In early 2020 we had reserved a Hakushu Distillery tour. As we remember all too well, that was the year the world changed. In Japan, we entered a state of emergency – people were urged to stay home; restaurants were forced to close early and stop serving alcohol; traveling across borders was discouraged; and many facilities closed down temporarily. Hakushu Distillery was no different. A week before our distillery tour date, we received an email from Suntory informing us that the tour was cancelled. We scrapped the entire trip partly due to the cancellation of the tour. Then, in May of this year we received an email informing us of the recommencement of distillery tours after a hiatus of over two years. We had already planned a trip to Hoshino Resort – Risonare Yatsugatake, which is an (aging) luxury hotel a short ten minutes away by car from the Hakushu Distillery, so I logged onto the reservation system early and I was able to secure two slots for the distillery tour on the date we were in the area (a distillery tour is 1,000 yen, while an entry pass is free).
In June, we arranged a trip to Kansai for a visit to Miki City in Hyogo Prefecture in order to participate in a PR event with the governor of Hyogo and the mayor of Miki City (please see our previous blog post here and posts by the Hyogo Tourism Board here and here), so we thought that it would be phenomenal if we could also hit the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, which is between Osaka and Kyoto. Reservations are extremely hard to get: when I logged in on the morning when the slots were made available for that day, I was placed in a long queue. I initially gave up as the wait was estimated to be several hours. When I was finally able to login, all slots were taken. After several days, however, I was able to secure two slots only, not the three slots I was hoping for (as with the Hakushu distillery tour, the price per person is 1,000 yen).
Both tours follow the same pattern – a description of the water, a view of the washbacks where filtered wort is mixed with yeast, a view of the pot stills, a visit to the warehouse for aging whisky, and finally a tasting. Hakushu, as is aptly described on the website, is a distillery in the forest. It is a sprawling facility with a bird sanctuary on the distillery grounds. Yamazaki, on the other hand, is a suburban distillery. For this reason, the warehouse at Hakushu is accessed via a bus, while the Yamazaki distillery can be toured entirely on foot.
Both tours come with a tasting – a sample of whiskies that go into the finished product and then the finished product itself. In the case of the Hakushu Distillery, the finished product that we tasted was Hakushu Single Malt Whisky (NAS) and the components were 1) White Oak Cask Malt Whisky and 2) Lightly Peated Malt Whisky. In the case of the Yamazaki Distillery, the finished product was Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky (NAS) and the components were 1)White Oak Cask Malt Whisky and 2) Wine Cask Malt Whisky. At the end we were instructed by the tour guide on how to make a Suntory-approved highball cocktail with Hakushu Single Malt and Yamazaki Single Malt, respectively. In both distilleries, there are bars on site where visitors can try various retail and non-retail products from Suntory for a fee. At Yamazaki, we tried the following components to Yamazaki 12 Year Old – Mizunara Cask, Spanish Oak and Puncheon Cask. We also tried the Hibiki Blender’s Choice and some new-make spirit.
Quality of the Tours: Both tours are professionally done. By installing an app before the tour begins, you can listen to descriptions in English and other languages. In the Hakushu tour, we were a little late, so we did not have time to set this up. In the Yamazaki tour, we had installed the app in advance. However, as the guide forgot to turn the system on, we missed the description in the first room. For the rest of the tour the app worked fine, though. The tours at both places are highly satisfying. At Yamazaki, you can get up close to the pot stills (rather than see them through a window like at Hakushu) and walk amongst the barrels in the warehouse, making the experience a bit more interesting.
Quality of the Tasting Experience: Both are comparable. However, with regard to the no-age statement (NAS) versions, both of us liked Yamazaki’s more than Hakushu’s. We had time to try some rare retail and non-retail products at the Yamazaki bar, as the tour was earlier in the day (at Hakushu we were told that the bar was about to close).
Ease of Access: Yamazaki is easy to access by train from both Kyoto and Osaka. Including the short ten-minute walk from Yamazaki Station to the distillery, the trip from Kyoto is about half an hour and from Osaka about one hour. Hakushu is a trek from Tokyo, taking approximately three hours, including a shuttle bus or taxi ride from Kobuchizawa Station.
Additional Benefit: Taking a tour of both facilities gives you the right to purchase one bottle of the non-age statement Hakushu or Yamazaki (depending on the distillery) and one bottle of a small distillery-only product (300 ml). Unfortunately, Yamazaki is going to temporarily suspend this practice from September 1. I believe this is due to the fact that many people are reserving tours just for the right to purchase product for resale.
The distillery tours are highly recommended for Japanese whisky lovers. Please review the instructions on the following websites on how to reserve distillery tours as the system changes often:
Suntory Hakushu Distillery: Click here
Suntory Yamasaki Distillery: Click here