We start off in the mill room. A Porteus mill at a distillery may be nothing to write home about if you’re in Scotland, but in Japan they are rare as hen’s teeth. In fact, this is the only specimen you’re likely to encounter in the wild, as the other two, at the Yamazaki and Hakushu Distilleries, are hidden from the public eye. The Porteus mill at Shizuoka Distillery also comes with a bit of history. It dates from 1989, but its claim to fame is that it was moved to Karuizawa Distillery in 1994, where it replaced the hammer mill the distillery had been using until then. A few months before Karuizawa Distillery was demolished (February 2016), all the equipment was put up for auction and Taiko managed to snap it up for peanuts. Most of it turned out to be impossible to salvage, but the Porteus mill was the real bargain here. It had seen very little action during the last six years of Karuizawa Distillery’s active life and had stood idle for a decade and a half while the distillery was in mothballs. After 27 years of under- and unemployment, it finally got a full-time gig at Shizuoka Distillery, working in tandem with the old destoner from Karuizawa Distillery.
At the time of our visit, non-peated Concerto imported from Bairds in Scotland was sitting in the malt bins, but the source of the malted barley can vary quite a bit. “We’ve used malt imported from England, France, Germany, Canada and Australia in the past,” Taiko points out, “and we also use a small amount of local barley. Two years ago, a local farmer started growing some barley for us and about a year ago we did a 100 per cent local batch, using local barley as well as local yeast. From this year on, we’re aiming to use more local barley.” In the spring, for a short period of time, malt peated at around 40ppm is used. “The first season, we did our peated production before the silent season which runs from the beginning of August until the end of September,” Taiko explains, “but we found summertime to be less than ideal for distilling peated malt, so we changed to spring.”
Per batch, one tonne of malted barley is processed. With five batches spread over six days a week and eight people working in production, it’s not a very stressful working environment. After the barley is milled, it is sent to a state-of-the-art full-lauter tun made by Miyake Industries in Japan. “It’s a piece of art,” Taiko says, “and as such, I asked the company to put their name on the glass manway. That was a first for them, so the lettering is a bit wonky.” Water is taken from wells on the property tapping into the underground river table. Because there is no hot liquor tank at the distillery, only two waters are used: the first 4kl at 64°C, the second 2kl split in half as far as temperature is concerned (75-80°C for the first thousand litres, 85-90°C for the second thousand).
This results in about 5,200l of clear wort, which is sent to one of the eight washbacks in the tun room.
When production started at Shizuoka Distillery in late 2016, the four 8kl Oregon pine washbacks looked a bit forlorn in the large tun room, but that was forward planning on Taiko’s part. They have since been joined by four washbacks of the same size made out of Shizuoka cedar, a world first, and there’s room for four more washbacks. “Next spring two more washbacks will be added,” Taiko reveals, “also made out of Shizuoka cedar. These are built for us by a craftsman who makes large wooden vessels used in sake production. He came and found some good trees on a mountain near the distillery. It takes at least a year for the staves to dry so the decision to add these two washbacks was made two years ago.” Talk about forward planning.
The fermentation time at Shizuoka Distillery is three to five days and the yeast used is dry distillers yeast. According to Taiko, there is a clear difference between the Oregon pine wash and the cedar wash, particularly during the lactic fermentation. “At the moment, we get more esters from the Oregon pine washbacks, but it’s unfair to compare as the cedar washbacks are relatively new and there are still lots of tannins in play,” he explains. “It will be a few years before both types of washbacks are in a similar sort of condition and then we can make a fair comparison.”
But there’s more stirring in the fermentation department. Local yeast was mentioned earlier on. What’s the story here? “Over 30 years ago,” Taiko relates, “the Industrial Research Institute of Shizuoka Prefecture developed a sake brewer’s yeast that helped in producing excellent ginjo sake and Shizuoka became known as ‘the Kingdom of Ginjo Sake’.
Recently there has been an explosion of craft beer breweries in the prefecture, so a special yeast for beer and whisky production was developed by the institute, which was released in the spring of 2019. We used that local yeast for that one batch mentioned earlier. At the moment, the institute is developing a second yeast of this type and we’re keen to use these locally developed yeast strains, but we can’t for the time being because we don’t have a yeast propagation tank, so that’s our next bit of homework.”
The next place to geek out is the stillroom, which is an interesting mix of old and new. There is one pair of stills (6,000l and 3,500l, respectively), made brand new by Forsyths, both with a bulge, “because I happen to like whiskies distilled in stills with a bulge,” Taiko says. The wash still is the only direct wood-fired still in operation at a whisky distillery in the world, with the exception of George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia, but that is a seasonally operated historical recreation of an early 19th century distillery with a very small still. Local wood is used to fire the wash still at Shizuoka Distillery. The spirit still is steam-heated.
Then there’s a third beast: a pot still that clearly has decades of heavy toil behind it. You’ve guessed it – this is a refurbished still from Karuizawa Distillery (3,500l capacity). “It’s steam-heated and we use this for the first distillation,” Taiko explains. “In general, we use the Forsyths wash still in conjunction with the spirit still three times a week, and the Karuizawa wash still in conjunction with the spirit still two times a week. We don’t mix the low wines, because that difference in character is what we are after.” The middle cut is 75% ABV to 64% for non-peated malt; for peated runs, they take it down to 60%.
With three stills, there’s one more mathematical possibility, of course: triple distillation. “No plans at all in that direction,” Taiko says, “although we have done some accidental 2.5 distillation.” Something he picked up at the Springbank Whisky School, perhaps? “Not at all. It was simply a case of human error and correcting that error without letting anything go to waste. While doing some of the early batches, we noticed that the ABV of the low wines was about the same as the ABV of the wash itself. It didn’t take us long to figure out what had happened. After rinsing the low wines receiver, someone had forgotten to drain the water. To remedy that, we redistilled those diluted low wines again in the wash still and then did a spirit run and vatted the new make from that reluctant triple distillation with spirit obtained using standard double distillation, hence 2.5. We did about 20 batches like that and the flavour is quite different so that will be a rarity when it is bottled and released one day.”
The spirit is filled into wood at 63.8% ABV and then begins its slumber in one of two warehouses on site, one dunnage and one racked. The dunnage warehouse also houses the other Karuizawa stills, as a historical display, and the hoops press machine from the cooperage at Karuizawa Distillery. A third warehouse will be built this year.
In the beautiful tasting room overlooking the stillroom, we compare the two different distillation regimes: first with unaged spirit, then with non-peated spirit matured for around 20 months and finally with peated spirit at around 28 months. With all other parameters the same (Bourbon wood and distillers yeast), we start to detect a pattern, with a lovely candied ginger note jumping out of the spirit distilled using the Forsyths pair. Blending each of the sample pairs reveals another interesting pattern: that there’s a distinct potential here for the vatting to be more than the sum of its parts. We get an inkling of what wonders lie in store here at Shizuoka Distillery when Taiko admits that these are just random cask samples, not samples that are offered because they represent the best of the best. Another cask sample, this time aged for 27 months in an ex-Manzanilla cask, follows us all the way back to the bullet train after our visit. We would happily have taken home a few cases, but we’ll have to wait, like anyone else.
Whisky regulations in Japan, infamously loose as they are, don’t stipulate a minimum three-year maturation period. However, serious producers in Japan wouldn’t dream of calling their products ‘whisky’ before waiting at least three years, out of respect for their Scottish peers. Since Ichiro Akuto released his Chichibu The First in 2011, it has become a tradition of sorts for new producers in Japan to present such a bottling when their oldest stock reaches the three-year mark. Asaka The First was released in December 2019. Tsunuki The First will be released in April of this year.
Standing in front of the first casks filled at Shizuoka Distillery – two Bourbon barrels dated 9 December 2016 – we ask Taiko when we can expect Shizuoka The First. “I’m planning on releasing my first single malt whisky in the autumn of 2020,” he reveals. “Until June 2017, when the Forsyths pair was ready to be fired up, I was using the old Karuizawa still for both the wash and the spirit run. For my first single malt, I want to be able to include spirit made using all three stills, hence the wait.”
It’s becoming a bit of a tired refrain to hear people lament the end of Japanese whisky. Sure, there’s very little on the shelves at the moment, but out in the field, at craft distilleries left and right, there are plenty of signs that the real Golden Age of Japanese whisky may lie ahead of us.
One can hope and dream.