Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Distillery Visit - Yamazaki

When it was suggested ages ago that my girlfriend Harriet and I might go on holiday to Japan for a couple of weeks it didn’t take me long (instantaneously in fact) to start thinking about what distilleries we could visit while we were over there. Luckily Harry is quite understanding in these matters so when we flew off to Japan in September, I’d managed to arrange for us to pay a visit to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery and have a little look around.

The distillery is located between Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto; a city of ancient temples, Zen gardens and Geishas, and the buzzing, ultra urban, neon intensity of Osaka. Once located in the countryside, Yamazaki is now surrounded by the suburban sprawl of both these cities. Nestled at the foot of Mount Tenno, snugly wrapped in a forest of pine, cedar and bamboo; the distillery buildings rise out of the trees and loom over the surrounding commuter belt houses, as the Shinkansen and suburban trains wizz by.

Yamazaki is owned by Suntory; the biggest whisky producer in Japan. Their blended whiskies are some of the market leaders in Japan with brands such as Kakubin, Tory’s Extra, Old Royal and Special Reserve ever present on the shelves of supermarkets all over Japan. They own two other distilleries, the malt whisky distillery Hakushu located at the foot of the Japanese Alps in central Honshu, west of Tokyo and the grain distillery Chita, located near the city of Nagoya, also central Honshu.

Yamazaki distillery was founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torri (with the help of Masataka Taketsuru who went on the found Nikka). Torri released his first whisky, Suntory White soon afterwards, taking its cues from the predominant style of Scotch whisky at the time. Unfortunately its peatiness proved a step too far for Japanese tastes and it didn’t catch on. This forced Torri to rethink his plans and produce much less peatier whiskies to appeal to Japanese tastes and eventually his whiskies started to gain in popularity. As a result Yamazaki grew from its original two stills to the twelve that are in use now, producing 3.4 million litres of spirit a year and employing 200 people.

Upon our arrival in the morning in 30 plus degree temperature, the distillery was a hive of activity with uniformed visitor centre staff, smart office staff and boiler suited, hardhat wearing distillery workers dodging the lorrys, tankers and forklifts. All this coming and going between the functional mid twentieth century architecture of the distillery buildings in the shadow of the mountains made it feel like we were on the set of a Bond movie. I was half expecting the walls of the distillery to part and reveal a giant “laser beam” pointing at the sky. This surprisingly didn’t happen.

After announcing our arrival at reception we were soon greeted by Tanaka-san our guide for the day. After a brief run through the history of the distillery (see above). We were soon making our way into the distillery buildings. Up a little lift (I’ve never been in a lift at a distillery before, felt strangely out of place), and we were looking a two huge mash tuns. One small huge mash tun (capacity 4 tonnes) and one huge huge mash tun (capacity 18 tonnes). Both use what is known as a full-lauter stirring mechanism (where the stirrers simultaneously go round and round as well as up and down) to help stir the wash in order the extract the sugars in the barley. This very comprehensive stirring apparatus helps to create a clear wort which contributes to a lighter spirit which in turn ensures that more flavour congeners are created during fermentation. After undergoing three waters unusually the wort is pumped from one mash tun to another for further mashing to further ensure that the wort is a clear as they can get it.

The barley used by Yamazaki comes from all over the world, and, depending on what type of whisky they wish to make, can be peated from between zero to 40ppm. Unlike in Scotland, rival Japanese distillers do not swap whiskies with one another in order to make their blends. This means companies such as Suntory are required to make lots of different styles of whisky at their malt distilleries. The variation in different peating levels is just one of the different things Yamazaki does in order to create as many differing whiskies as possible.

Located behind a glass screen on a raised platform beside the mash tuns were the wash backs. Yamazaki is unusual in that they use both stainless steel and wooden washbacks. There are 8 washbacks made from Oregon pine, (capacity 40,000 litres) and a further 10 washbacks of stainless steel (capacity 50,000 litres). The fermentation stage is the first stage where the use of different types of equipment at Yamazaki is used to produce variations in the finished spirit character.

Whether or not wooden or stainless steel washbacks contribute to two distinct types of spirit is debatable but at Yamazaki they certainly believe that the wooden wash backs make a different spirit as they cannot be totally cleaned and sterilized as stainless steels washbacks can and this can contribute to the final flavour. Fermentation times at Yamazaki are quite long at 64 hours during the week and 80 hours at weekends. Longer fermentation times help to produce more flavour compounds. The longer the fermentation the fuller flavoured the whisky. With more fruitier flavours in evidence.

After the washbacks, we were led into the still room. The room was huge with six wash and six spirit stills on each side of a central walkway. All were a different size and shape, ranging from 10,000 litres to 15,000 litres capacity for the wash stills and 4000 litres to 12,000 litres capacity for the spirit stills. Some of the stills had boil balls, some were lantern shaped stills (with a pinch between the base and the neck), and some were the regular onion shaped stills. All the different shapes and sizes of the stills allow differing rates of reflux (the condensation of alcohol vapour during distillation) and copper contact, therefore influencing the eventual spirit character, be it light, heavy or anywhere in between.

Another variation came in the type of condensers that were used. Some stills had modern shell and tube condensers (lighter whisky due to more copper contact) some had traditional worm tub condensers (heavier spirit due to less copper contact). These variations, alongside how the stills were run (length of spirit cut, speed of distillation, charge) ensure an almost endless variation of different styles of whisky, even more so when combined with peating level, fermentation time, type of washback used (debateable) and type of cask used for maturation.

As it was around 35 degrees outside, the stills that were busy running ensured that it was searingly hot within the still room so we didn’t stick around for too long and I kept my nerdy, annoying questions to a minimum. We left the hum and the white heat of industry of the still room (ok, it wasn’t quite as hot as that but it was stupidly hot!) and quickly made our way to the cooler surroundings of the warehouses. The contrast with the rest of the distillery couldn’t be greater; every time I find myself in a warehouse they always invoke in me a sense of rest, sleep and calm, of slow, patient, unseen work.

The warehouses resembled pretty much any sort of warehouse you’d care to mention. Of modern construction, they were pretty unspectacular, nothing like some of the traditional, low stone warehouses found in Scotland. There were rows and rows of casks, stretching for several hundred metres in all directions, arranged in the traditional dunnage style (three or four high) their black and white painted heads proudly displaying their contents. Not all of Yamazaki’s stock is matured on the distillery site. Suntory also have a separate warehouse nearby, rather fancily titled the Ohmi Ageing Cellar by the shore of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake.

The maturation stage is another phase where the distillers at Yamazaki take the opportunity to add even more variables in the production process in order to produce differing types of whisky. The majority of Yamazaki’s casks are ex refill bourbon casks (80%) but they used a significant amount of other cask types, especially for the single malts. European oak sherry casks (15%) are also used alongside small amounts of Japanese (Mizunara) oak and American oak Puncheons (the Puncheons and Mizunara casks are fresh oak casks having not been used to mature anything before being filled with new make).

After the tour of the warehouses, Tanaka-san led us to a tasting room there she had prepared a tasting of the core range of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Suntory’s premium blend Hibiki. The core range of Yamazki single malts reflects the various different cask types used. Both the 12 year old and 18 year old are significantly different from one another not just in terms of age but in the make up of different casks used, with differing ratios of European, American oak, Bourbon casks and Mizunara casks used. This makes two whiskies both diverse in character but at the same time managing to keep enough similar, signature qualities that manage to keep them both together. Consumers have the opportunity to try Yamazaki that has been matured only in Bourbon or European oak etc every year when they release limited bottlings of these whiskies. There are tasting notes of the core Yamazaki range and the 2012 Bourbon cask release) elsewhere on Whisky for Everyone.

Once we concluded the tasting we were led to the museum, gift shop and the tasting bar where we had a look around and found some rather interesting versions of Yamazaki in their whisky library – a Rye Whisky, Corn Whisky and a Lavender flavoured whisky. Crazy stuff. I took full advantage of the tasting bar’s selection of rare and reasonably priced drams (I’ve come all this way, it would be rude not to) having a dram of the Yamazaki New Make (very fruity and spicy), Mizunara cask matured (dried fruits and tannic) and a 1986 single Sherry cask bottling (chocolate, and hazelnut). Having decided that 9 whiskies was probably enough before midday we bade a fond farewell to Tanaka-san, our excellent host and started to make our way back through the heat to Kyoto.

Yamazaki is one of the easiest distilleries in Japan to visit, being located between the two major cities of Kyoto and Osaka, so it’s definitely worth a look if you only have a limited amount of time to spend in Japan as it’s not too far out of the way. The distillery is just 15 minutes by train from central Kyoto and the short walk from Yamazaki railway station is clearly signposted. The distillery is open between 9.30 am and 5 pm. Tours are free and in Japanese but you can hire audio guides in English, French and Chinese. The tour concludes with a tasting of the Yamazaki 10 year old and 12 year old. Then you can hit the bar downstairs and try some rarer examples at extremely reasonable prices and this I suggest you do; you will not be able to try some of the whiskies on offer here anywhere else.

We had an excellent time at Yamazaki, thank you to our excellent host Tanaka-san and everyone at the distillery who were so friendly and welcoming and also Tatsuya-san and Keita-san at Morrison Bowmore for arranging the visit.

1 comment:

Dan Cowell said...

This was just the thing to whet my appetite ahead of my Saturday visit. Thanks! I've had the pleasure of enjoying the Yamazaki 10, 12 and 18 year old in the past, but I'll definitely be making the most of this trip.