Girl About World: Land of the rising Suntory
Laura Foster visits the Suntory whisky distillery in the Yamazaki Valley and discovers an innovative and thriving industry that belies its relatively young age.
“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time[s],” so uttered Bill Murray in the modern cult classic film Lost in Translation.
A dram of one of the Suntory brands may provide a relaxing moment for the consumer, but a visit to the birthplace of domestically produced Japanese whisky, Suntory Yamazaki, fosters a moment of pure tranquillity.
Japanese whisky has rapidly been gaining recognition in all corners of the globe, including the UK in recent years. The World Whiskies Awards has seen Nikka’s Yoichi 1987 vintage win the single malt title and Suntory Hibiki 30 Year Old win best blended whisky in 2008, while Taketsuru 21 Year Old took the blended title in 2009.
With Japan currently standing as the fourth largest whisky producer in the world, and the second biggest producer of premium single malt whisky, I was intrigued to find out what the Japanese were up to in terms of production to gain such accolades.
And where better to do this than where it all started? Suntory Yamazaki was the pioneering brand when construction began on a distillery in 1923 after Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, decided that the time had come to no longer rely solely on imports of whisky, but to start producing it domestically.
He chose the Yamazaki Valley, an area situated about half an hour’s train journey outside of Kyoto, a Bamboo forested area with houses dotted over the surrounding gentle hills.
Two factors influenced his decision to build in this spot – the climate, which produces moist air almost year-round due to the three rivers there, and for the area’s water.
The water here has long been held in high esteem – Sen no Rikyu, perhaps the most famous Japanese tea master, used this water in his brews. A high accolade given the importance water takes in a tea ceremony. It is the Bamboo groves on the hills here that help to clean the water and add minerals to it.
For those willing to make the short journey, this distillery is an easy – and free – introduction to whisky from this ancient land, whose common characteristic (broadly speaking) is a liquid with an unmistakable zip of oriental spice lying underneath it.
Foreign visitors who make the journey here are treated to a free tour with an audio guide, along with a tasting. I was lucky enough to be given a private tour by one of the lovely guides, over an extremely fascinating two hours that threw up some interesting methods and practices that are employed in the production of Yamazaki…
1. All the barley used is imported from Scotland, as Japanese barley is so expensive. Interesting, given that a number of Scottish distilleries import a lot of their grain from Europe for the same reason of cost saving.
2. During fermentation, the liquid is left in wooden vats made from Douglas Firs for three days. The yeast dies after the first 24 hours, and the next 48 see the bacteria in the wood introduce rich, deep flavours.
3. The still room was a particular revelation for two reasons: firstly, the stills are directly heated by coal fires, a practice not really followed in Scotland any more, and perhaps most uniquely, since 2005 they are all different shapes and sizes, meaning the liquids produced by the stills differ considerably. These stills were designed by the Yamazaki distillers, and made in Scotland. They range from the more squat versions that produce oilier, chewier whisky, to the taller gin stills that create more delicate flavours. The whisky produced by these different stills is aged in barrels separately, with blending happening much later on
4. Finally, some of the barrels used for aging also play a part in creating the unique spicy characteristics. Three main varieties are used; North American casks, sherry butts and barrels made from Hokaido-Mizanara trees, or Japanese oak.
It is this last variety that creates the very oriental incense flavour, however the wood breaks easily, meaning that casks are difficult to assemble, and a shortage of it means only a small amount are used. Apparently, liquid stored in this oak must spend a lot of time maturing – 20 years is considered relatively young.
As Suntory’s dominance of the Japanese whisky domestic market stands at 70%, this major Japanese brand does anything but relax.
Yamazaki is the brand in the Suntory portfolio promoted most actively overseas, and it is perhaps the most common brand of Japanese whisky to be found on the back bar in the UK, with the yellow label of its 12 Year Old standing out amongst the plethora of Scotch and Bourbon bottles.
Meanwhile domestically, Suntory have a struggle on their hands as consumption has been decreasing due to the popularity of shochu, a spirit that is particularly easy to mix. There are apparently two measures that they have adopted to help spread its popularity again.
Firstly, a consumption suggestion has been resurrected from the 1930s in order to recruit younger drinkers, recommending mixing Yamazaki with soda water. There was even bottled Yamazaki soda water available to buy in the shop.
Secondly, due to the Japanese tendency to have a low tolerance to alcohol and their culture of eating whilst drinking, they are in the midst of a food and whisky pairing drive. Yamazaki is apparently particularly suited to miso or soy-based food.
Whilst this industry is still a relatively young 107 years old in comparison to other markets, it is clear the innovation that the Japanese companies are employing – especially regarding production – is particularly sophisticated without compromising standards and tradition, something that is being rewarded with the ever increasing recognition of the quality of the product produced here.
Watch out world, for we may all be searching for our own ‘relaxing times’ very soon.
Laura Foster, 02.02.2010