Still

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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A Rye look at Belgrove

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The much-extended old stables which house Belgrove Distillery

In our review we jokingly referred to Belgrove Distillery’s Peter Bignell as the da Vinci of distilling. When we visited him, we discovered that we were actually bang on the mark. Case in point was his method for powering the pump that injected homemade biofuel into the burner for the still: an old Sunbeam Mixmaster (usually on ‘Whipped Cream’ setting!).

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Apparently meringue-setting heated the still too much!

Our arrival at the distillery was actually rather hampered by some pesky road workers, who decided to dig up the highway in front of Peter’s driveway half an hour before we arrived. We had to call over a massive grader to flatten the surface enough to get the Alfa over (the troubles with low sports cars).

Belgrove distillery takes its name from the property, which is also a working farm. This was apparent as soon as we opened the gate and spied a flock of freshly shorn sheep, which we later discovered Peter had taught to eat leftover rye mash. Scattered around the old stables building that houses the distillery were various contraptions cannibalised from old washing machines, scrap metal and Russian Typhoon-class nuclear submarines.

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This one is made from the parts of Apollo 11 which fell to earth

The distillery, located just outside the southern midlands town of Kempton, is unique in Tasmania in that it predominantly produces its spirit using rye instead of barley. The story goes that Peter had a spare paddock full of rye that needed using and so decided to turn it into whisky. Rather than buy expensive new equipment, and prescribing to a reuse and recycle ethos, he instead decided to build everything himself.

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Including this glorious piece of copper!

We need to stress that home-made doesn’t mean rubbish; the malter/peat smoker crafted out of an old tumble dryer is a work of genius, and the mash tun is perfectly functional – until it gets clogged up by the huskless rye that is. Peter quipped that when this happens he has to put the old wooden paddle appropriated from his kids’ dinghy to work to unclog it (he’s changed both the handle and the blade three times apiece, but maintains it’s still the same paddle).

Peter has been a farmer his whole life, only turning to distilling seven years ago. He said that his university degree in agricultural science has been invaluable, allowing him to exploit the science behind the art, although he doesn’t downplay the role of the natural yeasts and bacteria that inoculate the mash, which he refers to as Belgrove’s unique terroir. Peter is completely hands on with the whole process, from growing the grain, to the distilling, the bottling and especially the tasting.

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Peter is clearly a hands-on farmer

Luckily enough we were able to join him in tasting a variety of interesting spirits, including rye, barley, apple hatchet (distilled apple cider), ginger hammer (distilled ginger beer) and even an experimental batch of eau de vie that Peter was trialling for Tasmanian Cask Company’s master cooper Adam Bone, who dropped by to check on proceedings. The range was varied, exciting and specific to Belgrove, and it was inspiring to be able to taste such contrasting flavours produced in the one place.

We did however have our favourites; the rye at 47%, Pommeau (apple hatchet cut back with apple juice) and especially the Pinot Noir matured rye at cask strength, of which we took home bottles #1 and #2 of a new barrel. However, revelation of the day was the 100% malted barley smoked with peat from the previously untapped bogs in the north-east of the state. Good people of the world, are you ready for Tasmania’s answer to Scotland’s Islay? Well, it’s maturing in Peter Bignell’s bond store at this very moment.

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Nick filling bottle number one!

While Peter is expanding the old stables to house a new still and larger malting equipment, he still resolves to remain stubbornly small scale, championing the merits of a hands-on approach. He muses that “big distilleries only care about how much whisky per kilo of grain they can get. I’m trying to get the most flavour.” From our all too brief visit, it is clear that he is succeeding in that vision.

Tasmania is home to many distilleries, big and little, but perhaps none is more eclectic and fascinating to explore than Belgrove.

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Don’t worry, Ted. Someone has to have bottle number two!

Four must-visit Scottish whisky distilleries

Posted by: Nick

Nick in Scotland

So you’ve travelled to Scotland. You’ve climbed to the top of Edinburgh Castle, eaten a plate of Haggis and failed to find the Loch Ness Monster. Your Scottish experience is complete but for one final destination. The country is synonymous with several things – including men in skirts and losing at football – but most famously of all, it is known for its whisky. Therefore on your travels it is compulsory to stop in at one or two distilleries and see exactly how the stuff is made. Of course, that means narrowing it down to one or two from the hundreds of options – not an easy task.

It was not long ago that I made a trip to whisky’s spiritual home (pun entirely intended) and thought I would share a few of my recommendations to check out after a hard day’s not-spotting Nessie.

Auchentoshan:

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This distillery is as accessible to visit as the whisky is to drink. Located just outside of Glasgow, Auchentoshan is right on the way for tourists looking to explore Loch Lomond or venture into the highlands. The distillery itself is extremely pretty and the friendly staff run a slick tour. The tasting session at the end covers the core range, though if you’re lucky they may find you something special to try behind the bar. The drams themselves are easy drinking and perfect for those who are slightly hesitant about whisky!

Ardbeg:

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The ultimate fanboy distillery. If you’re keen on your peated whisky then a trip to Ardbeg should be the number one priority. Granted, it is on a little island off Scotland’s west coast, but is the most magical place when you get there. Every corner of the distillery emanates old world charm, and if you select a premium tasting session, some of the drams they bring you in their little back room are mind-blowing. Ardbeg are famous for producing rare one-off bottlings which, unless you happen to be mates with the distiller, you are unlikely to get to try too many of. Do the tour, however, and who knows what you may find – Ardbog, Alligator, Supernova, Dark Cove… one dram of any of these makes the price of admission worthwhile.

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Glenfiddich:

To get an idea about the scale of the Scottish whisky industry, do the tour at Glenfiddich. They are the largest producer of single malt in the country and their distillery, therefore, is huge! Twenty-eight stills are in operation, each big enough to make Lark’s copper pot look like a key ring. There really is a sense of awe as you walk among the machinery and through the bondstores. It’s certainly a popular one, with thousands of tourists going through the establishment each day, however if you spend a couple of extra pounds they’ll put you in a smaller, more intimate group and give you the added bonus of checking out warehouse 8 – the Solera facility – where you can see them vatting vast amounts of whisky to create, among other bottles, their 15 year old. The tasting that follows walks you through the 12, 15, 18 and 21 Year Old expressions – yes, that’s right, 21 year old! Not all distilleries churn out a 21 year old regularly on a tour.

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Bruichladdich:

A trip to Bruichladdich is the perfect whisky experience. Firstly, the staff are some of the coolest and most entertaining people in the business. Secondly, their equipment, in particular their mash tun, is all beautifully ancient. It’s like an antique shop where the gear comes alive at night when the owners leave! Finally, and most importantly, there’s the tastings. Oh man. Bruichladdich are famous for innovation and experimentation, the result of which is a large number of fascinating whiskies to try. A rum matured whisky – can I try that? Sure! A new Octomore – do you mind if I… Go for it! How about that double matured… Get it down you! In short, a trip to Bruichladdich is compulsory if you ever find yourself in the area – and by the area, I mean in the Northern Hemisphere!

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These are, of course, just four of my picks based on one visit and I realise that as far as excellent distilleries go I am barely scratching the surface. So what places have you been to that you would recommend people make it along to? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can hit them up on my next trip to the whisky motherland!

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Having fun at Fannys Bay

Posted by: Nick and Ted

Whisky Waffle at Fannys Bay

Our favourite kind of shed

As self-styled whisky adventurers we get to meet some really fantastic people in the whisky business – case-in-point are Mathew and Julie Cooper, founders of the rather fabulously named Fannys Bay Distillery. Residing on Tasmania’s North coast they have brought whisky making to a region hitherto bereft of locally produced drams. As far as we (and they) know, Fannys Bay is Tasmania’s smallest distillery, but all indications suggest they will be punching well above their weight.

The Whisky Waffle boys travelled to the remote community of Tam O’Shanter to visit the Coopers on a sunny Sunday afternoon – or at least it would have been sunny if it were not for the thick smoke haze left by the bushfires. Mathew and Julie invited us into the shed to see where the magic happens, a location they both hope to spend a bit more time in this year as they have both recently retired. Mathew used to be a coordinator at the TAFE, though he has not quite left his teaching roots behind – regularly receiving visits from wannabe distillers (and semi-amateur whisky writers!).

Julie told us that Mathew first had the idea to make his own whisky after trying some dodgy homemade stuff at a friend’s place. He woke up the next day with a sore head and thought “there must be a better way”. Being a very hands-on type of person Mathew built much of the distillery himself, including the gristmill and the still.

Matt and Juls Cooper of Fannys Bay Whisky Waffle

Today in metalwork… Matt built a still.

“To make a product how you want it, it starts with the basics,” Mathew told us as he enthusiastically filled a couple of glasses with new-make spirit – one made with Gairdener barley, the other with Westminster. The difference between the two was subtle but noticeable, with the former being richer and more floral, whereas the latter was lighter and more herbal. Both left us curious and excited about what Fannys Bay whisky would be like when mature. Unfortunately the oldest spirit had only been in barrels for 12 months and therefore cannot be called whisky for another year. Of course that didn’t stop us from having a small sample – for purely education purposes, naturally.

We were presented with a pinot cask, a possible sherry cask, and a definite port cask, and were hard pressed to choose our favourite. Their aim to create an easy-drinking malt that appeals to a range of people is certainly looking on track. Take note people – in 12 months time Fannys Bay will be one to look out for.

While Julie is slowly (but happily) being converted into a whisky drinker, Mathew is more than happy to sample the odd dram. He loses no sleep about the success of the product, happily stating: “If people want to buy it, we sell it. If they don’t – then I have a lovely room full of whisky!”

Find out more about Fannys Bay via our links page