Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I died and went to Whisky Heaven : The Yamazaki Distillery Tour

Friends know my predilection for beer but few know that whisky is my secret sin.
Both drinks share  basic ingredients and are even distilled in a similar fashion.
I can drink any kind of beer but for whisky,  I prefer blended whisky which better suits my
proletarian tastes and budgets.
My favourite used to be Johnnie Walker Black (unsophisticated and uncool as that may be) but a
few years ago, I discovered the pleasurable taste of Japanese whisky, specifically Suntory's Hibiki Japanese Harmony.
While I love it a little bit more than old Johnnie,  Hibiki costs more than three times as much ... reason enough to drink it sparingly.
On my trips to Kyoto, I noticed that our train would pass by Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery.
A bit of research yielded the information that the whisky distillery was open to the public through regularly conducted plant tours.  

It took me many trips back to Kyoto  before I finally got around to reserving a spot on the Yamazaki Distillery Plant tour .  Reservations are done online and are essential, you cannot just show up.  
It's easy to get to the distillery, you can take the JR line from Kyoto station or the Hankyu Express Line from Kawaramachi station.

From Kawaramachi station, it's a 30 minute ride to Oyamazaki, the town nearest to the distillery.  Oyamazaki is almost at the centre between Osaka and Kyoto and therefore convenient from either destination.

A large poster greets us as we exit  -- don't worry about getting lost, the 15  minute walk to the distillery is pretty much a straight path from the station.

Along the way, we were surprised to see a sign for the Asahi Beer Museum of Art.  It would have been a good  place to visit but we were afraid we would miss our 11 a.m. reservation for the distillery plant tour.  
The museum is a good reason to visit Oyamazaki again on the next trip to Kyoto.

There are a number of temples in the area but most of them are in the mountainside surrounding the town.  We did get to pass by and visit the Rikyu Hachiman-gu, a shrine along the way to the distillery.

A plain stone torii stands in front of the hondo or main hall.   The shrine was established by the Emperor in 859 but the original buildings have since been destroyed.  The shrine has also lost most of its land area due to the development of the town around it and today it stands on a much smaller property.

In the grounds is a statue of this shrine priest  who discovered how to make egoma oil from the perilla leaf. 

The priest invented this device made of wood and bamboo which could press oil from the leaves.   The oil was then used to light lamps.  For quite a time, the shrine had an "exclusive" right to sell the egoma oil.

From the shrine, we followed the narrow two lane street lined with houses, small stores and cafes. Oyamazaki seems to be primarily a residential area.  Pretty soon, we could see the distillery up ahead framed by mists that partially obscured  the mountain behind it, Mt. Ten-no.

To get to the Yamazaki Distillery, you need to cross the wide train tracks.  As long as you are not inebriated, you will definitely not get run over by a speeding train!

This large pot distiller is the first thing that greets you as you enter the distillery.

The reception area is conveniently located just by the gate.  If you have booked a tour, you pay the (extremely reasonable) 1,000 yen fee here.  If you have not booked a tour, you can just visit their museum and cozy up the the excellent tasting bar where you can imbibe the whisky of your choice -- for a fee of course.

Visitors and tour participants enter through the Museum, which is housed in a building that probably dates back to when the distillery was founded, in 1923. 

You enter through the left of the stairs where you can watch an audio visual presentation showcasing the history of Yamazaki Distillery and the whisky that it produces.

I did not know that Yamazaki is the oldest distillery in Japan.  This is where Japanese malt whisky started and where its story continues today. 

This is Shinjiro Torii, founder of Yamazaki Distillery.  He started out producing and selling western types of wine to suit Japanese palates but in 1923 he made the bold move to create a malt whisky using the local spring waters found here, in Yamazaki Gorge.  

The area around the distillery is mountainous and cool -- Shinjiro Torii thought it was the ideal environment for the creation of fine whisky.  Aside from the ingredients,  air and water quality are essential in producing top quality malt whisky.

After the walking around the museum, we ended up staring at rows and rows of Suntory's many whisky blends.  The display seemed to go on forever and all I could do was just walk through in fascination.  Yes, I had died and gone to whisky heaven!  

An open "barrel" stands in the middle of the room where you can see the bottles of the best whiskies in  the world, not just Suntory's.

Our guided tour was about to start so we headed for the second floor.   In the middle is a display showing the entire process of whisky distillation -- from the raw ingredients to the finished product. 

The tour is conducted in Nihongo but for the few non Japanese like Jay and myself,  we were each given audio guides for english translations of the tour.  

The Yamazaki Distillery Tour is the visitor's chance to enter areas that would normally be closed to the public.
The tour takes you through the actual working distillery,  it is not just a demonstration or lecture in a small room.  We walked through the various areas involved in the distillery's day to day operations.
This room is where the grains are mashed with hot water in this huge vessel called a mash tun. 

Mashing extracts the wort which is what goes into fermentation.  Yeast is added to the wort which will produce alcohol.  These huge wooden barrels are where fermentation takes place.

An employee goes about his daily task, taking no mind of the tour that passes through.  He is in the distillation area and these large copper vessels are called pot distillers.
The wash, which is the result of fermentation, goes into these copper distillers for the final process. The shape of these copper vessels are actually essential to adding taste and refinement to the whisky.

After the wash has been distilled, there is another vital process -- ageing.   Whiskies  are matured in oak barrels for at least three years. Our guide ushers us into the cool dark depths of the Yamazaki warehouse where the ageing takes place.

The cavernous warehouse is dimly lit, it takes my eyes a while to adjust to the gloom.  When I do get my bearings, I see rows and rows of barrels stacked on racks -- these are Yamazaki's various whisky blends and single malts, all being aged and matured to perfection.

The barrels are all properly marked  -- these pure malt whiskies from 2009 may still be considered "young", after all they are only eight years old.
Our guide mentioned that while all the barrels look alike the wood used is not always the same.  Different types of oak are used which affects the taste of the whisky.  There is European, American and Japanese oak.  Some barrels have been previously used to store wine and again, that would add a different note to the whisky's taste. 

Our guide points out the original barrel from the first batch produced in 1923.  There is no whisky inside but it does serve as a reminder that Yamazaki is the pioneer and still the leader in the Japanese whisky industry. 

The barrels seem to go on endlessly -- row after long row of the finest whiskies all waiting for the right time to be bottled and enjoyed.  Larcenous thoughts go through my brain, could I roll one out of the place and how many days would I have to spend in jail if I did so?

From the shadowy interiors of the warehouse, we stepped outside into this sylvan setting -- a bubbling spring, trees, plants, moss and fresh clean mountain air.  
This natural environment is why Shinjiro Torii, chose Yamazaki as the place where he would create Japan's first whisky. 
Torii san knew that the most important ingredients of a fine whisky are the water, the grain and the yeast.  
The natural spring of Yamazaki Gorge is what makes Yamazaki whisky one of the best whiskies in the world.

One does not enjoy the bounty of Nature's goodness without giving thanks.  A plain torii adorned with shimenawa marks the entrance to a shrine within Yamazaki's grounds, carefully tended and cared for by the distillery but visited and used by the people in the community.

It is almost the end of the tour and our guide smilingly says that we are about to enjoy the best part of the afternoon.  She leads us into a modern hall where we are to sample the various blends produced in Yamazaki.  The proof of the distilling is in the drinking!

Everyone in the group is over 21, the legal age for drinking in Japan.  We have also signed forms that state that we are not driving back after the tour.  The distillery is very careful about the safety of its guests.
Tables for two and four people are neatly arranged and each one of us has a tray with several glasses of different whiskies for us to try.

It's all I can do to just dive in!  But first, we have to listen to our guide who schools us on the proper ways of enjoying Suntory whisky. 

Each glass contains a shot of a different whisky.  The glasses have been carefully covered so that the aroma does not escape.  On the leftmost is whisky that has been aged in a white oak barrel, the second glass from the left is whisky that has been aged in a wine cask.  The third and fourth contain single malt whiskies but the last glass has a note that says "to be enjoyed the way you like".  
I can't wait to start tasting!

The first step to enjoying your fine single malt is to look at the amber colour and appreciate the rich golden hue.

Next, bring the glass closer to your nose and sniff the wonderful aroma that only a fine single malt whisky can deliver.

I enjoyed the three glasses neat -- just as we were instructed.  They were all refined, with variations in the tasting notes.  I particularly enjoyed the whisky aged in vintage wine casks as it had a hint of fruity and sweet flavours.
For our last glass, we were taught the fine points on how to prepare the quintessential Japanese highball, a cocktail made of whisky and soda water.  Yamazaki also bottles a premium soda which is the perfect pair to their fine single malt whiskies.
The highball was refreshing and so easy to drink.  I could have sat there and had another one and perhaps another one ....

Jay is a teetotaller as he is allergic to alcohol but even he could not resist a few sips of the excellent whiskies.  He enjoyed it just as much as I did.

After the tasting session (where I reluctantly pried myself away from the table)  it was time to visit the small but excellent gift shop.   You can buy all sorts of whisky paraphernalia and souvenirs and if you wish,  take home a bottle or two of Yamazaki's different brands. 

I wanted to buy a bottle of Hibiki, Yamazaki's blended whisky and my favourite. However, it only came in the very large size so I ended up with a smaller bottle of single malt whisky. I guess I will have to learn to love drinking single malt.

Thank you to the wonderful folks at Yamazaki Distillery for an interesting and informative tour.
This is one experience well worth doing -- don't miss it the next time you are in Kyoto or Osaka
You can reserve your slot online but do so weeks in advance as the tours are small and fill up easily.
You can do that on their web page https://www.suntory.com/factory/yamazaki/introduction/


Back home, I put my highball skills to the test with my new bottle of Suntory's Hakushu Single Malt.  Here's the recipe ... 1 part whisky to 3 parts soda water.  Fill up your glass with ice before you pour the whisky and then add the soda water.   Stir once and enjoy.



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