• Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

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Inside Yamazaki Distillery: Peaceful Shrines, Rogue Schoolchildren, and Whisky (Lots of It.)

To celebrate Suntory Whisky’s 100th anniversary, the company is releasing Hakushu highballs in canned form, sold at conbinis near you for 600 yen a pop. It’s as good of a time as any to recount our tour of Hakushu distillery’s sister distillery in Yamazaki, Kyoto. 

I arrived at Yamazaki Station with my colleague (who is, incidentally, also my older sister) half expecting it to be decked out with pamphlets, advertisements, photos— hell, even merchandise— dedicated to Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery. The distillery has received a staggering 1 billion yen investment from Suntory in honor of the 100th anniversary of their whisky line, and we were there for a press tour to get a chance to see the facility before construction started later in the year. If Aomori is known for apples, I figured this area is probably known for whisky, and would want to take advantage of that whenever possible. 

After all, Yamazaki is the distillery that started it all for Suntory whisky back in 1923. It’s in part due to the successes of their whiskies that Suntory was able to grow into the all-around beverage behemoth they are today. And few brands make it to that level while maintaining mass appeal– ask my younger cousin, who offhandedly told me that he used to specifically seek out Suntory vending machines to buy their bottled water before school. (Kids these days!)

But Yamazaki Station, just 30 or so minutes away from Kyoto in a semi-rural town, was just a regular train station. And the 10 minute walk to the distillery was more elusive than we had thought. After running into a fellow confused journalist when the asphalt street we were on hit a dead end, headed back toward the station to try again. 

(As it turns out, the real path was a single file, slightly muddy foot trail marked only with a small, dark brown rectangle of plywood with the word ”サントリー” written vertically on it in a slightly lighter shade of brown.)

The distillery is a large group of buildings at the slightly sloped base of a mountain, with a small paved road cutting through the center of the complex. We were told to watch out for traffic– it wasn’t a private road dedicated to the small carts and semi trucks used in the day to day operations, but a public through street. 

And at one point, groups of schoolchildren walked what seemed to be a practiced daily route: they passed the gift shop, crossed the street a little ways after the diesel-blackened loading docks, and proceeded to make their way along the road, which wrapped around the right side of the hill. Their yellow hats and red backpacks bobbed and weaved the entire way.

All of this is to say that, despite the tall, large buildings and the groups of visitors going in and out, the presence of the Yamazaki Distillery is remarkably low-key. It doesn’t overwhelm its surroundings, nor does it impose. Behind the buildings was all forest, and, if you looked a little past the buildings up the hill, you could see a torii and a small temizuya by a narrow path leading into the trees. In 1923, the shrine at the end of the path was in poor condition; the founder of Suntory, Shinjiro Torii, decided to help restore it after the distillery was built.

The temizuya next to the distillery with camellias blooming nearby.

Yamazaki was chosen as the location of the distillery for two reasons, which Takahisa Fujii, the distillery manager (the 20th, in fact, over the distillery’s 100 years of operation) explained. Whisky making hadn’t been established in Japan yet, and so Torii had turned to Scottish masters to help determine where to start building his distillery. In Scotland, the geography and climate is essential for the proper maturation of whisky. Not humid enough and the casks might dry out, but too humid and the alcohol content drops. 

The sweet spot is somewhere with a large, reliable body of water nearby, greenery, and a relatively stable climate. In Yamazaki, three rivers intersect into the principal river of Osaka prefecture not even two kilometers away from the warehouse where the aging casks are stored, and the surrounding mountains hold and stabilize the humidity. 

Torii looked to Japanese masters for the second factor. The water quality in Yamazaki has been famous for hundreds of years, so much so that one of the most prominent figures of the Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, built a personal teahouse in the town in the 1500s just for the water. 

It’s fitting that Torii drew from both Scottish and Japanese knowledge to start his whisky venture. Suntory has continued to follow Scottish tradition in some ways: they still use traditional materials for their washbacks and they import a number of their copper pot stills from Scotland.

The washback room — warm, humid, slightly sour air.
A retired copper pot still, used as a sculptural decoration outside. The pot stills in use are unoxidized and beautifully copper — it was a shame that photography wasn’t allowed in the distilling room.

The blended whisky itself is where the differences start to emerge. In Scotland, a distillery and a blender are separate entities–a blender will choose their single malts from a variety of different sources and will do their magic accordingly. This is easy to do in Scotland, where there’s generations of distillers scattered across the country who have dedicated their operations to perfecting their single malts – and new distilleries cropping up all the time.

In Japan, no such tradition exists. So, under their trailblazer’s burden (or considerable market share), Suntory makes all their single malts in house. It increases the size and complexity of their operation, but it also allows them greater control over the precise kind of whisky— they call it “liquid”—they want to manufacture as single malts and for blending. In the image of this model, other Japanese whisky houses have followed suit. 

Because of this, Suntory has a very specific DNA underlying its whiskies. Make no mistake– the single malts and blends are complex and distinct. But every whisky we tried in the sampling section of the tour was recognizably Suntory. I’d be a bit biased to call it the platonic Japanese whisky, but they’re clean, balanced, and aromatic, with little smoke or peat to be detected. 

(In fact, during the tour, we were told that Yamazaki uses no peat in its current rotation of whiskies in production. This was a bit confusing, considering we had just spent the minute before taking turns to sniff a brick of peat our guide had brought with him.)

Fujii, who is a blender as well as distillery manager, explained that blenders have two major tasks: recreating the blends formulated by past blenders using the new liquid, and inventing new blends to be considered for the new line. This is a challenge that may not be unique to Suntory or the whisky industry, but to any successor for an institution with deep roots. How do you carve a new, innovative path forward while maintaining the identity–the legacy– of the institution? It seems that the answer lies in the task itself. 

Endless rows of aging casks

To recreate the existing whisky blend, the blender has to develop a nuanced, studied understanding of that blend– and of the blender behind it. Fujii described it as objective work, setting aside his own ideas and even preferences to recreate the whisky in the precise image that the original blender had in mind. After such technical work, crafting a new blend is “the fun part.” 

But with the knowledge of the former blenders and their work also comes an understanding of the overall story created through the progression and evolution of these blends. The whisky that the new blender creates isn’t just one that suits their preferences or one that’s unique for the sake of being unique –  it’s one that will represent their tenure, and that is something that has to be treated with care and respect. 

Amusingly, when asked about his ideas and personal preferences–what he personally looks for, what piques his interest during a tasting–he seemed to avoid the question. But I’m sure that as the blender overseeing the 100th anniversary, Fujii and the other blenders at Suntory have much to think about for their own legacies, and how to lead Suntory into the next century. 

Tour participants walk by the first whisky cask created by Suntory.

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