With a lot of our friends having already taken advantage of the cheap Peach flights between Seoul and Kansai, there was A LOT we were excited about for our trip to Osaka and Kyoto, but I'm not sure there was anything we were more excited about then the tour of the Yamazaki Distillery.
Dan and I are both mostly bourbon drinkers but we're still pretty big fans of Japanese whisky. Sweet and smoky, its flavor and price point tend to be a middle ground between bourbon and scotch. For a long time, both 12 year Yamazaki and Hibiki could be purchased at the same price as some more expensive bourbons but was about twice as smooth and would leave you with half the hangover. Unfortunately, all us whisky revival, Peggy Olsen and Don Draper emulating, millenials seemed to figure that out at the same time and, for the moment, we have literally drunk Japan out of whisky. Or at least, affordable whisky with an age distinction. Don't worry, the new no-age Yamazaki is still pretty great, so if you go on a tour and decide you just can't get enough of Japanese whisky, you'll still be ok.
When we went you had to make a reservation for the tour but it was free but starting in January 2016 you can make reservations for the museum, whisky library and bar part of the facilities for free but it costs JPY 1,000 for the tour. For free, we got the new no-age Yamazaki and the regular yellow label Suntory whisky at the end but it looks like the new tour gives you Yamazaki Distiller's Reserve and an opportunity to taste unblended Yamazaki, so since the price is just over $8.00, it still seems worth it for your first visit.
The museum focuses on the history of Japanese whisky while the tour is a blend between some distillery history and the whisky making process. The tour is given in Japanese but with free audioguides available in a number of languages. I'm very rarely a fan of audioguides, and this one was no exception. I zoned out a lot of it. Some sections of the guide were more interesting than others, but mostly I enjoyed the walk through the facilities.
The room with all the aging barrels is maybe the most delicious smelling room I've been in in my life, and I'm a professional baker, so I'm pretty much an expert on delicious smelling rooms. Woody, sweet, yeasty, boozy. I swear, if you spent enough time in there, you'd get drunk from just breathing. Maybe we were a bit tipsy, because at least all the other American tourists on the tour were running around with huge giddy smiles on their faces, shouting and posing each time they found an older barrel.
At the end of the tour we were shuffled into a huge cafeteria sort of room where we lined up for highballs made with Yamazaki and then were given snacks designed specifically to pair with the whisky. For our next two free tastings we were allowed Suntory as a highball, neat or on the rocks. I'm a pretty big fan of Suntory highballs but I wish we had been offered the Yamazaki neat instead. After that, we were of course guided to the gift shop where the effects of the whisky shortage became quite apparent. Each guest is only allowed to purchase one bottle and the only bottles with age distinction were the Hibiki 12 year and some tiny sippers of Yamazaki (that don't count as your one bottle allowance). Disappointingly, while there was plenty of types of Jim Beam, there wasn't any Hakushu (Beam Suntory's other Japanese distillery, and makers of my favorite purse whisky bottles). You can also buy unblended bottles, like the ones in the picture of the library, for cheap which seems pretty cool but could also seem like you could end up with something not that great so with our one bottle each limit, we went with whisky we knew we'd like.
The real highlight of the experience is the tasting bar by the whisky library. There is a giant overwhelming menu of all sorts of distillery only pours along with some more easily found options if you're not feeling too adventurous. The Jim Beam offerings cost as low as JPY 100 per pour (yep, $.85) and the Suntory offering are mostly around JPY 300 ($2.50) though you can spend significantly more. If it's cold, there are seats inside, but I recommend sitting outside since the distillery ground are quite nice and if you go on one of the later tours, you might catch a glimpse of the sunset.
We decided to build our own flight of Hakushu for the first round and went with a Sherry Cask Hakushu 12 year, a Smoky Hakushu 12 year and the Hakushu 18. The smoky was not very sweet and definitely would appeal more for scotch drinkers. Dan let me drink most of it after having a taste and declaring it "interesting but not for me". The sherry cask had more depth with complex hints of fruit and spice while the 18 year was spicy, a bit sweet and so smooth I could drink it all day like water.
Our second round we went with a smoky Hibiki 17 year, sherry cask 17 year and a mizunara cask 17 year (JPY 1,200/US$9.86). The Yamazaki Mizunaras have won awards the last few years, but I think were sold out, so I was pretty excited that Dan decided to get the Hibiki Mizunara. The older smoky Hibiki was definitely a bit smoother than the younger Hakushu but way too much for Dan. Smoky is all for me. Again, the sherry cask added a depth of flavor but the clear stand out was the Mizunara. I'm not sure I can even describe it accurately from one tasting, there was so much flavor complexity. Since it's distillery only, I'm just going to tell you to get yourself there and make sure it's in your line up.
I would've loved to do another flight but our day had started off behind schedule due to me making sure that a coffee shop would be open early but not making sure it would be open that day... and after making new breakfast plans and still visiting Fushimi Inari in the morning, we arrived at the distillery without having lunch. So unfortunately, we decided it was probably a better move to find some convenience store snacks and get back on the train to head towards food. Don't make the same mistake we did, eat before you go so that you can try as much whisky as possible and still feel capable of getting yourself back on the train to Kyoto or Osaka, there aren't any snacks at the bar.