Whisky Distilleries

The Interesting History of Japan’s Whisky Pride – Yamazaki

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery from afar (Picture Credits: www.kansai.gr.jp)

Japanese whisky is popular ever since the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 won the prestigious Whisky of the Year award in 2015. Yamazaki shot to fame overnight and the distillery receives much attention since then.

What happened between the years when the distillery just started and 2015? What has caused this Japanese distillery to excel and produce whiskies that are now world-famous? We dig deeper into the story behind the successful Japanese brand.

The birth of the Japanese Whisky Industry

Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Yamazaki and the founding father of Japanese Whisky (Picture Credits: www.suntory.com)

The history of Yamazaki is literally the history of the Japanese whisky industry. It is the first whisky distillery (oldest of course) in Japan. The founding father of Yamazaki, Shinjiro Torii-san, was essentially the father of the Japanese whisky industry.

Back in 1920, Torii-san was a successful businessman. He imported European wines into Japan in the name of his company, Kotobukiya. He also produced plum-based dessert wines and liquers. Torii-san learned about Scotch whisky production methods and aspired to create a whisky that was suitable to the Japanese palate. He sent his co-worker, Masetaka Taketsuru to Scotland to learn about the traditional methods of whisky production and the whisky trade. Taketsuru-san spent three years in Scotland, married a Scottish woman and learnt the whisky trade before coming back to Japan to share his knowledge with Torii-san.

Torii-san’s 3 concerns – high quality spring water, unique climate and humidity as well as transport ease (Picture credits: www.suntory.com)

In 1923, both men went in search for a perfect place in Japan to settle down and build the distillery. Torii-san chose the site at Yamazaki, a rural village which lies between the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. Taketsuru-san chose a site on the northern island of Hokkaido. The final decision was the Yamazaki site. It fitted Torii-san’s three major concerns – exceptionally high quality of spring water, unique climate and humidity and its ideal location for transport in Japan. However, Taketsuru-san did not agree and he left Yamazaki after serving his 10-year bond. Taketsuru-san started his own distillery Yoichi at his original site of choice later on.

The History of Suntory and its first whisky

The first ever Japanese whisky made by Suntory (Picture Credits: WhiskyGeeks)

Torii-san’s company, Kotobukiya, funded the building of Yamazaki Distillery. It began producing whisky in 1924 under the skillful management of distillery manager, Taketsuru-san. The very first whisky was introduced to the Japanese population in 1929. Before releasing the whisky, Torii-san changed the name of Kotobukiya to Suntory (a name that rhyme with his own Japanese title “Torii-san”). Suntory was the name of this whisky but its nickname “Shirofuda” (white label) was more famous. Unfortunately, the Japanese market was not receptive of the new whisky and Torii-san had to try again.

In 1932, Taketsuru-san left to set up his own whisky distillery – Yoichi. He started production in 1934. We will dedicate another post for Yoichi later.

The birth of the first popular Japanese Whisky

The popular Kakubin Whisky by Suntory (Picture Credits: www.suntory.com)

The masterpiece of Suntory is not the Yamazaki, but Kakubin. Released in 1937, 14 years after founding of the distillery, it was made with a variety of matured casks. Each cask added their unique characteristics and flavours that catered to the Japanese palate. The whisky took the name of the tortoiseshell shaped bottle it is housed in and is still well-loved by many today.

Yamazaki distillery continued to expand the Suntory brand in the 1940s and 1950s, introducing various other Suntory whiskies. In 1961, Keizo Saji, the son of Torii-san took the reins of the Yamazaki distillery. Saji-san became the second president cum master blender of the company. He began the building of the Hakushu and Chita distilleries in the 1970s. We will speak more about them in later posts.

Saji-san was credited with the distillery’s move into single malt whisky production.

The birth of the Japanese Single Malt Whisky – Yamazaki

The Yamazaki first portfolio – 12 Years Old and 18 Years Old (Picture Credit: WhiskyGeeks)

 

Yamazaki 12 years old single malt was released in 1984. Back then, the mass market was more interested in blended whiskies. However, the Yamazaki 12 years old captured the hearts of the Japanese people with its rich flavours.

The distillery launched the Yamazaki 18 years old in 1994 after the success of the Yamazaki 12 Years Old. It was received with great fanfare by the market and is one of the most popular whisky today.

Innovations and Improvements of Yamazaki Distillery

Pot Stills at the Yamazaki Distillery (Picture Credit: WhiskyGeeks)

From the 1980s, Saji-san also moved towards innovation in order to improve the distillery’s production. The distillery invested heavily into research and development in the late 1980s. Saji-san’s main aim is to increase the production and variety of malt whisky at the distillery. In 2013, the distillery expanded once again and added 4 more stills to its production line, making a total of 12 stills and increasing production by 40%.

Expansion into the wider world

Beam Suntory – the global gateway for Suntory and Yamazaki (Picture Credits: www.beamsuntory.com)

In 2014, Suntory, as the parent company, bought the US-based Beam Inc and created the world’s third largest spirit producer, Beam Suntory. After the merger, Yamazaki’s fame grew internationally as it is now easier for Suntory to distribute Yamazaki to US and the world.

World Famous Award-Winning Yamazaki

Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 (Picture Credits: Whiskygeeks)

2014 also marked a shortage of stocks in the whisky industry and prompted the first release of ageless whisky. It became a popular way to fuel a new interest in the whisky industry. Yamazaki followed the same trend and released both the Yamazaki Distiller’s Reserve and the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013. Not every distillery met with great success in the release of ageless whisky, but Yamazaki outdid itself. Whisky expert, Jim Murray, awarded the Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 as the “World Whisky of the Year” in his Whisky Bible 2015. This caused a great furry from the market and everyone rushed to buy the whisky. The interest turned the bottle into a limited edition with eye-popping prices in the secondary market.

Yamazaki Today

Yamazaki is a brand that continuously innovates to outdo itself. Its future is bright in the world of whisky. While its home market might not always prosper, Yamazaki can leverage on its connection with Beam-Suntory to become one of the world’s famous whisky brands.

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    The Six Pillars that make whisky distinctly Macallan

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

     

    Whisky lovers who have attended previous Macallan events would know the pride that the company has in its unique “Six Pillars”, the foundation stones for the making of every bottle of The Macallan. For the rest who had missed their events, do allow us to show you why The Macallan is distinctively Macallan.

    The Six Pillars

    Credits: www.themacallan.com

    The Six Pillars are the pride of the company. They are the foundation stones for The Macallan and account for much of its fame and character. They are the symbols of the strong sense of belonging within the distillery and the estate they belong to, as well as the experience they have in distilling and maturing excellent single malt whiskies with distinctive characters. Each of these pillars contribute to the essence of The Macallan.

    Spiritual Home

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    The Macallan spiritual home is none other than the Easter-Elchies House, built in 1700 by Captain John Grant. It lies in the middle of the Macallan estate and represent their heart and soul that are poured into every single bottle of The Macallan. It is a typical Highland manor house and display various features of Scottish architecture of the period. The Macallan makes use of the vast land they own to cultivate their own exclusive barley variety that will eventually go to make The Macallan. The River Spey, which borders the estate to the south and south-east, provides the water for the distillery.

    The Curiously Small Stills

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    Keeping with tradition, The Macallan is using stills that are smaller than the rest of the industry in Speyside. In fact, they are using the smallest stills in Speyside! The unique size and shape of the stills give the spirit maximum contact with the copper which the stills are made of, helping to thicken the ‘new make’ and provides the rich, fruity and yet full-bodied flavours of The Macallan. Currently, there are 14 of them on the estate, each of them with an initial capacity of 3900 litres. They are so famous that you can find them on the back of the £10 bank note from the Bank of Scotland!

    Finest Cut

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    Only about 16% of the spirits collected from the spirit stills are used to fill casks for maturation into The Macallan. They choose what they quote as “the best of the best, the heart of the run”. This small portion makes the selection extremely exceptional. It is the main reason why The Macallan ‘new make’ spirit is rich and full-bodied. At 69.8% ABV, this robust spirit is the start of all Macallan whiskies.

    Exceptional Oak Casks

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    The exceptional oak casks are the best contributors to the quality, natural colours as well as the distinctive aromas and flavours of The Macallan. It is well-known that The Macallan spends more on their casks as compared to other distilleries in their sourcing, crafting, seasoning and caring for their casks. They have three primary casks – the Spanish Oak Sherry casks, the American Oak Sherry casks and the American Oak Bourbon cask. Each of these casks will give different characteristics to the whiskies maturing in them.

    Natural Colours

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    All the colours in The Macallan whiskies are natural. As long as the whiskies are bottled at The Macallan distillery, the colour of the whisky will be natural. The colours of the whiskies are derived from the interaction of the ‘new make’ spirit with the oak cask during maturation and hence you can see the difference in the colours from light gold to dark mahogany. Due to the natural colours, it takes great skills from the Master Distiller to achieve consistency for the different bottling.

    The Golden Nectar – The Macallan itself

    Credit: www.themacallan.com

    The Master Distiller and his team nose and taste thousands of samples every year to create all The Macallan expressions that are enjoyed around the world. This task is extremely demanding, and require great skills to recognise a whisky that is ready to be bottled. The exacting task of marrying whiskies from different casks is also a skill that can only be acquired over the years. Both skills are required to create The Macallan, one of the best whiskies in the world.

    Making the spirit – Macallan Way

    Credits: www.themacallan.com

    The above diagram shows the complicated distillation process in which The Macallan creates ‘new make’ spirits. Once the spirits are created, they take the finest cut and put them into either the Spanish Oak Sherry cask, the American Oak Sherry cask or the American Oak Bourbon cask for maturation.

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      The Amazing History of The Macallan

      Credits: www.themacallan.com

      Most of us whisky enthusiasts know The Macallan. How can we not know when it is the third largest selling single malt and the second largest by volume? However, how many of us have actively read up on The Macallan’s past and understand its long and rich history since it was founded in 1824? Not many, we suppose. Therefore, the whisky geeks decided to give all our readers a glimpse into the rich history of The Macallan and at the same time, provide some interesting factors to its previous ownership.

      A Little English History

      Before we even talk about The Macallan, let us bring you back to the 19th century Scotland. Back in those days, the Crown was steadily increasing the taxes for whisky distillers, which eventually drove many of them underground. Illegal distilleries were common and they were making sub-standard whiskies due to their fear of being discovered. However, one region stood out among the rest – distilleries in Speyside continued to produce great whiskies, which attracted even King George IV. As the people began to pressure the government to abolish the ridiculously high taxes, The Duke of Gordon took the lead to champion the cause and succeeded in 1823 to set up a completely new Excise Act. Under this regulation, distillers were given a license to operate in exchange for an annual fee of £10 and a per-gallon duty fee.

      Origins of The Macallan

      Under this new rule, The Macallan emerged from the underground in 1824 when founding father Alexander Reid obtained the license to operate. Alexander leased 8 acres of land from the Earl of Seafield to establish The Macallan. The land included the Easter Elchies House which the Earl of Seafield bought from the grandson of Captain John Grant, the original owner of the house. Since then, the Easter Elchies House is part of The Macallan and remains as its symbol for good, classic single malt Scotch whisky.

      After the distillery was set up, Reid formed his own company, Alexander Reid & Co, with The Macallan under its wings. The whisky distilled in this period was named as The Craigellachie, named after the village that the distillery was located. Reid remained as the head of the distillery until his death in 1847, after which, his son took over the helm until his own death in 1858. During the times when the junior Reid was at the helm of the distillery, he took on partners, James Davidson and James Shearer Priest. The distillery later on fell to Davidson alone when Reid passed on. Davidson was a corn merchant who had made his fortune; and he was the one who established the rule of using only high-grade barley for distilling whisky.

      After Davidson’s death, the distillery was taken over by James Stuart on a tenant arrangement. Stuart became very successful in his career and went on to own and operate various distilleries. After 20 years of operation, Stuart purchased The Macallan distillery in 1886.

      Modernisation of The Macallan

      Credits: www.themacallan.com

      The era of modernisation arrived with Roderick Kemp as the new owner of the distillery in 1892. After buying the distillery, it was renamed as R.Kemp Macallan-Glenlivet to take advantage of the Glenlivet name, which had become world famous by then. The Macallan distillery was rebuilt by Kemp. He added new warehouse facilities, improve the company’s stills and the other buildings around it, including the Easter Elchies House. He also expanded Macallan’s production and set new quality standards such as maturing whisky only in Spanish oak sherry casks. Kemp died in 1909, and his family continued to manage the distillery through a trust until the 1990s.

      During this period, the company underwent a lot of changes due to the changes in preferences for single malt whiskies in the mid-1960s. With the interest of single malt growing higher, the company began to add new stills to its property. The Kemp family wanted to preserve the traditional small stills so, instead of changing to the bigger, industrialised stills that were used by the other distilleries, they doubled the small stills instead.

      As the company expanded further, it needed more financial backing and in 1968, the company went public in order to obtain more funds for expansion. The public funds help the company to grow further and by the end of 1968, its annual sales was more than £822 million. The company began to build a new generation of stills but it keep its small stills model in mind, creating exceptional stills for the distillery. In 1975, the company hit sales of £1 million. At this time, the company began to attract a global audience for its exceptional whiskies and the company made a record sales of £2 million by 1977.

      The restoration of the Easter-Elchies House and the boom of the single malt market

      Credits: www.themacallan.com

      At this time, the Easter-Elchies House located on The Macallan premises was in disrepair, and in desperate needs of restoration. Due to the interest of Scotch whiskies, the company decided to restore the house and let it be the reception centre for visitors as well as the office for its ever-growing international distribution. When it opened in 1977, it was so well received that the company decided to change its name to The Macallan. By the mid-1980s, the popularity of single malt whiskies has prompted a collector’s market, in which The Macallan became one of the most desirable labels, especially after they released their first 60-year old bottling.

      The Take-over

      As a public company, The Macallan has remained strong in the face of aggressive mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s. In 1994, the company signed a distribution agreement with Highland Distillers, knowing that the owners of Highland Distillers are interested in acquisition. However, the time is not yet ripe for a take-over. After the mid-1990s, the Highland Distillers become more aggressive in acquiring a larger stake in The Macallan. By this time, the Kemp family is no longer interested to keep the distillery as well. They practically let the distillery go, which resulted in Highland Distillers to join forces with Japan’s Suntory and obtained 51% of The Macallan. The new venture immediately launched the buy-out of the remaining 49% of the company’s shares. With that, The Macallan joins Highland’s Famous Grouse, the best-selling blended whisky in the UK.

      The Second Buy-Over

      The Macallan was held by the joint venture of Highland Distillers and Suntory for a short period, from 1996 to 1999. By the end of the decade, Highland Distillers became the object for take-over and the company finally agreed to be acquired by the Edrington Group, a privately-owned Scotch company. After Highland disappeared into the folds of the Edrington Groups, The Macallan emerges as one of their core brands. The company move The Macallan to take its place as the next best single malt whisky in the industry by releasing new labels such as the 15-Year old and the 30-Year old. In 2000, the release of a 50-Year old took the industry by storm.

      The Macallan Now

      The Macallan continues to climb the fame ladder in the next 10 years, releasing more rare single malt. In 2001, The Macallan 10-Year old was selected as the official Scotch of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the presiding officer of the United Kingdom lower chamber of Parliament. Since then, the prices of various bottles from The Macallan continue to rise. In 2007, a bottle of 1926 The Macallan was sold for USD$54,000 at an auction. In 2010, a bottle of The Macallan 64-Year old single malt  in a one of a kind crystal decanter was sold for USD$460,000 in an auction in New York. The creme of the crop, however, was The Macallan M, which was sold for a whooping USD$628,205 in an auction in Hong Kong in 2014.

      Controversy affecting The Macallan

      The Macallan was embroiled in a controversy in 2003 and 2004 when it was revealed that laboratory testings of antique whiskies purchased for their own collection at the distillery were fakes. In the final test, it was determined that at least 11 bottles of the whiskies in The Macallan distillery were fakes. That revelation resulted in the decision that The Macallan will no longer sell any of their antique bottles from the distillery.

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        History of The Dalmore

        The distillery of The Dalmore is housed in Alness, some 32km North of Inverness. It is located at the banks of the Cromarty Firth overlooking the Black Isle.

        Legend of The Dalmore

        The Dalmore sits on a legend that dates back to 1263, where Colin of Kintail, the then Chief of the clan Mackenzie, acted in good faith to save King Alexander III of Scotland from a charging stag during a hunt. Colin of Kintail killed the stag with a spear in its forehead, shouting “Cuidich ‘n’ Righ” – Gaelic for “Save the King” as he struck the killing blow. The grateful king awarded Brave Colin the lands of Eilean Donan and the motto “Luceo Non Uro” which means “I Shine, Not Burn”. Colin of Kintail and the clan of Mackenzie were also granted the right to bear a 12-pointed Royal Stag as their crest.

        Establishment of The Dalmore Distillery

        The distillery of The Dalmore was established in 1839 by entrepreneur Alexander Matheson. He searched for the perfect location for his distillery, but he wanted something that was different from the others. Not willing to give in to creature comforts in Speyside, where many other distilleries were located, Matheson strived to find the perfect location in which the best natural resources could be used to make the finest whisky. He finally settled on the isolated area at the banks of the Cromarty Firth, in full mercy of the harsh winds from the North Sea. On this wild uninhibited land, Matheson built everything from scratch – from warehouses to railways. This uniqueness of its founder is the reason that The Dalmore continues to have its own unique character and taste up till today.

        The Mackenzie took over The Dalmore

        After running The Dalmore for 28 years, Alexander Matheson wanted to pass the distillery to new owners in 1867. At this time, Andrew and Charles Mackenzie took over the helm of The Dalmore, gifting the iconic 12-pointed Royal Stag emblem to the brand. Their passion for creating exceptional whiskies fuelled a whole new era in the history of The Dalmore. That passion stands up till today, where Master Distiller Richard Paterson continues to create exceptional whiskies for The Dalmore.

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          Understanding Scotch Whisky Regions

          Scotch Whisky Regions

          For a start, we are going to talk about the Scotch Whisky regions, mainly because Scotch whiskies are so popular all over the world, including Singapore. There are originally only 4 main whisky-making regions – Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. As the distilleries grew in numbers over the years, Speyside (which was originally part of the Highlands) was recognised as one of the whisky-making region on its own because of the sheer number of distilleries located in the locale. As of 2013, there were 105 distilleries located in the locale that is defined by the river Spey.

          The Islands are never recognised officially by the Scotch Whisky Association, the main authority on Scotch whiskies. However, over the years, the whisky distilleries located in the Islands are allowed to put the name of the island that the whisky is made in on the label of the bottle as long as the golden nectar is distilled wholly in Scotland. This make the whiskies in the Island known to the world and now they are unofficially known as the 6th region in Scotland.

          Flavours

          The different regions are generally known for the different profiles of whiskies that they made. Each region is famous for a particular type of profile since the whiskies take on the characteristics of the land they are created in. Here’s a simple description of the whisky flavours in each region.

          Highlands

          The Highlands are marked as the biggest whisky-making region in Scotland, hence, it is not surprisingly to find a wide range of flavours here. You get the light and fruity styles in the Southern Highlands and the more spicy and full-bodied ones in the Northern Highlands.

          Speyside

          Speyside is defined by the river Spey, which runs through this region and provides water to many of the distilleries located here. The whiskies made in Speyside are recognised as the most complex of the lot in Scotland and most of them carries sweet aromas and sophisticated flavour profiles.

          Lowlands

          The Lowlands are no longer a popular location for whisky distilleries and only three distilleries are still in operation in the Lowlands – Auchentoshan, Blandoch and Glenkinchie. This area is well known for light-bodied single malt whiskies.

          Campbeltown

          Campbeltown is a seaside region is which the sea is a heavy influencer on the whiskies produced. The golden nectar from this region usually carry the sea and brine of the region as well as the peat that is popularly used in the production of whisky.

          Islay

          Islay is another seaside region that is well known for its peaty and strong-flavoured whiskies. They tend to be smoky and rather extreme in taste due to the various extremities of the sea that surrounded the area.

          Islands

          The Islands are a group of islands that produce whiskies that are in between the sweet aromas of the Highlands and the peaty ones of Islay.

          It is obvious that Scotch whiskies are a complicated lot, but they are interesting. We will continue to bring you new details about these beautiful liquids whenever possible, so stay tuned for more!

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