Touring Japanese Whisky distilleries – a visit to Suntory and Nikka

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On our last trip to Japan we visited two Japanese Whisky distilleries. In the Kansai Airport waiting area, a passenger is happily cradling his Nikka 12 year bottle. He was lucky to be able to purchase a bottle after all. Since Japanese whiskies have taken on a fabulous reputation in recent years, aged Japanese whiskies, especially single malts, are hard to come by. Even in the shops of the distilleries.

On this trip we checked out also some not so often visited sites in Kyoto. And went to see the newly UNESCO inscribed Mozu tombs near Osaka.

A tour at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

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Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery

On entering the premises of the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery near Osaka on a pleasant summer afternoon, we pass the bar. A number of visitors are already contemplating their tasting flights. But since we hve booked a tour in advance we continue to the visitor centre. The tour is conducted in Japanese, but foreign visitors are handed a smart phone. An app provides similar information on the various stages of whisky making in several languages. The tour focuses on a very general introduction to the Whisky making process. There is not much explanation on the peculiarities of Japanese whisky or of the style produced at Yamazaki. Nevertheless, it is worth joining the tour in order to see the stills. 6 spirit stills and 6 wash stills work in the main house alone. All of them are visibly different in form and quite big. It is even possible to walk through some of the warehouses with impressive rows of barrels.

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Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery

Nowadays, the location just 20 minutes from the metropolitan centre of Osaka may seem unusual. But the water in the hills of Yamazaki has been famous since the days of Sen-no-rikyu (the revered founder of traditional Japanese tea ceremony). The hills behind the premises provide an agreeable coolness even in summer. When Torii Shinjiro decided, in 1923, to found a whisky distillery in Japan, he chose Yamazaki both for its good water and climate and for its closeness to the economic and cultural centres of Osaka and Kyoto.

The perfect Highball

After the tour, we are led into the tasting room. There we get instructions (again in several languages) how to compare two component whiskies and the final product, the Yamazaki Single Malt. We also learn how to mix a perfect Japanese Highball with soda and ice.

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Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery

We do appreciate the opportunity to taste the components of the Yamazaki whisky. But on the other hand the tasting does not include any special or aged whiskies. They are available, however, at the bar. In the bar you can also try the 70% New Pot straight from the stills. Whisky lovers thus have reason to visit the distillery if just in order to get hold of a glass of rare whisky that’s not even easily available in the shops (and at reasonable prices). After the tasting we have another go at Suntory’s World Whisky and an Amarillo.

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A tour at the Nikka Yoichi Distillery

Just 3 weeks later on the way to Otaru on Hokkaido we pass a group of old stone houses with cute pointed red roofs. It looks like a distillery – and it turns out it is the Nikka distillery in Yoichi. Of course: this is the other major old whisky distillery in Japan.

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Just like Yamazaki, Yoichi is not far off in the remote mountainside these days, but right off the main road. That was different when Taketsuru Masataka first came here with his Scottish wife to open his own whisky distillery in 1934. He had studied whisky making in Scotland and then worked for Torii Shinjiro at Yamazaki. But the ambitious Taketsuru favoured the mountains of Hokkaido as the ideal whisky region. Thus, he became the founder of Japan’s second major whisky company, Nikka. The small stone houses are still the original buildings: Kiln Tower, Mash House, Wash House.

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The stills in the old Still House are fired with charcoal. Even today, and the first still from the 1930s looks tiny between the newer ones. There are tours in Japanese through the premises, but you can also do a self-guided tour with the provided leaflet. After walking between the historical buildings we check out the company history at Nikka’s museum. And then proceed to the free tasting.

A “driver” sticker and no whisky for Isa

At Nikka this is a canteen-style affair and comprises two standard whiskies and a sweetish apple wine. Huh? Apple wine? Yep: Taketsuru started his business producing apple juice and apple wine while he was waiting for his first whiskies to mature. Isa has to stick with apple juice all along, as she is driving and thus gets marked with a big “driver” sticker.

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Whisky tasting at the bar of the Nikka Yoichi Distillery

As in Yamazaki, the Nikka shop doesn’t sell any of the more sought-after single malts and aged whiskies, except a small range of limited edition single malts only available in Yoichi. But the bar at least has a good selection of premium and aged whiskies, and even a single cask whisky. Normally, the bartender explains, they have one single cask on offer, but by the end of the year the may have run out …

Is it worth touring the Japanese whisky distilleries Yamazaki and Nikka?

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Both whisky distillery tours we tried were geared mainly towards Japanese visitors without specialised knowledge of whisky. As a consequence they offered rather general information on whisky production. Both distilleries also offered English explanations; however, for foreign visitors not particularly interested in whisky this may not necessarily be worthwhile. Whisky buffs will still appreciate the opportunity to see the stills and the scale of these premises. As for the free Whisky tasting, in the Japanese factories it included no rare or aged whiskies. The draw for whisky lovers is in both cases is the bar. Visitors can taste rare whiskies at a reasonable price there (which is still high compared to other whiskies).

How to get to the Japanese whisky distilleries Yamazaki and Nikka

Yamazaki is a small town between Osaka and Kyoto. Local trains on the JR line stop at Yamazaki station just 5 minutes on foot from the Suntory Yamazaki distillery. The nearest station on the private Hankyu line is Oyamazaki (10 minutes walking distance).

Yoichi is a town on Hokkaido, about 20 km from the touristy town of Otaru and about 50 km west of Sapporo. The Nikka Yoichi distillery is situated almost next to Yoichi train station.

Interested in Whisky? See also our posts on our week of whisky tasting on Islay (Scotland) and to the Glengoyne Whisky Distillery in Scotland.

NB: We were not sponsored in any way to write this article about Japanese whisky distilleries. All expenses were paid by ourselves.

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  1. Reading about your tour at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery brought back one of my favorite scenes in “Lost in Translations”…..”Suntory Times” with Bill Murray. I actually enjoy these kinds of tours. I sometimes find it tiring to listening to tour guides so I’d not of minded listening to an audio guide instead. In Yerevan, we were excited and hoping to visit the Ararat Brandy Museum/factory. They never bothered to return our emails to arrange a visit.

  2. Earlier this year we spent a week on Islay touring the whisky distilleries there. About half of the other tourists were quite into whisky and the guides were fantastic: Really knowledgeable and passionate about whisky. Funny too. The tours in Japan were quite generic and a bit memorized. Drinking at the bar and talking with the bar keeper about the whiskies was more interesting.

  3. A great post on Japanese whiskey distilleries.It looks similar to wineries and it’s always so interesting to observe the process of manufacturing and going back to the history involved in it.

    1. Actually it is quite different from wineries. But yes, it was very interesting. If you have the chance to visit a distillery in Japan – do it!

  4. We certainly learned a lot about saki on our visit to Japan. But not about whiskey. But if we return, I would definitely want to seek out some of the single malts. And do a tour to learn more about how the Japanese whiskey is different. Good tip to go to the bar for tastings of rare or aged vintages.

  5. I have only tasted one Japanese whisky in India, that too at an event held by the embassy of Japan. But I would like a tour of the distillery, even though it doesn’t appear to be very detailed for foreign tourists. The bar sounds like a good idea for sure, but I hope the language is not a problem.

    1. Dear Ambica, I think they have an English audioguide at the Suntory distillery. At the Nikka Distillery in Hokkaido they do offer some English explanation as well, although limited compared to the Japanese panels.

  6. I only know about Nikka whisky because my husband likes to drink it! I’m not the biggest drinker but I’d be interested to tour both distilleries. It also gives me an excuse to visit more places in Japan one day!

    1. You do not have to be a big drinker to enjoy distillery tours. They usually provide small bottles for the share you do not want to drink or cannot drink. And there are always the visitors who have to drive.

  7. I have to admit I’ve never heard about Japanese whisky before. In my mind, you would talking about sake. Hehe.. It is interesting to learn about the history of Taketsuru Masataka and his Scottish wife since they opened their Nikka, the second largest distillery in Japan, located in Hokkaido region.

  8. Wow, it’s nice that they are within easy reach of Tokyo and that they offer tours and tastings! I did not get the chance to visit these when I went last time. I’m sure you must have been whisked away by this experience!

    1. Dear Trisha, actually the distilleries are not near Tokyo. So, no wonder that you missed them on your trip to Tokyo. The Suntory Distillery is between Osaka and Kyoto and the Nikka Distillery is situated in the far north on Hokkaido.

  9. I’m actually ashamed to tell you that I haven’t heard of Japanese Whiskey so far. Got a bottle of 12 year old whiskey? Wow! That’s awesome. I’ve only been to the Scottish Whiskey tour in Edinburgh, so it would be fun to join a tour in Japan and look at the differences in the process & taste. Having a driver sticker sounds interesting, like a birthday sticker in Disneyworld! Haha.

    1. Dear Bushavali N, if you liked the Whiskey tour in Edinburgh you would enjoy the tours in Japan too, I think. Yes, the driver sticker was funny. Did not know that you get a birthday sticker in Disney World….

  10. I did not realize Japanese whiskey was a big thing. And to think this is close to Tokyo. I am pretty sure that my hubby who is a whiskey connoisseur would enjoy this tour and do the tasting too. I personally have never been to a whiskey distillery and I am all game to learn something new.

    1. Dear Ami, please note that the distilleries are not close to Tokyo. One is in the Kansai area near Osaka and Kyoto, the other one is on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.

  11. We never considered visiting Whiskey distilleries in Japan but I believe it’s a great idea. Thank you for sharing your experience. We would love to visit on our next trip as I believe my husband would enjoy it.

  12. I loved “Lost in Translation” and “more intensity” but I must confess my favourite is Nikka Coffey malt. Which, paradoxically, I tried in a distillery bar in Edinburgh. Now I want to visit a Japanese whisky distillery so much! Must add to my itinerary of ceramic ateliers and fabric shops.

    1. Dear Anja, we also like the Nika Coffey Malt and the Suntory Hibiki. We enjoyed both distillery visits in Japan and there are some more open to visitors. The Suntory Hakushu Distillery is located in the forrests.

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