Hakushu Distillery

A long way from Scotland… and Australia!

On my recent trip to Japan I spent a week in Kobuchizawa, a regional town located about 2 hours by train from Tokyo. As luck would have it this town is incredibly close to the Hakushu whisky distillery in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. How could I not stop in for a visit?

My first full day in town was a glorious spring morning and the perfect time to go. On weekends a regular shuttlebus runs from the Kobuchizawa train station to Hakushu. In true Japanese fashion the shuttlebus ran exactly to time, with the second hand clicking over the minute mark on my watch at the same time as we pulled away from the kerb. The shuttlebus then began to wind its way through the vibrant and densely forested foothills of Mount Kaikomagatake (about 700 metres above sea level). This area is part of the ‘Southern Japanese Alps’ and the spot was specifically chosen for Hakushu distillery because of the mild climate and pristine water sources nearby.

path hakushu
The tree-lined path to Hakushu

After about 15 minutes we arrived at distillery itself, nestled deep within the forest. There were two tours on offer and I opted for the longer of the two, the “Story of Hakushu” tour and tasting. Given that the distillery is located in Japan it is no surprise that the tours are conducted in Japanese. Audio guides in other languages are available and I found the English guide to be fairly informative but basic. I did wish that I knew a bit more Japanese so that I could have asked the tour guide some questions.

The tour started with a video presentation on the history of both Hakushu distillery and its parent company, Suntory. Shinjiro Torii opened a store in 1899 to sell imported wines. In 1921 this business became the Kotubokiya Company, which two years later built Yamazaki distillery, Japan’s first whisky distillery. In 1963 the Kotubokiya Company changed its name to the (more familiar) Suntory Limited. Given the demand for Yamazaki whisky Suntory decided that they needed an additional distillery and thus Hakushu was built in 1973. In 1981 Hakushu was the largest distillery in the world! Master Blender Keizo Saji, the son of the company’s founder Shinjiro Torri, wanted the whisky from Hakushu to be distinctly different from that of Yamazaki. One of these key differences is the local Hokuta water sources, which pass through granite rock and are therefore apparently incredibly light and pure.

After the video the tour continued with a visit to the mash tun and wooden washbacks. We stopped outside the stillroom (sadly cordoned off behind a glass barrier) where we saw the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still Hakushu uses for the first distillation and the six different shapes/styles/sizes of still they use for the second distillation. These variations in still size apparently produce great variation in the resulting spirits and thus give the Master Blender lots of options to work with when determining the profile of a Hakushu whisky. You can see the different necks in the photos below.

We then hopped on a bus that took us to the warehouse. The audio system on the bus played a recorded message that warned passengers that the warehouse smelled very strongly and to remain on the bus if they were concerned! The idea that someone could dislike the heavenly warehouse aroma of oak, earth and whisky is wholly inconceivable to me- personally, I love it. The warehouse itself was massive with row after row of casks on metal shelves stretching far away into the darkness.

casks hakushu
The massive warehouse

When we returned from the warehouse the tasting part of the tour began. This started with tastes of each of the component whiskies of Hakushu: white oak cask, lightly-peated, heavily-peated (certainly not by Islay standards), and the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. Next we learned all about the mixed-drink “Morikarou Highball” (see my post on Japanese Highballs here). The tour then ended in a very fitting Japanese manner with everyone bowing to each other.

There was also lots to do at Hakushu beyond just the tour. There was an onsite restaurant where I had a delicious lunch, complete with a couple more Highballs. I picked up some small gifts and chocolates at the gift store but the distillery exclusive bottling I was hoping to purchase was unfortunately out-of-stock. Not to worry, however, as the highlight of my visit to Hakushu distillery was yet to come…

If you were to do one thing whilst visiting the Hakushu distillery it should be spending some time at the distillery’s whisky bar. If the vast range of unique and rare whiskies on offer is not exciting enough then the very affordable tasting prices should seal the deal. Tastings also come in 15ml pours so you can sensibly work your way through a fair number of them. I tried the Hakushu newmake (58%), which they call ‘new malt distillate’, and was surprised by the fruity notes (particularly apricot) that were much more prevalent than in the barley-forward newmake I have had at Scottish distilleries. I then tried a 12 Year Old single-barrel Yamazaki matured in a Mizunara oak cask before finishing up with the Hakushu 25 Year Old. I had high expectations for this particular whisky given its recent gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge 2017 and the eye-watering prices it goes for in the Australian market. It certainly delivered. I got plum notes on the nose, with a little smokiness and light caramel/vanilla. Brioche and caramel stood out on the palate, alongside sage and a long, smoky pine needle finish. Truly a beautiful and delicate whisky, made all the better by my newfound appreciation of the distillery in which it was made and the scenic splendour of its forested surrounds.

If you are a whisky fan then Hakushu distillery is certainly worth a detour or day trip from Tokyo. The pristine natural environment is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Japanese city life, and Hakushu’s whisky is as beautiful as its location.

Now back to scotch, my first whisky love. New review up soon!

Highballin’ in Japan

Something a little bit different for this scotch aficionado…

Highballs. As a self-proclaimed purist who typically drinks her whisky neat, or occasionally with ice or a dash of water, the idea of adding a mixer to my dram has never really appealed to me. But a recent trip to Japan— the home of the whisky highball— has forced me to admit that there may be more to mixers than I previously thought.

highball.jpg
Morikarou Highball on the deck at Hakushu Distillery

A “highball” is the generic name for a drink made up of spirit mixed with a large proportion of a non-alcoholic carbonated mixer. Gin and tonic is a highball. So too is rum and coke. But in Japan the highball of choice is whisky and soda. As with most mixed drinks, the origins of the whisky highball are unclear and many different bartenders and venues claim bragging rights for its invention. What is clear, however, is that despite being around for decades the whisky highball’s popularity persists unabated in Japan. In my visits to various bars and restaurants across Tokyo I found the whisky highball pretty much everywhere – it was even available in vending machines and from the refreshment cart on the train. Occasionally they would change things up and add shochu (a local spirit) but more often than not the highballs were made up of a light, floral Japanese whisky mixed with soda water. This kind of highball is very refreshing on a hot day and goes down exceptionally well with a variety of izakaya food, including yakitori, grilled meats, pickled vegetables and edamame. When the world flocks to Tokyo for the Olympics in 2020 I foresee a global spike of interest in this popular local beverage.

hakushu
Hakushu Distillery in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Although I enjoyed a number of different whisky highballs in my trip, a particularly memorable experience was visiting Hakushu Distillery and learning firsthand from a Japanese whisky producer about what the highball format can add to the experience of whisky. As part of my tour at the Hakushu Distillery (stay tuned for a post in the near future about this) they taught us how to both make and appreciate what they called their “Morikarou Highball”: a drink made with Hakushu whisky, soda water, lots of ice and a sprig of mint. They explained that the idea behind this highball is to bring out the fresher flavours of the whisky – think pear, apple, cucumber and citrus notes. The carbonation means these flavours waft pleasantly, tickling your olfactory senses but with none of the alcoholic “burn” that can be off-putting to some people. The Morikarou Highball is also designed to be eaten alongside a wide variety of different foods, and apparently works well with anything that is smoked (duck, bacon, fish), pickled or creamy (apricot and cream cheese was suggested but personally I’m not sold on this one).

lets make

So, how do you make the perfect Morikarou Highball?

  • To start you will need a tall or Collins glass.
  • Fill the glass to the very top with lots of ice and allow it to chill the glass for a few moments.
  • Pour in one part whisky. I think it’s certainly worth trying it with Hakushu Distillers Reserve or Hakushu 12 Year Old but any lighter or sweeter style of whisky would be a good substitute.
  • Stir the glass ten times – no more and no less!
  • Add more ice to the glass until it is full again.
  • Add three parts soda and give it one final stir.
  • Lightly crush a mint sprig by clapping your cupped palms around it to release the aroma. Use it to garnish the drink
  • Enjoy and kanpai! (Quick note: whilst toasting in Japan don’t use the Italian “chin chin” because it sounds like “penis” to locals!)

As you know, when I am not on holiday I am based in Perth, Western Australia. Summer temperatures here regularly push past 35 degrees Celsius. Despite my whisky “purism” I think that as the mercury rises I might find myself reaching for the soda water and ice to provide some much-needed refreshment with my whisky fix. Let me know your thoughts on how you enjoy your highballs below!

Brainstorming Boilermakers

Welcome to the weekend!

I have only recently come to love boilermakers, which is surprising given my longstanding love of both good beer and good whisky. Over the last six months or so I have had some excellent boilermaker experiences. Firstly, I visited a bar called Boilermaker House in Melbourne which lives up to its moniker by having an entire section of their menu devoted to boilermakers. Secondly, my husband’s brother gifted him a selection of boilermakers for his birthday: three miniatures of scotch and three bottles of beer, all carefully paired. Finally, when I visited Orkney the distillery manager at Highland Park let us in on her favourite boilermaker pairing involving their whisky. I tried it that same night, and it was VERY good. I’ve included it below.

So what is a “boilermaker”? When referring to drinks and not people-who-make-boilers, the term boilermaker can mean a variety of different things and so a little explanation is in order. In parts of the UK a boilermaker means a mixture of half a pint of draught and half a pint of brown ale. By contrast, a traditional American boilermaker involves shotting a dram of whisky in a single gulp and then drinking a beer. An alternative boilermaker approach is to drop a dram of whisky (with or without shot glass) into a beer, and then drinking them both together.

Now I am a big proponent of each to their own when it comes to drinks. You want to add ice to your whisky? Go right ahead. A splash of coke? Not my style, but sure. Dropping your whisky into your beer? No worries. Life is simply too short to have others dictate to you how to enjoy your drink. That said, my own favourite way to enjoy a boilermaker is to drink a dram of whisky and a glass of beer side-by-side: no shotting or mixing, just alternating between sipping the two as and when I feel like it. This seems to be the current style of boilermaker in Australia at least.

The crucial part of putting together a good boilermaker in this style is the pairing of whisky and beer. To me, a perfect pairing involves;

  • A beer and a whisky you are happy to drink by themselves
  • Complementary flavor profiles, like a smoky dark beer and a smoky peated whisky. For example, you wouldn’t pair a stout and a light, floral whisky.
  • Trying to pair standout flavours. Spiced bacon notes in a bourbon are likely to match really well with similar notes in a dark craft beer, fruity notes in a Lowlands whisky are likely to match well with a light ale or a saison and so on.

Based on these criteria, and my own personal experience, here are a few favourites:

oogy and feral

Ardbeg Uigeadail + Feral Smoked Porter

The smoky porter with dark chocolate notes matches well with the peat in the whisky. Both have flavours of smoked bacon.

kaiju and caribbean cask

The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask + Kaiju Crush! Tropical Pale

The pale has a bit of hoppy bitterness but mellows out with summery pineapple flavours. Their shared tropical fruit characteristics take you to an island paradise.

 

Highland Park 12 Year Old + Swanney Brewery Scapa Special

Light, easy to knock back, both have a lovely balanced sweetness with citrus notes.

Feel free to leave your suggested boilermaker pairings in the comments section. Happy drinking!

 

A Cheeky Dram scoring system

Tasting whisky will always be incredibly subjective. Some people love peat, some love the lighter floral styles, some love cask strength and others want an easy drinking dram for a night by the fire. Preferences can also change over time, and sometimes mine change depending on the company I’m with, where I am, the experience I’m having, the weather, my mood and a multitude of other factors. This is my personal scoring system. Make of it what you will 🙂

0-7: Spit it out. Clean your teeth immediately.

8-10: Don’t bother. Have a dry night and make yourself a nice peppermint tea instead.

11-12: This is okay. I wouldn’t necessarily drink it again. Some redeeming characteristics.

13-14: A good dram for this style of whisky, some things about it I felt were lacking, unpleasant or just not to my taste.

15-16: A great dram, definitely keen to keep drinking this and would recommend to friends.

17-18: A really excellent dram. A lot of good things about it. Savour this bottle.

19: This is up there among one of the best drams I’ve tasted, get a bottle or two if you can.

20: A dram that cannot be beaten. Pure perfection.