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.

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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.

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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!

Ardbeg An Oa

The highly anticipated new edition to the Ardbeg core range!

In this review we return to Ardbeg distillery which is located on Islay’s Kildalton coast. Today’s whisky is the brand new An Oa, the first addition to the core Ardbeg range of expressions since the introduction of Corryvrecken in 2009.

The name ‘An Oa’ is a reference to the Mull of Oa which is a peninsula located nearby to the distillery. Just like this rocky and windswept part of the coast, the An Oa has the rugged oomph that one expects from a heavily peated Ardbeg dram. And yet the An Oa also displays the more approachable side of this distillery as these wild notes are tamer than in other Ardbeg core expressions.

This whisky was matured in a combination of casks including Pedro Ximénez, charred virgin oak and ex-bourbon, which were all then married together in Ardbeg’s new bespoke oak Gathering Vat by Master Distiller Bill Lumsden. In keeping with the most of the core Ardbeg range (apart from the 10 Year Old), it does not have an age statement. It is bottled at 46.6% which is lower than both the Corryvrecken and the Uigeadail.

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Nose: Typical Islay peat, Terry’s chocolate orange, smoky streaky bacon grease, a touch of lemon. Then there is an oak note and a hint of vanilla.

Palate: A sweet and creamy dram. Peat at the fore, dark chocolate and liquorice.  It mellows into buttery banana bread, honey, vanilla and stewed peaches. There is a little Christmas spice, flavours of nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. The palate becomes a little dry towards the finish.

Finish: Seductively long. Still quite sweet but with a slight tang of resinous pine and an excellent, warming mouthfeel.

an oaOverall, a very drinkable dram and a good addition to an already strong core range. You will start by intending to have just a single splash in the evening and will soon find that a good part of you bottle has gone. Initially I did think that the An Oa was a little one-dimensional but this notion was dispelled as I discovered more to it over time. Whilst it is not as intense in peat or proof as the Uigeadail or Corryvrecken, the An Oa’s more relaxed profile makes for easier drinking for Islay whisky lovers here in Australia as we have now begun to enter the (very warm) Australian summer season.

16/20

Check out the A Cheeky Dram scoring system here!

Have a look at my review of the Ardbeg Kelpie.

Kilchoman Tasting

Core range and the newly bottled Australian Cask Exclusive. The ‘barley to bottle’ ethos works a treat!

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Kilchoman is the youngest distillery on Islay. Established in 2005, it was the first new distillery to be built on Islay for 125 years. Kilchoman is a family-run affair and relies on a strong ‘barley to bottle’ ethos. It is one of a very small number of Scottish distilleries to grow the majority of their own barley, run their own floor maltings (a production step now largely outsourced) and even bottle on-site. To say they are passionate about their whisky is an understatement.

Earlier this year a Kilchoman representative travelled from Islay to Australia to host a series of whisky tastings from coast to coast. In true small business style, this representative was the founder’s son, Peter Wills. When I attended one of these tastings it was quite special to hear Peter’s fascinating (and often hilarious) stories about the early and very hands-on days starting up the distillery. He recounted the fun of filling 7000 bottles using a teapot from their onsite café in the early days. Following the whirlwind Australian tour, Peter and his brother were planning to hit up the west coast of the US of A, in order to bring Kilchoman to even more lucky whisky lovers.

The Australian tasting that I attended brought back memories of the time I visited Kilchoman in 2015. I had previously tried some of their core range (and I also have a Sauternes Cask Matured 2016 hidden away for a rainy day) but I was not familiar with the distillery’s more recent releases and so the tasting was a good opportunity so see where Kilchoman is at now and where they are going in the future. Whenever you get the chance to try multiple expressions from one distillery in a single sitting – do it. It gives you a much greater appreciation of the distillery’s style and character.

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Below I have written down my impressions of the whiskies at the tasting. As it was a tasting my notes were a bit briefer than normal and based on just the one dram of each (I do find that I warm to certain whiskies when revisiting them a second or third time.)

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100% Islay 7th edition

Matured in bourbon barrels, mainly first-fill ex-Buffalo Trace. This particular edition is 7 years old and bottled at 50% ABV. There are only 12,000 bottles available a year worldwide.

Nose: barley, newmake, a little peat, lemon and strawberry.

Palate: vanilla, butterscotch, milk arrowroot biscuit.

Finish: sweet but not overpowering, very long.

Machir Bay

A mix of maturation in 90% bourbon barrels and 10% Oloroso sherry casks. Does not have an age statement but apparently is about 5 years old on average. Bottled at 46% ABV.

Nose: Lemon, citrus, pear, a little hint of sweetness and then the sherry.

Palate: Smoke, peat and fruit in perfect thirds.  Takes about five minutes to open up and when it does the peat and smoke really come to the fore.

Finish: More peatiness that overpowers anything else.

Sanaig

Made in the same way as the Machir Bay but goes into different casks, namely 70% Oloroso sherry hogsheads. Bottled at 46%.

Nose: sherry sweetness, a little citrus and some light smoke.

Palate: peppery, peat then a lighter lemon curd and toffee note comes through – definitely much richer and heavier than the Machir Bay.

Loch Gorm 2017

Their sherry cask, limited edition annual release. This is the sixth version and is a 7 year old whisky matured in sherry butts, mostly first fill. It is a yearly release, with 13,500 bottles released this year.

Nose: raisins, dark chocolate jaffa and slight smoke.

Palate: peat, dark chocolate, BBQ smoke, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Australian Exclusive Single Casks 691/11

This exclusive bottling was distilled on 11 November 2011 and bottled on 25 May 2017. It was initially matured in an ex-bourbon cask before being finished in a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The cask yielded 261 bottles and it is bottled at 57.5%.

Nose: buttery, cinnamon, stewed fruits and a little citrus.

Palate: raisins, dark treacle, scones with jam and cream.

So, did I have a favourite? The Loch Gorm 2017 was a standout from the core range. The dark chocolate orange on the nose and smokiness on the palate really rubs my tastebuds the right way. I was not a big fan of the Sanaig. I usually enjoy whiskies matured in Oloroso casks but the Sanaig was, to me, a little thin and one-dimensional. Perhaps it needed maturing for a bit more time? The Machir Bay and 100% Islay are both solid drams with a complex palate and a long finish.

And the Australian Exclusive Single Cask? It was a very different experience to the others. The delightful Pedro Ximenez came through strongly on the nose and heavily influenced the palate. I snapped up a bottle and I’ll happily keep sampling this one, enjoying it that little bit more for knowing what I do now about its provenance, about the people that made it and the passion they have for whisky.