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 our last trip to Japan we visited two Japanese Whisky distilleries.
A tour at the Suntory Yamazaki 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 are booked in for a tour, 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 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 visibly different in form and quite big. It is even possible to walk through some of the warehouses with impressive rows of barrels.
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 and instructed (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.
We do appreciate the opportunity to taste the components (in the bar you can also try the 70% New Pot straight from the stills). But on the other hand the tasting does not include any special or aged whiskies. They are available, however, at the bar. 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.
A tour at the Nikka Yoichi Distillery
Just 3 weeks later we are on the way to Otaru on Hokkaido when 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.
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.
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.
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?
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, where visitors can taste rare whiskies at a reasonable price (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 called 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.
NB: We were not sponsored in any way to write this article about Japanese whisky distilleries. All expenses were paid by ourselves.