Yamazaki

The Yamazaki Japanese whisky distillery began production in 1924 and was the first in the new wave of modern Japanese single malt whisky distilleries. Previous Japanese ‘whiskies’ were of poor quality, frequently little more than diluted industrial alchohol or adulterated rice distillates.

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The Yamazaki Japanese whisky distillery began production in 1924 and was the first in the new wave of modern Japanese single malt whisky distilleries. Previous Japanese ‘whiskies’ were of poor quality, frequently little more than diluted industrial alchohol or adulterated rice distillates.

In 1918 a young post-graduate student named Masataka Taketsuru travelled to Scotland at the behest of his employers Setsu Shuzo to study how Scotch whisky was made. 

While studying organic chemistry at the University of Glasgow in 1919 and taking courses to improve his English, the earnest, meticulous Taketsuru observed malt whisky distillation at Longmorn and grain distillation at the Bo’ness distillery. In the summer of 1920 Taketsuru spent five months at Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown taking copious notes on all aspects of the distillation and maturation process. 

Taketsuru returned to Japan at the end of 1920 with a thorough grounding in the subtleties of the whiskymaking process, an invaluable insight into the Scotch whisky industry and a Scottish wife, Rita Taketsuru, the daughter of his Scottish landlady - the pair had married against the wishes of both their families.

On his return, Taketsuru was disappointed to find that Setsu Shuzo had decided to shelve their distillation project due to the unfavourable post-war economic conditions. Thankfully, Shinjiro Torii, the founder of wine merchants Kotobukiya (later renamed Suntory) was looking for someone to help the company move into whisky production, and in 1923 the two men began work on realising their shared vision of a Japanese malt whisky distillery

Taketsuru and Torii set about construction of the Yamazaki distillery, using Taketsuru’s insights and Torii’s business know-how. Taketsuru’s advice was followed on almost every aspect of the project; however, his desire for Yamazaki to be located on the northern island Hokkaido in mountainous country resembling the Scottish Highlands was frustrated by Torii, who insisted that the distillery must be easily accessible for efficient transport links and instead determined to build near Kyoto, in the central region of Japan’s largest island, Honshu.

This disagreement led to a falling out between the two men. After the Yamazaki distillery was completed in late 1924 Taketsuru continued to work at the distillery but allowed his ten-year contract to run out, leaving to found his own whisky company, Nikka, in 1934 and build his own distillery - Yoichi - in the mountains of Hokkaido. Thus began the great rival duopoly of Japanese single malt whisky.

During the years between his return from Scotland and his eventual departure Kotobukiya, Masataka Taketsuru had laid priceless groundwork for the success of Yamazaki, designing a beautiful distillery in the Scottish style and setting in place a distillation system so rigorous and finely controlled that his staff at Yamazaki were able to continue the work after he had left.

With Shinjiro Torii at the helm as Master Blender, Yamazaki's’s first whisky Shirofuda White Label was launched in 1929, but initially struggled to find an audience for its smoky, Scottish style flavours.  To make up for this misstep, the next product was a delicate style of Japanese whisky: Kakubin, which was introduced in 1937 and remains in production today, most frequently consumed in that most quintessential of Japanese mixed drinks, the highball.

The Suntory whisky company flourished thereafter, setting up a string of Tory's Bars to serve Kakubin highballs to a thirsty domestic Japanese market. At this time Scottish whisky was too expensive for everyday consumers, while American whiskey imports suffered during prohibition and after WWII. Ironically, it was the US troops stationed in Japan that were among the most enthusiastic early adopters of Suntory’s whisky in the post war years.

Suntory continued to expand, building the Chita grain distillery and a second malt whisky distillery (Hakushu) in the early 1970s and continuing to launch new products in the 1980s in a bid to compete with the Scottish and American whiskies that were now more accessible in their domestic market.

In 1989 Suntory introduced their famous Hibiki brand, composed of single malt whisky from the company’s Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries mixed with Chita grain whisky. Yamazaki single malt whisky, meanwhile, which had debuted in Japan in 1984, was introduced to western markets around the turn of the millennium, originally in 12-year-old and 18-year-old expressions. 

These whiskies caused a sensation in European markets and quickly began winning international drinks awards. In 2008 Yamazaki won both Best Single Malt Whisky (for Yamazaki 1987) and Best Blended Whisky (for Hibiki 30-year-old) at the World Whisky Awards.

Yamazaki today is one of the largest distilleries in Japan, making a bewildering variety of single malt spirits on no fewer than 16 stills, many of which are direct-fired. The last four of these stills were added in 2013, increasing Yamazaki’s capacity by 40%. This stylistic diversity is necessary as, unlike in Scotland, Japanese distilleries do not swap stock for blending.

In recent times Japanese whisky in general, and Yamazaki in particular, have become victims of their own success, leading to shortages in Europe and America, escalating prices and the withdrawal of Yamazaki 12-year-old, replaced by a NAS expression.

As Yamazaki distillery approaches its centenary year, it is to be hoped that the increased capacity provided by the 2013 expansion will soon bear fruit in the form of more ready availability of age statement Yamazaki single malts, which have now attained their rightful status among the top echelon of the world's whiskies.

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