Category Archives: Distilleries

An Update on 1512 Spirits

The products of 1512 Spirits do not want for praise, and certainly not around these parts.  With the passage of time since the release of their non-aged Barbershop Rye a few years past, a few developments have occurred.  Firstly, the non-aged rye was not a one-off novelty.  Subsequent releases have followed and some in larger bottles (I am still an inveterate fan of the original, smaller bottles, but that is just my style).  More importantly, and in keeping very much in the tradition I would expect from the spirit’s crafter, Salvatore Cimino, there has been no attempt to replicate the original flavor and milk a successful recipe: the core approach to production and elements of the signature are recognizable but subtle, purposeful shifts have occurred, elevating the art incrementally.  The same can be said for 1512’s aged rye, as well.  This follow-up to the white spirit, the original release of the aged rye imparted a fine amber hue and and lush twists on the base spirit.  In particular, Mr. Cimino’s eau-de-vie pedigree and penchant for creating a singularly impressive dryness in his spirits permits one to appreciate the sweeter as well as the subdued aspects of a pour.  Instead of a saturated, pervasive sweetness, one appreciates the juxtaposition of sweet, floral, grain, and water-and-barrel elements and the finer complexities resulting from the interplay between.  And it is the mesmerizing dryness that stages the proper backdrop for truly connecting with these details.  Much like the un-aged rye, successive releases of the aged version have retained the core sensibilities while finding room for greater expression.

Also of importance concerning the aged version is that it showed to the whisky-savoring populace that 1512 Spirits was no one-trick pony and Mr. Cimino no mere white-dog savant, something I deduced early on from conversations over unreleased spirits, all of which were superlative.  As if to draw attention to the variability of the deft hands at work at 1512, the ryes have since been followed up with a poitin, a rum, and a wheat whisky.  Frankly, the outdated dogma of the vocabulary for tasty notes would only serve to damn the flavors of the spirits with hackneyed, diluted vagaries.  It is the subtleties and interplay of elements imbued with a sense of purity and focus the necessitate drinking the spirits to get a just sense of the flavor.  And I do not write that simply to avoid delving into the myriad details and dimensions of the line-up.  Until you have actually tried a few pours of 1512’s spirits, we will lack a common vocabulary with which to accurately engage in descriptions more revealing that base platitudes.  That being said, I must coquettishly tease with a few remarks.  The poitin, a traditional Irish potato-based whisky, was resurrected in Mr. Cimino’s crypt with intriguing expressions of starches that are borderline-unique, and curiously satisfying.  The rum is almost entirely unlike the rums one is used to because it actually tastes like a finely detailed concoction with depth and intrigue, not simply glorified sugar. And while I thought it would have been a crime to cast the well-wrought flavors of such a spirit into the oubliette of a cocktail, I was happily proven wrong when I was served the best Old Cuban I had ever imbibed, the rum suffering not a wit and the cocktail benefiting greatly.  Needless to say, the wheat whisky is not simply the rye with a last minute substitution.  The flavor of the whisky favors the wheat in a manner that no doubt required a ground-up approach to engender a recipe that takes into account the difference in the grain and it’s idiosyncrasies. And it tastes good.

While this article may appear as one in a hopefully long line of laudatory expressions of my experience with 1512 Spirits’ products, I see no reason to praise it any less when I only ever drink it more.  The line-up continues to reflect the character of their maker, a man of strong opinions held and delivered without doubt… but always with knowledge, belief, and a distinctively bold shade of grace.  –Nate

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1512 Spirits’ Aged Rye Whiskey

1512 Spirits’ Aged Rye Whiskey

This whisky is 1512 Spirits’ first public release since their Barbershop Rye white whisky found its way onto the shelves of discerning drinkers fortunate enough to know about this artisanal brand.  Frankly, my writing concerning 1512’s white whisky was deservedly laudatory.  Salvatore Cimino’s skills and unwavering dedication to his art demand respect.  The demand, however, is unnecessary because I and anyone I share his whisky with offer up our respect willingly.

Batch 1 of the aged rye is the latest contender from Mr. Cimino’s cloistered operation and, not surprisingly, it is unmatched.  You will know it by its color.  Unlike the white whisky gauntlet 1512 threw down in times past, the aged edition has the patina of an aged whisky.  And while the aging process was minute by whisky standard, it was precisely the time needed to achieve Mr. Cimino’s goal of creating an unparalleled whisky not by chance, but by purposeful design.  I can write of the vanilla and warm sugars, the bright-but-not-hot flavors, the stunningly signature dry, crisp body of this whisky and I would only be scratching the surface.  Unlike many whiskies, many good whiskies, without actually trying this release, it is hard to get your head around the stand-out aspects of this whisky.  So tasting notes do not really communicate an accurate description of the experience unless you have tried a whisky of this particular caliber and craft.  This is because the taste of most whiskies do not readily convey the old-world skill, artistry, and dedication palpable in 1512 Spirits’ products, and this latest batch in particular.  There are many craft distillers in the marketplace and some of them are making noble efforts in bringing to people’s attention the importance of hands-on, traditional approaches to whisky that have too long been obscured by mass producers of good and bad whiskies more readily available.  But not all distiller’s can express the almost-unbalanced degree of enthusiasm and self-discipline necessary to bend the labors of an a still to their will.  Or take the time to concoct a mash that relies upon the distillation process to enhance characteristics and bring them to bloom, instead of concealing weaknesses in booziness of mediocrity.

There were only 180 bottles of Batch 1 produced.  Even with the minimal aging involved, some very lucky angels absconded with a respectable share of this whisky.  The bad news for you is that I am about three months behind on this article, so many of those bottle have been snapped up. So concerning shops local to San Francisco that 1512 Spirits’ products are usually available for sale at, Royal Liquors (sold out of the Aged Rye, and I am partially to blame), Healthy Spirits (still in stock), Cask (sold out, but they have the new larger version of the Barbershop Rye), and K&L (still available).

Naturally, new releases are slated sooner and later this year.  I am particularly excited about Mr. Cimino’s take on a potcheen (a traditional Irish whisky) which is rumored to already be out, as well as another batch of aged rye.  And in all honesty, I expect these new releases will surpass 1512 Spirits’ prior and current efforts at producing superior liquor. I praise Mr. Cimino’s contribution to whisky and resurrection of a craftsman’s ethic with a glass of his aged rye (batch 1), a glass from my all-too-rapidly depleted stores. –Nate

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Suntory Hakushu Sherry Cask

We thoroughly enjoyed the Yamazaki Sherry Cask bottling last tear, as did many others. Now we finally get the combination we have been waiting for: Hakushu + sherry casks! Hakushu tends to be on the lighter more refreshing spectrum so it will be interesting to see how it will hold up against the bold robust sherry casks. This is a somewhat “limited” release of 4,300 bottles and like the Yamazaki release this is also bottled at 48%ABV. The Hakushu Sherry Cask is scheduled to be available for purchase from Sake Brutus on February 28 for 8,560円. However, there may be other shops releasing it earlier. We will update this post as we get more info.

Image taken from the Sake Brutus website

**UPDATE ** Official Suntory Press Release

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Breaking New Ground With A Classic Touch: Chichibu’s Ichiro Akuto (Part 2)

This is the second part of our interview with Akuto San. You can read the first part here.

WhiskyWall:   You are growing your own barley, sourcing local peat and growing Mizunara trees.  Is it your goal to make a 100% Japanese whisky – similar to Kilchoman’s just released 100% Islay whisky?

あなたは、自身で麦やミズヌマ材を育て、地元のピートをお炊きになると聞きます。あなたのゴールは、キルホーマンが最近発売した純アイラ・ウィスキーのような、100%国産のもののみを使用した、純国産ウィスキーを作ることですか?

Akuto San:  たぶん、ウイスキー造りをしている人間ならだれでも、同じような夢を持つのだと思います。高品質のウイスキーを造ることが最優先事項ですが、もし国産原料のみで実現できればとてもうれしいですね。どのくらいの数量が出来るかはわかりませんが、ぜひ実現したいと思っております。

I think probably anyone making whiskey has a similar dream.  Of course I always try to make the highest quality whiskey, but it would be even better If I could do that with all domestic materials.  I don’t know how much I could produce, but I want to make a 100% Japanese whiskey one day.

WhiskyWall:  Your washbacks are made of Mizunara, why did you decide to do this?

なぜウォシュバックにミズナラを使用することにしたのですか?

Akuto San:  当時ウオッシュバックをステンレスにするか、木製にするか、迷っていました。たまたま木桶を造るメーカーに友人が勤めていて、良質なミズナラ材が使用できるという情報を得ました。ウイスキー蒸溜所でオーク材をウオッシュバックに使用しているところはありませんでした。専門家の意見も聞いたうえで、導入を決めました。

I was debating whether to use stainless steel or wood for our washbacks.  Then, one of my friends who happened to work in a coopery business told me I could use Mizunara.  No distiller uses oak wood for washbacks, but I decided to use Mizunara after checking with a specialist.

WhiskyWall:   Chichibu releases have been primarily single cask expressions, do you plan on having a standard chore range of expressions?

いままでの秩父からのリリースは主にシングルカスクですが、今後定期的にリリースする銘柄などの計画はありますか?

Akuto San:  今年は2008年の原酒が3年を迎えます。数量は限定になりますが、世界的にシングルモルトウイスキーとして発売を計画しています。年に数回、発売をすることになると思います。

The distribution may be very limited, but I’m planning on releasing a single malt made in 2008 that has reached 3 years world wide this year, several times a year.

WhiskyWall:  What are some of the challenges for you as a relatively small distillery?

比較的小さな蒸留所であることのデメリットはどのようなことですか?

Akuto San:  スタッフの人数が少なく、顧客の要望に十分応えることが出来ないことはあります。しかし、今取引があり顧客は十分理解を頂いておりますので、特にデメリットは感じていません。

We do not have enough staff to fully satisfy our customers’ needs.  But our customers are also very understanding, so we do not feel bad about not being able to fully meet customers’ demands.

WhiskyWall:  What are some of the benefits?

逆に、小さな蒸留所であることのメリットは?

Akuto San:  原料仕入れから製造、熟成状況などのすべての工程を把握することが容易です。また、一回のロットが少ない分仕込みを頻繁に行うため、若い製造スタッフたちのスキルが急速に向上することも大きいです。

All of our staff are involved in the whole process, we make a small quantity at one time, but do it frequently.  So young staff learn and get better at making whiskey in a short period of time.

WhiskyWall:  Unfortunately, here in the US we do not have access to your whisky, do you have any thoughts of ever bringing your whiskies here?

残念なことにここアメリカでは、現在あなたのウィスキーを入手することが出来ませんが、将来アメリカで販売することをお考えですか?

Akuto San:  ぜひとも、そうしたいと考えております。

Definitely.  I am planning on selling my whisky in the US in the future.

WhiskyWall:  What bottles of whisky do you have at home now?

あなたが今お家でお持ちになっているウィスキーのコレクションは、どのようなものですか?

Akuto San:  私はバーで多くの銘柄を試したいという気持ちから、ボトルのコレクションを積極的には行っていません。本気で集め始めると大変は出費になりますから。しかし、時々気になるボトルや限定ボトルを購入するこはあります。キニンビーのヘーゼルウッドやラフロイグ21年、ボウモア22年、古いスプリングバンク30年や21年、その他のスコッチの古いボトルも少々あります。理想を言えば、オフィシャルボトルであっても買っておけば、原酒構成が時代とともに変わるので大変貴重なサンプルになります。

I like to go to bars and try different whiskeys, so I don’t try to collect bottles and don’t have much at home. Kininvie’s Hasel Wood, Laphroaig 20 yrs, Bowmore 22 yrs, Springbank 30 yrs and 21 yrs, and other old Scotch whiskeys.  Even official bottles will become precious samples as it ages over the year.

WhiskyWall:  Are there any whiskies that just amazed you? Which ones?

あなたが今まで出会ったウィスキーで、ただただ感心させられたものはありますか? いくつか挙げられますか

Akuto San:  まだ、ウイスキー経験が浅かった頃、「ウイスキーがこんな味がするのか!」と思ったボトルとして、濃厚な香水のようなブレーバーを感じたエドラダワーがあります。60年台ボウモアの南国果実のようなフレーバーにも驚嘆しました。また、グレンモーレンジのアーティザンカスクもホワイトオークのフレーバーにも大いに興味を惹かれました。しかし、それ以外にも、多くのボトルが個性的でとにかくウイスキーの奥深さと多様性を感じさせてくれます。

When I didn’t have much experience, as for bottles where I thought “Whisky can have this flavor!” I felt Edradour had a flavor of dense perfume.  I also admired Bowmore in the 60s for its passion fruit-like flavor.  I was also fascinated by Glenmorangie’s Artisan Cask for its white oak flavor.  Still, other than those, I have had the privilege of many bottles with individuality, whiskies with depth and diversity.

WhiskyWall:  For those people that are not familiar with Japanese whisky, is there anything that you would like to tell them?

まだ日本のウィスキーに馴染みの薄い人々に、伝えたいメッセージはありますか?

Akuto San:  ウイスキーは蒸溜所ごとによる味わいの違い、熟成環境による味わいの違いを楽しむのがその醍醐味の一つだと思います。日本のウイスキーはスコットランドともケンタッキーやテネシーとも異なる環境で育まれてきました。その独自の環境で熟成されたウイスキーは楽しんでいただける価値があると思っています。ぜひとも、ご自身の鼻と舌でその独自性を感じてみてください。

To enjoy different tastes and different distilleries and environments is on of the ways to appreciate whisky.  Japanese whisky has grown in a different environment from Scotland, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Therefore I believe it is worth is to enjoy whisky that is specific to a unique environment.  I highly recommend that on tries the unique flavors using one’s own nose and palate.

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Breaking New Ground With a Classic Touch: Ichiro Akuto (Part I)

The craft distillery movement has been gathering a lot of steam lately.  It has definitely hit here in the Northern California, with the likes of St. George,  Charbay, Old World Spirits and Low Gap.  Although larger, one can make an argument that Kilchoman on Islay falls into this category as well.

Craft distillers are appreciated for their keen attention to detail and hands on approach.  There is also some personality and a sense of connectedness with the distiller as you can identify the specific person who is actually distilling the whisky.  The craft distillery movement is not limited to the United States (or Scotland if one throws Kilchoman into the mix) though.  One of my favorite distilleries, for many of the same reasons people like craft distilleries, is Chichibu located in the prefecture of Saitama, Japan.

Chichibu was only recently established in 2008 by Ichiro Akuto (officially Venutre Whisky).  Akuto San set up the distillery with the meticulousness and attention to detail that you would expect from a distiller/owner.  The passion that he has is clearly discernible in his approach and methods of making whisky and it all culminates in the expressions that he releases.  Simply put, Akuto San is doing some very cool things at Chichibu.  You can follow the details of his work on his twitter feed.  Although he tweets in Japanese he often includes pictures, which recently included his trip to some of the US distilleries and their cooperages.  For some additional pictures of the distillery and equipment check out this site.

We have been fortunate enough to drink some of the spirit from Chichibu and found them both promising as well as tasty.  We have also been intrigued with Akuto San’s history of distilling whisky as well as the details of his new venture at Chichibu so we set out to ask him a couple of questions.  This is the first series of questions and responses, the second series will be posted shortly.

WhiskyWall:  Your family has a long history of brewing sake, what got you started in distilling whisky?

ご家族は永年造り酒屋を営まれていたということですが、あなたがウイスキーの蒸留を始めたきっかけは何ですか?

Akuto San:  祖父が1941年に羽生に本社工場を設立し、1946年にウイスキー免許も取得しました。1980年台にはスコットランド式のポットスチル2基を使い本格的なウイスキー造りを始めました。しかし、2000年になるころには経営が悪化し、父は2004年には会社を手放すことを決めました。しかし、新オーナーはウイスキーに興味がなく、期限を設定し、引き取り手がなければ、設備もウイスキー原酒も廃棄することを決定しました。この原酒を引き取ることを決め、将来ウイスキー造りを再開することを決意いたしました。

My grandfather opened the sake business/main factory in Hanyu in 1941 and got a license for whisky distilling in 1946.  In the 1980s we bought 2 Scottish pot stills and started to invest for making whiskies.  However, in 2000, our business started to go downhill and my father decided to sell our company.  The new owner was not interested in whisky distilling and decided to discard all the equipment and whisky if no one claimed it within a limited time.  I decided to take the whisky and was determined to resume whisky making in the future.

WhiskyWall:  Who are some of the biggest influences in your career of distilling whisky?

あなたのウイスキー蒸留のキャリアの中で、多大な影響を与えた人物は、どのような方々ですか?

Akuto San:  歴史上の人物として竹鶴正孝や鳥井信治郎があげられます。また、新しい蒸溜所としていろいろな方からアドバイスをいただきました。とりわけ、現在の状況に至った背景として祖父や父の存在は大きかったと思います。

Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii.  Also, many people have given precious advice to us as a new whisky distiller.  But the biggest influence is my father and grandfather who led me to this career.

WhiskyWall:  How would you describe your philosophy for making whisky?

あなたのウイスキー作りの哲学とは?

Akuto San:  ウイスキー造りにトリックはありません。当たり前のことを積み重ねていくということです。

There’s no trick to making whiskey.  Just do what I have to do one day at a time.

WhiskyWall:  Chichibu is a new distillery, do you see this as a continuation of what you were doing at Hanyu or a completely new and different beginning?

秩父は新しい蒸留所ですが、あなたの中では、ここで羽生で培ってきたことを継続して行うところですか、それともなにか別の、新しいことを行うところですか?

Akuto San:  造り方の基本は同じです。しかし、環境、設備、人が異なりますから異なるシングルモルトが生まれています。羽生の経験を生かし、さらに細かいところに注意を払っています。また、羽生では使用していなかった樽も使用しています。

The basics are the same for making whisky, but environment, equipment and people involved make  a difference for single malt.  Based on what I learned through my Hanyu experience, I’m trying to be more cautious in the details.  I also use casks I never used at Hanyu.

WhiskyWall:  The expressions that have been release from Chichibu are very diverse from heavily peated to Mizunara – how would you describe Chichibu’s style of whisky?

秩父からリリースされているボトルは、へヴィリー・ピーテッドからミズナラまで様々なものがありますが、あなたは秩父スタイルのウィスキーをどう表現しますか?

Akuto San:  現在、さまざまな取り組みを行っています。目的は秩父スタイルの探求です。最初にスタイルを決めてしまうのではなく、回り道のように感じるかもしれませんが、5年、10年と歳月を重ねることにより、秩父に適した樽やスピリッツが出来上がっていきます。徐々に秩父のスタイルが完成してゆくのだと考えています。

Currently, I am variously engaged with this. The goal is to pursue a Chichibu style.  There was not an initial settling upon a style.  Not taking any short-cuts as I make whiskies for the next 5, 10, or more years, I will create suitable casks and spirits for Chichibu.  Gradually, the Chichibu style will be perfected, I think.

WhiskyWall:  Both the Newborn Heavily Peated and Newborn Double Matured are very young whiskies but they have so much flavor already, how are you able to get that amount of flavor in such a short period of time?

ニューボーン・へヴィリー・ピーテッドとニューボーン・ダブル・マチュアードともに、短い熟成期間のウイスキーにもかかわらずすでに濃厚なフレーバーがありますが、短時間でウィスキーにあのようなフレーバーを持たせる秘訣は何ですか?

Akuto San:  なにも特別なことをしているつもりはありません。スピリッツの品質を日々吟味し、良質な樽を選ぶ努力を繰り返しをしているだけです。あとは秩父の環境が熟成を育むんでくれているのだと思います。

We don’t do anything special.  I check the quality of spirit everyday and try to find the best cask each time.  The rest of the flavor is nurtured to maturity by Chichibu’s environment, I imagine.

WhiskyWall:  What are some of your goals for Chichibu’s whisky?

秩父ウィスキーで成し遂げたいことは何ですか?

Akuto San:  個人的な目標ですが、30年ものの秩父シングルモルトを楽しむことです。

It’s my personal goal, but I want to enjoy a 30 yr old Chichibu Single Malt.

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The True Craft of Whiskey: 1512 Barbershop Rye

The reason that 1512 Barbershop Rye is a superlative expression of a distilled spirit is quite simple, Salvatore Cimino made it that way.  Mr. Cimino is a man who dispels the illusion, if you held such an illusion, that great recipes for a distilled spirit are the result of fluke chance.  Yes, it is possible to stumble upon something special, but it is unlikely, and in the case of 1512’s Rye, little was left up to chance.  The consummate craft distiller, Mr. Cimino produces all of 1512’s spirits alone and by hand.  From hand-milled grain to the product of his alembic still, he controls the process with an intense dedication to every detail.  Intense dedication could describe many aspects of this craft distiller’s approach to his art.  So could artist, for that matter.

Mr. Cimino’s approach to distilling has something in common with 1512 Rye’s palate, a journey with attention paid to the fundamentals necessary to create a total experience, not merely an ephemeral moment of pleasure.  Obviously, the level of detail Mr. Cimino shared with me concerning his process from beginning to bottle will not be recounted here (everyone is entitled to their secrets, respectable liquor-producers even more so), but a few broad strokes suffice to give one an idea of how little Mr. Cimino relies on the fickle inconstancies of chance.

A third generation of practitioners of the alcohol arts, Mr. Cimino was able to study under both his grandfather and father, both masters in their own right.  Building upon this foundation, he acquired an understanding of what creates a dynamic spirit by endeavoring to understand and control each ingredient or phase of the product.  Water is analyzed to account for its mineral content.  Grain is milled by hand to control the speed concomitant temperature.  You get the idea.

Mr. Cimino’s belief in the importance of the making of one’s mash cannot be overstated.  It was impressed upon that if you have not worked out a solid product by then, why even waste your time with the still? I believe this is in keeping with his comment that a distiller is more appropriately described as a chef of grain, such is the weight placed upon the creation of a good mash.  And the process doesn’t lighten up.  The type of still, the time in the still, the ambient atmosphere on a given day.  I am not being flip when I write that I believe that if Mr. Cimino had his own cork trees, he would find out the impact of variations in the trees and factor that in to the overall process of cultivating a specific palate.  So it is with this level of intense dedication that he can produce a white whiskey that is not only palatable, but complex with novel (and valuable) dimensions.

While many opine on the right number of years to age a whiskey, Mr. Cimino questions the utility of aging a whiskey that is not already a solid and presentable product before you go and wake the cooper up.  And I confess it makes sense to me.  Why conceal a harsh, one-dimensional new-make in lays of sugar and cords of oak in an attempt to make something palatable?  Perhaps one should figure out why their white whiskey does not already taste great before attempting to enhance (through sugar, char, and wood) the admittedly flawed spirit.

So I can only wonder what 1512’s Rye would taste like were it aged for any time in a barrel.  But frankly, I do not spend much time wondering because it already tastes excellent with a profile that does not rely on sugar or char, but instead leads one through a labyrinth of tightly-bound flavors and floral notes (hints of eau-de-vie), with the texture playing a prominent and dynamic role by allocating the flavors selectively instead of in one, haphazard burst.  And the gradual, not to mention singular, dryness that eventually settles over the palate sets a bar that shames many a mass-produced whiskey for their palate-wrecking sweetness.

With no intentions of involving additional people in his liquor-making processes (for fear of risking any compromise in a spirit he rightly assumes full credit for), it is lamentable that 1512 Rye will remain an obscure and wonderful thing.  Lamentable for you, that is, because the barbershop (he is, after all, a barber of over 25 years) is just down the street from me and I intend to shake him down for intelligence on every new batch, to buy a few bottles from each batch, and to promptly savor it.  Sometimes with friends. –Nate

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A Tour of Yamazaki and an Extended Stay in the Tasting Bar

The pilgrimage to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery came to completion on February 23, 2011.  Already keyed up from the recent Suntory week, I can’t deny I experienced a bit of giddiness as I saw the distillery buildings set into the hillside as my train pulled into Oyamazaki station.  A mercifully brief walk down inexplicably familiar alleys and I stood on one side of the JR railway tracks, my goal in the form of a critical mass of stills housed in windowless buildings on the other.  And there I stood as trains passing trains bedeviled my approach.  And then the trains were off toward wherever they were bound, the chimes stopped, the gates raised, and I walked the approach to the visitor’s center and signed up for the 11:00 AM tour (free).

A brief stroll across the Yamazaki compound brought me to the shop/tasting bar/tour-assembly area and I spent my spare time wandering around the shelves of samples of Suntory’s past expressions.  While in no way shaped like a hexagon, the myriad combination of whisky expressions ordered on shelf after shelf brought to mind a sliver of Borges’ Library of Babel featuring whisky instead of books.  A youthful stewardess of the tasting bar dissuaded me from laying into samples before the tour, and I thank her for this.  The tour lasted approximately one hour.  Geared toward persons having no understanding of the whisky-making process, it was nonetheless enjoyable for the veterans in attendance.  Also, I was kept busy translating as the tour was in Japanese and I didn’t want to employ one of those naff, pre-recorded devices that regurgitates a stock, English statement at different stations throughout the tour.  So instead I got to listen to our guide enthusiastically regurgitate stock, Japanese statements at different stations.  And that made all the difference.  After an initial homage to the forefathers of Yamazaki back in 1923, spoken before a few statues in the pleasant, brisk-but-sunny outdoors, we made our way into an elevator and on to the mash tuns.  Big and tun-like, they were behind glass and, presumably, mashing away.

The distillery room was where things got a bit more exciting.  The proximity of the stills and the palpable heat, not to mention (which is exactly what I am doing) the ability to see the spirits mid-distillation, brought with it the inherent sense of awe attached to witnessing machinations on a grand scale.  The warmth and sound of new spirits served as a right of passage before entering the barrel cellar, which was, curiously enough, upstairs.

Cool and home to an atmosphere infused with a palpable aroma of whisky from every angle, I stole breaths of the angel’s share before those angels could get at it.  I would have been happy to linger for quite some time, reading the years off of differing barrels, plotting a way to spirit one away, but time and tide wait for no tour guide and I strode out into the sunlight and a bucolic expression of pre-spirit state Yamazaki, a.k.a, the local water.  It was at this time that I remembered that the distillery is set into a hillside and that it really didn’t matter where you put the cellar since every quadrant was sealed and temperature-controlled.  Next stop, after a brief stroll down Yamazaki lane (I doubt its actually called that),  was a whisky tasting hall, were everyone was explained the attributes of whisky sodas.

Whisky sodas using Yamazaki 10, Yamazaki 12, and Hakushu 10 were served to all attendees with chocolate and snacks.  I am not a big fan of whisky sodas in general because I tend to find it a waste of whisky in that the details of the spirit’s flavor are obscured.  Also, I don’t drink a lot of soda.  Still, these weren’t bad and they came with great big, rough-hewn blocks of ice, which I find ascetically pleasing in the extreme.  It also turned out you could simply as for the aforementioned whiskies straight and they were happy to comply.  They wrapped up the tour with a great pitch by our affable and informational guide on a spiel about whisky as a great gift-alternative to chocolate for White day (Valentines day is bifurcated in Japan, White day being the day the girls receive gifts) and recommended the Yamazaki 12 as ideal for your lady-friend.  Fun stuff, and frankly, I’d love to get whisky on Valentine’s Day, so I really couldn’t argue with the marketing plan.  The tour officially over, we were released into the gift center/whisky store.  I have a weak spot for sub-700 ml bottles and they had plenty of items to tickle my fancy, including mini-bottle & signature glass combinations.  What can I say, I like cute stuff.  After making a sizable deposit in the Bank of Yamazaki, really more a currency conversion from paper to liquid form, I descended upon the tasting room, its bottle-lined shelves, and a staff bereft of excuses not to start pouring me whisky.  Indeed, now were they positively inclined to serve up any request and chat amiably about Suntory and a broad selection of whiskies available for sampling.

And I was ready to get tasting in earnest.  A flight of five whiskies struck me as a great, noon-time line-up and I chose the following: Yamazaki Puncheon, Yamazaki Bourbon, Yamazaki Sherry, Hakushu 25, and Hakushu 8 (cask strength).

Yamazaki Puncheon Cask: A thin and floral sweetness, bright, clear, light gold like its color, the nose delivered vanilla marshmallow and oak as well.  Decent presence, malts, heat, fruit and slight verdant notes with more candied vanilla, wood, and a remainder of grains and sugars.  Quite friendly.

Yamazaki Bourbon Cask: Solid gold sans the dancers.  The bourbon char and liquid sugars veiled a muted heat.  I thought it really smelled like a bourbon because, well, it did.  Indeed, had it not been for a changed-aspect of the vanilla revealing the single malt pedigree, it could have passed for an unusually delicate bourbon.  Warmth and char and a center-of-the-tongue numbness combined with the bourbon-infused malts above the palate in a delicate fashion.

Yamazaki Sherry Cask:  This has been expounded upon ad nauseum (see prior review) but I couldn’t resist.  And sometimes the same whiskies simply taste different based on a myriad of factors (air, state of mind, drinks immediately prior imbibed) so what the hell.  It was a dark and stormy night.  Not really, it was just afternoon and beautiful out, but it was a dark and stormy amber, that scion of the sherry cask.  Rich and troubling in a welcome way.  Pebbles in running water, soon-burnt sugar.  A taste of slightly dark sweets, chewy and warm spices, and a mid-back palate pervasive sherry with malts concealed inside but peering through like light through quickly passing clouds.  Mid-dark sugars and something different in every sip.  Chimeric and dangerously intriguing.

It was around this point in time that I started thinking I really should have eaten something for breakfast, which I usually don’t, or at least some snacks en route, but it didn’t happen.  I also felt like I wouldn’t mind sitting there all day, an opium addict-like embrace of a fugue of increasingly peaceful bliss.  And I felt like talking to strangers.

Hakushu 25:  A touch of amber in gold, luster.  A deep roast/char nose spoke of smoldering fires at a distance rendered faint by wooded hillsides.  Sugar, salt, smoke, and perhaps a molecule of lime found their place in the nose.  Smoke and a smooth char, a slight nuttiness on the heals of subtle sugars stretched taught and resilient take over the palate.  A lot of goodness here, but I couldn’t get my head around it at the time.  Needing further analysis, I decided to return to this one in a more intimate milieu at a later date and moved on.

Hakushu 8 Cask Strength:  I was a bit excited about this because it is not available for purchase, it was young, and it was cask strength… all fun in my book.  Gold with a touch of rose, but that might have been the brick floor.  A respectable heat rode that Hakushu wood-and-water note.  Very exciting, I thought to myself in Eddie Izzard’s Welsh send-up of Pavlov.  Pepper and sugar.  The surprisingly smooth start lead to round, muted sugars and wood before focusing on a delicate but unwavering maltiness as heat increased and edged off in turn.  Coating, satisfying, with residual sugar and grains and maybe a little something smoky.

By way of wrapping things up, I though I would give the Yamazaki Puncheon one more go.  Bring things full circle, as it were.  And I was delighted in a floral-notes-lavender-and-curved-sugars sort of way.  Its thick liquid but quixotically delicate nature were really working now.  A lush haven of higher flavors that cleaved a path like a paladin through the evil wasteland of my palate.  Colored sugars, saplings, and aspects of spring took root in a bold fashion amongst the detritus of prior tastings.  Invigorating.  And then I noticed a book on the counter encircling the tasting bar.  And then I peered through the contents of the book and read of while simultaneously spying a cluster of whisky expressions not available for sale.  At cask strength.  So much for calling it an early day.  I would have rolled up the sleeves but that would have been considerably lame-looking since I was already wearing a short-sleeved shirt.  You get the idea.  My next order consisted of the following: New Pot, Yamazaki Mizunara, and Hakushu Smokey.

New Pot, 58 percent:  No, this was not some fresh crop of wacky-tabacky, and yes, it was fresh-from-the-still-to-a-bottle whisky.  It was clear, as expected, but almost oddly so, in the way that a diamond enhances light. The raw malty character and mild nuttiness gently edged elbows with a fundamental, lingering sugar.  (At this point a concentrated effort on implementing handwriting protocols was called upon for posterity’s sake.  My handwriting is cryptic at the best of times.)

Yamazaki Mizunara, 50 percent:  Dark, peppered wood, clean, creek-bed-fresh waters.  Slightly smokey and lush with checked sugars coating essential grains, this was a Yamazaki that satisfied in a dense and sultry manner.

Hakushu Smokey, 50 percent: An eponymously appropriate smokey lushness in a measured fashion developed a spiced bite.  Perhaps a transmuted take on a signature Hakushu wood-and-pepper?  On the palate the precise smoke never overpowered and touched down briefly upon char before showing a re-interpretation of Hakushu.  Much of what I liked about their essential form with a glaze of umber smoke, a patina of roasted wood and sugars.  I wish this came in a bottle that I could exchange money for.

On a side note, it was at this time that I was appreciating the inherent caloric content of whisky.  I needed food, for longevity and munchie purposes, but I still had a source of necessary energy.  Which got me to thinking of energy expenditure in light of the recent tour.  Not even addressing the energy involved in harvesting, transporting, and properly combining barley and water, energies went into the mash tones and its mashy content.  The subsequent distillation process involved a goodly amount of heat-energy.  While the whisky sitting around in barrels didn’t involve a whole lot of energy (if you ignore the moving of the barrels, the monitoring of the barrels, and the stabilizing of the temperature  (and that quite a caveat)), the energy involved in the making and maintaining of the barrels from arbor-form to deconstructed-and-reconstructed-barrel form is no small matter.  And then of course the bottle-making energies and the putting-it-in-the-bottle energies.  All of that grand, difficult-to-quantify but fundamentally-quantifiable mass of energy found a unity, a raison d’être in keeping me powered enough to taste, revel, and scribble a few note.  And it just felt unseemly, almost unjust to use that energy for anything not in the chain of whisky-appreciation.  So I set in for another flight.  A final flight.  One flight to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.  So it was Hibiki three ways, Chita, and Hakushu Peated.

Hibiki Smokey, 58 percent: A smokey and wet heat seeped through wholesome, solid char on top (and throughout) of a well-rounded melange of grains and a peaty, high note.  Hibiki Sherry, 49 percent: Sherried in color to a warm, red amber.  A delicate interplay of sherry wine notes from start to finish.  Warm, darker sugars surrounded a slightly more intense but still Hibiki-balanced expression.

Hibiki Mizunara, 52 percent.  24 carat with a touch of something rosy.  Thick mizunara wood-notes brought out sugars, cake, and warm bread before the pepper-and-spice made the scene.  Reddening notes, a con-flux of berries and raw wood gradually muted by age developed into an elder armistice of sweets and darker pleasures.

Chita:  This is Suntory’s single grain whisky.  The nose was a subtle combination of sugar and leaves in full bloom (or whatever it is called when leaves are not young, not old, but green and turgent).  An easy light flavor that stuck to the taste buds.  Mid-sugars and still a bit of something green was followed by a light spice.  Fun.

Hakushu Peated:  Hakushu and peat, a well-forged union of Islay and the Japanese Isles. (Unfortunately, that’s all my notes say about this one, followed by the laudatory and underlined comment concerning the tour and all the whiskies tried reading “Round Fun”.  No proof statement, no details. A little slack, please, it was a slightly longer than expected haul.  I am certain I will get back to this eventually.)

And so it was that three tour groups made their way through Yamazaki’s temple of tasting, the bar staff changed once, and I wandered off in search of a train and some much-needed non-liquid sustenance. –Nate

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The Yoichi Journey

So…I actually made this trip in the summer of last year, but just never got around to writing anything about it. Nikka Whisky products are not available in the US at this time, so if you are not familiar with it we wrote a quick history about it here. Bear with me as I give a narrative of my trip to Yoichi. I really am not much of a story teller, but I’ll try my best.

I have a hard time describing Nikka Whisky sometimes…I don’t want to say that it is Japan’s second whisky producer or Japan’s other one either as both of those terms imply that it comes in second or is not up to par. And that is definitely not the case. So the best that I could come up with is this lengthy and long winded explanation” Nikka Whisky and Suntory are the two largest and most recognizable whisky producers in Japan. I guess that will have to work for now.

It is no secret that I thoroughly enjoy and delight in the whisky produced by Nikka.  So for some time I have wanted to make a trip out to Yoichi.  Yoichi is Nikka’s first and most prominent distillery. Be warned that a visit to Yoichi requires some planning even if you are visiting Japan. Since you usually fly into Narita, Haneda or Kansai it is a significant undertaking to get to Yoichi. Yoichi is a city located on the west coast of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. With some help I planned my visit to Yoichi several months in advance. This required booking airline tickets, a rental car and a hotel – if I was going that far, I was going to stay for more than one day. Also, lucky for me, my friend from Tokyo was able to take a couple of days off to travel with me.

My flight was leaving out of Haneda airport, and to get the most out of my time in Hokkaido my plane departed at 8:30am. Unfortunately for me from where I was staying it would take over an hour to get to the airport by train. This meant I had to catch the 6:30am train and wake up even earlier. But it is amazing how easy it is to wake up when you are leaving for a trip like this.

The train ride to Haneda was fairly uneventful and I arrived with plenty of time to meet up with my friend, grab a bite to eat and meander over to the gate. I looked out of the window and was surprised to see that we were taking a 747. Keep in mind that this was only an hour and a half flight. To my further surprise the plane was completely full.

We landed in Sapporo on time then jumped a shuttle to go pick up our rental car – a cool little compact hatch back with 4-wheel drive. We hopped into the car and set out to Yoichi. About half way through the hour trip we decided to take a pit stop for lunch at the port city of Otaru. Hokkaido is really known for its sea food and Otaru was supposed to have some of the best. Otaru is a bit of a tourist attraction itself, so it was pretty packed. After wondering through the city for awhile and taking a quick peak at the local brewery we settled on a restaurant. My belly and I were elated with the decision to stop to eat. See pictures:

 

 

 

 

After getting temporary satisfaction from solid food it was time to continue the quest for liquid satisfaction – so back on the road to Yoichi! The rest of the drive out wound us through several small towns and along the coast. Then finally we arrived at the distillery. I had seen many pictures of the distillery before so I immediately recognized the stone walls and red roof tops. I admit I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to get onto the grounds.

 

 

 

 

We opted not to take the guided tour primarily because the self-guided tour provided the same access to the distillery and to be honest, the tour guides were only providing very basic information. I also wanted to move at my own pace and take my time. Before we started on the tour though we dropped into the cask store. This is where you can purchase Nikka’s single cask expressions as well as their key malts. Although they don’t state it explicitly these expressions appear to be available only at the distillery. You can call/fax in an order and have them shipped like I have done in the past but I have yet to see any for sale in any retail shop. You can check out what we thought about the single cask 5, 10, 15 and 25 as well as the Coffey Grain, Peaty and Salty and Woody and Vanillic.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately for us they weren’t making any whisky that day so we weren’t able to see the distillery in action. We started off by taking a look around at the whisky museum. The museum is more of an over all show case of how whisky is made for visitors – not a functional part of the distillery. The expected pot still, spirit bank and cooperage tools were on display. There was a cool display to help explain the maturation of whisky. Three casks (unaged, 5 years old, and 15 years old were set up side by side, each with a clear section to see into the cask and flip up lid so you could smell the contents. But hands down the best part of the whisky museum was the tasting bar at the end. There you could purchase 15ml samples of pretty much every Nikka Whisky expression currently available and even a couple that aren’t anymore – think older Yoichi 20 Year Vintage series. I dove into a regular Yoichi 20 and then followed it up with a single cask Yoichi 20. The distillery visit could have ended there if I lacked a little more self-control, but I tore myself away from the bar to check out the rest of the sights.

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling a little more comfortable after sampling a couple of Yoichi malts we moved on to check out some of the storage buildings. These are decisively smaller than the massive facilities at Hakushu. Also, the casks are only stacked 2-3 high. There were only a couple of these storage facilities open to the public, so I am not sure if there are other larger facilities on the grounds.

 

 

 

 

We poked around to check out the kilning tower, milling house and tun room. Each was interesting but there was nothing all that remarkable about each of them. There was also a display set up to show the tools and explain what happens in the cooperage. Then we finally reached the still house where all seven of Yoichi’s direct fire pot stills reside. It was really cool to see that Nikka still uses the traditional direct coal fire method of heating the stills. The common practice for distilleries now is to use steam to heat there stills.

 

 

 

 

One of the last buildings of the tour told the story and history of Nikka Whisky. A narrative of Taketsuru’s experiences and journey towards establishing Nikka and the Yoichi distillery was displayed on large blue signs. There were also displays of older Nikka bottles as well as advertisements. And of course they displayed all of the awards that their whisky has won in international competitions.

 

 

 

 

With that the we headed to the formal tasting room. I was slightly disappointed with the options for sampling. An apple brandy – remember Nikka was originally founded as an apple juice company – and a straight forward Yoichi 10. I was hoping for something a little bit more interesting. After finishing up mine as well as my friend’s Yoichi 10, I passed on the brandy, we headed to the gift shop and then hopped back into the car back to Otaru to pick up some beer from the Otaru Beer company and then back to our hotel in Sapporo. Don’t worry I didn’t drive – I heeded the warning from the distillery.

 

 

 

 

The overall experience at Yoichi was a good one. Since this was my first visit to a distillery I didn’t really have much to compare it to though. It did seem to be reduced and simplified down quite a bit for the casual visitor. Almost like I was visiting the Disneyland of distilleries. I do plan on visiting again, hopefully in the winter to get a different perspective. I do have to say that I did enjoy seeing, feeling and experiencing where the whisky that I love to drink is made. Standing in the storage houses and taking in the smells really gave me a point of reference for all my future drams of Yoichi – and I am sure that there are plenty more to come! – Chris

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A Short History of Nikka Whisky

This is only a brief summary of the founding of Nikka whisky.  There are far more details and facts to this story but trying to write the entire history in a blog posting isn’t a very realistic task.  I do need to acknowledge Olive Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend for which most of the finer details and facts were derived from.  If you want to learn more about this story I suggest you give Checkland’s book a read, it is filled with great information.

The Beginning

Taketsuru Masataka was born in Takahara, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1894. He came from a long line of sake brewers, so he was introduced to the alcohol business at an early age. Taketsuru originally was training to be a chemist but then shifted courses when a brewing class was offered. Although he was not finished with his studies he was offered a position at the spirit company Settsu Shuzu by the owner Abe Kihei. What happened next was the start of the Japanese whisky industry.

In 1917 Abe decided that he wanted to send someone to Scotland to learn how to make genuine whisky. At the time, Japan wasn’t producing whisky but rather ersatz, a substitute/artificial spirit, as well as fortified wines. Fortunately for Taketsuru, he was chosen for the pioneering trip to Scotland to learn to make whisky. So in 1918 Taketsuru set off for  Scotland. With the ease of world travel these days it is difficult to fully appreciate the significance of making this trip. It was definitely not common for a Japanese national to travel all the way to Scotland. What made things even more challenging was that it appeared that Taketsuru had no concrete plan on how he was going to accomplish his task of learning to make whisky. But as we know now he succeeded.

To Scotland!

Taketsuru arrived in Glasgow in December 1918. He then headed north to Elgin in the Speyside region. What was more significant was that he was going to Elgin to meet J.A. Nettleton who wrote The Manufacture of Spirit as Conducted in the Distilleries of the United Kingdom, which is arguably the seminal book on whisky distillation.  Unfortunately for Taketsuru the fee to be tutored by Nettleton at the time was more than he could afford.  Instead Taketsuru headed to Longmorn where he was allowed to apprentice for five days.  At Longmorn Taketsuru was able to gain invaluable practical whisky making experience.  After that Taketsuru spent two weeks at the now closed grain distillery of Bo’ness.  Then last Taketsuru spent five months working at the Campbeltown distillery of Hazelburn.  It must also be noted that while immersing himself in whisky, Taketsuru met and ultimately married Rita Cowen.  The story of Taketsuru and Rita is an interesting and inspiring one.  There was a great article in the Japan Times about them.

Back to Japan

Taketsuru returned back to Japan at the end of 1920 and back to his employer Settsu Shuzu.  His experience in Scotland had changed him significantly and he was now determined to make authentic Scotch whisky.  Unfortunately this determination ran counter to Settsu Shuzu’s plans for him.  They wanted Taketsuru to continue making ersatz.  Frustrated, Taketsuru ultimately left Settsu Shuzu.

Suntory

Then in 1923 Taketsuru was asked by Torii Shinjiro  to come to his new whisky making company, Suntory, to help with establishing Japan’s first whisky distillery.  Taketsuru wanted the location of the distillery to be up in northern Japan in Hokkaido.  He believed that the climate and conditions were similar to Scotland and would produce the best results.  Torii on the other hand wanted the distillery in southern Japan at Yamazaki, close to Kyoto and that was were it was ultimately built.  Taketsuru spent several years helping to build the Yamazaki distillery and then working as the distillery manager.  Then in 1928 Suntory purchased a brewery in Yokohama.  It is not exactly clear why, but Taketsuru was sent to manage the beer company.  Slowly, Taketsuru was relieved of his duties at Yamazaki.  As a result, in 1934 Taketsuru left Suntory to go out on his own and start his own whisky company.

Nikka Whisky

Taketsuru was going to establish his distillery were he had always wanted to:  Hokkaido, specifically in the town of Yoichi.  The northern island had many attributes similar to climate of Scotland, including the cold winters.  There was  slight issue with setting up his whisky company.  Although, Taketsuru’s real motive was to start his own whisky distilling company, it would have been insulting to Torii to immediately do so.  So the original company established by Taketsuru was Dai Nihon Kaju Kabushiki Kaisha – The Great Japan Juice Company.  That’s right, Taketsuru started a juice company, specifically an apple juice company.  However, the company diversified into cider as well as apple brandy. It was later in 1952 that from Nihon Kaju the Nikka name we know now was born.

Taketsuru experienced significant difficulties with the business side of running the company.  Yoichi was difficult to access and it was not easy or cheap to transport products to the main island of Japan.  The company took fairly significant losses for the first several years.  Finally, in 1940 Nikka released its first whisky into the market.  From there the company began to flourish.  Surprisingly it, along with Suntory, did well during the war years – supplying the military with whisky.

Nikka continued to grow and expanded by building another distillery at Sendai – Miyagikyo and at Nishinomiya – a grain distillery.  Nikka has even expanded and completed the cycle for Taketsuru by returning to Scotland and purchasing the Ben Nevis distillery.  Nikka continues to grow even today by gaining more recognition outside of Japan as a serious whisky producer .  For the rest of this week we will share our impressions of some of this great whisky company’s expressions.  Thanks for reading!

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Filed under Imbibed Musings, Nikka, Yoichi

A Visit to Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery Part II

Part I can be found here.

OK – I admit my first post on my visit to Hakushu was not exactly the epitome of well written verse. In fact, it was crap. My excuse is this: I sit in front of a computer all day and read and write. To add to the perilous state of affairs of my creativity, I am trained to write very simply with as few adjectives as possible. Translation: extremely dry, boring and well…boring. With this said, I will sound the alert for my missing creativity and attempt to write something that is halfway interesting for this second post on Suntory’s Hakushu distillery.

The whisky museum was an educational experience. I am simply intrigued by history in general, but adding whisky to the mix made it even better. Once I finished at the museum I decided to do the guided tour of the distillery. Unfortunately for me my Japanese is not up to par for the guided tour, so I was the lone foreigner rocking the radio and headset for the English translation of the tour. We reserved spots for the tour earlier online so when we signed up we were given two pretty cool Hakushu tumblers – not bad schwag if you ask me!

The first part of the tour took us to the fermenting room. At the time the outside temperature was about 31C. Then I stepped into the fermenting room and it felt like the temperature went up about 5 degrees. The heat combined with the overwhelming smell of fermenting malt made the room pretty uncomfortable. There were at least 10 large fermentation tubs in the room and each one had an approximately 72,000 liter capacity. I was not expecting the distillery to have this kind of capacity.

After several tortuous minutes in the fermenting room we were allowed to proceed into the much cooler distillation room with its copper pot stills. We were separated from the stills by a pane of glass, so I didn’t get the opportunity to get too close to them. The first row of stills is for the first distillation and the row of stills immediately across was for the second distillation. Some of the first distillation stills are significantly larger than their counterparts. After listening to the more rudimentary details of distilling from the tour guide we were lead outside into a waiting shuttle.

We all piled into the shuttle and were taken to a location where the distillery could showcase their cask charring skills. The tour guide admitted that it was only for show and that the actual charring is done inside one of the facilities. But what is not entertaining about a man with in essence a flame thrower lighting the inside of barrels on fire. The heat was pretty intense, even though I was more than 15 feet away. The other members of the tour oohed and awed as the barrel crackled and then was instantly put out by one quick splash of water from a ladle. I guess it did add some excitement to the tour for those that really weren’t interested in whisky…the handful of 10-12 year old kids in the tour come to mind.

After the pyrotechnic show we hopped back onto the shuttle and were taken to one of the storage facilities. This is one of the buildings that is used to store and age the barrels full of whisky. As soon as I entered the building I was slammed in the face with the strong scent of aging spirit. Apparently the angels like to let their share rest awhile before consuming it. I have a bottle of Hakushu 12 and the smell of the building instantly took me back to that bottle. After I got past the strong scent of alcohol I started to notice the sheer size of the facility. The place was huge! The best way I can describe it is by referencing the scene in the Matrix where Neo declares that he needs guns…lots of guns. However this time instead of guns he needed casks…lots of casks. The tour guide later mentioned that Hakushu has the storage capacity to fill up the Tokyo Dome. That is a lot of whisky!

After walking through a couple rows of aging barrels we all hopped back onto the shuttle and back to the gift shop/bar area. It was time to finally drink some whisky. Unfortunately for me, the latest craze in Japan is the highball – whisky and soda water. I despise this drink and believe that it is a complete and utter waste of single malt whisky. I sat at the table staring at the bastardization of a perfectly good Hakushu 10 while feigning to be happy about it when the tour guide walked by. I didn’t touch it, instead I walked back to the bartender and asked her for a Hakushu 10 straight. To my delight she was more than happy to oblige. I sipped down the 10 rather quickly because there was more work to be done in greener pastures. Next door was the more formal Hakushu tasting bar with a full range of the Hakushu and the Yamazaki line up. I quietly snuck out and made my way to the first bar stool I could find.

Once I sat down I was presented with a fairly formidable list of whiskies to choose from. It was like a dim sum menu – just check the box next to the whiskies you want and they will bring them all out to you. The pours were only 15mL, but that works better when you are trying more than a couple expressions. I wanted to check them all, but that wasn’t a realistic option. So I tried to narrow down the selection as best I could. I ended up ordering: Hakushu Smokey, Hakushu Sherry, Hakushu Bourbon, Hakushu 25, Yamazaki Mizunara (Japanese Oak) and Chita Single Grain. These were all new to me so it was great to get the opportunity to try them. Unfortunately for me I only had 30 minutes to get through them all as the sampling bar was closing. So I did my best to take my time and really taste each one while at the same time pushing forward to make sure that I got through all of them. I will give more details on each of the whiskies in a later post.

After stumbling out of the tasting bar I was assaulted by an ungodly amount of very cool but at the same time fairly useless souvenirs – other than the actual bottles of whisky. However since it is a custom to pick up small gifts for people when you go somewhere, I fell in line with the crowd and loaded up on some cask shaped chopstick holders and Hakushu key chains. After running the gauntlet of Japanese capitalism at it’s best I walked back through the peaceful forest back to the car and headed home.

The visit to Hakushu was a real eye opener for me. I was overwhelmed with the serenity and peacefulness of the mountains and forest on the one hand and then huge industrial and technological marvel of the distillery facilities. It was also interesting to see the differences between this large more commercial distillery and a smaller more quaint one. Hint: another Japanese distillery far north of Hakushu- look for that article to follow shortly.

Hardware

Fermentation Room

Fermentation Tubs

Stills

Stills

Casks

Aging

Charring Barrels

Torching!

Tasting Bar

Yamazakis

Different Expressions

Hakushu

Sampling

Gift Shop

Display Casks

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