The Water That Binds Japanese Tea, Sake and Whisky - Yamazaki Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Yamazaki Distillery
Region: Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture, Japan
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
(Image Source: Suntory)
Yamazaki is Japan’s first and oldest malt whisky distillery established in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii. It is one of the most well regarded distilleries globally, and in Japan, is perhaps the King of whiskies. Yamazaki first rose to prominence when its 2013 Sherry Cask had won multiple global whisky awards putting it on the world stage.
Located on the outskirts of Kyoto, specifically Shimamoto in the Osaka Prefecture, Yamazaki’s location was chosen for its proximity to the Minase water springs, an area known as “Minaseno”, which was formally a shrine/palace/imperial villa.
The Origins of Yamazaki – It’s About Location, Location, Location
Why this particular stream you might ask? Well legend has it that the water from the spring is so pure and soft that it was the water of choice for many of Japan’s tea ceremony master and sake makers. And you know how seriously Japanese people take tea, so I guess you could say it’s the Chanel of water. And so Yamazaki was built in 1923 by Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii with the help of Taketsuru Masataka (Fun fact: He would later go on to separately start Nikka Whiskys), who had just gotten back from Scotland, having studied whisky-making at Hazelburn Distillery (now under Springbank Distillery). Suntory also owns the Hakushu malt distillery and the Chita grain distillery, alongside Yamazaki.
(Image Source: Suntory)
Apart from the Minase springs, the area also has a completely different terrain and climate from that of Scotland. With an elevated altitude, the lower pressure allowed for whiskies to be distilled only once, as compared to Scotch which may require multiple distillations, removing much of the esters and phenyls that give the whisky its wonderful aromas and taste. The temperature and humidity also helps all of that.
The Yamazaki Way
(Image Source: Whisky.com)
Other aspects that separate Yamazaki from other distilleries include the use of bamboo filters that further purify the distillate, the use of Suntory’s own strain of yeast in fermentation, and also the big focus on blending, which allows Yamazaki to produce more than 100 different styles of whisky from the eight stills housed in the distillery.
Japanese whiskies are almost distinctive for it's unique and characteristic sandalwood/temple incense flavor profile, that is also accompanied by touches of coconut and light citrus, a flavor known as kara. This is due to the use of Mizunara wood, and it's synonymity with Japanese whiskies can almost be entirely credited to Yamazaki.
Yamazaki has been a long-time expert in the use of Mizunara wood. Mizunara wood, or Japanese Oak, is native to Japan, and while it has certainly gained popularity and a premium in recent years, Yamazaki is perhaps the one true authority on its use. This came about after WWII when oaks from Europe became increasingly difficult to acquire and Yamazaki had to turn to what was available domestically. As a result, Yamazaki looked to use it's local oak, Mizunara, and yet this was by no means easy.
(Image Source: Pinterest)
Yamazaki's dominance in it's use is crucial because Mizunara is notoriously difficult to work with - it is exceptionally porous, has high moisture content (Mizunara directly translates to Water Oak), and grows in a warped fashion, making it difficult to cut sufficiently thick straight pieces to form the cask (a process known as coopering) and also prone to leakage and breakage. On top of that, it is known to ruin whiskies by imparting pungent flavors that completely overpowers the whisky if it does not have a strong enough body or is not aged appropriately (a well-known lore says that whiskies must age for 20 years in Mizunara for it to truly take on its unique flavors and yet mellow out).
Yet, Mizunara’s influence on whisky is so desired that distilleries are typically required to enter auctions for the wood, where a single cask can cost up to $6,000 USD. These auctions are necessary because Mizunara Oaks can only be used after the tree reaches 200 years of age, where it is sufficiently thick despite heavy warping, to be used as casks, and as a result, requires the Japanese government to heavily regulate the harvesting of its trees. Unlike smaller distilleries, Yamazaki as a giant, commands the ability to gain special access to Mizunara wood, which has lent them the ability to gain expertise in its use, having used them since the 1930s and 40s.
(Image Source: Rare Malts)
Beyond Mizunara, Yamazaki is also an expert in the use of Sherry casks, another highly popular choice of cask, lending spicy, chocolate-y, dried fruits, to a whisky’s profile, further demonstrating Yamazaki’s unparalleled wood management abilities. This is so much so that Yamazaki selects their woods from the time they are still juvenile trees, and decides when to have them cut, seasoned and coopered, managing the entire wood management chain.
Yamazaki stores thousands of its unblended distillates for display. (Image Source: FT)
The combination of these factors not only allows Yamazaki to flex superior quality and at the same time dish out a wide variety of expressions. So the obvious question remains, what is that Yamazaki character? With more than 100 styles, there are obviously key differences in the way Yamazaki’s distillate is expressed, but typically, we can spot the common tasting notes as:
- Deeper and Richer in Hues of Amber to Ruby
- Fragrant with a Complex Bouquet
- Musky Sandalwood (or known as Kara) that is reminiscent of Temple Incense
- Floral with Scents of Acacia, Violet, Jasmine, Vanilla
- Tropical Fruits of Ripe Red Apples, Orange Zest, Mango, Lychee, Coconut
- Earthy, Black Truffles, Mushroom, Soil
- Medium to Heavy Body
- Smooth, Rich, Structured (Cohesive) Body, Moderately Oily Texture
- Sweet and Spicy like Chocolates with Chili Flakes, Grand Marnier Chocolates
- Tropical Fruits of Ripe Red Apples, Orange Zest, Mango, Lychee
- Citric Tang of Orange Zest
- Mediterranean Herbs of Cinnamon and Cloves, with Lavender Honey
- Nutty, Hazelnut, Praline, Coconut
- Mildly Smokey, Slightly Bitter, Cigar Malt
- Medium to Long, Clean
- Dried Fruits, Raisins, Blackberries, Orange Marmalade
- Oaky Sandalwood Musk, Desiccated Coconut
We do love Yamazaki for how consistent they are with their quality, and despite having a wide variety of expressions, Yamazaki’s well-structured body that comes from blending always finds a way to not just make it work, but make it work Yamazaki-style, where it’s unique distillery characteristics are ever present. You know you can always count on Yamazaki to deliver, and that’s why the distillery has stayed on top despite Japan’s highly competitive whisky landscape.
We know the blending, the intense quality control of water purity, the atmospherics of the distillery’s location are the reason for its smoothness, complexity and fragrant aromatics. We also know that the Mizunara is what lends Yamazaki its distinctive musky sandalwood note. Lastly, we also know that Yamazaki’s expert wood management is what makes its more than 100 expressions work, because of both quality control of the wood itself from sapling to cask, and also precision in understanding the optimal maturation technique and timing.
Our favorites are:
Entry Level: Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve, Yamazaki 12 Year
Moderate: Yamazaki 18 Year, Yamazaki Annual Limited Releases
Top Shelf: Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 & 2016, Yamazaki Mizunara 18 Year
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