It’s been 100 years since the Yamazaki distillery was founded. As we’re focusing on Japanese drinks recently we thought we’d take a deeper look at the brand that changed everything for Japanese whisky.
Yamazaki is where Japanese whisky was born. It’s something of a holy grail for whisky lovers, a Japanese single malt whisky that showed the world that Japan was a serious whisky country. The resulting demand and subsequent lack of availability and high prices only added to the allure of the brand.
Torii & Taketsuru
We have a man called Shinjiro Torii to thank for Yamazaki. Before he founded the distillery, he had already made a name for himself in Japan with his store Torii Shoten, which opened in February 1899. There he sold wines like Akadama Port Wine, launched in 1907, and Torii Shoten would eventually become the Kotobukiya Company, then Suntory. That’s right, Bill Murray’s favourite.
Torii embarked on a mission to create Japanese whisky in 1923, becoming one of the founding fathers of the category in the process. It was his belief that a good water source and a favourable climate for maturation were paramount to making good whisky. The Vale of Yamazaki in the Osaka Prefecture had it all.
The water is mentioned in the Man’yoshu, the ancient anthology of Japanese poetry, a famous tea master was said to have based his operation in the vicinity to access it, and the Ministry of the Environment named it as one of Japan’s one hundred best natural mineral waters. While the climate means relatively cold winters, hot, humid summers, and lots of atmospheric mist. The latter probably doesn’t affect the whisky, but the rest is good for maturation.
In 1924, the first spirits ran from the stills at Yamazaki, making it Japan’s first whisky distillery. Torii hired a man who has become known as the godfather of Japanese whisky the same year to run the show, Taketsuru Masataka. The factory director was the descendant of a sake brewing family from the 17th century and travelled to Scotland in 1918 to learn the art of Scotch whisky making, studying at Glasgow University and marrying a Scottish woman, Jessie Roberta ‘Rita’ Cowan. He brought back the secrets of the trade (not exactly to the delight of the Scotch whisky industry) and stayed for a decade, later founding Nikka whisky.
The first Japanese whisky Suntory launched was in 1929, Shirofuda, or ‘White Label’. This didn’t really make a mark, however, not like Kakubin, which means ‘Square Bottle’. It followed in 1937 and was so well received that, if you’re lucky, you’ll still see that square bottle knocking around. Tortoise-shell pattern and all.
The Second World War brought huge demand from the Japanese army and navy and after the war the U.S. army also proved big fans. Yamazaki distillery was able to operate as the sole supplier of whisky for Suntory until the Hakushu distillery opened in 1973, but we would have to wait until 1984 for a Japanese whisky to be released under the Yamazaki name.
With Torii’s second son Keizo Saji running the show, a little Japanese single malt whisky called The Yamazaki 12 Year Old was released. You’ve probably heard of it. It was made to have a more delicate flavour profile than the Scotch single malts available at the time.
Saji also oversaw a renovation at the distillery during the late 1980s that took almost two years, kitting out Yamazaki with wooden and stainless steel washbacks along with directly and indirectly heated stills. This gave Yamazaki the flexibility to produce a variety of different styles and flavours of whisky, helping the distillery venture into the single malt whisky world with aplomb. Yamazaki 10 Year Old and Yamazaki 18 Year Old soon followed in the 1990s, further cementing the brand’s reputation and that of Japanese whisky as a whole.
Flying the Japanese whisky flag
Big awards really catapulted Yamazaki into the big time. In 2003, The Yamazaki 12 Year Old became the first Japanese whisky to be given a Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge. Other key moments include Yamazaki 1984 being crowned the Supreme Champion Spirit at the International Spirits Challenge 2010, and Yamazaki 18 Year Old scooping six consecutive double gold medals at the San Francisco Spirits Competition from 2008 to 2013. And of course, the World Whisky of the Year in the Whisky Bible 2015 was the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013. Nothing was ever the same for Japanese whisky after that.
Demand has meant that it’s not always easy, or cheap to get your hands on Yamazaki whisky. But Japan’s oldest commercial whisky distillery is still going strong. In 2006, third-generation master blender Shingo Torii switched production of Yamazaki’s whiskies to smaller pot stills, and in 2013 the distillery underwent an expansion to install four more stills, followed by a further four.
Yamazaki continues to operate a flexible process that allows the distillers to choose between wooden and stainless steel washbacks in the fermentation process, between 16 pot stills of various shapes and styles for distillation, and between a litany of casks for maturation. This allows them to create whiskies with different flavour profiles, which is useful for blending, as Suntory and Nikka own the biggest distilleries in Japan, and there is little exchange between them.
If you ever get the chance, it’s certainly worth a visit. The distillery offers guided tours, there’s a museum on Japanese whisky history, and a whisky library that displays around 7000 bottles of unblended whisky in its whisky library. The bottle shop also includes distillery exclusives, most excitingly.
Of course, you can always buy your Yamazaki whisky here. We recommend starting with the Distiller’s Reserve if you’re not keen on breaking the bank. Whatever you opt for, we think it’s worth saying “kanpai!” to 100 years of Yamazaki. Here’s to another century.