Tea Money (chadai; 茶代) or gratuity (kokorozuke; 心付け).
So I wasn't too disappointed.
Maybe I should have bought a Suntory White (shirofuda; 白札).
It is the very first whisky the distillery produced.
But it didn't do well. So "maybe" I'm not missing all that much.
Need a glass to go with your Whisky?
They've got that covered too, from tasting, rock, and high balls to choose from.
Do you want one with the Yamazaki branding?
Or something more fanciful to your liking?
- Our Yamazaki Giftshop haul -
It's a combine effort so I can't take all of the credit myself since most of the Single Malt whiskies
are limited to one per person.
- Whisky Library/ Museum Area -
Timeline of the distillery.
This is the closest I will ever get to be right next to an actual Sherry Cask bottle I think.
Of course, I wouldn't object if anyone wanted to donate a bottle of the 2016 to me. ;)
Because of the high demand and rarity, the market price for it has shot up drastically. Up until a few years ago, no one really talked about Japanese whisky overseas.
Now it's become all the rage and even other Japanese brands not affilated with Suntory are getting more difficult to procure also.
In contrast to the Sherry Cask, the 1984 Yamazaki Single Malt seems slightly more attainable.
Ok, back to reality for a tiny bit.
You can actually still find Hibiki 17 (granted it's still not very cheap; $250-$300 usd).
I had no idea it was made by blending over 1 million different cask of malts.
Special Hibiki 17 & 21 years old.
They commissioned a calligraphy artist (Tansetsu Ogino) and washi paper designer (Eriko Horiki; her porfolio is quite splendid) to create the Hibiki labels.
While there's none to be bought at the distillery's gift shop, I've actually seen similar years (newer bottling) at the duty free shopping areas at the international airports.
You can pre-order Suntory items online like Yamazaki 18 or Hibiki 21 below
(50,000 Y)-- pick up & pay at departure.
Of course their stock is based on availability.
Can I just stay here forever?
- Paid Tasting Area -
Even though we didn't really eat breakfast that morning and kind of drank on a semi-empty stomach,
we boldly decided to go forth with the paid tasting after the free tasting.
We've come this long way, might as well try more right?
But first, a few rules before getting your hands on the paid whisky tasting:
1. Cash (Yen) only.
2. You can order up to 3 tastings per transaction.
3. You have to drink it in the designated tasting area (counter, stand up bar, sitting area inside).
Certain line up of their aged whiskies are limited to one glass per person
(such as Hibiki 21 and Hibiki 30 years old).
And last, but not least...
Yamazaki Sherry Cask (12 years), as part of their distillery-only offering.
300 Y a sample?
What a steal!!!
I understand now why it was named world whisky of the year-- it's delicious!
But, I'm still on the fence on shelling out thousands to buy a bottle though.
If you are thirsty after or during the tasting, you can help yourself freely to the Mother Water.
Don't forget to return your glasses after you're done.
A few excerpts from their tasting book menu.
- Hakushu Tasting Price List -
- Yamazaki Tasting Price List -
- Japanese Whisky Tasting Price List -
Their tasting prices seem like a bargain compared to buying the drams at a restaurant with a ridiculous markup.
You can also sample whiskies from other brands they own/ import as well (Bowmore, Laphroaig, Jim Beam, etc.).
Seeing the actual land where the distillery is located really gave me a new appreciation for Yamazaki Whisky.
I mean, come on, which other whisky distillery has a shrine on the same land?
Overall, a very great experience.
Easy to get to, well-planned and executed and a good way to spend a few hours.
--> Next up on my wish-list...a visit to their Hakushu Distillery!