At the beginning of February I was lucky enough to visit the Suntory Hakushu Whisky Distillery in Hokuto Yamanashi.
For most Japanese, Yamanashi prefecture is most known for its abundant wineries and especially the Koshu style grapes grown for many of its wines. It has only been in recent years where domestic single malt whisky has boomed, thanks mainly to NHK’s morning television Drama ‘Massan’ which told the story of Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife’s journey of making whisky in Japan. With this increasing the popularity for domestic whisky and in 2015 Japan also being chosen to have the world’s best single malt (Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask) the International popularity went ballistic.
Now, in Japan it’s very difficult to find any domestic age statement whisky and if you are wanting to try some celebrated older whiskies, visiting a distillery is one of your best options.
The Hakushu distillery was built in 1973, the location was chosen due to its high altitude which brings a more mild climate for the whisky maturation process and also boasts a rich natural environment with the pristine water supplies.
It is situated under the Southern Japan Mountains in Yamanashi prefecture which makes a perfect day trip from Tokyo. The land surrounding the distillery is beautiful no matter which season you decide to visit. In February there was an abundance of snow around, going to the roof of the museum gave ideal views of the Yatsugatake and Mt Kaikomagatake.
The tour is very popular especially in weekends so it pays to reserve a place in advance. It costs 1000yen per person in which you receive three Hakushu single malts to try, a Hakushu highball and various snacks which work well with whisky. For the tour participants who are non drinking, they receive a great Hakushu glass to keep, snacks and also non alcoholic beverages.
The tour begins at the Suntory Whisky Museum that has a large display of the history of not only Japanese whisky but also how whisky was shaped over time in popular culture. There is limited English signage in the Museum but you can still develop an understanding of the history of whisky very easily.
The majority of staff at Hakushu speak a varying degree of English, the tour is run in Japanese but there are translating headsets available in a number of languages. At each area of the tour there is a number to plug into your headset that gives you a full translation.
The tour and tasting session all together runs for 90 minutes and in that time you will see the various unique techniques that give Hakushu whisky that distinct Hakushu taste.
Even for people with very little interest in whisky, seeing inside the fermentation process, being able the smell and touch the ingredients used and seeing the distillation areas will broaden your interest.
For many the most interesting part of the tour is viewing the cask maturation warehouse. The moment the doors of the warehouse open your senses go on overload with the amazing smell of the casks maturing. Our guide also explained the term of ‘Angels Share’ in reference to why the whisky is more expensive the longer it is aged.
The final part of the tour is the tasting room. Here your guide will teach you how to best saviour the taste of the whisky. There is the standard Hakushu Single malt, then another two types that are used for blends that you can only try if you go on the tour. There is a tasting and smelling guide to help you try and discover tastes in the whisky. Your final drink is the famous Hakushu Highball. Again you will be taught the correct technique to make to perfect highball. The snacks provided included chocolate and also smoked nuts and were roasted in old whisky barrels that made the experience even better.
If you are still keen to try more varieties of whisky there is a tasting bar ready for you to enjoy. You pay when you order and the menu includes almost all current Suntory whiskies and also an extensive array of world whiskies at a very good price.
If you are expecting highly rare bottles of Suntory whiskies to be available for purchase at the gift shop you will be disappointed, there were however Hakushu Distillery Special releases and the discontinued Hibiki 12 available if you are lucky. There are many other souvenirs Hakushu and Suntory related which make great gifts.
Visiting the Hakushu distillery is a amazing insight for both whisky lovers and also people with limited whisky knowledge and interest. To learn why Hakushu is so distinct in its taste and being able to try whiskies that are virtually impossible to do anywhere not to mention the journey to get there through the stunning scenery definitely makes this a worthwhile trip.
|Title||Suntory Hakushu Distillery|
|Address||2913-1 Torihara Hakushucho Hokuto Yamanashi Prefecture Japan 408-0316|
|Admission Fee||1000yen for tour, Free to visit.|
*Please check for the latest information before visiting.