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.
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.
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!