The Yamazaki distillery is one of a handful of distilleries in the world that make a variety of single malt whiskies. It all started with Suntory’s pursuit of crafting world-class whisky to please the delicate Japanese palate. While Yamazaki single malts have now been recognized as some of the finest in the world, we are striving to make them even better. All of us at the Yamazaki distillery are working to improve our craft with an eye to weaving layer upon layer of pleasing notes for years to come. Our work never ends.
Barley is the main ingredient in Yamazaki single malt whisky. We use a wide range of malted barleys, from peated malt (peat is added to the fire over which the malted barley is dried, imparting a mildly smoky flavour) to non-peated malts. The dried malt is then put through a process called mashing where the sugary liquid known as wort is produced. Then the real process of making whisky begins. The malt is ground in a mill, mixed with hot water, and poured into a tank called the mash tun. The mixture is then slowly filtered to extract the sugars. During this process, the focus is on producing the clearest wort possible. Clear wort is the secret to a sweet, smooth, creamy whisky that exhibits that flowery or fruity aroma, which is often described as “estery.” This estery character lies at the heart of Yamazaki single malt.
The fermentation process begins with adding yeast to the wort in a wash back. This is a long, slow process. The resulting liquid known as wash has an alcoholic content of about 7% by volume. At the Yamazaki distillery, both wooden and stainless steel wash backs are used. The Douglas fir used to make the wooden wash backs provide an insulating effect that facilitates the fermentation process. With the aid of microorganisms such as lactic acid bacteria called microflora that are present in the distillery, a rich-flavoured malt spirit is produced. Two types of yeast are used for fermentation: distiller’s yeast that provides clean, estery flavours and ale yeast that adds fruity as well as deep, creamy aromas. Both types are often used in combination to create the characteristic complexities of Yamazaki single malt.
The Yamazaki stillhouse employs six pairs of pot stills of different shapes and sizes, making it unlike any other distillery in the world. The wash is distilled twice to be turned into a spirit with an alcohol content of 65 to 70% by volume. Still pots come in two basic shapes, either straight or bulged. The straight pot gives the final spirit a more full-bodied, creamier character while distillation using a bulged pot still results in a lighter tone. Stills are heated either by direct fire or indirect steam heating. Direct-fired distillation gives the raw spirit a toasted character, resulting in a final spirit with a rich, aromatic profile, whereas indirect steam heating yields a lighter character. The Yamazaki distillery is capable of crafting a wide variety of single malt whiskies by playing with any number of different combinations of wash and stills throughout the entire whisky-making process.
The Yamazaki distillery uses five types of oak casks in different shapes and sizes. These include 180-litre bourbon barrels, 230-litre hogsheads made from disassembled barrels, Yamazaki’s original large and short 480-litre puncheons manufactured in-house by Suntory, and more slender sherry or Japanese oak butts that also hold 480 litres of whisky. This wide variety of casks is used to store various kinds of new-make spirits. The cask interiors are charred to different degrees to create subtle variations in the character of the whisky during the aging process.
Three types of oak are used to make casks: North American white oak, Spanish oak, and Japanese mizunara oak from Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. White oak adds vanilla and coconut flavours during the aging process. Tannins and other polyphenols contained in Spanish oak casks leach into the whisky, imbuing it with a deeper reddish hue compared with white oak casks. Whiskies aged in Spanish oak casks typically have fruity, chocolate notes. Over long periods of aging the Japanese oak casks add a distinctively Eastern touch to the whisky, endowing it with sweet fragrances reminiscent of incense with a hint of citrus. This unique flavour has been gaining the Yamazaki brand new adherents around the world.
The task of making the casks that will cradle Yamazaki whisky begins in the forest. When making casks from Spanish oak we go directly to northern Spain where we scour the forests in search of just the right oak trees. We hire local coopers who make the casks to our exact specifications. Once the barrels have been seasoned by aging sherry for three years, they are ready to hold the new-make spirit that will become Yamazaki whisky. We also send Spanish oak wood to our in-house cask manufacturing facility to build new casks. Japanese oak is likewise selected and processed onsite in Hokkaido before being turned into new casks at our in-house facility. You’ll find the same exacting process goes for our American white oak casks as well. We go to these painstaking lengths because making the best whiskies means maturing them in the best casks. This uncompromising commitment to quality is at work every step of the way. It’s craftsmanship in harmony with nature to ensure sustainable practices that will save our forests for future generations.
Yamazaki 10, 12, 18, and 25 year-old Single Malt Whiskies represent a spectrum of different flavours and characteristics. The character of Yamazaki whisky is influenced by a wide variety of factors, including the type of cask it is aged in, the wood used to make the cask, how the cask is charred, whether it is a first-fill or re-fill cask, and finally where and how it is stored. These variable factors make all the difference in how and when the whisky reaches the peak of maturity. Yamazaki single malt whiskies are vatted from matured key malts that have been carefully selected by our expert blenders from an extensive cache of whisky malts. Blenders taste 200 to 300 samples every day to see how far they have matured as well as how they will progress in the future. It is also their job to select the right casks that will best transform the new-make spirits into fine whisky. Blenders play a key role since the decisions they make today affect the future of Yamazaki whiskies.