The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery was built in 1923
as Japan’s first malt whisky distillery,
when whisky was very new to the general public in Japan.
“I have a dream to make a truly Japanese whisky that satisfies
the Japanese people’s delicate palate” – from this passionate aspiration,
Shinjiro Torii set out on a whisky making journey.
Shinjiro wanted to build his distillery
in the midst of Japan’s natural landscape.
Most important to him were the water and the environment.
Referred to in the Manyoshu anthology of ancient poems
by its ancient name of Minaseno, Yamazaki is the home
of famously pure mineral water. Having once enchanted
the tea master Sen no Rikyu, Yamazaki’s water is ideal for whisky making.
The natural surroundings too are also perfect.
Located on the outskirts of Kyoto at the foot of Mount Tennozan,
Yamazaki is nestled in a rich natural environment with four distinct seasons.
Here, the Katsura, Uji, and Kizu Rivers all converge,
creating year-round thick mists. The resultant warm and humid climate
is perfect for whisky maturation.
“With this quality of water and climate, Yamazaki is the place to make good whisky”
– Shinjiro thus decided to make
Yamazaki the birthplace of Japanese whisky.
Despite the protests of others,
Shinjiro succeeded in putting his distillery into operation.
However, its beginnings were marked by a period of trial and error.
Whisky takes a long time before it matures enough to become a proper product.
Tons upon tons of barley were brought into the distillery every day,
but nothing came out except for the smoke from the kiln (where malt was dried).
The villagers began to spread rumors that
a barley-eating monster called Usuke (whisky) lived in the building.
After countless difficulties,
Shinjiro finally released Japan’s first authentic whisky,
Suntory Whisky “Shirofuda,” in 1929. Despite Shinjiro’s zeal,
Shirofuda could not find favor with the Japanese consumers at the time.
This did not, however, extinguish his burning passion.
Rather, this failure further inspired him.
With his impeccable sense of taste and smell,
Shinjiro changed the way of burning peat and tried numerous blends
until finally releasing Suntory Whisky “Kakubin” in 1937.
Kakubin became more popular than anyone had expected,
and it has remained popular to this day.
Next came Suntory Whisky “Old,” “Royal,”
and many other successful brands thereafter.
Shinjiro was thus able to spread whisky culture throughout Japan.
The journey thereafter was never uneventful. During wartime,
Shinjiro brought his barley and whisky into a bomb shelter to protect it from air raids.
If he hadn’t saved the whisky, it would have been impossible
to resume production immediately after the end of WWII.
Of course, there were times when demand became sluggish,
but production of quality whisky at Yamazaki never stopped.
Once you stop making whisky, you can never go back to the way it was before.
It might not make business sense in terms of efficiency or profitability,
but here you just have to go with the flow of time and keep making whisky.
That’s the one and only mission of a distillery.