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Asia Travel: A Visit to the Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery, Yamazaki (near Kyoto), Japan

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If you’re in Kyoto, make a reservation at Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery to learn about the craft of whisky making and indulge in some of the producer’s finest labels.

In this post we describe our visit to Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery, review a history of the distillery and explore origins of Japanese whisky.


Logistics

  • Suntory’s Yamazaki Distellery outside of Kyoto, Japan.
  • To get to the distillery from Kyoto, take a train to Yamazaki or Ōyamazaki Station and walk approximately a half mile (800 meters) to the entrance of the distillery.
  • Suntory offers two experiences: 1) The Yamazaki Whisky Museum viewing (free) and; 2) Yamazaki Distillery Tour (paid). Following both tours, indulge in some of the distilleries finest labels.
  • We participated in the “Yamazaki Whisky Museum” and tasting.

Yamazaki Whisky Museum & Tasting

This tour presents the opportunity to learn about the the story of the early days in business, craftsmen, heritage & innovation, how whisky is made, a library of Suntory whiskies, and concludes in a tasting of the label’s fine whisky.

Arrive to the distillery by train

Arrive to Yamazaki Station or Ōyamazaki Station and walk approximately a half mile (800 meters) to the entrance of the distillery.

Sign in at the guard tower with your reservation for the museum or distillery tour.

Because the distillery is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, make a reservation in advance. If you arrive without one, you may be turned away.

Enter the facility and make your way to the museum.

Learn about the origins of the Japanese whisky industry

1853 US President Millard Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan. The mission of the trip was to reverse Japan’s 220-Year-old policy of national isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate and to secure new trading routes. Perry’s mission led to the signing of the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Peace and Amity.

Trade with Japan opened and liquor like beer, wine and spirits flowed into the country. Domestic producers try their hand at meeting the demand for whisky and other librations.

1918 The Settsu Sake Company sent chemistry student Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn about whisky distilling. Taketsuru enrolled in chemistry courses and apprenticed at Longmorn, then later returned to Japan to help a struggling Settsu Brewery Co. with his newfound knowledge. But times had changed and the founder was no longer interested in incorporating Taketsuru’s knowledge of Scottish whisky making.

Taketsuru took his skills to Torii Shoten (Suntory). Read more about Suntory below.

Citations: The Whisky Shop describes the origins of Japanese whisky, bringing us from the 1850s through the formation of the Suntory and Nikka brands. For the full article, click here.

Learn about how Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery evolved over the years to meet the tastes of their Japanese customers

In 1923 Shinjiro Torii decided to make “a perfect whisky that reflects the nature of Japan and the spirit of Japanese craftsmanship.”

He founded Torii Shoten (now called Suntory) in Yamazaki, a town in southwestern Kyoto at the foot of Mt.Tennozan, where the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu Rivers meet. The quality of groundwater made Yamazaki an ideal place for a distillery, with the Ministry of the Environment naming it one of Japan’s one hundred best natural mineral waters.

In the early 1920s Torii Shoten began to sell port wine and cheap imitation whiskies. Torii asked Taketsuru to help him set up the country’s first authentic Japanese whisky distillery –Yamazaki. Taketsuru accepted the offer.

In 1929 the distillery released its first real malt whisky, Shirofuda ‘White Label’, but it was not a commercial success flat. Torii speculated that the failure was due to the smokey flavor that was not suitable to the taste of Japanese customers. Taketsuru disagreed — he thought it best to keep to the tradition of Scottish flavor profiles.

This philosophical disgreement led to Torii moving ahead with an updated flavor profile. When Taketsuru’s 10-year contract ended at Torii Shoten, he went on to found Nikka, a new Japanese whisky label. Taketsuru selected Yoichi as the location of the distillery due to its of its similar environmental profile to Scotland. In 1940 Taketsuru released Nikka Whisky Rare Old.

Finish your tour by walking past the library of whiskies the distillery has created over the years – a true nod to the legacy they’ve begun

Today both Suntory and Nikka dominate the Japanese whisky market, with a friendly competition to win over the taste buds of Japanese and worldwide consumers.

In 2003, Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 Year Single Malt Whisky became the first Japanese whisky to win the gold medal at the ISC (International Spirits Challenge).

End your visit by tasting the world’s best blended whisky: Suntory’s Hibiki 21 Year Old and other labels

Suntory’s Hibiki 21 Year Old bottle typically retails for $800-$1,00 USD. At the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, you can try this bottle for a fraction of the price. Because there is so much global demand for this bottle, Suntory only releases a limited supply making it very hard to get one’s hand on a bottle.

Suntory Hibiki 21 Year Old Tasting Notes

Hibiki 21 Year Old was, yet again, selected as the best blended whisky in the world at the World Whisky Awards 2019. The judges described it as being “Elegant, sweet and complex. This whisky is full of dried fruit, orange peel, strawberry jam, and baked apple from start to finish. Smooth, subtle and fairly short.

Tasting Note by The Chaps at Master of Malt

NoseSweet, caramalised nuts, some lemon acidity, blackcurrants and pears with vanilla, dark toffee and rich sherry spice.
PalateOak, dark cherry and sweet caramel notes, buttery with a wisp of smoke and some wood spice.
FinishLong, with a hint of smoke.
OverallA fantastic Japanese whisky.

Awards

  • World’s Best Blended Whisky (World Whiskies Awards, 2019, 2017, 2016, 2013, 2011, 2010)
  • Trophy (International Spirits Challenge, 2013-2015)
  • Gold Medal (International Spirits Challenge, 2012)
Citation: Dekanta, Master of Malt
Citation: SUNTORY HOLDINGS LIMITED.

Make a booking

Getting there

–Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery is 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Kyoto, Japan

–Take local trains to get to the distillery, approximately a hour hour journey.

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