Call me a snob, but I became a fan of Japanese whisky, and it all began with a single bottle of Suntory Yamazaki that I sipped in paris...
Hidden at the foot of green hills flush with spring water and under the protective quietness of the Tennozan mountain, here is the Suntory Yamazaki distillery. Located just a stone throw from the railroad tracks linking Kyoto and Osaka, it sits roughly inbetween the two towns. Just a few years ago I wouldn't have guessed that Japan was a whisky-producing country, even less that it was the second biggest producer. That was only when B. offered me a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 12 Years Single Malt Whisky that she had received at her job that I became aware of this little-publicized reality. As an occasional whisky amateur I try to appreciate the differences between the different brands I come accross, and I liked the smooth qualities of this one. If you are among the people who watched (and liked) Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, another Suntoty whisky had a nice role there in the hands of Bill Murray, Suntory Hibiki 17 years 43°, but I didn't pay attention at the time, like most viewers.
So here we are, in the first Japanese whisky distillery, and it was founded long before the end of WW2 and the ensuing American influence. Shinjiro Torii, born to an Osaka money-changer in 1879, was to become the founder of Suntory Ltd. (the Japanese alcohol beverage giant). In 1899, he started his own wine wholesaling business in Osaka and imported wine from Spain. A Japanese entrepreneur's story : In 1923 he pursued another dream and built Japan's first Malt Whisky distillery, with someone named Masataka Taketsuru as distillery manager. The young Masataka had just spend time in Scottish distilleries to learn the Art of whisky making. Just for the anecdote, after putting Yamazaki on the rails during 10 years, he left for Hokkaido where he founded his own whisky distillery, Nikka Whisky Co. Two exceptionnal men, two exceptionnal products... Back to Shinjiro Torii : He selected this Oyamazaki spot, a valley where the Katsura, Kizu and Uji rivers merge and where fog lingers almost year around. The location was accessible and the water was abundant and perfectly fit to make a great whisky.
We happened to spend a few days in Kyoto and we stayed at a friend's atelier in Katsura, near Kyoto. Accidently, Oyamazaki, where Suntory's Yamazaki distillery sits, is only a couple of stations on the local Hankyu line to Osaka, so I decided to pay visit while B. went to Kyoto. This was a beautiful day, a few clouds but mostly sunny. I walked across Katsura's quiet and narrow streets to the station, bought the ticket to Oyamazaki (220 Yen) and after checking that I was on the right platform, boarded my Hankyu train. This was a swift trip. At the station, I asked for direction to the man near the turnstiles and he gave me a well made plan showing where the plant was. The Suntory Yamazaki distillery is a popular visit for Japanese tourists, and it shows that whisky still has its followers even though it is less popular than it was in the 1950's.
__The 180-liter barrel that they use when new to age bourbon. The older barrels are then suited for malt whisky.
__The 230-liter Hogshead made of American oak, for the Hakushu whiskies.
__The 480-liter Puncheon made of carefully-selected straight-grained North-American white oak, which gives a neat, woody flavor.
__The 480-liter Sherry Butt. These casks, after a first use to make Spanish sherry, help make a malt whisky with a "unique, deep and mature flavor whith some of the color, flavor and taste of sherry", according to Suntory's booklet.
There's an interesting story about the Japanese oak casks : they began to use this oak during the post-war years because of the shortage of sherry casks. The Japanese oak having less tyloses than white oak, the casks tended to leak a bit and the casks were left with the spirit inside and nearly forgottent in the huge warehouse as sherry casks were available again on the market. Then, years after they discovered that some magic has worked in these Japanese-oak casks, with unique flavors of aloes-wood and sandal-wood very rare in a whisky.
There has been a lot of research made by the Suntory people since the early days of the distillery. Today they use 6 stills which are very different from each other, and they choose the type of yeast, the heating and the elevage depending of the whisky they want to obtain.
You have to imagine that back in the 1920s', Whisky was some strange alien drink for most Japanese, and that Mr torii was pushed by his personal passion for whiskies and had to face some hostility among local people when he built his plant here. To complicate things, in spite of the pure water, the first whiskies were far to reach any international level, but he and his aides kept trying and improving, and their first reasonable-quality whisky went out in 1937 under the name of Kakubin. Alas WW2 brought his adventure to a temporary halt, until a rapid resurrection after 1945, helped by incoming American troops. But the American military seems to have had several encounters with Japanese whisky prior to WWII. Our fellow blogger Nonjatta, aka Chris Bunting, a british expat-journalist and a specialist on anything whisky, found traces of two transport-boats full of American soldiers on their way to fight the bosheviks in Siberia in 1918, which stopped in the Northern port of Hakodate in Japan. The soldiers drank more than their share of Japanese whisky (which was probably very different from today's Suntory or Nikka) and became so unruly that the boats had to leave without loading the coal they came here for. So, it seems that at least 5 years before the Suntory distillery was built, someone in Japan was already brewing some sort of cheap whisky.
So, at the end of the visit, we are offered two generous pours with the explanations of the tasting clerk [pic on left]. I was just a little bit disappointed that they served the whisky the way the Japanese usually drink it : "rokku" (on the rocks), that is in a glass full of ice cubes. I was sipping my Yamazaki 12 Years Single Malt trying to guess the whisky aromas behind so much melting water when the nice young woman-clerk came to me and asked if I wanted to taste the whiskies straight. Was it because I was a gaijin or because they saw I took plenty of notes all along the visit, whatever, I appreciate the care...So, I ended up drinking 4 whiskies, I love Japan...
The shop sells all of Suntory's whiskies, at a price that doesn't differ from the normal prices seen in liquor shops in Japan, but you will find the largest choice here. The Yamazaki Single Malt 12 Years for example costs something like 7300 Yen here (46 Euro or 70 USD). I just bought a Yamazaki 10 years at some 4500 Yen and thought I would buy other bottles at the airport tax-free shops. Here is another reason to crush the brainless bigots who plotted to blend their own explosive mix in airliner toilets a few years ago : with the new preventive measures and because our flight back home wasn't direct and stopped in Zurich, I couldn't buy anything liquid in Narita : I would have been allowed to board with it in Japan, but not in Zurich, even if sealed. Look at what I missed there : Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt 12 years for 4500 Yen (28 Euro or 43 USD), and same price for a Nikka 12 years. Quite upsetting... There's a Nonjatta page about the great deals you can make in this Narita shop. They have a tremendous choice of other whiskies, including one I'll post about one day : the divine Girvan 1964. I found the way out of this inconvenience : I am looking for any acquaintances who would fly direct to Paris in the coming months...