Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Suntory Yamazaki ( サントリー 山崎 ) *by JS*

I never thought one day I will be writing about this category of alcoholic beverage. Somehow I have never appreciated whisky despite the fact that my late father was an ardent whisky lover.

Recently I tasted the Suntory Yamazaki 18 year old whisky and my first impression was the lightness on the palate and the purity of the whisky but most important of all, I could relate to it.
Ever since then, I would not walk by another bottle of whisky without taking a second look at the label as to the origin and maker just like how I would in the same way be mesmerized by a bottle of burgundy wine.

It is this quest to find out more about whisky, especially Japanese whisky that spur my visit to Suntory Yamazaki distillery near Kyoto when the opportunity presented itself recently.
The view of the distillery as you approach the site.
The colorful autumn foliage.

Suntory started as a store in Osaka by the name of Torii Shoten in 1899 selling imported wines. Later in 1907, the store started selling a red wine call Akadama port wine. As the business grew, this store later took up the name of Kotobukiya Co Ltd in 1921.

In 1923, with the vision to expand the business further, the founder Shinjiro Torii built the first malt whisky distillery in Japan and this gave birth to the Yamazaki distillery.

5 years later Kotobukiya produced and sold the Suntory Whisky Sirofuda (white label) and in 1963 Kotobukiya changed the name to Suntory which basically reflect her famous whisky.

From then to present Suntory released various whisky from Torys whisky to Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki and many other blended whisky. They also became the bottler, distributor and licensee for Pepsi. Today Suntory Holding Ltd owns businesses ranging from Salt to soft drinks to food but in general Whisky and alcoholic beverage remains the core business.
 Bronze statue of Shinjiro Torii with his old still.

The Yamazaki distillery is located in the town of Shimamoto, district of Mishima which lies in the Osaka Prefecture. Whilst it is in the Osaka Prefecture, geographically it is actually nearer to Kyoto.

The town adjoining Shimamoto is Oyamazaki and this was probably how Yamazaki distillery got its name. Probably in the old days, Yamazaki and Shimamoto were considered the same town and district. In today’s context, Oyamazaki is actually in the prefecture of Kyoto and not Osaka.
The location of the distillery was chosen because of the availability of pristine spring water that bubbles from the bamboo grove at the foot of Mount Tennozan. In addition to the pure water, the diverse climate was ideal as it had 4 distinct seasons.
The bamboo forest at the foot of Mt Tennozan amongst the kaleidoscope of autumn color maple leafs.

Thirdly one of the success factors of the Yamazaki distillery is the consistently high humidity that is required during maturation. The humidity is influenced by the 3 rivers in the close proximity which is the Katsuragawa, Ujigawa and Kizugawa river.  The process of maturation requires an environment of high humidity.

Water from the 3 rivers all had varying temperature since the sources of these tributaries are different. The convergence of the 3 tributaries (with different temperature) to form the Yodogawa river often gave rise to mist and hence affecting the microclimate of the area by increasing the humidity.

This is very similar to the microclimate of Sauternes in Bordeaux where the colder Ciron river flows into the warmer Garonne river producing the mist and increasing the humidity which is so important for noble rot to develop on the grapes to produce the sweet wines.

Without this humidity there will be no noble rot and no sweet wines which happened in some unfortunate years! In addition the distillery is surrounded by higher ground towards the west and acts as a “wall” sheltering the area from strong wind which would otherwise remove the humidity and this geographical feature further enhances the location.

Unlike wine making which is governed by Appellation D’origine Controlee (AOC) in France or DOCG in Italy or equivalent in many countries of the old world which pays a lot of attention to the origin of the grapes, whisky making does not emphasize on the origin of the malt/grain. Japanese whisky makers source their malt from all over and this practice is no different for Suntory Yamazaki.

At Yamazaki, Suntory's pristine water is heated to the required temperature and mixed with the grist made from 2 types of peated malt in a mash tun to form the wort. The pure water will enhance the aromas and flavours of the wort.

The mash tuns at Suntory Yamazaki.
Suntory Yamazaki use 2 types of peated malt.

The next process of fermentation is carried out in wooden and stainless steel wash backs and extreme care is taken in choosing the right yeast from their stocks of thousands of strains of yeast to produce the desired whisky.

The use of wooden wash backs help produce rich flavours single malt whisky through the action of naturally occurring malo-lactic bacteria. This is the secondary fermentation process where the harsher naturally occurring malic acid is converted by bacteria action to the softer and smoother lactic acid. 

The wooden wash backs.

After fermentation is complete, the wash is distilled twice to separate the water and alcohol. The use of different stills at Yamazaki distillery produces a variety of whisky with flavours across the whole spectrum from very light body to a full body.

The stills are also heated by various means hence achieving different distillation temperature and this produces whisky of different character which can be blended later to produce a high quality single or pure malt whisky. From my observation, in total there are 6 different still shapes and sizes used here.
The various stills used in the distillation process.

After distillation, the whisky is filled into casks and slumbered in the aging warehouse. The choice of cask at this stage will determine the end product. Cask of different size, shape and oak wood are used. This includes the Japanese oak call Mizunara which is grown in Hokkaido.

The mizunara oak imparts a very unique oriental aroma that evokes the aroma of Japanese trees and forest. 5 types of casks are used at maturation ranging from Barrel to Hogshead, Sherry Butt, Mizunara and American oak Puncheons. The sherry butts are specially made in Spain for Yamazaki and it is first used to make Bourbon before finally used in making whisky.
The aroma of sweet vanilla as you enter the maturation warehouse.
One of the many whisky components at Yamazaki.
See the word "Cadiz" underneath? The barrel is made in Spain in Jerez country for Suntory Yamazaki.

Lastly blending is carried out by master blenders with vast knowledge of the cellar collection and well trained smell and taste senses before the bottling process.
The museum and library.

In other parts of the whisky world it is common for trading of barrel whisky to take place between various companies. Hence the components of a certain blend may include malt whisky from a number of distilleries and each of these could be owned by a different company. In short a single distillery does not need to have diverse range of whisky in their production line.

However in Japan it is done quite differently. The various whisky companies are reluctant to trade with competitors. This could be a cultural influence and definitely not commercially or economically driven. This practice basically means that Japanese whisky is blended with components from their distilleries owned by the same company. Because of this unique business model, Japanese distilleries are more diverse and need to produce a wide range of styles of whisky ranging from very light body to full body.

At Yamazaki it is no different and in fact single malt whisky are blended and produced from casks from the same distillery with the diverse range and styles of whisky produced from the fermentation process to maturation. If you bother to calculate……5 type of barrels X 6 shapes of stills  X 2 peating levels will produces 60 different types of whiskies which is blended into a mind boggling combination and permutation of blends, pure malts and single malts!

It is quite clear that the end product that is affected by such practice is purer, finer, homogeneous and high quality single malt whisky since the distillery had better control throughout the whole manufacturing process and don’t need to double guess the quality of other distillery/company’s products.

On the downside, by not opening their doors to trading with other brands and companies, maybe they are missing out on better components to blend their whisky.

The development of the Whisky industry in Japan probably can’t match up to that of Scotland’s but it is definitely not lacking in quality and history.

The first head of the Yamazaki distillery (Japan's first distillery) was Masataka Taketsuru. As a high spirited young man, Masataka went to Scotland and studied applied chemistry at the Glasgow University and worked at whisky distilleries.

This further fueled his interest in whisky making and after graduation he came back to Japan and joined Kotobukiya Co Ltd and was engaged in whisky production where he played a key role in establishing Kotobukiya Co Ltd Yamazaki distillery.

During his ten years stint with Kotobukiya he made several trips to Great Briitain and France to learn more about making whisky. He left Kotobukiya  Co Ltd in 1934 and left behind a legacy of achievements and very sound whisky manufacturing processes and practices.

Looking back at history, his departure was a very important milestone in the Japanese whisky industry as he went on to established Dainipponkaju Co Ltd which later became known as Nikka and in this new venture he built the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido.

In the pursuit for excellence, challenging and outdoing each other to be the best in Japan if not the world, these two brands have recently won many global awards and accolades in single and pure malt whisky category beating the best including famous Irish and Scottish brands!
the favorite :)

Inarguably Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru are the two most influential figures in the Japanese whisky industry and the two whisky companies (Suntory and Nikka) are pretty similar in terms of their "DNA" and origins and one couldn't have achieved so much without the other and their existence is reminiscence to the perfect balance of Yin and Yang!
Suntory Yamazaki's very open shrine. The folded paper hanging from the Tori symbolizes thunder and lightning and the straw symbolizes rain which is so important for the pure and pristine water source 

So when you next take a sip of Yamazaki whisky, take a quiet moment of reverence to savour this rich golden liquid and remember it’s not just another whisky but instead you have unlocked more than 100 years of very rich history and who knows, with some imagination and appreciation, perhaps you may even feel the passion and emotion that a Japanese whisky evokes!
 Very happy. I just put a tick on my "to do" list.

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1 comment:

CHER-RY said...

This place is huge!!! I like the library :)