The Yamazaki Distillery tour is an interesting but fairly standard walk around the distillery. First timers learn more about the process; the rest of us peer more closely and scope out the similarities and differences between Yamazaki and the distilleries we’ve seen before.
What is most exciting to whisky lovers is the onsite bar in the visitors’ centre, which sells a variety of whiskies – Suntory’s various brands as well as international competitors. Many of the drams on sale are only available at the distillery itself.
The best part is where this bar is located…
Yes, that says Whisky Library and if that conjures up a mental image of row after row of bookcase-like shelving stacked to the ceiling with bottles of whisky then you’re not far off…
Even that static picture doesn’t do it justice; happily, while I was tasting the whisky the lovely Kavey took a wander with the camera to give an impression of just how many bottles are on those shelves!
Sadly, these bottles are reference samples from their own production and aren’t for sale. Happily, they have a very nicely stocked bar that I took full advantage of instead.
As well as the special single cask bottlings you may expect at a distillery, Yamazaki also offer something a bit different – the chance to try the individual components that make up some of their whiskies.
I treated myself to one of their single casks, and then tried some of the components that go into making the Hibiki 17 Year Old before ending with the finished product. Once you’ve ordered, sit down among the bottles on the library shelf, and enjoy the views as you taste.
Starting with the Yamazaki Single Cask 1986, this is a whisky with a huge sherry finish. It’s dark and rich in colour with a sticky sweet nose – plums, molasses and some green fruit lurking underneath too. Water cuts the sweetness back a little but doesn’t take too much away from the aroma.
The alcohol almost overwhelms the initial taste before that fruity sweetness shines through; there’s a sharp tang in the background and a gloriously long, burning finish. Water knocks back the alcohol burn and the stickiness, but the sweet dried fruit is still very much in evidence, mellow but with a richness and a growing tannic finish. It’s impressive stuff!
Moving onto the Hibiki 17 Year Old components, I begin with the Sherry Cask. Another huge alcohol hit, dark and sweet with muscovado sugar, it’s sticky sweet in the mouth, with lots of the cask wood flavours coming through as well.
Water brings out even more sweet, dark fruit and makes it a wonderfully smooth whisky.
The Smoky component is next, although the aroma really isn’t that heavily smoked. There’s phenol, and an almost salty nose until you add water, when the smoke character is suddenly released along with some sweet notes.
In the mouth, the smoke is much more pronounced from the start – warm, smouldering and wonderful. Water barely cuts that back, and it’s still big, brash and smoke filled. It’s actually so nice that I want to buy a bottle to take home, but sadly it’s not available.
The final component is the White Oak Cask, with a nose full of candy sugar and a more restrained, smooth alcohol. Water brings out fresh oak wood aromas, although some of the candy sugar is lost.
It’s liquid fire in the mouth, like a new spirit barely tempered by time – there’s an underlying sweetness, but a plain, white sugar kind of sweet. Water calms the spirit down and it becomes smooth, sweet with just a hint of dryness in the short finish.
After all that, it seems only right to try the finished Hibiki 17 Year Old and perhaps unsurprisingly, it manages to taste very much like a blend of all three components. The nose is full of brown sugar and plums with just a hint of maltiness while the mouth is full of wood and charcoal, sweet berries and dried fruit, with a fantastic, long, warming finish and a real breadth of flavour throughout.
Water flattens it out a little; it’s still rich and sweet but without that wonderful complexity.
Although many of these are exclusive to the distillery, Master of Malt lists the Hibiki 17 Year Old at £68.46 at the time of writing.