Saturday, July 27, 2013

10 facts about Japanese distilleries you might not know

1. Yamazaki and Hakushu (Suntory) have several stills which are formed in diferent shapes. This makes the Suntory able to create many styles and you can argue that there is no real distillery style from these distilleries, apart from what the blenders present to you

2. Japanese distilleries don't work together. Japanese blends use their own malts and grains or foreign whisky as a general rule

3. Distilleries with no grain distillery tends to look for Canadian grain for blending

4. Eigashima uses Shochu, a japanese pot distilled spirit as a component for one of their blends. This is grain based and matured. Shochu is not necesarily grain based and usually not matured

Shochu maturing at Eigashima White Oak

5. One of the barrel choices sometimes used is Japanese oak. Mizunara. It gives the whisky a spicy, woody, vanillaed flavour. And with spicy, I mean some kind of hot feeling as well

6. Chichibu washbacks are made from Mizunara. As far as I know this is the only distillery with oak washbacks

7. Suntory's big hit is Highballs, a whisky cocktail, based on whisky, ice, soda and a slice of lemon. Suntory Highballs can be bought from vendor machines all over japan and in all bars. After tours at Hakushu and Yamazaki, they give you Highballs. First a Highball based on the NAS and then a Highball based on the 12yo. If you ask you can try it neat, but you have to ask!

8. Fuji-Gotemba makes bourbon. A flavour component of their blends. I would really like to try this :-). Don't expect a japanese bourbon being bottled. Not under the "Bourbon" name as this is restricted to whiskey made in USA. Kirin owns two distilleries, Fuji-Gotemba and Four Roses by the way.

9. Like many scottish distilleries, most japanese distilleries use a pagoda roof as an easy recognisable part of their distillery. These pagoda roofs (originally the kiln chimnney in Scotland) looks like whisky to me and are built in the scotish style more than the traditional japanse style

Shinsu Mars Pagoda

10. Japanese whisky is quite comparable to scottish whisky in style and flavour. Japanese distilleries like Chichibu, Hakushu and Yoichi are making peated versions. I find that japansese and scottish whisky differs more and more the older it gets. The whisky simply matures in a diferent way. The difference at 12 years old might be hard to spot, but when we move above 20 years I find Japanese has matured somewhat differently. It tends to be less mellow and more wood character

Ah well. The 10th might not be a fact, it's just my opinion :-)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Japanese Whisky trail

Visiting distilleries in Japan involves a lot of train rides. So far I am on 7/8 distilleries and have a total of around 50 different train rides including 1 subway ride

Japanese laws don't allow distilleries public tours in production areas, but to facilitate tours there is shielded areas with fenches or glass windows that lets the public around a distillery. Only one distillery so far didn't allow photographs (Fuji-Gotemba)


In reality there is 8 working malt whisky distilleries in Japan (excluding Monde, which maybe should be added as well)

The distillery scene is dominated by three large operators, owned by the three of the major breweries dominating Japan

Nikka (Asahi) has Miyagikyo and Yoichi
Suntory has Hakushu and Yamazaki
Kirin owns Fuji-Gotemba

Beside this there is two smaller distilleries, Shinsu (Mars) and White Oak which had a somewhat on and off production resulting in very uneven age of their stock and Chichibu which is a new small distillery, in prodution for nearly 5 years. Chichibu is owned by Ichiro who is behind the Hanyo bottlings card series. Ichiro's family used to own the Hanyu distillery

In general the tours are very generous with the drams, but this generosity excludes drivers who are allowed only orange juice :-)

Approx. a third of the malts to try at the Yamazaki bar

Beside the 2-3 samples you get to taste, all distilleries so far had a bar where you can  try a range of very exciting stuff for a cheap price. So far this has always included all current bottlings available (within sense) and also sometimes components of these and single cask samples. I wish distilleries in other parts of the world had similar setups, as when visiting distilleries this is the kind of things you really want to do. I do for sure. This makes the Japanese whisky trails one of the best ones out there,but you have to be a little bit hardcore as there is quite some travels in trains and taxis included. Most of the distilleries are located in scenic mountain areas so there is something to watch while heading out there

Big thanks to Niels Viveen from Holland, a Japan and japanese whisky expert for organising this

Expect more reports coming soon from some or most of the distilleries. So far my Yoichi visit can be found HERE : A VISIT TO YOICHI

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A visit to Yoichi

Yoichi Distillery was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru. Masataka spend 1918-1920 in Scotland learning whisky making, and after returning to Japan with his scottish wife Jessie Roberta Cowan better known as Rita Taketsuru they decided to start their own company and start producing whisky up north on Hokkaido, which has a climate more similar to the scottish than the rest of Japan.
 Yoichi is one of two malt whisky distilleries owned by the Nikka Company, the other is Miyagikio. Yoichi has a capacity of approx. 2.000.000 liter
 Yoichi, named after the village where it sits in its center, is located in this quiet coastal village around a 1 hour train ride west from Sapporo. Don't expect the Shinkansen, leaving the train I felt more like being part of the first scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. The distillery is located a couple of minutes walk from the station, on the banks of the river running through the town.

The visit to Yoichi free. It's a visit more than a tour. You are left to yourself when touring the distillery grounds, with the option of joining a guided tour that departs every 30 minutes. Japanese only, so I did the self guided tour. You get a guide leaflet and are allowed into a range of buildings around the distillery. In these buildings there are small displays and short videos to be seen. You get into the tun room, still house and warehouse no. 1 amongst. They have shielded or separate areas for the tourists to stand in. Other parts of the disitllery are display areas about coopering, kilning and the life of Masatake and his wife and other things related to the distillery.
 The distillery is build in what I would describe as a scottish japanese fusion style and is very pretty. The most interesting part of the production is the still room, as the stills are fired by shoveling coal into a furnace beneath the stills!!

Yoichi Still Room

On the ground is a big tasting rooms, where you have the chance to taste 10yo Yoichi and 17yo Nikka blend. Two very different whiskies, and both very delicious. Beside the tasting room, there is a whisky museum, which is mainly in Japanese, telling you about whisky, the history and a lot of the links to Scotland. Mainly in japanese. As my japanese is not that good I spend most of my time in the bar that is located halfway through the museum. Here you have a chance to taste more or less the full range of Yoichi and Nikka, beside a few scotch. This includes the distillery only whiskies available at the distillery. And this is quite a huge range. 4 casks strength versions of 12yo Yoichi, differentiated by their flavour profile. The couple I tried was named "Wood and Vanillic" and "Salty and Peaty"). Beside this there 5 single cask expressions available, 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25yo. Added to this there is a big range of more regular Yoichi and Nikka whiskies, adding up to more than 20 different expressions. As the 25yo single cask is sold at a price of 900 Yen (52Dkr/6£/9$ approx) for 1½ cl, the prices are managable..

The only downturn to the bar, is that chlorinated water is served with the whisky. I thought it was very chlorinated and couldn't dream of adding this to the whisky. A local (well, he was from Sendai) standing next to me in the bar, said he couldn't notice any chloride, but also stated he was probably used to it from his home.

The distillery-only bottling shop 

There was also a restaurant, a visitor center, a gift shop and a single cask shop at the distillery. One thing I really liked is that all bottles were available as 18cl versions without any price markups. Somethings I really whished other distilleries would do. All in all one of the best visitor experienced I have tried when you just step in from the street. I wish my japanese were better or more info was available in english. The few people around the ground I tried to talk to found it very hard to communicate with me :-)

But I tried getting a few quesions through with somewhat limited success!