For years, my father has received presents mostly in the form of whisky. A few years ago, me and my siblings bought him a bottle of Yamazaki, a Japanese single malt whisky that had been recommended to us in the local liquor store. We opened the bottle under the tree and practically emptied it that night (I am slightly dramatizing). We were not alone in our praise of this stuff, as over the years, it had won many prizes and would go on to win many more. Recently, some authoritative figure crowned Yamazaki whisky, specifically the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, as the world’s best.
You can imagine the pleasant surprise I felt when I moved to Japan and found out how close Yamazaki is to Kyoto. And I got even more excited when I heard that they offer free tours of their facilities. I have always been strangely attracted to the way alcohol is made, so this was a heavenly offer for me. So far, I have gone twice, once with friends and once with family, and a third time I had to cancel because I was sick.
The tour took us through the whole facility starting from where the mash is made and ending with the warehouse where the spirit is stored in casks for ages. The most impressive is certainly the warehouse of casks. Since the casks sweat a little of their content over time, there is such a strong vapor in the air that I felt a bit dizzy.
After the tour, we were served highballs — whisky, ice, soda — in the guest room, as well as chocolates and nuts. It’s all a bit touristy and not really meant to teach you about the intricacies of whisky but rather bring whisky closer to people that are not yet familiar with it at all. The first highball is Yamazaki, the next two are plain Suntory blended whisky. As highballs, both whiskys tasted more or less the same. It is better to not drink those and proceed directly to the cellar, where a wide range of whiskys is sold in small samples. The whole palette of Beam Suntory, the mother company, is available. Most of the whiskys sold here can in principle be found elsewhere, but a lot of it is really difficult to get, as for instance, Yamazaki is immensely popular now. It is especially exciting to sample the whiskys coming from different cask types which normally are blended together to make the final single malt.
I have now sampled all the years, of both Yamazaki and Hakushu (the other Japanese single malt made by Suntory). I find Hakushu boring (note that it has also been showered in prizes), but Yamazaki is glorious. It’s fun to see how the whisky changes as it becomes older (but not always better, but that is a matter of taste). We tried out whisky from a single cask (I think it was a Mizunara cask, made from some Japanese tree, where the bottle goes over the counter for 250 Euro or so), and I basically wanted to drink the whole cask. Gorgeous.
It was also a special treat to try out new make, the freshly distilled spirit that has not yet been aged. Since essentially all the good flavors of whisky come out of the aging process and the cask itself, new make is pretty much undrinkable. We confirmed this. It is surprisingly mellow in the nose but when you taste it, it punches you in the face.
Workers cleaning the stills (guess where the other one is)
Whisky in waiting
Casks over casks
White oak, one of the woods used for the casks
The charred insides of a typical cask
The very first cask of Yamazaki Whisky
Sampling all ages
The Whisky Library
Shades of Gold
The source of the water