I’ve never tasted whisky before, (except of course Drambuie, a honey- and herb-flavored Scotch whisky) and Yasu doesn’t like alcohol in any version, still we visited a whisky distillery today. I wanted to do some sightseeing and I like factory tours, especially if they let you sample the merchandise afterwards. Yasu was inexplicably interested in a tour at Japan’s first whisky distillery, when I gave him a list of varying sightseeing options to choose from. We didn’t know how to get there, only that it was located in Yamazaki. As soon as we got of the train we found a big poster telling us how to get to the distillery, so finding it was easy.
A quick visit to the visitor’s reception told Yasu everything we needed to know, the next 60-minute tour was starting in 15 minutes, it came with an English audio tour for foreigners and best of all it was free, surprisingly. Soon we found ourselves in the Whisky Library among a big group of people all ready to explore the distillery.
First up were the Mash House and the Fermentation Room, where lots of complicated stuff goes on with water called Mother Water and barley. Somehow it turns into sugar that will later turn into whisky somehow… The audio tour was supposed to explain all of this to me, but unfortunately the guide loudly used a microphone for the Japanese version in this room and made it impossible for me to hear the English audio in my ear. So I have no clue what happens here.
Next we went to the Still House, where we could observe several water stills and spirit stills hard at work to take out a variety of aroma and flavors and turn it all into something called New Whisky, which is totally clear and smells really strong (we all got to poke our noses into the bottle for a good smell). The room itself is very hot and there’s a nasty smell hanging around the stills.
The warehouse is where they store an enormous amount of initially new whisky in wooden casks to mature for many years. Every year about 20% of the whisky evaporates, the angel’s share, and it gradually turns from a clear liquid into an amber-colored liquid. How this all happens and why it has to take so many years is still a mystery to me, but the warehouse was pretty impressive and I’ve learned whisky makes have to be very patient. I read somewhere that when the distillery opened in 1923, locals used to think some barley-devouring-monster inhabited the place, as they would see loads of raw materials going into the factory and nothing coming out for years.
After that the tour was over and it was time to taste some whisky. We were expecting small samples, the size of one sip or perhaps two, so we were very surprised to see regular sized whisky glasses filled with whisky. We could try Yamazaki Single Malt with water or soda and Hakushu Single Malt, to taste the difference between different distilleries’ products. The Hakushu tasted kind of woody, which I didn’t like, and the Yamazaki wasn’t what I expected of whisky either. I was also surprised to see liquid in my glass with a very light color, instead of the deep amber color I was expecting. But that was probably due to it being mixed. Other people kept going for refills, but we really didn’t need any. Yasu gave up after a few sips and reconfirming his dislike for alcohol and not detecting any taste in the whiskies except alcohol itself, and I really couldn’t finish 3 glasses of whisky by myself, after a few tastes I’d really had enough. It isn’t really my kind of drink and it was still early and our stomachs were almost empty, so we returned 3 almost full glasses of whisky, we were definitely the losers in the room.
After the tour and tasting we were free to shop in the whisky shop, where we may have been to only people to have bought absolutely nothing. We did enjoy watching old Suntory Whisky commercials and admiring the hundreds of bottles of unblended whisky sitting beautifully on shelves in the Whisky Library. They also had a couple of rooms, showing the history of Suntory Whisky and their bottles of consumer products through the years. You could also get a taste of New Whisky (only available at distilleries) for a small price, but we’d had enough alcohol for the day by then.
Our visit to the distillery was interesting, but not so educational because I was very unclear about what to do with the audio tour, nobody explained it to us, so if I want to learn how they make whisky I’ll have to check online. It was fun and free, the best combination for a sightseer.