Japanese Whisky

A Tranquil Trip to Yamazaki Distillery

Posted by: Ted

1 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

If one distillery can be claimed as the home of the Japanese whisky scene, then Yamazaki Distillery is the natural heir to that crown. It was, after all, the first operating whisky distillery in Japan and progenitor of the thriving world-class industry that has blossomed in the 95 years since.

2a Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the distillery is located in the town of Yamazaki, a sleepy place nestled halfway between Kyoto and Osaka. Once you alight at the station, the distillery is a short walk away through the quiet streets, passing by traditional houses and shrines.

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From the outside, the distillery is not that much to look at, large drab brown buildings that blend in well with the surrounding forested hills but do not inspire any particular romantic notions. The old stills dotted around the leafy grounds are a nice touch though. The location is important however, as the distillery draws its water from the confluence of three local rivers, the Katsura, Uji and Kojo, the soft waters of which Yamazaki claims helps them make a refined spirit.

2 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

In comparison to the exterior, the inside of the visitors centre is a beautiful and interesting place to be, with timbered interiors, a cutaway still and washback, and shelving supporting row upon row of bottles with hand-typed labels containing various agings of spirit made by Yamazaki and other distilleries from around the world. There is also an interesting whisky walk with information about the distillery.

6 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

Guided tours can be booked online, with a standard and a slightly longer special tour available. If you want to do the special tour you need to book early (which we didn’t) as it only runs on weekends and has limited spots. The tours are conducted in Japanese, but an audio guide is available if, like us, your Japanese only extends to a few much-overused phrases.

7 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

The standard tour, conducted on our visit by the youthful Nishiwaki and assisted by the older Tanaka, guides guests through the history and production processes at Yamazaki, taking in the mash room, the still house and the bond stores. A delicious smell of whisky permeates the facility, changing in nature depending on your location. For example, the still room with its 12 stills (there are another four somewhere else too) smells of fresh apples and lemons, while the bond store is dark and rich with the years of aging spirit.

4 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

As we walked back from the bond store we passed by a torii gate, which Tanaka amiably commented to me was over 1000 years old, which makes the distillery’s only 95 years look rather pale in comparison, a reminder that the Japanese whisky industry is still only a relatively young thing in an ancient culture.

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The tours conclude in the tasting room, an open, airy space where guests sit at wooden benches to be educated in the art of drinking Yamazaki. Four glasses of whisky were presented, a White Oak Cask, a Wine Cask and two glasses of the 12 Year Old, one for sampling and the other for doing as you pleased with (as part of the tasting you had the opportunity to make a whisky highball. I declined).

5 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

The White Oak Cask and Wine Cask were presented as examples of Yamazaki’s practice of crafting a base palate of different styles that are then married together to create a final release, such as the 12 Year Old. The distillery claims that this method allows them to create products that have a subtlety and nuance of flavour similar to a blended Scotch, but are comprised of whiskies that are made entirely on site at Yamazaki.

The two spirits were indeed quite different, with the light White Oak Cask evoking honey, lemon, green apple and rose on the nose, while the dark-gold Wine Cask gave notes of caramel, marshmallow, wine gums, oak, salt, red apple and apricot. On the palate the White Oak had leather, dark honey, polished oak, beeswax, malt and a sharp, herbal finish, while the Wine cask had a dark, rich, dry fruitiness, with red apples, brown pear, sour plum and salted caramel.

3 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

A small selection of nibblies are also provided with the tasting, my favourite being the smoked nuts, which are smoked over chips made from old barrels. There are a number of friendly attendants on hand to guide you through the tasting and make sure you know what’s what.

At the completion of the tasting you are led back to the visitor centre where you have the opportunity to visit the gift shop (which has a distinct lack of Japanese whisky apart from the Chita single grain) or indulge in some further tastings such as older bottlings or distillery exclusives (I may have lashed out on the 25 Year Old).

8 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

The atmosphere at Yamazaki was relaxed and Nishiwaki delivered a crisp and professional tour that was full of interesting and informative facts… at least I presume so seeing as I couldn’t understand a word of it. The audio guide was solid though and it was easy to keep up with the tour. If you want to get a grasp on the history and character of Japanese whisky, then Yamazaki is well worth your time to visit if you happen to be in the area.

9 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

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White Oak Tokinoka

Reviewed by: Ted

Tokinoka

Japanese whisky is meant to be the best thing since sliced sushi right? A freshly caught blue fin tuna at the fish market would blush at the prices commanded by even a basic Japanese dram (if it still had any blood left that is). So why the bloody hell isn’t this one any good?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as I have a history of being disappointed by releases from White Oak Distillery. On my previous tasting attempt I found the Akashi NAS to be a forgettable cup of blah, while the 12yo had this weird sulphuric, mineral hot-pool vibe going on.

Needless to say, I set my bar very low when it came to trying the Tokinoka and it met my expectations with aplomb… by which I mean it would be a definite contender for winning a limbo competition, if you get my drift.

The nose is distant and it takes a really good deep sniff to actually capture anything. The eventual effect is like a walk past an orchard in summer… if the orchard was on the side of a volcano. That weird sulphury thing from the 12yo makes an unwelcome return as well as a whiff of hot metal. The palate is actually quite spicy… for about two seconds, after which you are left with a vague oiliness. It’s not terribly satisfying and the finish hints of glycerol (which I’m sure is not in there, but that’s what it feels like).

Hard-core Japanese whisky otaku may as well give the Tokinoka a try for the lolz. Everyone else, just grab yourself a good cup of green tea, you’ll feel a lot better afterwards.

Tokinoka 2

 

Hakushu Distillers Reserve

Reviewed by: Ted

Hakushu Distillers Edition

It can be a tricky and expensive task getting hold of age-statement Japanese whisky these days. If you’ve been paying attention to global whisky trends over the last five years-or-so, then you’ll know that Japanese whisky has been bang on-point and very much in demand by the smart set. The boom in sales, both locally and overseas, and a slight lack of foresight around barrel management has seen distillery stocks dwindle, so much so that that the two major players, Suntory and Nikka, have had to temporarily discontinue certain aged releases from their distilleries.

Naturally, the shortage in stocks has caused prices to skyrocket. I mean, just the other week I had the opportunity to buy a Yamazaki 50yo 3rd Edition 2011 Release for the low, low price of $157,763.99USD (I lashed out and got three)! Now, admittedly that is a bit of an outlier on the super-premium end of the scale, but even 12yo releases (if you can find them) are generally no less than $150AUD and more often than not well over $200.

So what does a common-or-garden whisky drinker do if you want to own a Japanese whisky without having to count your kidneys? Well, as it happens, there is an answer. These days most Japanese distilleries offer a Non Age Statement release of their product. While superficially a marketing device, the NAS releases are actually crucial for the ongoing survival of the distilleries, allowing continued market access by marrying dwindling older barrels with younger stock coming online.

An example of this is the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. While you can still find the 12yo for around $180, the distillers edition is available for a far more wallet pleasing $110. Located NW of Tokyo near Hokuto, an unusual feature of the Suntory owned Hakushu is that it boasts a bird sanctuary within its leafy grounds at the base of Mt Kaikomagatake in the Southern Japanese Alps.

Apparently the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve marries younger lightly peated malt and heavily peated malt around the 8yo mark with American oak-aged spirit of around 18yo. Or so the internet, repository of all things, tells me; you certainly wouldn’t pick it as being peated if you tried it blind.

On the nose the Distiller’s Reserve is bright, fresh and zingy, delivering a satisfying bouquet of crunchy green apples, sour plum, lemon grass, mint and citrus (Yuzu if you want to get technical according to Hakushu). The scent is clean and light, like a crisply pressed kimono, although after a bit of breathing time it develops a softer, creamy edge.

On the palate the spirit is sharp, clean and metallic, like a samurai sword across the tongue, and delivers a hit of hard, sour stone fruits and a twist of lemon rind. The finish is lingering and herbal, with perhaps a touch of green tea. Couldn’t find that smoke though I’m afraid, although to be honest, with the flavour profile presented by the Distiller’s Reserve I didn’t miss it either.

People quite often get a bit salty about the concept of NAS releases, considering them to be inferior to age statement releases (often without real justification… although sometimes merited for sure, but we won’t go into that particular Reserve here). I am pleased to say however, that in this case the NAS epithet is not a negative one.

But that’s what the Japanese do isn’t it? They take a thing, study it with care and then make not just a copy, but something that is even better than the original. Which is lucky really seeing as the Distiller’s Reserve will be about all we can reasonably get our hands on from Hakushu for the foreseeable future. In conclusion, if you want to see a NAS done right, then look no further than the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve.

★★★