One highly prized characteristic in Japan is that of monozukuri – the art of making things or craftsmanship. The benefit to the tourist is that many such companies are more than welcoming of visitors coming for factory tours. We did one such eye-opening tour in Toyota city on my last trip and decided to try three different ones this time. One, that of sake making, was typically Japanese while the other two of denim manufacture and whiskey making seem at first sight completely out of place.
On our way back up from Kyushu to Tokyo we took a pit-stop around halfway in the town of Yamazaki. Located around halfway between the modern Osaka and the ancient capital of Kyoto the town houses the Yamazaki distillery which was founded there in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the grandfather of Japanese whisky.
Originally the idea of Japanese whiskey met with a sceptical response but over the years the quality improved steadily and in the last 15 years Yamazaki has been winning a string of international awards including beating all Scottish producers for Whisky of the Year 2015.
First off the distillery is in a quiet residential town but once you arrive the main draw is immediately clear.
We needed to register in advance for the tour itself which lasted an hour and was in Japanese with non-speakers given audioguides for the various stages. Starting with some of the history they bring you through the production process and explain each of the stages of distillation (malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation).
Visiting the maturation rooms where the whiskey is put into oak and old sherry casks the sweet warm smell in the air was stark. The barrels are permeable and part of the contents evaporate away over the maturation process – this is known as ‘the angels share’
We then headed through a garden where the importance of pure water to the process was underlined. Apparently the location of Yamazaki town has access to spring water and an ideal climate for the whiskey making process – well at least it was an excuse for an immaculately kept Japanese garden.
The educational part of the trip done it was time for the fun part – tasting! Never has a PowerPoint presentation been more welcome. We got to taste three different entry level Yamazaki whiskeys with different mixers (ice, soda water or neat) and compare notes.
We headed to the Whiskey Library for further (paid) sampling of some rarer older Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskey types while sitting out in the sun – sure with all the work put in by the makers it would be rude not to!