The story of Yamazaki is essentially the story of the whisky industry in Japan. Yamazaki is the country’s oldest and first whisky distillery. The idea of the industry’s pioneer and legendary father of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torri, was to found a distillery and corner the potential market for whisky sales in Japan in 1923. It is located in the rural village of Yamazaki, which lies between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. The current distillery has a capacity of seven million litres per year, making it one of the largest whisky distilleries in the world and beating most in Scotland. It also has the busiest visitor centre of all Japanese distilleries and this includes a bar that contains over 120 different Yamazaki whiskies of differing ages and cask types.
The raw materials for their whisky production are sourced from all around the world. Barley is grown on a small scale in the local area but most is imported from the UK, Europe, North America or Australia. Peat used to be imported from Scotland but Yamazaki stopped malting their own barley in 1971, so now barley is imported already lightly peated, when needed. Casks are imported from the American bourbon industry and the Spanish sherry industry, although Yamazaki regularly part mature their whisky in Japanese oak casks called mizunara. The experimentation with mizunara casks began after the Second World War, when there was a shortage of sherry casks. They discovered that the wood contained more natural oils and these were then imparted in to the whisky giving unique oriental flavours and characteristics. However, mizunara is very porous and as a result more whisky is lost through evaporation or leakage. Therefore, whisky is now only part matured in mizunara to minimise any losses and is seen as an integral part of the maturation process for Yamazaki malts and Hibiki blends, which are also produced by Suntory.
When Shinjiro Torri announced that he was to open a whisky distillery in the 1920s, most people in Japan thought that he was mad. He was already imported European wines, primarily Spanish, into Japan and owned a company that produced plum based dessert wines and liqueurs. Torri sent one of his workers, Masetaka Taketsuru, to Scotland to learn about the production of whisky, the traditional methods and to generally immerse himself in the whisky trade. What the Scots thought of Taketsuru turning up just after the end of the First World War, can only be imagined! Taketsuru spent nearly three years working at various distilleries around Scotland and married a Scottish woman during that time. He then reported back to Torri and plans were started to build the first Japanese whisky distillery.
Both men went around Japan to research the location, with Taketsuru selecting a site on the northern island of Hokkaido and Torri choosing the site at Yamazaki. The final decision was the Yamazaki site, as Torri considered three main factors – the exceptionally high quality of the local spring water, the unique climate and humidity created by the convergence of three rivers in the area and the fact that it lay close to the best transport link in Japan at the time, between Osaka and Kyoto. The decision cost Torri the services of Taketsuru, who after opening and working at Yamazaki for a number of years went to start his own distillery. This became Yoichi and was located at Taketsuru’s original choice of site on Hokkaido, as he felt this had the most Scottish-like conditions.
The Kotobukiya Company, that was owned by Shinjiro Torri, funded the building of Yamazaki and production started in 1924, with Masetaka Taketsuru as distillery manager. Kotobukiya changed its name to Suntory in 1929, with the new name being derived from Torri-san, the Japanese title of Shinjiro Torri. The first whisky, a blend of their single malt and grain whiskies, was released in 1932. Interestingly, this blend also included some imported single malt from Scotland. Shortly afterwards, Taketsuru left to start Yoichi, which started production in 1934. The first pure single malt (Yamazaki 12 years old) was not released until 1984 and was followed by the 18 years old in 1994.