The Water Voyage – Water Episode 2 – Known for its waters, the “Suntory Yamazaki Distillery” in-between the Osaka Prefecture (大阪) and Kyoto Prefecture (京都) boundary

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

“YAMAZAKI” Japanese whiskey  made in Yamazaki

Suntory is one of Japan’s boasted beverage brands.

The first Japanese whiskey can be traced back to a hundred years ago in 1923. The establishment of “Suntory Yamazaki Distillery” was launched by Torii Shinjiro, the founder of Suntory. Shinjiro himself studied the production of scotch and the importance of its relation to the land and soil through books. “Fine Whiskey is born from fine waters, Fine Fermentation is not without fine environment”. Alongside his convictions, the site that was chosen amongst all of Japan was Yamazaki, in-between the Osaka Prefecture (大阪府) and Kyoto Prefecture (京都府) boundary. Yamazaki is mentioned for its famous waters in the “MANYOUSHU” or “Collection of Ten Thousand leaves”, Japan’s oldest poem anthology which sing praise to all the beauties of Japan. Moreover, “ Rikyuu no Mizu” (離宮の水) roughly translated as the ‘Water Villa’ which was selected by Japan’s Ministry of  Environment as one of Japan’s top hundred famous waters, gushes out in the vicinity of this distillery. ‘Sen no Rikyuu’, an Osaka born tea ceremony master has created a tearoom in Yamazaki. This high quality pure water which has been nurtured for hundreds of years is of crucial importance to the production of whiskey.

Why the Yamazaki distillery?

In recent years, I have taken an interest as to how this Japanese whiskey “Yamazaki” explode in popularity. Made from water; sake, rice and miso reflect the land’s topography, all the things that sings to the heart of Japanese people. From that  I feel a similar charm to Onsen (温泉). Onsen too, requires years to permeate underground to be heated up by terrestrial heat. The mineral water bursting out the fault’s gap then becomes an Onsen. Nature, wind, soil and light can all be traced back here. Inside our bodies, regardless of the external, desiring to learn more about the water that engulfs us, we decide to visit the Yamazaki distillery.

The Beginning of Whiskey

It is said that the start of whiskey could be found in Scotland. The oldest document related to whiskey was left in the possession of the King of Scotland in 1494. It was thought that the king was fond of whiskey since the 15th century. Masataka Taketsuru who pursued the knowledge of the manufacturing of Scotland whiskey (He would later leave Suntory and created Nikka whiskey Distillery in Hokkaido) was invited and the Yamazaki distillery was established. At this time Shinjiro was 44 years old. Previously, Shinjiro was conducting imports and manufacturing of western liquor at Osaka Prefecture (大阪) including the sales of “Akadama wine”. Four years later in 1929, he would give birth to Japan’s first domestic whiskey, “Suntory”. Western scotch was already sold within Japan at the time. Marketing of the product was as if waging all odds, a challenge to the blind acceptance of imported goods. Unfortunately it ended in failure. Nevertheless, Shinjiro’s fight still continues. An extra 8 year progressed, in year 1937. More than 10 years have passed since the foundation of Yamazaki distillery. The quantity of unblended whiskey has filled the storage and deeply ripened. By then, the bountiful unblended whiskies have reached completion. ‘Kakubin (角瓶)’ which is currently still popular throughout Asia and Japan was born. Suitable to the Japanese palate, such a success that it seems to just fly off the shelves. Shinjiro earnestly walked the path of Japanese whiskey and would later developed ‘Suntory Old’ ‘Suntory Royal’ and so forth that remains a familiar name till today.

From then on, a further 47 years. 22 years after Shinjiro passed away in 1984, was the arrival of ‘Yamazaki 12 year’ single malt whiskey. Originally, single malt whiskies are unprocessed liquor that are to become blended whiskey.  It was the golden age of blended whiskey in those days. The world’s first single malt whiskey “Glenfiddich” from Scotland was then released in 1960s. By 1980s, when single malt whiskeys are appearing in markets, was when Japan took seize the moment and ‘Yamazaki 12 year’ was born.

The reason to Yamazaki’s popularity

In 2003, Yamazaki won its first gold prize as a Japanese whiskey at the “International Spirits Challenge 2003” a world renown alcoholic drinks competition; with its single malt whiskey “Yamazaki 12 year” produced in the distillery.  From the preparations, fermentation, distillation, storage (maturation). The Yamazaki distillery creates diverse range of unblended whiskey and detailed manufacturing process not seen anywhere else. Master blenders, possessing skillful timing technique then asserts the unblended whiskey’s flavor peak. Together with said technique, they were able to take back the winning prize. From then, this whiskey would be known throughout the world. Above all, there was an unprecedented boom of whiskey sodas or “High ball” within Japan that would later also catch on trend in China and Korea. So much so that supply were unable to keep up with demands and whiskies over the counter would completely sell out.  Currently, to keep up with supplies, non aging whiskey are generally sold.

The Yamazaki Distillery

Upon application, it is possible to observe the manufacturing process in the distillery, do a test tasting of various valuable Suntory whiskey that are difficult to come across such as “Hibiki (響)”, “Hakushu (白州)” and “Yamazaki” which are available for purchase in the shop. We are overwhelmed by this wonderful exhibition and story of Shinjiro’s history, tale of establishment, attitude towards whiskey making, as well as the production of unblended whiskey and so on. As the rarity of Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki increases, reservations for observation tours become more difficult to make so checking ahead of time is advised. Finally, spend some time loosening up while test tasting the whiskies and experiencing the abundant nature that raised it.

How time ripens whiskies, resembles the Onsen (温泉)

There are non aging whiskies without year notations as well as ones with 12 or 18 years entry. So far, whiskies take approximately 12 – 18 years to ferment inside barrels until reaching an amber color. The number of years necessary for maturity resembles that of the Onsen deep underground before the moment it springs forth. Incidentally, according to research, Beppu Onsen (別府温泉) in Oita Prefecture (大分県) is an Onsen made by rain water of 50 years ago. Certainly also a blend of rain waters from 5 years ago to 100 years before. Through years of nature’s time and a medium called master blenders, the flavors of whiskies are then drawn out. Similarly, we are able to enjoy Onsen through exquisite mix of years, earth, and a medium called Yumori (湯守: the master of Onsen who adjust quality and temperature of Onsen). Both Whiskey and Onsen through the passage of time come in correlation with nature, reach maturity by the assist of experts and of course, water quality also plays a vital role.

While you grow old there may be difficult times. But as you ponder how time passes and the years pile up, the more wonderful it then starts to seem. How about… after purchasing the whiskey from 12 years ago, lodge in an Onsen inn and as you taste the goods, go down the memory lane and remember the you from 12 years ago inside the Onsen flowing from years back? Does it feel similar to being slightly tipsy when you yield yourself to liquor and Onsen (温泉)?

Lastly, while imagining the new challenge that hit the 44 years old Shinjiro and of the water voyage, we leave Yamazaki distillery behind and head to the next Onsen site. (Warning: Entering the Onsen after consuming alcohol increases blood concentration to highly dangerous levels. Please enjoy alcohol moderately, enough to relax. It is recommended to enter the Onsen after 1 to 2 hours of rest or perhaps enjoy alcohol while gazing at the moon after you have gotten out of the Onsen and rested.)

To be continued in Water Episode 3…

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