When planning a bucket-list trip to Japan last year, I really wanted to make it to at least one distillery. The trip wasn’t to be focused on whisky however, with so much else to see in this fascinating country, so I didn’t want to travel too far from our main destinations to reach one.
There are a few distilleries to pick from, as all of the big names have visitor centers – Miyagikyo, Yoichi, Hakushu – though once you limit the choice by requiring day-trip accessibility from Tokyo or the major cities of Western Japan (Osaka, Kyoto) the number drops quite quickly.
In the end, Suntory’s Yamazaki ticked the most boxes, being extremely accommodating to tourists and not too far off the beaten track from Kyoto. The choice made, the only thing left to do was mark off the days on the calendar until online reservations opened for our desired date. If you’re planning to visit for a tour, this is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to get right!
An entire month opens up for booking on the first day of the previous month. For instance, on April 1st, the entire month of May becomes available. And remember that Japan is a day ahead of North America, so you actually want to hit up the website on March 31st from Canada or the USA in this example. It’s critical that you don’t miss the right time to book your tour – my experience is that most tours are booked up the first day they’re available, and almost everything for that month will be gone just one day later. Don’t miss out!
Fast-forwarding through all of the anticipation and some amazing experiences in Tokyo, the day of our visit dawned with my wife and I now staying in Kyoto. Getting to Yamazaki from the main Kyoto station is easy – head to platform 4 (at the time of writing!) and look for “local” trains on the JR Kyoto line. Use the HyperDia website to look up the details if you’re in any doubt. The ride only takes around 15 minutes to reach Yamazaki station.
The name “Yamazaki” on the distillery comes from the town that it’s located in (there’s also another town, Oyamazaki, right next door – at least I think it’s a different town. It’s actually kind of hard to parse Japanese addresses). It translates literally to something like “mountain promontory”, and is also a fairly common surname in Japan. The terrain around the town is actually fairly mountainous so it’s easy to see where that part of the name came from, at least.
When you arrive at the station, head for the exit and turn right. You’ll find yourself in a narrow fenced-in lane that opens out into a narrow street lined with traditional Japanese houses. Head to the right again and eventually you’ll come to a railway crossing with the distillery immediately beyond.
Visitors check in at the kiosk, then head to the visitor center and museum. Here it’s apparent that tourism is a priority for Suntory, much as it is in Scotland; an elaborate set of displays across two floors, including an enormous collection of sample bottles, hammer home the point that this place may not have the centuries-long history of some Scottish distilleries but can more than hold its own, thank you very much.
The tour itself is organized with typical Japanese efficiency. In addition to the tour guide, there’s another employee following the group around who ensures nobody lags too far behind or strays into areas they’re not supposed to. I was impressed by the consideration given to non-Japanese speakers; audio guide devices are handed out and you can listen to English narration while the guide speaks in Japanese. Even though the distillery advertises that tours are in Japanese only, our guide spoke very good English and made a real effort to engage us which I appreciated very much.
Yamazaki really doesn’t do anything by halves. The distillery has both pine and steel washbacks, and a seriously impressive stillroom with stills of every shape and size (with direct and indirect heating). It’s clear that the distillery was developed as a jack-of-all-trades with the ability to make many different characters of spirit, with sixteen stills in total (though only twelve are in the stillroom that you’ll see as a tourist). I can’t find any information as to their production capacity, but it must be considerable.
After the tour (comprising the standard mashing, distilling, and warehouse sections), it’s off for a tasting. This was a very entertaining if quite different affair to most Scottish distilleries. The Japanese have a particular way of enjoying whisky, namely the highball cocktail. Reputedly invented at the Rockfish bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district, the highball is comprised of ice, whisky, soda, and more ice. It caused an explosion in whisky consumption across the whole country, and what better place and time than the Yamazaki tour tasting session for learning how to make one!
What’s even more odd is that you’re given several non-age-statement samples to drink neat; the Yamazaki Single Malt, a “white oak” sample and a “wine cask” malt. The pour given for the highball looks suspiciously like the increasingly rare and much-sought-after Yamazaki 18-year-old, dark and rich. I’ll confess to saving some from the soda glass to enjoy on its own.
I enjoyed the gift shop, which has some nice quirky items (Suntory smoked bacon! Suntory “Whisky” and “Coffee Boss” music CDs! Small magnetic wooden barrels!) but the real gem not to miss before you leave is the bar. Dram prices when I was there: Yamazaki 12 year old – 300 yen, Yamazaki 18 year old – 600 yen, Yamazaki 25 year old – 2600 yen. That bottle of 25 year old is around US$2500, in case you need reminding. $26 for a half-ounce is a stupendous value, something like one-third of retail price, never mind regular bar rates. They also carry various distillery-only cask samples; I tried the Mizunara oak (quite similar to the regular 12 year old), the Sherry cask (phenomenally good) and the puncheon (a bit of a miss frankly, but at 600 yen a shot who cares).
There’s a nice courtyard out the back of the museum/gift shop/bar area, where you can see the original, gently fading pot still, and statues of the father and son who started and took over the distillery. Back towards the warehouse there’s an impressive cherry tree over a small pond, and out front there’s more sakura trees and a small bamboo thicket. You won’t find much of that in Scotland.
It’s worth taking a walk around the town before you jump on the train back to Kyoto. Unlike the major cities it feels quiet and authentic. The area to the east of the station (ie. in the opposite direction to the distillery) has more than one temple, and an Asahi museum you can look around. Cross the tracks heading north and climb the hill opposite. On the day we visited, we didn’t see a single other tourist at these sites, and the change of pace from the extremely busy sightseeing areas was a relief.
So how does a visit to Yamazaki measure up to the more traditional (for us Westerners) Scottish tours? Well, the distillery’s visitor areas are modern and impressive; the tour is well-organized and non-Japanese speakers are catered to quite well; there are lots of goodies to pick up and take home (though don’t expect to find any non-NAS whisky in the gift shop – the shortage is real); there’s a well-stocked bar selling great whisky at very cheap prices; the distillery has an important place in the history of Japanese whisky-making; and there’s a wonderful overlaid flavour of Japanese culture that lends the whole experience that je-ne-sais-quoi that you just can’t find anywhere else. In short, it’s an unmissable stop if you’re in the area.