Distillery Focus

Whisky at ease with itself (Yamazaki)

At Yamazaki the distillery and church stand next to each other in harmony. Dave Broom witnesses whisky making at its noblest
By Dave Broom
Jet-lag does weird things to the brain, makes it seem as if you are existing in some dream state.Though you’re screaming with tiredness, you’re wide awake. The mind is subtly dislocated from reality, making it seem as though you have slipped into a familiar but totally alien world.I felt like a character in a novel by Murakami. A half-remembered movie was screening in my mind: a flight dissolving into a bullet train, a glimpse of Fuji, sushi, lifts, beer, sitting cross-legged in an old Kyoto inn, sake, a stag’s head, whisky, antimacassars, samurai streets, a hotel which the morning light shows to be straddling a station.After breakfast we go against the rush hour traffic and into the country, emerging at a quiet local station. We start to walk along the old, narrow road which weaves its way from Hiroshima to Osaka.There’s bird song, a warmth in the autumn sun. Someone is cleaning the steps of a small shrine. Tiny gardens and gables which arc like dragon tails, drooping telephone wires and shuttered inns.The road bends back to the railway line and behind the parka of train spotters on the other side a huge, functional, brown brick building.It’s the same size and shape as an office block with odd-looking pyramids jutting out of the roof giving it the look of a strange, stylised frog.The slightly brutal exterior is softened by carefully tended and beautifully planted gardens, through which a path leads either to the building or to the temple which lies, half-hidden, in deep woods. Water bubbles over stone. This is Yamazaki.My guide, Suntory’s Dr. Masaharu Minabe [aka Mas] tells me how this is an auspicious site, a meeting place of three tributaries of the Yodo: Kizu, Uji, Katsura. A holy place, a good place to build a still.“In my country,” I point out, “there are not many stills next to churches. The spirits are kept well apart.”The Japanese have a far more open attitude towards whisky.It all started here in 1923 when Suntory built this, Japan’s first whisky distillery. Production started the year after and the first spirit was on-shelf in 1929.Those frog’s eyes were the pagodas for the maltings which operated until 1972 [these days all the malt is imported from Scotland] and were built as part of the distillery’s doubling of size in 1958. Further expansions took place in 1980 and 1989.Inside, at first glance it doesn’t differ hugely from a Scottish malt distillery. After all, the whisky-making process is much the same. But taste a malt from Yamazaki and you know immediately it is different. It’s hard to pin down why, but it is.The question therefore is what do the Suntory whisky-makers do to make their spirit different and, well, Japanese?The first thing to remember is that because Japanese distillers do not exchange stock – and have a large blended whisky market – their distilleries are always set up to be flexible flavour factories.Currently, Yamazaki is producing six different types of malt whisky, variants on the standard medium-heavy distillery style and at different peating levels.Add in the complex mix of woods and that’s a broad palette of flavours for master blender Seiichi Koshimizu to draw from. The first difference is the sight of two semilauter mash tuns, one large, the other small.That’s unusual enough, but of more significance is the way in which they are used. The wort is recycled before it is pumped to the washbacks in order to ensure it is crystal-clear. Why?“Clear wort is a less fertile environment for the yeast to grow in,” Mas explains.“Consequently the yeast becomes fragile, dies quickly and autolyses after fermentation. This autolysis releases intracellular compounds of yeast cells to the wash, which brings in more congeners in the final spirits.”As you can tell, he’s a scientist. He is also incredibly funny. In other words, clear worts give different flavours in the final spirit. Importantly, the creation of these flavours starts right at the start of the whisky making process.These clear worts are pumped to one of the 17 washbacks (eight wooden, nine stainless steel) which come in different sizes. Again, this is quite deliberate.“The fermentation period depends on the size – and the depth – of the fermenter,” says Mas. “The more shallow the vessel, the quicker the ferment.”The length of the ferment (here, a minimum of 64 hours) has a direct influence on the generation of specific congeners. Unlike his Scottish colleagues, however, Mas believes that the strain of yeast used will have a direct influence on flavour production and maintains that wooden fermenters are believed to give more complex flavours.“The fermenter is the equivalent of a vineyard,” he says. “It is where flavours are created. Distillation is where they are separated and concentrated.” All this is complex enough, but doesn’t prepare you for the sight of one of the most remarkable stillhouses in the whisky world.Six wash, six spirit stills, all different shapes and with worm condensers on two of the wash stills.As we know, the shape and size of any still has a major impact on the flavour of spirit produced (the worms give extra weight and sweetness). Since at Yamazaki the distiller can use any combination of wash and spirit still, an even wider range of flavours can be created. It is the clearest possible manifestation of the ingenious Japanese approach to whisky production.That clear wort still has a part to play, as it gives what Mas calls a ‘frothy’ wash distillation.“The froth is important. When the froth bursts, compounds on its surface are splashed on to the top of the still along with ethanol vapour and go into the distillate.Among these are rarely found hydrophilic compounds which give fuller and deeper properties to the spirits.”In recent years Yamazaki has launched a range of single cask whiskies – one of the reasons for my visit.It was a logical move. After all, if you have all these distillates why not use as wide a spectrum of woods as possible to create even more parameters?“There are a lot of connoisseurs in Japan who want as wide a range of Japanese malts as they are getting from Scotland,” Mas says. “The Japanese consumer is always looking for a new taste which means we have to be flexible.“They asked for more choice – so we started! Since this distillery makes so many different styles this was the perfect place to do it.”The casks come from 200,000 lying in seven warehouses. The bulk are US oak – new and refill, as well as new and refilled European oak (seasoned for three years with sherry) and, most exciting for me, a small amount of Japanese oak which gives the spirit an incredible intensity of colour and aroma – a reddish hue allied to a smell that Seiichi Koshimizu defines as being “like a temple”.Sadly, there’s hardly any Japanese oak left in the country. Most of the trees were felled to make coffins for British soldiers in the First World War.The process therefore is subtly different, but how do you to articulate how the flavour of Japanese whisky – and Yamazaki – is different to Scottish malt? The subject comes up later when Mas and I cohost a seminar on Yamazaki’s single casks and some examples from Scotland.Mas begins to talk of the “transparency” of Suntory’s whiskies. Then we try a Balvenie and the penny drops.When put beside the Yamazaki, the Scottish whisky has a cereal, malty aroma, something you overlook when it is up against other Speysides.The Yamazaki is pure, clean and decidedly un-malty. There’s the difference: those clear worts, the long ferment, the distillation, the oak, all have combined to create flavours which progress calmly and clearly across the palate.It isn’t delicate, but has clarity, precision and complexity. Transparency is right. “To imitate is easy,” says Mas, “but copying Scotch wouldn’t have resulted in our own character. We had to examine everything from the bottom up and build our own theory, create our own typicity.”More than that, Japanese whisky needed to change in order to appeal to a new, unconverted, generation.Like Scotch it had become complacent, forgot to keep its finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist and it got caught out.That has changed. Today, the range of Yamazaki’s whiskies is brought home in the reception area of the visitor’s centre which is designed like a massive sample room filled with every example which the still produces: different ages, distillate types, wood types – even flavoured whiskies.Every bottle an example of the spirit of innovation at work here.It seems to be paying off. The visitors (and they get 95,000 a year) appear to be young, excited, enthusiastic.As we leave a group of primary school children arrives on a visit. Would you see that in Scotland?No chance. In Scotland we have such a weird, ambivalent attitude to alcohol that we feel educating children about it is tantamount to making them alcoholics.Instead it is the opposite as it tells them how whisky is a natural product, part of our heritage and how if used sensibly can be hugely enjoyable.Japan has taken that step. It is creating new generations of whisky lovers and the best manifestation of this is where it all started, at Yamazaki.