© Suntory |
Japan is the new home of high-quality whisky. In fact, Japanese whisky now ranks among the best in the world – and that is largely down to the pioneering Yamazaki distillery.
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Yamazaki was Japan‘s first single malt distillery. It was established by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii in 1923 in his quest to create a world-class whisky tailored to the Japanese palate. Since then, Japan’s whisky industry has exploded and the accolades have just kept pouring in, with whisky fans everywhere in keen pursuit of the finest and rarest bottles available.
What makes Japanese whisky different?
«Three things have a big influence on Japanese whisky – water, climate and people,» Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory‘s chief blender and current owner of the Yamazaki distillery, told a British newspaper. Indeed, it was water that proved the main deciding factor in the establishment of the distillery at the Vale of Yamazaki, as the crystal-clear waters found here are harder than most soft waters, making them ideal for whisky-making. Shinjiro Torii attested to this saying: :Good water produces good malts and a good maturation completely depends on a good natural environment.»
The environment in which the Yamazaki distillery is situated is governed by the surrounding mountains and rivers – Yamazaki sits at the foot of Mount Tennozan, between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto, at the convergence of the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu rivers. The moist climate created by these major geographical features helps the whisky aging process and «the temperature in the mountains where our whisky is stored in warehouses for maturation often hits 35℃ – but the winters are cold and the dynamics of the temperature fluctuation give the whisky a much deeper and more rapid maturation,» explained Fukuyo.
History of the Yamazaki distillery
However, the first whisky produced at the Yamazaki distillery in 1929 did not garner the wide acclaim seen by its hugely successful modern counterparts. The whisky in question was labeled Suntory, also known as Shirofuda (or Suntory White Label), and was produced in a similar style to its more established Scottish predecessors – it was not well received by Japanese consumers. This initial emphasis on mirroring Scotland’s iconic whiskies is unsurprising – Yamazaki’s first master distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, had trained as an organic chemist and whisky-maker in Scotland. Shinjiro Torii himself was experienced in the spirits business and had been behind the release of the popular Akadama Port Wine in 1907
After reviewing and perfecting the original whisky blend, Suntory launched the hugely successful Kakubin label in 1937. This whisky became the building block upon which Shinjiro Torii grew the Suntory whisky range, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the first Yamazaki single malt whisky was released, under the management of Keizo Saji, Shinjiro Torii’s son and the distillery’s second master blender. Another single malt whisky was added to Yamazaki’s portfolio in 1992 – the Yamazaki 18 Year Old – followed by the Yamazaki 10 Year Old in 1995 and the Yamazaki 25 Year Old produced in honor of Suntory’s centenary.
© Suntory | The Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky became Japan’s inaugural single malt and the first ever Japanese whisky to win gold at the International Spirits Challenge, in 2003. Its popularity has not wavered since and, today, it ranks third among the most searched-for single malt whiskies on Wine-Searcher, with an average price of $132.
The 18 Year Old, too, was widely celebrated by the critics and public alike and was labeled as «legendary» by online retailer Master of Malt. This whisky has also consistently beaten its rivals to claim the top podium finish in global drinks competitions, winning the Best Japanese Single Malt Whisky 13 to 20 Years at the World Whiskies Awards in 2016. The 18 Year Old has become somewhat of a cult whisky and is #2 on Wine-Searcher’s most popular single malts and retails at an average of $499 a bottle.
The rarest bottles of Yamazaki whisky
It was, however, the 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask single malt whisky that really created waves in the whisky world, when it was named the world’s best whisky in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. After the announcement was made in October 2014, there was a dramatic increase in search counts, with the whisky rising from the depths of 7836th place to the dizzying heights of first position in the Japanese single malt search rankings. It also hit the overall top spot for searches on Wine-Searcher, beating perennial favorite Château Mouton Rothschild into an unfamiliar second place. Prices went through the roof almost overnight from $128 in October 2014 to its highest price yet of $3998 in February 2015.
The 2016 follow-up also scored highly with Jim Murray and was bestowed the title of Japanese Whisky of the Year in 2017. Only 5000 bottles of this sherried single malt were produced, making it an extremely rare Japanese whisky and the fifth most expensive single malt on Wine-Searcher, priced at an average of $2902.
When talking about Yamazaki’s rarest whiskies, though, you cannot overlook the distillery’s hard-to-find bottles of Yamazaki Distillery Royal 60 Rare Old Whisky, The Yamazaki 1984 Whisky, and The Yamazaki «Age Unknown» Single Malt Whisky. Indeed, Yamazaki’s Royal 60 Rare Old and 1984 whiskies are so rare that they are no longer available for retail purchase.
The extremely rare, 60-month-old Royal 60 was designed for the Japanese whisky market, while the limited edition Yamazaki 1984 was created to mark the distillery’s 25th anniversary – just 300 bottles were produced. The «Age Unknown» single malt is a true collector’s item, and was created to celebrate the memory of Suntory president Keizo Saji. The name is derived from the fact that this incredibly rare Japanese whisky is comprised of an unknown and unique blend of whiskies that are thought to have been distilled in the 1960s. Such is the collectibility of this whisky that it commands an average price of $7030.
Inside the Yamazaki distillery
A significant contribution to Yamazaki’s triumph over its more well-known and established competitors was the renovation of the distillery in the 1980s. Yamazaki invested in both wooden and stainless steel fermentation tanks, with the yeast used to produce each of its single malts selected on the basis of the intended final whisky flavor profile. Later, in 2006, Yamazaki’s current master blender Shingo Torii installed smaller pot stills and in 2013 four more stills were added, bringing the total number of pot stills to 12, of numerous shapes and sizes. This variety enables the production of single malt whiskies in a myriad of expressions, as well as supplying the malt base for Suntory’s range of whisky blends.
After distillation, further flavor is imparted during the cask-aging process. The Yamazaki distillery uses casks including 180-liter roasted barrels for quick maturation and vanilla flavors; 230-liter hogsheads; and American oak puncheons for long maturation at large capacities; Spanish oak casks that give fruit and chocolate notes to the final whisky; and special casks made from Japanese oak (Mizunara) that, after a long aging period, produce whiskies with distinct aromatics like sandalwood and aloe. This, in combination with the position of the cask when stored, results in Yamazaki’s sought-after style.