Japan’s First Whisky: Suntory’s “Yamazaki” Distillery
NOTE: Images with an icon next to them have been artificially shrunk to better fit your screen; click the icon to restore them, in place, to their regular size.

Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/320 sec, f/2.5, ISO 1000 — map & image datanearby photos
Suntory “Yamazaki” Single Malt Whisky
freebies in the distillery's tasting room

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1250 — map & image datanearby photos
Tour
Suntory “Yamazaki” Whisky Distillery
Japan's first whisky distillery
Southern Kyoto Prefecture, Japan

I recently had the pleasure to tour Suntory's “Yamazaki” whisky distillery, 20 minutes by train south of Kyoto. Dating from 1923, it's the oldest whisky distillery in Japan. (Wikipedia · home page)

Suntory uses the British “Whisky” spelling, rather than the Irish/American “Whiskey”, so I'll do the same in this post.

20 years ago I used to drive by the front gates every day on my commute to and from work, and the smell was amazing. I'm not a particular fan of whisky's taste, but the smell of it being produced is rich and heavenly, and those few seconds driving by each day were well enjoyed. I toured the distillery once many years ago, but with California friend Paul Barr in town this month, took the tour again with him.


Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 2200 — map & image datanearby photos
Spirit Still
#5

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
Heaven
if you like whisky

Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/20 sec, f/2.5, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
Teenager
13 Years Old

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/40 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
On Display
Whisky barrels with glass front and back
on display before a large lightbox

When first seeing the cask display with glass front and back, you're thrown for a bit of a loop because of the reflection in the mirror-smooth top of the standing whisky, and it takes a few seconds for an understanding to “click”. Judging from the reaction of the guide and others on the tour, this momentary confusion is common, and fun, which is why I put up a photo of it as one of my “What am I?” quizzes.


Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/25 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
Reflection
Inside of a whisky cask reflected in the still surface of its aging contents

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
Tour Continues

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 5000 — map & image datanearby photos
Siblings
10 years apart

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/15 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
Nº 0001
Circa 1924

I wouldn't be surprised if it's not actually the first cask, but an impostor on display for the tour. Chatting with the guide later after the tour was done, he mentioned that at rare times they offer 60-year-old whisky for sale for a million yen a bottle (about US$12,000), and that it always sells out immediately. Cask #1 is much older, but even at the price scale of the young 60-year-old stuff, the barrel would be worth more than $8,300,000, so it seems risky to leave it exposed.

You can tell that the label has been painted over (you can see faded writing under the white portions of the label), and the end has words carved in it: “LACAVEYCo CADIZ”. That's certainly LaCave & Company from Cadiz, Spain, which well predates Suntory. Maybe Suntory didn't have its own casks early on, so reused old ones from imported whisky, in which case maybe this really is the first cask. Perhaps next time I visit I should have a taste, just to check. 🙂


Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/25 sec, f/1.4, ISO 6400 — map & image datanearby photos
3001
in B&W

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 560 — map & image datanearby photos
Freebies
in the tasting room at the end of the tour

Nikon D700 + Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 — 1/400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 200 — map & image datanearby photos
My and Paul's Freebies
mini photo session with the 10-year-old youngling

Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 2800 — map & image datanearby photos
12-Year-Old, Straight
stopped down a bit on the aperture to bring out the writing in the background

Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/320 sec, f/2.5, ISO 1000 — map & image datanearby photos
Up Close and Personal
“Moody” seems the be the way to go with whisky

This reminds me of this great scene from the movie “Lost in Translation”. It's hilarious if you understand the Japanese, though I can only imagine it's even more funny if, like Bill Murray, you can't.


Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/320 sec, f/2.5, ISO 2000 — map & image datanearby photos
Paul's Turn

Nikon D700 + Voigtländer 125mm f/2.5 — 1/320 sec, f/2.5, ISO 2200 — map & image datanearby photos
Explanation
of the various items for sale in the gift shop

The tour is free, so if you're in town and interested in whisky or some moody photography (or both), it's perhaps worth a trip down on the train.

Continued here...


All 9 comments so far, oldest first...

I think I’m correct in saying, “whisky is not stored in a raw cask”, it’s usually had a former life as a sherry cask, this adds both flavour and colour.

According to the English pamphlet I got, which lists five types of casks, such a cask is called a “Sherry butt”, and the paragraph describing it has the most adjectives of the group. —Jeffrey

— comment by Chris on April 8th, 2012 at 6:51pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

I know you say you are not that keen on the taste of whisky, but the “20 minuets on the train” maybe suggests otherwise ;o)

Sorry to say I’ve never been round a Scottish distillery [yet], though I do like the product, especially a pure malt, so I enjoyed this post. You have a great eye for a picture in so many different subjects.

Hah, yes, a small whisky-induced typo. Fixed, thanks. I can’t believe it had been so long since I’d been there, but this past Wednesday I had five hours to kill one train stop away, so thought the distillery tour would take care of a good part of it. (What I used to take care of the rest is another Suntory post, but not about whisky.) —Jeffrey

— comment by Peter in Wales on April 8th, 2012 at 8:16pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Any commentary on the taste (knowing that you’re not a “fan” above)? I always liked the idea of trying/enjoying different blends and brands of scotch and whisky as one would with wines, but have never been able to get past that first punch in the nose of the alcohol 😉

I really am not one to ask… I couldn’t tell rot gut from the finest 50-year aged whatever. The bartender did offer me some insight by letting me taste “Hakushu 12 years” and said that it was “peaty”, and indeed, it was quite a bit more musky/mellow than the other stuff. I didn’t drink more than a sip of anything, though, but did enjoy the smells. If I go again, I’ll try to bring either/both Kyoto friends Katsunori Shimada or Zak Braverman, both of whom have been mentioned many times on my blog, and both of whom would offer interesting insight into all aspects of the tour. That would make for a more-interesting post. I guess I’ll just have to go again in order to make that happen. What I don’t do for my readership…. 🙂 —Jeffrey

— comment by JasonP on April 8th, 2012 at 10:52pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

I’m a little surprised cameras were allowed on the tour (or at least near the stills). Here in the Highlands, distilleries won’t let you in with a camera, I’m told “a spark from the camera electronics could cause a fire or explosion”. Personally, I don’t believe that would happen, especially with my 7D which is fully weather sealed. (nothing gets in or out). It’s a pity really because I think the inside of distilleries would make great HDR subjects.

Sounds like a smoke screen… if it’s that dangerous, why are they letting people into that situation in the first place. Here, it’s all part of the marketing… people take pictures, tell friends. Seems smart. —Jeffrey

— comment by Gary Sutherland on April 9th, 2012 at 6:15pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

As your above commenter mentioned, the color comes from the previous use of the casks. Without reusing the casks, the whisky would be clear. Years leaching the residues out of the wood result in the color it achieves or so they told me on a tour of a highland distillery!

— comment by Rob Edgcumbe on April 9th, 2012 at 10:20pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Great first line, Peter. Good catch.

— comment by Grandma Friedl, Ohio, USA on April 9th, 2012 at 11:41pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

I loved the little pondering piece about No. 0001 and Lacave & Cadiz.
Good post!

Filip from the Czech Republic, writing from Virginia.

— comment by Filip on April 14th, 2012 at 10:35pm JST (5 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

I actually gave a bottle of Yamazaki to my Dad – a Glaswegian and whisky connoisseur. He was very surprised with the quality and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was, as I recall, very fruity and floral with a light taste. It was very nice and maybe similar to some Eastern Highlands singles like Glen Garioch. It was nice but I’m more of an Islay whisky drinker.

— comment by Stuart on June 16th, 2012 at 6:03am JST (5 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I just revisited this post from your 10th anniversary list. It is more meaningful now that I am currently watching the NHK asadora, Massan. Thank you for the ‘tour’.

After each Massan episode, a photo from a ‘mixed family’ is shown. One day, will I be able to see you and your family after an episode?

~ Aloha

— comment by D Nakano on April 6th, 2015 at 4:27am JST (2 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink
Leave a comment...


All comments are invisible to others until Jeffrey approves them.

Please mention what part of the world you're writing from, if you don't mind. It's always interesting to see where people are visiting from.


You can use basic HTML; be sure to close tags properly.

Subscribe without commenting