So you find yourself in Tokyo with a bit of time spare between work commitments… what do you do? That’s right, you hop on a fast cross-country train two hours out of the city to visit a distillery that lives in a forest. Here’s a bit about my visit to the Hakushu distillery.
Upon arriving, having spent two hours looking out together the train windows enjoying the amazing scenery, I was astounded to see, nay feel the setting within which this distillery sits.
Having gone through the arduous process of registering my place on a tour online a week in advance (I would recommend booking much sooner than this but I was faffing around due to my work schedule not being finalised until late) I expected a pain in the ass payment and signing in process at the distillery, but I was wrong. 35 seconds from ‘hi I have a booking’ to walking up the path to the distillery. Brilliant. Top tip; when booking online don’t bother entering your full name as the way the site is formatted means that it will keep rejecting your name time and time again, believe me, instead just put your initials and it will accept it first time. I learned this the hard way but don’t want you to suffer.
As I was an hour early for my booking the first stop on my tour was the self-guided museum, which was actually fantastic. Usually these places are a bit forced, a bit half-assed and a big ‘meh’ but this one, spread over over four floors was fantastic. It used all of that space to focus on both Japanese and world whisky history and how they link together, showing very old cask and bottle exhibits and packaging evolution examples from key Suntory brands as well as a lovely celebration of their awards and landmarks.
The detail in the museum is superb, leading up floor by floor to a gallery level where you can look over the forest although because of that same forest very little of the Distillery is visible from up high but the provenance and power of the scene surrounding the Distillery is incredible.
The environment around the Distillery is key to the Hakushu story. When setting the distillery up, Suntory travelled around the country testing countless water source samples to ensure they had the perfect source for their most precious ingredient; water. Hakushu’s soft water source flows through the forest and granite before getting to the Distillery, and it has been attributed some of the credit by the production team at Hakushu for the light, soft flavour of the end product.
The distiller sits at a height of 700 metres in the southern Japan alps with broad forest covering the land and surrounding area; one of very few forest-based distilleries in the world. There is a real sense that each drop of Hakushu carries with it a powerful sense of place and imparts with every sip a link to this scenic site. Everyone I spoke to at the distillery was very proud of their location and its uniqueness.
Peat is what gives Hakushu it’s distinctive aroma, that soft smoky note which is not overt but definitely present. Whilst on the tour – complete with audio tour for me, the one non-Japanese speaker in the 30-person tour group, and only non-Japanese person taking a tour that day (yes I asked when I saw a pattern) – it was the first time I’ve spent lots of time nosing peated barley and WOW it was lovely. Could nose that for days, and have in fact asked a couple of friends to source me some so I can do just that, and use it as a prop in my whisky tastings going forward.
They use only wooden washbacks, which they say, rightly or wrongly, are harder to work with than their steel counterparts and I counted 18 at least in the production area I saw.
One of the most unique parts of the distillery for me was the amount of different still types and sizes. All have a unique shape deliberately to produce different new make styles. For example… The straight stills allow the wash components to go directly to the cooling tanks for heavier spirit. The bulbous stills encourage the vapours to move around a lot more for a lighter spirit. A mix of these styles are key to the flavour profile they produce at Hakushu.
Once we had seen the production area it was time to get onto a bus to the forest warehouse. This really is a mammoth site, and I could barely see any of it due to the forest.
Hands-down this was the most potent warehouse smell I’ve ever experienced, seriously, even I was taken aback by how much it felt like I was ingesting whisky whilst standing in there, not that I am complaining. The guide advised us that the experience of relaxation most people experience within this warehouse is akin to how relaxed you feel in the forest… or, more likely I would suggest is that these extreme vapours are making you a little tipsy.
This is a vast warehouse with a mechanical cab on a track where the warehouse workers stand to be taken to whichever cask they are looking to sample and to check. From a tour perspective, I must say that I loved the walkway through the middle of the warehouse to see the casks, nice touch, made you feel the scale without letting you actually near the casks properly.
I was surprised to learn that there is only 2-3% evaporation per year here, thought it would be higher given the humidity but the warehouse is actually quite cool, housing 3,000 casks in this warehouse alone, although I could not see any other warehouses anywhere as we moved around… must be hiding somewhere in the forest!
I did not notice him at first, but there is a security guard posted with each tour keeping up the rear and ‘just in case’. Felt a little bit much considering half the people there was old timers and not one of us looked capable of carrying a full cask out with us without anyone noticing.
After the warehouse visit we promptly boarded the bus back to the tasting room for a component tasting in a large theatre-style room with long tables of whisky samples laid out. My kind of room.
The flight consisted of us trying White Oak Cask Malt Whisky, Lightly Peated Malt Whisky, Hakushu Whisky and making our own Hakushu Highball.
White Oak Cask Malt Whisky – 50%
Lightly Peated Whisky – 43%
The nose is all about pink grapefruit, apples and sweetness. The Peat is subtle, I had to really work to pull the note out but when it arrived it was the lovely embers note I love from peated whisky with some tobacco leaf notes too.
The palate was super fruity, sweet and smooth, Peat barely evident again until the finish when it brought spices to the fore. Really well balanced and enjoyable… they should definitely bottle this!
Hakushu NAS – 43%
The nose is very rich, that subtle smoke comes through brilliantly, as so the tobacco and buttery note. The guide barked about mint and cucumber notes but I just didn’t get them.
Palate did have a fresher fruitier note to it but again was rich and layered with tonnes of flavour. Very impressive.
The only time I have made a Highball myself was with Fraser Campbell of Dewar’s when we played with my soda stream to it was nice to have a go without the risk of being soaked during a ridiculous experiment. I must say it was a great highball making experience full of ritual, explanation and resulting in a super fresh long drink that did not take long to drink, oh and a fresh mint leaf garnish – will remember that for when making these at home.