1924 marked the beginnings of the first whisky distillery in Japan, Yamazaki; owned by Japan’s alcoholic beverage giant, Suntory. A visit to the distillery located in Shimamoto is both enjoyable and educational. The most convenient way to travel from central Osaka to the distillery is by taking JR (Japan Rail). From Umeda Station to Yamazaki Station, the ride takes approximately 40 minutes. Once out of Yamazaki station, it is another 10 minutes walk. As there are clear posters and signage along the way, it is needless to worry about getting lost.

Free daily guided tours are offered, and I strongly urge serious visitors to book in advance. I arrived in Osaka on a Monday and went down to hotel concierge almost immediately to get their help on calling Yamazaki. My days were wide-open from Tuesday to Friday but unfortunately, everything was already filled. The common problem encountered by visitors is that most Japanese websites do not allow online reservations. My suggestion: once hotel is confirmed, email concierge so they can reserve the guided tour on your behalf.

Although without tour availability, I decided to visit the distillery anyway because I was interested in the tasting portion. However when I got to reception, the employee told me that someone had cancelled earlier, which freed up two spots for us. No doubt it was my lucky day!!

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The pure water and natural environment contributed to the high quality of Yamazaki whisky.

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A mini museum, displaying items that shaped the history of Suntory and Yamazaki.

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A giant bulbous copper still head model displayed in the showroom.

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The library is made up of hundreds of whiskies around the world. As the style of Yamazaki’s whiskies has long been determined and well-established, this library is solely for decorative purpose.

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This poster illustrates the process of whisky distillation, in a simplified manner. Barley is germinated and dried, then grounded and mixed with water to become mash tun. Enzymes in the malt breaks down starch and convert it into sugar. Resulting liquid is called wort. Wort + yeast = fermentation. The end product, wash, is then transferred to the pot still to undergo distillation. After two distillations, the new make will be stored and matured in casks inside the cellar. Master blenders are responsible for selecting whiskies from different casks and combine them into a final product that is consistent with Yamazaki’s signature style.

The poster also mentions that sochu, made from yam, wheat or rice, goes through similar procedures as whiskies, minus one distillation, and does not require further aging in oak casks.

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Germination and fermentation.

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The copper pot stills, designed to heat up the wash, then capture the evaporated steam and condense it back into liquid. The resulting pre-aged malt whisky has high alcohol concentration.

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The picture shows that the new make (pre-aged malt whisky) is transparent like water. Various techniques employed by producers to transform the liquid into their desired color include oak aging, the addition of caramel, and in some cases, the addition of artificial coloring.

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Underground cellar where maturation occurs.

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As time goes on, part of the aging whisky is evaporated. The evaporated liquid is mostly water but may contain some alcohol. Frequently referred to as “angels’ share”, the evaporation can cause growth of dark fungus on exterior walls and vegetation.

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Free drinks and snacks served after the tour. Although the whisky was awfully diluted with the amount of ice and soda water, it was quite thirst quenching and tasty, especially on a hot day. It is common for Japanese to enjoy their whisky with approximately four parts of soda plus one part whisky. The resulting Yoichi Highball pairs well with a meal.

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Last but not least, paid samples at the tasting bar! Hakushu and Yamazaki are both single malt whiskies, while Hibiki is a blended whisky (a blend of numerous pure single malt in this case).  Samples were not cheap but definitely worth a try. If memory serves me correctly, an oz of 30 years old Yamazaki was around 2,500 yen, roughly USD $25.

Any one of the 12 years whiskies was not too appealing to me as the alcohol was over the top and left a burning sensation. To my not overly sophisticated whisky palate, Yamazaki 18 and Hibiki 30 were on par in terms of quality, with aromas of orange rind, marmalade and vanilla.

In terms of best bang for the buck, my vote goes to Hakushu 18. Smoky, herbaceous, with traces of smoked meat, iodine and peat, reminiscent of a good quality Islay malt whisky.

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Most of the higher-end whiskies (18, 30 years old) were sold out in the distillery. Visitors can try their luck in Suntory’s very own whisky shop, located in the first floor of Suntory building in Dojima Osaka, called Whisky Shop W. Failing both, a reliable source would be Osaka airport’s duty free shops. Don’t give up hope just yet if you cannot find what you want in the first duty free. My experience was that many more bottles were hiding in the second shop, further away from the main walkways.

Good luck, and cheers!

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