The Yamazaki distillery, Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, has greatly contributed to establishing the celebrated reputation that Japanese whisky has around the world over the years with its high-quality single malt expressions. Back in 1923, Shinjiro Torii chose the Vale of Yamazaki as the place where he would build his whisky distillery for its supply of good water and a favourable climate for maturation. Torii had already made a name for himself selling sweet wines and importing European wines to Japan as the Kotobukiya Company (which would eventually become Suntory), but whisky was not a drink enjoyed by many in the country back then. Never-the-less, Torii was determined and the first spirit ran from the Yamazaki stills in 1924. Masataka Taketsuru helped to build Yamazaki and worked there for some years before leaving to start Nikka.
The first whisky they produced was Shirofuda Whisky in 1929, followed by their Kakubin in 1937, which was very popular indeed (and still available in its distinctive tortoise-shell bottle today!). It wasn’t until 1984 that the distillery (now with Torii’s second son Keizo Saji at the helm) released their very first Yamazaki Japanese single malt whisky – the Yamazaki 12 Year Old. In the late 1980s, the distillery was renovated – they were back in action in 1989, newly kitted out with wooden and stainless steel washbacks alongside directly and indirectly heated stills.
In the 1990s, the popularity of Yamazaki’s whisky grew and new expressions were introduced. This included the Yamazaki 18 Year Old in 1992, the Yamazaki 10 Year Old in 1995 and the Yamazaki 25 Year Old (released to mark the 100th anniversary of Suntory). In 2006, third generation Master Blender Shingo Torii switched production of Yamazaki’s whiskies to smaller pot stills, and in 2013 the distillery underwent an expansion to install four more stills – Yamazaki is now home to 12 stills of three different varieties. This allows them to create whiskies with different flavour profiles, which is useful for blending, as Suntory and Nikka own the biggest distilleries in Japan, and there is little exchange between them.
Yamazaki’s whiskies have received their fair share of awards – the Yamazaki 12 Year Old was the first Japanese whisky to be given a Gold Medal at the International Spirits Challenge in 2003 and the Yamazaki 1984 was crowned the Supreme Champion Spirit at the International Spirits Challenge 2010, selected from every entrant of all categories. Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 was named Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year in his 2015 Whisky Bible to much acclaim.