The pilgrimage to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery came to completion on February 23, 2011. Already keyed up from the recent Suntory week, I can’t deny I experienced a bit of giddiness as I saw the distillery buildings set into the hillside as my train pulled into Oyamazaki station. A mercifully brief walk down inexplicably familiar alleys and I stood on one side of the JR railway tracks, my goal in the form of a critical mass of stills housed in windowless buildings on the other. And there I stood as trains passing trains bedeviled my approach. And then the trains were off toward wherever they were bound, the chimes stopped, the gates raised, and I walked the approach to the visitor’s center and signed up for the 11:00 AM tour (free).
A brief stroll across the Yamazaki compound brought me to the shop/tasting bar/tour-assembly area and I spent my spare time wandering around the shelves of samples of Suntory’s past expressions. While in no way shaped like a hexagon, the myriad combination of whisky expressions ordered on shelf after shelf brought to mind a sliver of Borges’ Library of Babel featuring whisky instead of books. A youthful stewardess of the tasting bar dissuaded me from laying into samples before the tour, and I thank her for this. The tour lasted approximately one hour. Geared toward persons having no understanding of the whisky-making process, it was nonetheless enjoyable for the veterans in attendance. Also, I was kept busy translating as the tour was in Japanese and I didn’t want to employ one of those naff, pre-recorded devices that regurgitates a stock, English statement at different stations throughout the tour. So instead I got to listen to our guide enthusiastically regurgitate stock, Japanese statements at different stations. And that made all the difference. After an initial homage to the forefathers of Yamazaki back in 1923, spoken before a few statues in the pleasant, brisk-but-sunny outdoors, we made our way into an elevator and on to the mash tuns. Big and tun-like, they were behind glass and, presumably, mashing away.
The distillery room was where things got a bit more exciting. The proximity of the stills and the palpable heat, not to mention (which is exactly what I am doing) the ability to see the spirits mid-distillation, brought with it the inherent sense of awe attached to witnessing machinations on a grand scale. The warmth and sound of new spirits served as a right of passage before entering the barrel cellar, which was, curiously enough, upstairs.
Cool and home to an atmosphere infused with a palpable aroma of whisky from every angle, I stole breaths of the angel’s share before those angels could get at it. I would have been happy to linger for quite some time, reading the years off of differing barrels, plotting a way to spirit one away, but time and tide wait for no tour guide and I strode out into the sunlight and a bucolic expression of pre-spirit state Yamazaki, a.k.a, the local water. It was at this time that I remembered that the distillery is set into a hillside and that it really didn’t matter where you put the cellar since every quadrant was sealed and temperature-controlled. Next stop, after a brief stroll down Yamazaki lane (I doubt its actually called that), was a whisky tasting hall, were everyone was explained the attributes of whisky sodas.
Whisky sodas using Yamazaki 10, Yamazaki 12, and Hakushu 10 were served to all attendees with chocolate and snacks. I am not a big fan of whisky sodas in general because I tend to find it a waste of whisky in that the details of the spirit’s flavor are obscured. Also, I don’t drink a lot of soda. Still, these weren’t bad and they came with great big, rough-hewn blocks of ice, which I find ascetically pleasing in the extreme. It also turned out you could simply as for the aforementioned whiskies straight and they were happy to comply. They wrapped up the tour with a great pitch by our affable and informational guide on a spiel about whisky as a great gift-alternative to chocolate for White day (Valentines day is bifurcated in Japan, White day being the day the girls receive gifts) and recommended the Yamazaki 12 as ideal for your lady-friend. Fun stuff, and frankly, I’d love to get whisky on Valentine’s Day, so I really couldn’t argue with the marketing plan. The tour officially over, we were released into the gift center/whisky store. I have a weak spot for sub-700 ml bottles and they had plenty of items to tickle my fancy, including mini-bottle & signature glass combinations. What can I say, I like cute stuff. After making a sizable deposit in the Bank of Yamazaki, really more a currency conversion from paper to liquid form, I descended upon the tasting room, its bottle-lined shelves, and a staff bereft of excuses not to start pouring me whisky. Indeed, now were they positively inclined to serve up any request and chat amiably about Suntory and a broad selection of whiskies available for sampling.
And I was ready to get tasting in earnest. A flight of five whiskies struck me as a great, noon-time line-up and I chose the following: Yamazaki Puncheon, Yamazaki Bourbon, Yamazaki Sherry, Hakushu 25, and Hakushu 8 (cask strength).
Yamazaki Puncheon Cask: A thin and floral sweetness, bright, clear, light gold like its color, the nose delivered vanilla marshmallow and oak as well. Decent presence, malts, heat, fruit and slight verdant notes with more candied vanilla, wood, and a remainder of grains and sugars. Quite friendly.
Yamazaki Bourbon Cask: Solid gold sans the dancers. The bourbon char and liquid sugars veiled a muted heat. I thought it really smelled like a bourbon because, well, it did. Indeed, had it not been for a changed-aspect of the vanilla revealing the single malt pedigree, it could have passed for an unusually delicate bourbon. Warmth and char and a center-of-the-tongue numbness combined with the bourbon-infused malts above the palate in a delicate fashion.
Yamazaki Sherry Cask: This has been expounded upon ad nauseum (see prior review) but I couldn’t resist. And sometimes the same whiskies simply taste different based on a myriad of factors (air, state of mind, drinks immediately prior imbibed) so what the hell. It was a dark and stormy night. Not really, it was just afternoon and beautiful out, but it was a dark and stormy amber, that scion of the sherry cask. Rich and troubling in a welcome way. Pebbles in running water, soon-burnt sugar. A taste of slightly dark sweets, chewy and warm spices, and a mid-back palate pervasive sherry with malts concealed inside but peering through like light through quickly passing clouds. Mid-dark sugars and something different in every sip. Chimeric and dangerously intriguing.
It was around this point in time that I started thinking I really should have eaten something for breakfast, which I usually don’t, or at least some snacks en route, but it didn’t happen. I also felt like I wouldn’t mind sitting there all day, an opium addict-like embrace of a fugue of increasingly peaceful bliss. And I felt like talking to strangers.
Hakushu 25: A touch of amber in gold, luster. A deep roast/char nose spoke of smoldering fires at a distance rendered faint by wooded hillsides. Sugar, salt, smoke, and perhaps a molecule of lime found their place in the nose. Smoke and a smooth char, a slight nuttiness on the heals of subtle sugars stretched taught and resilient take over the palate. A lot of goodness here, but I couldn’t get my head around it at the time. Needing further analysis, I decided to return to this one in a more intimate milieu at a later date and moved on.
Hakushu 8 Cask Strength: I was a bit excited about this because it is not available for purchase, it was young, and it was cask strength… all fun in my book. Gold with a touch of rose, but that might have been the brick floor. A respectable heat rode that Hakushu wood-and-water note. Very exciting, I thought to myself in Eddie Izzard’s Welsh send-up of Pavlov. Pepper and sugar. The surprisingly smooth start lead to round, muted sugars and wood before focusing on a delicate but unwavering maltiness as heat increased and edged off in turn. Coating, satisfying, with residual sugar and grains and maybe a little something smoky.
By way of wrapping things up, I though I would give the Yamazaki Puncheon one more go. Bring things full circle, as it were. And I was delighted in a floral-notes-lavender-and-curved-sugars sort of way. Its thick liquid but quixotically delicate nature were really working now. A lush haven of higher flavors that cleaved a path like a paladin through the evil wasteland of my palate. Colored sugars, saplings, and aspects of spring took root in a bold fashion amongst the detritus of prior tastings. Invigorating. And then I noticed a book on the counter encircling the tasting bar. And then I peered through the contents of the book and read of while simultaneously spying a cluster of whisky expressions not available for sale. At cask strength. So much for calling it an early day. I would have rolled up the sleeves but that would have been considerably lame-looking since I was already wearing a short-sleeved shirt. You get the idea. My next order consisted of the following: New Pot, Yamazaki Mizunara, and Hakushu Smokey.
New Pot, 58 percent: No, this was not some fresh crop of wacky-tabacky, and yes, it was fresh-from-the-still-to-a-bottle whisky. It was clear, as expected, but almost oddly so, in the way that a diamond enhances light. The raw malty character and mild nuttiness gently edged elbows with a fundamental, lingering sugar. (At this point a concentrated effort on implementing handwriting protocols was called upon for posterity’s sake. My handwriting is cryptic at the best of times.)
Yamazaki Mizunara, 50 percent: Dark, peppered wood, clean, creek-bed-fresh waters. Slightly smokey and lush with checked sugars coating essential grains, this was a Yamazaki that satisfied in a dense and sultry manner.
Hakushu Smokey, 50 percent: An eponymously appropriate smokey lushness in a measured fashion developed a spiced bite. Perhaps a transmuted take on a signature Hakushu wood-and-pepper? On the palate the precise smoke never overpowered and touched down briefly upon char before showing a re-interpretation of Hakushu. Much of what I liked about their essential form with a glaze of umber smoke, a patina of roasted wood and sugars. I wish this came in a bottle that I could exchange money for.
On a side note, it was at this time that I was appreciating the inherent caloric content of whisky. I needed food, for longevity and munchie purposes, but I still had a source of necessary energy. Which got me to thinking of energy expenditure in light of the recent tour. Not even addressing the energy involved in harvesting, transporting, and properly combining barley and water, energies went into the mash tones and its mashy content. The subsequent distillation process involved a goodly amount of heat-energy. While the whisky sitting around in barrels didn’t involve a whole lot of energy (if you ignore the moving of the barrels, the monitoring of the barrels, and the stabilizing of the temperature (and that quite a caveat)), the energy involved in the making and maintaining of the barrels from arbor-form to deconstructed-and-reconstructed-barrel form is no small matter. And then of course the bottle-making energies and the putting-it-in-the-bottle energies. All of that grand, difficult-to-quantify but fundamentally-quantifiable mass of energy found a unity, a raison d’être in keeping me powered enough to taste, revel, and scribble a few note. And it just felt unseemly, almost unjust to use that energy for anything not in the chain of whisky-appreciation. So I set in for another flight. A final flight. One flight to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. So it was Hibiki three ways, Chita, and Hakushu Peated.
Hibiki Smokey, 58 percent: A smokey and wet heat seeped through wholesome, solid char on top (and throughout) of a well-rounded melange of grains and a peaty, high note. Hibiki Sherry, 49 percent: Sherried in color to a warm, red amber. A delicate interplay of sherry wine notes from start to finish. Warm, darker sugars surrounded a slightly more intense but still Hibiki-balanced expression.
Hibiki Mizunara, 52 percent. 24 carat with a touch of something rosy. Thick mizunara wood-notes brought out sugars, cake, and warm bread before the pepper-and-spice made the scene. Reddening notes, a con-flux of berries and raw wood gradually muted by age developed into an elder armistice of sweets and darker pleasures.
Chita: This is Suntory’s single grain whisky. The nose was a subtle combination of sugar and leaves in full bloom (or whatever it is called when leaves are not young, not old, but green and turgent). An easy light flavor that stuck to the taste buds. Mid-sugars and still a bit of something green was followed by a light spice. Fun.
Hakushu Peated: Hakushu and peat, a well-forged union of Islay and the Japanese Isles. (Unfortunately, that’s all my notes say about this one, followed by the laudatory and underlined comment concerning the tour and all the whiskies tried reading “Round Fun”. No proof statement, no details. A little slack, please, it was a slightly longer than expected haul. I am certain I will get back to this eventually.)
And so it was that three tour groups made their way through Yamazaki’s temple of tasting, the bar staff changed once, and I wandered off in search of a train and some much-needed non-liquid sustenance. –Nate