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Yamazaki, Japan’s first malt whisky distillery was completed in 1924 and the malts it produces have become one of the most honoured single malt whiskies in the world.
Two men are rightly regarded as being the fathers of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii. Masataka Taketsuru was from a family of Sake brewers and trained at university as a chemist, preparing to carry on the family trade. However, his love of Scotch whisky lured him to Scotland where he studied Applied Chemistry at Glasgow University and spent time working in Scotch whisky distilleries. He eventually returned home in 1920 with a Scottish bride, Jessie Roberta (Rita), and the secrets of whisky production. It could be due to these Scottish roots that Japanese whisky takes the Scottish spelling, without the ‘e’. For a while it looked as if his efforts and newfound knowledge would go to waste as his financiers were no longer in a position to finance the construction of Japan’s first whisky distillery.
The other father of Japanese whisky, Shinjiro Torrii, founded his Suntory Company (Sun + Torri = Suntory) in 1899, making a fortune marketing Akadama Port Wine, a sweet tasting wine which he promoted as a health tonic. Fortuitously, Torrii was looking for his next enterprise and recognising the regard his fellow countryman had for Western products and the high prices imported whisky commanded, he was looking to move into whisky production. The two men were perfectly matched and Torrii provided the necessary finance in return for Taketsuru contracting to work for him for ten years before he could leave to establish his own distillery (which he eventually did, naming it Nikka).
Torii started constructing Japan’s first malt whisky distillery, Yamazaki, in 1923 on the outskirts of Japan’s ancient capital ‘Kyoto’ in a narrow valley sandwiched between Mt. Tennozan and Mt. Otokoyama. The name Yamazaki, pronounced ‘Yama-Sarki’, translates as ‘Yama’ = mountain and ‘zaki’ = foot of the mountain. This location, where three tributaries, the Katsura, Uji and Kizu Rivers, merge and flow into the mighty Yodo River, was chosen due to the quality of local water.
Production started the next year and Taketsuru produced their first whisky brand ‘Suntory Shirofuda’ (White Label) in 1929. Demand for the whisky was poor, partly due to its being too smoky for the Japanese palate, but it allowed Suntory time to build aged stocks for the launch of a far superior blend called Kakubin in 1937. Meaning ‘square bottle’, this had a lighter style, more suited to drinking with the delicate flavours of Japanese food. This light style is now typical of Japanese whisky. Thanks to a further quality improvement in 1989 when extra malt content was added to the blend, Kakubin remains a popular and respected blend to this day.
By the 1970s Shinjiro’s second son, Keizo Saji (pronounced Mr ‘Sag-E’), had taken over the running of his father’s company. Japan was enjoying new found affluence and he judged it timely to launch a single malt whisky. In 1984, Yamazaki single malt whisky was launched with the distinctive Kanji (Chinese characters) on the label shaped by the hand of Keizo Saji himself.