Why every whisky fan should visit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

A world away from the Scottish Hebrides, another set of islands has emerged as a premier destination for whisky pilgrims in search of the perfect single malt.

Sitting somewhat halfway between Osaka and Kyoto, nestled amid lush forests at the foot of Mount Tennozan, lies Suntory Yamazaki – Japan's first whisky distillery.

It was launched in 1923, under the vision of founder Shinjiro Torii and the technique of master distiller Masataka Taketsuru, who studied the craft of whisky-making in Scotland before bringing his expertise back to Japan.

Clearly Torii and Taketsuru were onto something, though it would take the rest of the world several decades to catch up. Not until 2013 when industry guru Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2015 declared Yamazaki's single malt sherry cask 2013 the best in the world, thrusting the distillery into the spotlight and sparking a surge of demand for Japanese whisky.

Since then, daily tours at the distillery sell out weeks in advance with whisky nerds and curious tourists alike flocking to learn about what goes into making the world's best drop.

Time out of place

As we take our place among these aficionados, our guide explains location has a lot to do with the whisky's distinct character. The moist, temperate climate of Yamazaki provides ideal conditions for ageing while water sourced from three nearby rivers has long been acclaimed in the region for its purity and natural sweetness.

This dedication to natural resource-based methods is evident throughout production. Unlike many distilleries Yamazaki uses both stainless steel and traditional wooden washbacks during fermentation, believing the organic properties of wood produce richer flavours. A technique that would explain the heady, sweet-and-sour aroma that permanently permeates the air.

In the distillation room, an array of copper still pots are fired by coal to heat the resulting wash - a labour-intensive practice now discarded by most Scottish whisky makers. Yamazaki's collection of stills vary in shape and size, yielding nuanced characteristics to produce a wider variety of whiskies.

The secret's in the cask

In the dim, cavernous ageing warehouse, tens of thousands of casks are stacked in seemingly endless rows, patiently waiting to mature. Each whisky derives both flavour and colour from the unique properties of the cask in which it's stored, so Yamazaki uses a variety of types, including former bourbon and Spanish sherry casks, Japanese Mizunara oak and American white oak, to yield vastly different results.

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And what better way to observe the results of all this deliberate labour than a tasting session?

We're given three different samples to try, accompanied by helpful tasting notes for colour, nose, palate and finish.

Even without taking the tour, a visit to Yamazaki is worth it just to gawk at the extensive whisky library boasting tens of thousands of varieties from around the world. There's also a separate tasting counter with about 70 varieties of whisky on offer, including some rarer releases from Yamazaki at an unbeatable value.

Nowhere else in the world will you pay less than Y600 to drink the celebrated 21 year-old Hibiki.

Take a look at the video for a look inside Suntory Yamazaki distillery. If you're after a truly unique whisky experience, a visit is an absolute must-do.

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