Osaka Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, Museum, and Whiskey Tasting at your Desire!

AUTHOR

Osaka Jack

DATE

August 21, 2020

CATEGORY

Experience

Who doesn’t enjoy a nice refreshing drink at the end of the day? Among connoisseurs, college students, and businessmen with a cigar in hand, whiskey can be their favorite choice of drink. One particular whiskey is making a worldwide name for itself. It is the Yamazaki Suntory Whiskey, which has been very popular in Japan. The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is around 45 mins north of Osaka by train, but is 100% worth it to visit there as a day trip! Not only can you tour the distillery, but you can explore their own museum and tasting bar! You might be overly excited with their special varieties of whiskey only available at the distillery!

An outside view of the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery.

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Why in Yamazaki?

As we know, Yamazaki is a location in northern Osaka and also a part of the Suntory Whiskey Empire. Interestingly, the place Yamazaki was popular long before the whiskey brand. Yamazaki is at the base of Mt. Tennozan, where the rivers Katsura, Uji, and Kizu converge. This area produces what experts call a “soft” water effect. Yamazaki is a location so legendary that one of the Legendary Tea Masters settled there because of the natural water. These masters include the legendary Sen no Rikyu, the Supreme Tea Master during his time. With these legendary waters, the founder of Suntory Whiskey, Shinjiro Torii had an eye on Yamazaki and decided to invest in this land.

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery became the first whiskey distillery in Japan. This not only gives Suntory the legacy but the foundation to a distillery and its operating styles. Today, the distillery also hosts a museum for Suntory’s whiskey lineage and an active tasting bar. The perfect trio!

The History of Yamazaki and Suntory

While the main focus is the whiskey for Yamazaki and Suntory, the foundation that they have built upon is paramount. Being the first whiskey distillery in all of Japan has its advantage, but they had long history before they started to raise attention. Just after the completion of the distillery, Suntory only had one line of whiskey for sale. It wasn’t that successful since consumers were calling for more subtlety in their scotch. At the time, consumers were thirsting for imported whiskey. The establishment of Kakubin is when Suntory began to shine. Needless to say, the importance of the distillery in Yamazaki was crucial to the brand’s success. It was a smart move by Suntory to start in a widely-known historical location also known for legendary waters. This gave them such an edge when competition finally rose up to challenge them for the whiskey market in Japan. 

A hallway lined with shelves of whiskey in clear bottles.

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The Rise of Suntory Whiskey

Many of you know both the Yamazaki and the Suntory Brand whiskeys, but let’s look at how they came to become popular. The Suntory brand began making whiskey in 1924 but it didn’t catch the public eye. This all changed after eight years when they released "kakubin", one of the greatest-selling Japanese whiskeys ever. The important key factor of founding any notable whiskey is the process. One important step to this process is the maturing, or aging step. The time the whiskey is allowed to mature and what the whiskey is being matured in is crucially important. What makes Yamazaki Whiskey special is its single-malt foundation along with the various types of casks it is maturing in. Typically, Yamazaki whiskey casks are made of Sherry, Suntory expanded to use American Oak, Mizunara Casks, and even Bordeaux Wine Casks.  

The Amazing Impact of Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Yamazaki Whiskey has made a global impact. For instance, in 2015 Whiskey expert Jim Murray named Yamazaki’s Sherry Cask of 2013 the “World Whiskey of the Year”. At the time of its release, a bottle could be bought for US$ 120, now it sits around US$11,000! That literally blows my mind! Also, the Yamazaki 12-years old single-malt whiskey was the first to win the gold at the ISC (International Spirits Challenge). Even after creating a name for their brand, Yamazaki continues to forge itself into history. Including just last year the Yamazaki 18 Years old won Double Gold in the International Spirits Challenge! Even the distillery itself has won awards! In 2015, the Yamazaki Distillery won the Whiskey Visitor Attraction of the Year from the Icons of Whiskey. With the name created, we are left wondering what will they do next and where does whiskey go from here? 

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A Museum for Whiskey, Who Would’ve Guessed?

In addition to the historic location of Yamazaki Distillery, Suntory has its own story showcased at their museum. Here, you have two options to start out with. You can either have a guided tour throughout the museum or discover for yourself. With the guided tour, you get to visit the whiskey production area of the distillery, and even taste different components of the whiskey. This is of course after you are being shown the actual process of whiskey's production. While you are able to view the process at the distillery, you are also able to enter the maturation room. There, you can learn about the different casks and how the maturation plays a key role in the creation of whiskeys. Lastly, and probably everyone’s favorite part, is the actual tasting of components. You get to taste unique component whiskeys. 

The self-guided tour on the other hand, is a bit different. There are several exhibits displaying and explaining the beginning of Suntory all the way to information on how they grew into fame. For example, the details on how Yamazaki whiskey began and the distillery became the oldest malt whiskey producer in Japan. After this section, there is a "whiskey library". Yes, literally speaking, a single room filled with thousands of whiskies spanning the reign of Suntory. In addition to this, they also prepared a gift shop! Shopping here is an excellent idea in case you need to pick up any “omiyage” (a souvenir for family and friends) for that special someone who cannot 'drink'. This museum also hosts a mini model of the actual whiskey process, which allows you to have an easier understanding and still learn the process. Brilliant place for both an entertaining and learning experience!

Tour Summary

As far as the tours go, there is a bit of a difference in what you experience. However, both types of tours will definitely be worth the day trip! You not only get to see the museum, but you get to see behind the scenes as well. Even if their whiskeys aren’t for your taste, they have several special edition component whiskeys only available at the distillery! There is everything prepared for you to look for the right one!

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is Now a Tourist Site! 

As far as whiskey has been beloved for hundreds of years, there are people literally traveling the World to find the best whiskey. Since this Yamazaki Distillery won the Whiskey Visitor Attraction of the year, the place has been visited by many foreigners as well! As a foreigner, I will be on my best behavior (fair warning when we reach the tasting bar though..) Moreover, this probably means that it is a place popular and famous among communities of whiskey hunters. Please don't worry about the language barrier. Foreigners who don’t yet speak Japanese still have hope! The distillery organizes an audio guide with the English language that has pre-recorded exhibit notes. All you need is the guide telling you which button to push. With this and the English direction pointers, you are all set! 

A sample of tasting whiskey in a fluted glass.

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Let's taste Whiskey at the Bar!

Obviously, for fear of being thrown out and banned, we cannot literally taste the awards, but we can taste whiskey! One unique feature of the Yamazaki Distillery is the tasting bar at the end of your tour. Featuring not only Suntory and Yamazaki’s main hits but a special edition which is only being sold there! You will also begin seeing some special blends of Jim Beam, as they are one of Suntory’s newest additions. Also, along with Suntory’s other 13 brands, there is certainly a wide variety of whiskeys to taste. How exciting! Of course, one other important feature is the 'safety' as Suntory takes it very seriously. If you drive to the Distillery or even ride your bike, you are unable to taste any whiskey or components.

Special Taps at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Another special note is that outside of the distilleries, it is now very hard to find Japanese Whiskey in Japan! Surprisingly, the main whiskey producers in Japan are all expanding to the world. As I mentioned before, Suntory has bought Jim Beam, for something like 16 billion US. This has in fact lead to give them more distribution to America, which means that locally, it has become difficult to find Japanese whiskey. That gives more reason for us to visit the tasting bar, as it serves Suntory, Yamazaki, and other Japan-made whiskeys. It also provides drinks from Yamazaki’s sister distillery in Hakushu, around the Mt. Fuji area. These region-specific drinks are what make them so successful worldwide. Therefore, if you are a huge fan of whiskey, this place is a must! The special “freshness” or “smokiness” of these drinks carry the magic of Japan in every taste. 

Three bottles of single malt whiskey available at the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery.

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The Name Behind the Fame

Suntory, as we all know, is the empire that owns Yamazaki. The Whiskey Yamazaki is an offshoot of both the legendary company and the legendary location. Yamazaki is a single-malt whiskey that was created and launched around 1984. The 1980’s are being considered “golden years” for Japanese Whiskey, as previous successes of Suntory allowed “aggressive” investment into their whiskey process. This is when Yamazaki whiskey was an experiment while Suntory was playing with their distilling processes. Maturation process was done many times for Yamazaki. These combinations have now made Suntory and Yamazaki famous worldwide in the whiskey business. Starting from a single distillery in between Osaka and Kyoto, Suntory grew to an empire winning awards year after year. Visions of the founder, Shinjiro Torii has been reflected until this day. 

Suntory Brand Awards

Suntory Yamazaki has their historical foundation and has received the recognition they were looking for. Now we are all wondering what will they do next? Are they going to add more stills? Yamazaki Suntory Distillery had additional four back in 2013. Will they perhaps start mass-producing whiskey to bring Japanese whiskey back to Japan? Whatever their next move will be, as a whiskey lover, I'd like to wish good luck for this amazing company in Osaka. They are gaining around twenty gold medals from around the world in the last ten years! Also, that is just the Yamazaki line of products, not even the awards for Suntory or other sister distilleries. If we counted them, it would be a total of sixty-six various medals and trophies! 

In Conclusion

You must be extremely excited to visit the Yamazaki Distillery now! Knowing the location’s history and the birth of a whiskey empire seems exciting! To see the formation of a huge company that literally is the first malt-whiskey distillery in Japan should be a memorable experience for you! Especially since they allow you to tour behind the scenes and get a real taste of their whiskey even if the product is extremely rare and expensive. As I mentioned before, this is the birthplace of an empire that has won well deserved major recognition. As with every building, the foundation is the most important aspect, and Suntory couldn’t have found a better foundation. With the location, the dedication, and the craftsmanship, it’s no wonder why Suntory prospered significantly!

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