Sponsored by the Kinki District Transport Bureau
While Japan’s traditional alcohol is sake, which has been perfected over centuries, in the last century, Japanese whiskey has become internationally renowned and today ranks as one of the best whiskeys in the world. Remarkably, the very first Japanese distillery was opened in Osaka. The Yamazaki Distillery, located in the middle of the Kansai Mountains, welcomes visitors from all over the world who come to discover and taste the famous Yamazaki whiskey.
A distillery opened in 1923
Shinjiro Torii was the first person who wanted to produce whiskey in Japan. After doing his research, he decided to construct his distillery in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture. The main reason for this choice is the source of pure water found in the Shimamoto Mountains. Water is an essential component of whiskey and Shimamoto’s water is known to be so pure that the inventor of the tea ceremony himself would come just for water to make tea.
With the success of its first distillery, the corporation founded by Shinjiro Torii expanded to become Suntory, now a world famous brand.
Approaching the distillery, we are struck by the immense size of the place. The buildings are gigantic, nestled in the middle of the mountains. A small, free-of-charge museum tells us the history of the distillery and exhibits historical pieces, including one of the whiskey barrels signed by US President Gerald R. Ford.
The global popularity of Japanese whiskey means you will need to reserve a tour date weeks in advance, but doing so allows you to get up close with the whiskey making process (and perhaps enjoy a few samples).
Visiting the oldest Japanese whiskey distillery
After disinfecting our hands, we enter the first room of the distillery. The smell is strong; in huge vats, the fermentation of barley is taking place and the yeasts gradually turn the sugar into alcohol.
Note that an audio guide is available in English at no charge. This is a great way to enjoy the explanations throughout the visit without needing to speaking Japanese.
Now we come to the location where the actual distillation takes place which is filled with gigantic stills. Each of them have slightly different shapes or inclinations which has an impact on the taste of the whiskey distilled from it.
Unlike the very strong smell of fermentation of the previous location, there is a pleasant odor of grilled apple here. We can see the whiskey emerge from the still, but there is a long way to go before it can be enjoyed as a beverage.
This whiskey fresh out of the stills is then placed in barrels that are stored in a room subject to natural variations in temperature. When entering the warehouse the smell of whiskey is powerful, almost overwhelming the senses.
This isn’t surprising because about 2% of the whiskey evaporates each year. A barrel several decades old is less filled than a younger one, which also explains the rarity of the oldest bottles. But it is in these barrels that whiskeys will acquire new characters. Depending on the type of wood used or the age of the tea, the whiskeys will be infused with different flavors.
Tasting of Yamazaki whiskey
After following the process of whiskey production behind the walls of the Yamazaki distillery, it is time to discover the flavors! We start with a young whiskey just out of the stills. Very pure and almost transparent, but then we taste older whiskeys.
This was a real discovery for me who is not a specialist of spirits. In a very playful way we are taught to observe the color of the whiskey, and to enjoy its scent before discovering its flavor. It’s great fun to practice identifying the fruity flavors beyond the power of alcohol.
Finally, we are taught how to make a highball in the rules of art. It is probably the most popular whiskey drink in Japan. It’s all about combining ice, sparkling water, and whiskey. The alcohol becomes lighter, softer, and the whiskey’s flavors become airier.
Ice and sparkling water are produced from the very pure water of the Shimamoto Mountains. Enjoyed with regional snacks, we almost forget that we are on a guided tour. But if the tour hasn’t satisfied your thirst for Japanese whiskey, a bar awaits visitors at the exit of the distillery in which it is possible to taste more than 70 types of whiskeys.
The tour lasts one hour and costs a very reasonable 1000 yen with tasting included. You will need to make your reservation about two months in advance, and you can book your guided tour on this site. Even without a tour reservation it is always possible to visit the museum and go to the bar to enjoy whiskeys whose prices vary depending on the year of manufacture.
|Name||Suntory Yamazaki Distillery|
|Address||Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, 5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka|
|Access||[map]Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, 5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka[/map]|
|Opening Hours||9:30 - 17:00|
|Price Range||1000 yen|