Whisky amongst the trees
Suntory's two main malt distilleries are conveniently located within easily-reachable distance from the major Cities of Osaka (Yamazaki Distillery) and Tokyo (Hakushu Distillery). Unsurprisingly, given the boom in Japanese whisky's popularity over the past 4 years, both offer tours. Yamazaki will be covered in the future issue, but this month the focus is on the picturesque Hakushu, which I was lucky enough to tour.
The Hakushu Distillery is located about 2.5hrs away from Tokyo by train, nearest to Kobuchizawa Station, which can be reached on a JR (Japan Rail) pass. You know you've arrived at the right place when you visit the station shop - a small unassuming convenience store, with a huge display of Suntory products, including Yamazaki and Hakushu bottles in all sizes!
A 10-15min shuttle bus or taxi fare ride brings you to the distillery, which is uniquely located in the heart of a huge, stunning alpine forest. It truly is a breathtaking setting - set right amongst the trees, there are small paths to take you from each building, and you really feel like you've stumbled across a secret distillery hidden amongst the trees. I always found Hakushu to have a slightly earthier, perhaps even slightly herbal note when compared with Yamazaki, and seeing the distillery in person helped me understand why this might be!
As Yamazaki's younger sibling (Hakushu was founded 50 years later in 1973), Hakushu's core range echoes that of Yamazaki (NAS, 12yo, 18yo and 25yo) but with quite different spirit. This is partially due to the altitude - at 700m, Hakushu is one of the world's highest distilleries, which results in a lower pressure and temperature distillation.
Tours are conducted in Japanese but with audio guides available for other languages. Whilst they do cover all aspects of production, and take guests through many parts of the distillery from mashing and fermentation through to distillation and maturation, they're not as in-depth as some of the enthusiast-focused tours held by some Scottish distilleries. There are no cask tasting nor in-depth discussions of wood management, for example.
Guests are given the opportunity to explore a maturation warehouse though, and it's quite an experience. Unlike a traditional dunnage warehouse, the warehouses at Hakushu (which are enormous) have casks stacked 8+ rows high, placed by an automated / mechanical racking system. It's quite a sight, although not quite as traditional as the warehousing at Yamazaki.
The main highlight though came at the end of the tour - in the form of the tasting! Whilst a dram of 12 and 18 were provided, the tasting bar also offered the 25yo, Hibiki 30, and a number of single cask Chita / Hakushu / Yamazaki whiskies at incredibly reasonable prices. It is definitely worth spending some time enjoying a few incredible drams after the tour (if you're not driving). If you feel like something Scottish, the tasting bar also had a range of Suntory owned / distributed drams, including Macallan, Glenfiddich and Bowmore.
For whisky lovers holidaying in Tokyo, and indeed even those with only a passing interest, a tour of Hakushu is highly recommended!