Hakushu

Although Yamazaki (1923) will forever go down in history as Japan’s first distillery, Hakushu’s story is every bit as interesting. Built in 1973, 50 years after Yamazaki, it has taken a remarkable journey that reflects both evolutions in the Japanese market and its unique approach to whisky production.

The Hakushu distillery

The largest distillery in the world

It was Keizo Saji, son of founder Shinjiro Torii and director of Suntory since 1961, who made the decision to build a second distillery. After many years of research, a vast forest at the foot of Mount Kaikomagatake in the south of the Japanese Alps (Yamanashi Prefecture) was chosen for construction of the new distillery. Located at a high altitude, the site was much colder and drier than Yamazaki’s. Despite buying over 80 hectares of land, Suntory used only a small part to build Hakushu, keeping the rest for later.

Indeed, the original Hakushu distillery was much further away than the one we know today. Construction was completed in February 1973 and this huge distillery (Hakushu 1) was equipped with six pairs of high-volume stills, all identical to one another: indirect steam-heated, with a lantern shape and downward lyne arm. A second building was constructed in 1977 (Hakushu 2) using the same model, making Hakushu the largest distillery in the world.

The aim was to produce a consistently light whisky with a sufficiently high quality for use in Suntory Old, the group’s leading blend since its launch in 1950. Between 1964 and 1972, whisky production in Japan had almost tripled and consumers’ tastes had moved towards higher quality whiskies like Suntory Old, leading the group to sell over 12 million cases per year in Japan.

A change in perspective

This period of high production came to a sudden and long-lasting end in the 1980s with the arrival of consistently high and regular tax increases (1978, 1981 and 1984), as well as a certain drop in interest in whisky in Japan in favour of other alcohols that were less heavily taxed and more in keeping with the times, like shochu. The industry did not recover until the 21st century. In this context, it no longer made sense to pursue mass production.

Hakushu 3 - or Hakushu East as it was known from 1988 due to its location in the east of the road that crosses the forest - was built in June 1981, and Hakushu West (1 and 2) ceased production shortly after. The new distillery took the opposite direction from its predecessors, installing smaller stills in different shapes and sizes, with both ascending and descending lyne arms, that were either direct-fired or indirect gas-heated and equipped with tube or coil condensers. The new washbacks were made from wood and both brewers’ and distillers’ yeasts were used for the long fermentations. Everything at the distillery was designed to produce very high-quality whiskies that would give the master blender as much choice as possible.

The still room.

This approach continued with the creation of a small grain distillery within Hakushu in late 2010. After two years of trials, it officially opened in 2013, just as the distillery celebrated its 40th anniversary. Again, the focus was on diversity and experimenting with different mashbills and yeasts, as well as different distillation strengths.

Iconic bottlings

Hakushu has and always will remain in Yamazaki’s shadow, something already reflected in the different ages of new bottlings from the two distilleries, starting with the ten years that separate the launch of Yamazaki 12 Year Old in 1984 and Hakushu 12 Year Old in 1994. The difference is also explained by Hakushu’s comparative youth, which leaves it with a smaller and younger stock. The 12 Year Old was followed by Hakushu 10, 18 and 25 Year Old and a Distiller’s Reserve.

Hakushu is also found in Suntory’s famous ranges The Cask, Owner’s Cask and Vintage Malt. Although hogshead and American oak editions are more common, a few stunning sherry and - even more rarely - Mizunara Japanese oak bottlings also exist. A Hakushu 1981 was matured in a Mizunara cask for 21 years before being bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (120.1).

 

Hakushu 25 Year Old

43%, 70cl

Hakushu often has a rural character reminiscent of the distillery’s surroundings. A quarter of a century’s ageing has failed to erase this fresh and aromatic profile, marked by notes of mint, eucalyptus, oakmoss and peat. Waxed wood and a handful of citrus fruits (mandarin, lemon) add the finishing touches to an ensemble that evokes Camille Corot’s late works with its green tones and slightly hazy texture. The whisky nevertheless rests on a very stable foundation, skilfully sculpted by the house’s master blender. 

 

Hakushu Sherry Cask 2013

48%, 70cl

Yamazaki’s sherry cask expertise are already well-known, but Hakushu also has a lot to offer in the field. This bottling reveals the typical chocolate, liquorice and dried fruit notes found in this type of cask - which are always of a very high-quality and in Spanish oak from Suntory - but Hakushu’s character also remains very present. This edition therefore includes notes of mint, eucalyptus, blood orange, a multitude of spices (clove, black pepper, ginger) and a subtle smoke. As a whole, it boasts incredible complexity, playing on its different tones and the interaction between the spirit and the cask.

 

 

 

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