Where Japanese whisky is concerned, one brand stands out for its single malts and its history—Yamazaki Distillery

I have a bottle of Yamazaki 18 Years in my whisky cabinet; four years on and it remains unopened. In fact, I’ve stuck a sticker on it that says “Do Not Open”, as a gentle reminder to myself—and friends over who are raiding the stash for something to drink (I’m more liberal with most of my other whiskies)—that it is to remain unsullied.

So why this one? I have no idea. I had fortuitously bought it in Japan before that frenzied day in 2014 when Jim Murray of Whisky Bible named the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the best whisky in the world.

Suntory Yamazaki 18 Year Old from Yamazaki Distillery

Suntory Yamazaki 18 Year Old

In. The. World. He wrote that it was “near indescribable genius” and gave it 97.5 out of 100. You can well imagine the fallout from this: the Scots seethed (no Scotch made the top five); the story went viral; the scurrilous cynics sniffed a stunt; and the prices of Japanese whiskies shot up.

So even the Yamazaki 18 that I had no intention of keeping as a collector’s item is now worth four times as much. Because someone liked Yamazaki. (It’s not too random though; the Yamazaki 12 Years Old won a gold award at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003, and the brand is a perennial prize winner).

There’s a lot to like about Yamazaki, the country’s first single malt whisky. It’s from Japan’s oldest whisky distillery built by Shinjiro Torii, founder of Kotobukiya (which later became Suntory) in 1923. Torii had a mission: to make Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Yamazaki, a suburb in Kyoto, was chosen because of its excellent water source. So excellent in fact, that legendary tea masters relocated there as well to build tearooms.

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery established by Torii and Masataka Taketsuru

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

This is a tale of master and servant: Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as his distiller. The latter had studied the art of distilling in Scotland prior, and his knowledge was useful in helping Torii establish the Yamazaki Distillery. The erstwhile disciple was to move on to set up his own company, now known to the world as Nikka—the other great Japanese single malt.

In its early incarnation, most Japanese whiskies did not quite resemble Scottish whiskies as it does today. Its production method, lacking Scotland’s history, climate and tradition of trading malts, meant that they had limited malts to work with— and accordingly, the palates and flavour profiles were reduced. In its early days, Japanese whiskies were only sold in the domestic market.

“There used to be a tendency to look down on Japanese whisky,” wrote Chris Bunting, author of Drinking Japan, a comprehensive guide to where and what to drink there. “But anybody who has been paying even passing attention to international whisky competitions since about 2001 knows that the Japanese distillers produce some of the best spirits in the world.”

And among the very best comes from the Yamazaki distillery. It imports more than 90 per cent of its barley from Scotland (malted first in Scotland in various styles), but the distillery is mostly known for its non- and lightly-peated malts.

Yamazaki Distiller from Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Yamazaki Distiller

“The whisky here in Japan is matured in Japanese mizunara oak. This process gives the whisky a unique red colour and a distinctive spicy and Oriental flavour,” says Mike Miyamoto, global brand ambassador for Beam Suntory, which owns Yamazaki.

Another reason for the whisky’s distinct personality is its stills, which are a combination of those imported from Scotland and ones made in Japan. “Here at Suntory, we tend to focus more on the design of the still, rather than where it comes from. We take into consideration how the shape and heating of the stills affect the character and flavour of the whisky,” adds Miyamoto.

Of course there’s the issue of real estate. Only 15 per cent of barrels are warehoused in Yamazaki itself, the rest goes to Ohmi; part of the reason is to separate stocks in case of an earthquake. Also, according to Miyamoto, the difference in climate, temperature, humidity, warehouse, dunnage and racks between Yamazaki and Ohmi are key factors that give the whiskies their different characters.

All these winning elements are perhaps the reasons why that bottle of 18 is still in my cabinet. I’ll never sell it; the price isn’t even that much, but its value, when I pour it and share it with friends, will be priceless.

Cover : Yamazaki, Japan’s first single malt whisky
This was first published in Wine and Dine’s October 2016 issue, The Oishii Issue ‘ Malt Mentality’

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