Yamazaki: Japan's First Distillery

Hiroji Kubota's Backstage Peek at Whisky, Eastern-Style

Tourists to Japan expect to drink two things: sake and green tea (preferably as part of the traditional, meticulous tea ceremony). But the land of the rising sun, which since the mid 20th century has displayed a knack for taking Western inventions and doing them much better than we ever did, is also a haven for whisky lovers—rivaling even Scotland for the production of single malts. One of the oldest of Japanese whiskies and the first to be distilled in the country, Yamazaki Whisky is produced just south-west of Kyoto, at a spot where the Katsura, Uji and Kizu tributaries join the Yodo River. The copper pot distillery has been running since 1923, when it was established by whisky enthusiast and former importer Shinjiro Tori. The spot is perfect for producing whisky because of its high humidity (which helps the aging process) and the pureness of its freshwater spring (which in the 16th century was frequented by historic master of the tea ceremony Senno Rikyu). The distillery itself is unlike any other in the world in that it utilizes six pairs of different sized copper pot stills to produce a range of subtly individual flavors of whisky (the shapes and sizes of pots directly effect how each will taste). For aging, Yamazaki uses five types of cask, made from Japanese mizunara oak, lending a distinctively eastern tinge with hints of citrus and sandalwood to this Scottish drink. If Yamazaki's original aim was to create a whisky tailored for the Japanese palette, its products are now enjoyed worldwide, winning a string of international awards in recent years, such as double gold medals for the Yamazaki 12 and 18 year single malt whiskies at the 2009 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As a member of Magnum Photos, Hiroji Kubota has shot eastern Asia extensively for nearly 40 years and released several books including Out of the East: Transition & Tradition in Asia (1999) and Japan (2005). Here he offers his take on the Suntory-owned Yamazaki distillery, capturing the evolution of an industry whose roots are on the other side of the world.
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