Japan's whiskies has been at the forefront of the industry for quite some time, especially the ones produced by the country’s premiere distiller, Suntory (now Beam Suntory.) The Hibiki 21 and 30 year old regularly win the World’s Best Blended Whisky Award from The World Whiskies Awards, and in 2012, the Yamazaki 25 year old won the WWA’s The World Best Single Malt Whisky Award.
But, this past fall, the honor of the outright best whisky in the world was awarded by the Whisky Bible to the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, a limited edition release of 6000 bottles to the European market. The media pounced on a story that was no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention: Japan is producing whisky as well as anyone else in the world, including Scotland. And, perhaps, producing it even better.
Yamazaki opened in November 1924 as the first whisky distillery ever built in Japan, and has been the crown jewel in the Suntory empire ever since. The origins of the distillery involve the two fathers of Japanese Whisky, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, whose story is covered in another article in this issue.
In founding the distillery, Shinjiro Torii traveled across Japan looking for a site that provided a superb source of water. He eventually came upon Yamazaki, at the intersection of the Katsura, Kizu, and Uji rivers. The water here was so pristine that renowned tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū constructed a tea house in the area. The water source, known as “Rikyu no Mizu” or “The Imperial Villa’s spring”, was selected in 1985 by Japan’s ministry of the environment as one of the country’s 100 remarkable waters. It's all about good ingredients, and water is as central to crafting a fine whisky as anything else.
The distillery is located on the outskirts of Kyoto, in a sleepy eponymous town rich with classic Japanese architecture. Before visiting the distillery and undoubtedly drinking your fair share of Japan’s finest whisky, grab a bite at Lounge Hiro, where owner Iwagishi Hiroshi has been serving food and tending bar for 50 years. This is where the people who make the world’s best whisky drink after work—the walls of Hiro are covered with storage for private bottles. The bar is so popular with the distillery that every year a cask hand-selected by Hiroshi is privately bottled and served only at the restaurant. Don’t drink too much of it, though—you still have to get across the five train tracks that separate the town from the distillery.
The visitor’s center hallways are filled with relics from Suntory’s past, including an original bottle of Shirofuda, the first genuine whisky produced in Japan, Akadama Port Wine, the product that jump started everything for company, and the distillery’s original spirit stills. Rows of small bottles purporting to be Yamazaki’s whisky archives seem mostly for show, but the tour saves the best for last: a tasting bar where one can sample even the oldest Suntory products for a pittance. Also available: clear distillate straight from the still, and cuts from sherry, puncheon, and various other casks. Taken side-by-side, one can really taste the effects that different woods have on the finished product.
Although extremely sterile, the visitor’s center and tour is worthy of a company that has won Distiller of the Year from the International Spirits Challenge for the last three years. As Japanese whisky soars in popularity and continues racking up the industry’s top awards, it’s important to remember where it all started: a quiet little town with really good water.