Part I can be found here.
OK – I admit my first post on my visit to Hakushu was not exactly the epitome of well written verse. In fact, it was crap. My excuse is this: I sit in front of a computer all day and read and write. To add to the perilous state of affairs of my creativity, I am trained to write very simply with as few adjectives as possible. Translation: extremely dry, boring and well…boring. With this said, I will sound the alert for my missing creativity and attempt to write something that is halfway interesting for this second post on Suntory’s Hakushu distillery.
The whisky museum was an educational experience. I am simply intrigued by history in general, but adding whisky to the mix made it even better. Once I finished at the museum I decided to do the guided tour of the distillery. Unfortunately for me my Japanese is not up to par for the guided tour, so I was the lone foreigner rocking the radio and headset for the English translation of the tour. We reserved spots for the tour earlier online so when we signed up we were given two pretty cool Hakushu tumblers – not bad schwag if you ask me!
The first part of the tour took us to the fermenting room. At the time the outside temperature was about 31C. Then I stepped into the fermenting room and it felt like the temperature went up about 5 degrees. The heat combined with the overwhelming smell of fermenting malt made the room pretty uncomfortable. There were at least 10 large fermentation tubs in the room and each one had an approximately 72,000 liter capacity. I was not expecting the distillery to have this kind of capacity.
After several tortuous minutes in the fermenting room we were allowed to proceed into the much cooler distillation room with its copper pot stills. We were separated from the stills by a pane of glass, so I didn’t get the opportunity to get too close to them. The first row of stills is for the first distillation and the row of stills immediately across was for the second distillation. Some of the first distillation stills are significantly larger than their counterparts. After listening to the more rudimentary details of distilling from the tour guide we were lead outside into a waiting shuttle.
We all piled into the shuttle and were taken to a location where the distillery could showcase their cask charring skills. The tour guide admitted that it was only for show and that the actual charring is done inside one of the facilities. But what is not entertaining about a man with in essence a flame thrower lighting the inside of barrels on fire. The heat was pretty intense, even though I was more than 15 feet away. The other members of the tour oohed and awed as the barrel crackled and then was instantly put out by one quick splash of water from a ladle. I guess it did add some excitement to the tour for those that really weren’t interested in whisky…the handful of 10-12 year old kids in the tour come to mind.
After the pyrotechnic show we hopped back onto the shuttle and were taken to one of the storage facilities. This is one of the buildings that is used to store and age the barrels full of whisky. As soon as I entered the building I was slammed in the face with the strong scent of aging spirit. Apparently the angels like to let their share rest awhile before consuming it. I have a bottle of Hakushu 12 and the smell of the building instantly took me back to that bottle. After I got past the strong scent of alcohol I started to notice the sheer size of the facility. The place was huge! The best way I can describe it is by referencing the scene in the Matrix where Neo declares that he needs guns…lots of guns. However this time instead of guns he needed casks…lots of casks. The tour guide later mentioned that Hakushu has the storage capacity to fill up the Tokyo Dome. That is a lot of whisky!
After walking through a couple rows of aging barrels we all hopped back onto the shuttle and back to the gift shop/bar area. It was time to finally drink some whisky. Unfortunately for me, the latest craze in Japan is the highball – whisky and soda water. I despise this drink and believe that it is a complete and utter waste of single malt whisky. I sat at the table staring at the bastardization of a perfectly good Hakushu 10 while feigning to be happy about it when the tour guide walked by. I didn’t touch it, instead I walked back to the bartender and asked her for a Hakushu 10 straight. To my delight she was more than happy to oblige. I sipped down the 10 rather quickly because there was more work to be done in greener pastures. Next door was the more formal Hakushu tasting bar with a full range of the Hakushu and the Yamazaki line up. I quietly snuck out and made my way to the first bar stool I could find.
Once I sat down I was presented with a fairly formidable list of whiskies to choose from. It was like a dim sum menu – just check the box next to the whiskies you want and they will bring them all out to you. The pours were only 15mL, but that works better when you are trying more than a couple expressions. I wanted to check them all, but that wasn’t a realistic option. So I tried to narrow down the selection as best I could. I ended up ordering: Hakushu Smokey, Hakushu Sherry, Hakushu Bourbon, Hakushu 25, Yamazaki Mizunara (Japanese Oak) and Chita Single Grain. These were all new to me so it was great to get the opportunity to try them. Unfortunately for me I only had 30 minutes to get through them all as the sampling bar was closing. So I did my best to take my time and really taste each one while at the same time pushing forward to make sure that I got through all of them. I will give more details on each of the whiskies in a later post.
After stumbling out of the tasting bar I was assaulted by an ungodly amount of very cool but at the same time fairly useless souvenirs – other than the actual bottles of whisky. However since it is a custom to pick up small gifts for people when you go somewhere, I fell in line with the crowd and loaded up on some cask shaped chopstick holders and Hakushu key chains. After running the gauntlet of Japanese capitalism at it’s best I walked back through the peaceful forest back to the car and headed home.
The visit to Hakushu was a real eye opener for me. I was overwhelmed with the serenity and peacefulness of the mountains and forest on the one hand and then huge industrial and technological marvel of the distillery facilities. It was also interesting to see the differences between this large more commercial distillery and a smaller more quaint one. Hint: another Japanese distillery far north of Hakushu- look for that article to follow shortly.