Yamazaki, Japan's oldest and most esteemed malt whisky distillery founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, gained global recognition when its 2013 Sherry Cask won numerous whisky awards, solidifying its position as the king of whiskies in Japan and beyond. Situated on the outskirts of Kyoto in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, Yamazaki was strategically chosen for its close proximity to the pristine Minase water springs, revered by tea ceremony masters and sake makers for its pure and soft quality. The legendary water source, combined with the expertise of Suntory's founder Shinjiro Torii and whisky connoisseur Taketsuru Masataka, who studied whisky-making in Scotland, led to the creation of Yamazaki. The distillery is widely regarded as the birthplace of Japanese whisky and is responsible for producing some of the finest whiskies in the world.
The Yamazaki Distillery holds a significant place in the history of the Japanese whisky industry, being the first and oldest distillery in Japan. Shinjiro Torii, the visionary behind Yamazaki, is often referred to as the father of Japanese whisky.
During the 1920s, Torii-san, a successful businessman and the founder of Kotobukiya, imported European wines and produced plum-based dessert wines and liqueurs in Japan. Inspired by Scotch whisky production methods, he aimed to create a whisky that would suit the Japanese palate. To acquire the necessary knowledge, he sent his colleague Masetaka Taketsuru to Scotland, where Taketsuru-san spent three years learning about traditional whisky production methods and the whisky trade. During his time in Scotland, Taketsuru-san married a Scottish woman and became well-versed in the whisky industry.
In 1923, Torii-san and Taketsuru-san embarked on a search for an ideal location in Japan to establish their distilleries. Torii-san chose Yamazaki, a rural village situated between Osaka and Kyoto, while Taketsuru-san opted for a site in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. Ultimately, the Yamazaki site was selected, aligning with Torii-san's three key considerations: the presence of high-quality spring water, a unique climate and humidity, and its advantageous location for transportation in Japan. Although Taketsuru-san initially disagreed with the decision and eventually left Yamazaki to establish his own distillery, Yoichi, in Hokkaido, the Yamazaki site proved to be a pivotal choice for the future success of Japanese whisky.
Fun Fact: Shinjiro Torii, in his quest to find the ideal location for the Yamazaki Distillery, emphasized the importance of public accessibility, while Taketsuru focused on the availability of natural resources. Ultimately, Shinjiro made the decision to establish the Yamazaki Distillery in its present location.
The Yamazaki Style
The distillery produces a wide range of whiskies, including single malts, blends, and limited edition bottlings. One of the most well-known and highly regarded whiskies produced by the Yamazaki distillery is the Yamazaki Single Malt, which is aged in a variety of casks, including Japanese oak, American oak, and Spanish sherry casks. The result is a complex and multi-layered whisky with notes of fruit, spice, and oak. One of the unique features of the Yamazaki distillery is the attention to detail that goes into every aspect of the whisky making process. The distillery uses only the finest ingredients, including high-quality barley and water sourced from the nearby Yodo River. The whisky is distilled in traditional pot stills and aged in a variety of casks, each carefully selected for their unique flavor profile.
Yamazaki distinguishes itself not only through its exceptional water source but also by harnessing its unique terrain and climate. The higher altitude and lower atmospheric pressure allow for a single distillation, preserving the whisky's esters and phenyls that contribute to its remarkable aroma and flavor. The distillery's bamboo filters, proprietary yeast strain, and meticulous blending techniques utilizing eight stills further set Yamazaki apart. Moreover, Yamazaki's mastery lies in its innovative wood management, particularly with the use of Mizunara wood, a distinctive Japanese oak known for imparting sandalwood, coconut, and light citrus notes. Yamazaki's expertise in working with Mizunara wood, despite its challenges, has solidified its position as the authority in utilizing this prized material.
In addition to Mizunara, Yamazaki excels in the use of Sherry casks, adding spicy, chocolate, and dried fruit flavors to its whiskies. The distillery meticulously selects and manages the entire wood chain, starting from juvenile trees, ensuring the highest quality and control over the maturation process. With such unparalleled wood management capabilities, Yamazaki continues to produce an extensive range of whiskies that showcase the harmonious marriage of nature's gifts and craftsmanship.
In addition to its whisky production, the Yamazaki distillery also produces a range of other spirits, including brandy and gin. The distillery also offers tours and tastings, allowing visitors to learn more about the history and process of Japanese whisky making. The distillery has won numerous awards and accolades over the years, including the World Whiskies Awards Distillery of the Year in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The distillery's commitment to quality and tradition has earned it a reputation as one of the best whisky distilleries in the world.
Despite its success, the Yamazaki distillery has faced challenges in recent years due to the global demand for Japanese whisky. The distillery has struggled to keep up with demand, and has been forced to discontinue some of its age statement whiskies due to a shortage of aged stock.
Despite these challenges, the Yamazaki distillery remains a beloved and respected institution in the world of whisky. Its commitment to quality and tradition, combined with its unique location and attention to detail, have earned it a place among the world's best whisky distilleries. Whether enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, Yamazaki whisky is a testament to the art and craft of Japanese whisky making, and a true delight for whisky lovers around the world.