Overlooking the small town of Shimamoto, Osaka, the Suntory Yamazaki distillery was started in 1923 by one of the 2 fathers of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torii. The other Father of Whisky was Masataka Taketsuru who went on to found Nikka whisky. Taketsuru was originally trained in Glasgow and studied whisky distilling under Scottish masters. He worked for Torii under the Suntory brand for over 10 years before starting out with his own distillery.
Shinjiro started creating his own wine and whisky for Japanese palates back in 1899. Before then, all wines and whiskies were imported (or distilled in small scale facilities). The favoured drink of the time was Sake and Umeshu or plum wine. Shinjiro not only had to create liquor to please his country’s palate, he also educated them on how to appreciate the products. His first whisky offering was called Suntory Shirofuda (White Label) but was unsuccessful because it didn’t appeal to the Japanese palate. His next effort, Suntory Kakubin was a hit and continues to be Japans number one selling whisky.
Currently, Suntory owns several distilleries and a few breweries (as well as non-alcoholic drinks and vitamins). Their Yamazaki Single malt sherry cask was voted best whisky in the world in 2014 and their Yamazaki Single malts 12 and 18 are delicious expressions of Japanese whisky. Whether the difference is the Mizunara oak casks, time in plum or sake casks or the effect of terriors, the Yamazaki and Hibiki whiskies enjoy a huge popularity around the world. Yamazaki Single malt and The Chita are two of my personal favourite whiskies.
The town of Shimamoto, an unnervingly adorable Japanese town, is a 35 minute train ride from down town Osaka. Since we have family in Osaka that we try to visit regularly, we were able to make the journey a couple of times. The town is on a hill with the distillery at the top, the walk from the train station to the distillery is a scant 15 minutes.
The distillery itself has retained much of its historical feel, yet there have been ample upgrades to accommodate tourists. This is one highly successful distillery and Suntory knows how to market.
There are several tour options, since our Japanese is pretty poor, we went with headphones on a self guided tour. Japan caters to English speaking tourists. The tour starts with a small museum dedicated to its founder. Suntory is proud of its history and their ground breaking products (for the time these were unique and exotic products). Then we viewed the distillery process. Unlike Irish or Scottish distillery tours, we were able to see some production but only behind glass. One felt this was a show room distillery.
The tasting room is a whisky lovers dream. Each whisky has a number and you are able to taste not just the finished products (ie the Yamazaki single malt 18) but each individual cask that helps to create the finished product. So one has the ability to taste cask No. 21, the 15 year old sherry cask whisky that is used to create other finished products. They also offer tastes of whiskies that can no longer be purchased. One can request up to 4 different whiskies to taste at one time out of a list of hundreds. At the time I don’t remember there being a limit to how many tastings of 4 whiskies one could request. I do remember absorbing one heck of an education in one day and the walk back to the train station was a bit of a blur.
It was at Suntory I discovered Summer Whisky such as The Chita. Unlike many northern whiskies, which do a wonderful job of warming one up from the inside out, The Chita is a smooth and light whisky yet with a deeply rich and satisfying flavour and is perfect for sipping during the warm summer. I highly recommend trying to purchase a bottle, they run anywhere from 40-75 euro. One thing I noticed at Suntory was the number of women who were there to taste. Whisky is not a gendered product in Japan as it is in the US so women tend to make up the majority of visitors to distilleries.
Suntory is definitely worth the pilgrimage.