As Japan's first malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki was established by Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii in 1923, making use of the town's "famous" water from the foot of Mount Tenno to (eventually) make a whisky to suit the delicate Japanese palate.
As a tour, the Yamazaki offering doesn't differ too greatly in format or sights to the Hakushu tour. There's a small visitor museum with plenty of historical bottles (including the first Suntory SMWS bottlings - 119.1 and 120.1), and the famous Yamazaki Library - which is worth a visit to the visitor centre on its own. There you'll find thousands and thousands of bottles of Suntory single malt, aged in a variety of different casks, at a variety of ages, and even some flavoured whiskies. We even saw a Lavender Yamazaki, and a Yamazaki Rye! Sadly all are for show and none are for tasting, but the distillery does have an excellent bar like Hakushu - more on that later.
Apart from that, you get the same guided tour, with an audio guide for non-Japanese speakers (which was actually the same recording as Hakushu in parts), a brief walk around the facilities and grounds (getting up close and personal in some areas, like the barrel house, and not so close to others, like the stills or washbacks), and a guided tasting / highball at the end.
As a distillery though, Yamazaki differs immensely to the much more modern Hakushu, and feels much more like a traditional Scottish distillery, with none of the automated cask management found at Hakushu. The distillery does feel big though - and gives the feeling of a large factory set amongst tranquil country side. 2013 saw Yamazaki install 4 new stills, bringing the total to 16, and while the distillation room was closed for maintenance, what we saw made it clear that this is a large operation.
We'll let the photos do the talking...
The barrel house provides some great photo opportunities, and also includes a little Japanese whisky history - casks first laid down in 1924! The eagle-eyed can also spot a few Chita (grain whisky) casks aging away too.
The shop is slightly smaller than Hakushu's, and doesn't include any unusual or distillery-edition bottlings (though you can buy bottles of Chita single grain). As with Hakushu, the bar is definitely worth spending some time at, with a very similar menu at the same excellent prices. If you've ever wanted to try Yamazaki 18 or 25, and not break the bank, this is the place. In fact, you can even try Hibiki 35yo, but at 15,000¥ (~$975HKD or $160AUD) for 10mL, we passed...
The tour itself isn't going to blow the minds of hardcore malt fanatics, but as an entire experience (the tour, the library, the tasting bar, the museum) it's definitely worth a visit, especially if you happen to find yourself in Osaka or Kyoto with half a day to spare.
Steph & Martin.