In the span of just 100 years, Japan has established itself as one of the world’s five major whisky-producing regions. The crucible of this colossal movement was a distillery that remains at the forefront of the industry today: Yamazaki.
The town of Oyamazaki, where the distillery is located, is steeped in history. It’s here that the fateful Battle of Yamazaki was fought in 1582. History of a different kind was made more than three centuries later when Shinjiro Torii decided to build Japan’s first malt whisky distillery in this small town, 15 kilometres south of Kyoto.
At the age of 20, Torii established a small shop in Osaka called Torii Shoten. As part of that enterprise, he began to produce and sell wines. In 1907, he launched a wine that, he hoped, would suit the Japanese palate; his hard work paid off and Akadama Port Wine became a big hit. Its success was such that it gave Torii the confidence to pursue his dream of creating an original Japanese whisky.
Torii had received advice from one Dr Moore, a brewing authority in Scotland, that the most important factors in building a distillery were the natural environment and the quality of the water. When Torii hit upon Yamazaki, he felt it ticked all the boxes as far as ‘natural environment’ was concerned: rolling hills, beautiful bamboo forests, and a damp climate. The area had long been famous for its exquisite water, too. It was mentioned in the Man’yōshū, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, and the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū had a tea ceremony room built there for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the feudal lord who won the Battle of Yamazaki and who helped complete the unification of Japan in the 16th century. Good credentials, for sure, but Torii wasn’t taking any risks. He sent a water sample to Dr Moore and waited for the verdict from Scotland. The good doctor was impressed.
The construction of Yamazaki Distillery began in October 1923 and was completed the following year. One of the greatest challenges was installing the giant pot still; measuring more than five metres tall and weighing two tons, it was transported up the Yodo River and rolled into the distillery. The most problematic part of the journey was crossing the rail tracks – nobody knew how long it would take, so to be on the safe side, it was rolled across the tracks in the middle of the night when trains were not operating.
Whisky production started at Yamazaki in 1924 (according to Suntory lore, the first spirit came off the still on 11 November at 11.11am).
The distillery has been reconfigured and expanded over the years, first in 1957 and most recently in 2013. Nowadays it is mostly reconfiguration rather than expansion, as the growth of the town has left little room for the distillery to expand into. One of the site’s more notable features is the public road that runs through it – it’s quite common in the morning and late afternoon to see children walking through the distillery grounds on their way to or from school.
History is palpable everywhere on the distillery grounds. The original pot still has been laid to rest behind the visitor centre, near statues of the father and son whose vision and ambition made Suntory the powerhouse it is now: Shinjiro Torii sitting with a tumbler in his hand, and Keizo Saji, his second son and his successor as president of the company, standing and holding a bottle of Yamazaki 25. Meanwhile, the on-site museum offers an in-depth look into the history of the company’s whisky business.
The distillery itself is an impressive sight, equipped with two stainless steel lauter tuns (one with a massive 100,000-litre capacity, the other a quarter of that size), eight Oregon pine and 12 stainless steel washbacks, and eight pairs of pot stills in all shapes and sizes.
Yamazaki Distillery is currently closed to the public. This may seem like a strange move in its 100th anniversary year, but it’s for good reason. In February 2023, Suntory announced that it would be investing approximately 10 billion yen (£55.1 million) at its Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries to “improve the quality and to convey the appeal of the distilleries”.
The latter goal is aimed at making the visitor experience even more engaging. At Yamazaki, the focus will be on the refurbishment of the shrine and the construction of a venue that will offer a ‘novel’ drinking experience. What exactly this entails will be revealed when the distillery reopens to the public in late 2023. Hakushu will see similar improvements to its visitor experience; the focus there will be on improving the forest entrance to the
site, as well as establishing a tasting counter with views of the surrounding arboreal landscape.
As far as “improving the quality” of the whisky is concerned, the refinements will happen away from the public eye, but consumers will, of course, eventually reap its rewards. At both Hakushu and Yamazaki, floor malting will be introduced. For Yamazaki, it is technically a reintroduction, as floor malting was carried out at the distillery until 1969. In that year there was a switch to mechanical malting, but from 1972 onwards, Suntory stopped malting on-site altogether. Now, the company is bringing the process back in-house. Trial production started in 2022, and it is now being scaled up at both distilleries.
There will be further investment in research and development at Yamazaki, centred on the so-called pilot distillery. In 1968, a small distillery-within-the-distillery was set up for the purpose of researching and developing process conditions – mashing, fermentation, and distillation – and to evaluate new technologies and raw materials. It is tiny in comparison with the actual distillery, with a batch size of about 2,000 litres of wash. According to Suntory, the pilot distillery will be fitted with electrically heated pot stills in addition to its direct-fired pot stills “to start research on how to enhance quality craftsmanship”. At Hakushu, the R&D focus will be on yeast propagation.
To add lustre to the 100th anniversary celebrations, Suntory has been rolling out various limited editions since April of this year (among them are an 18-year-old Yamazaki aged exclusively in mizunara oak casks and an 18-year-old peated malt from Hakushu). At home, the goal is to widen the appeal of whisky further and to strengthen the image of the highball as the “Japanese soul drink”, so in time for the sweltering summer, there will be canned highballs on the market starring Yamazaki and Hakushu single malts. And Suntory wouldn’t be Suntory without some surprises up its sleeve. One such surprise, arguably, was the unveiling of the Suntory Time 100th anniversary tribute film created by Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola and starring A-list actor and long-time Suntory fan Keanu Reeves. But devotees of the whisky maker can guarantee there will be more thrills to come – this year, next year, and beyond.