Half a century after the Yamazaki distillery was first established, the Hakushu distillery was completed in 1973, when Suntory had decided to expand their stable of distilleries to further catch the momentum of a growing whisky market in Japan. They had sought to create a new whisky that was distinctively different from both Yamazaki and Scotch whisky. This was to further differentiate Japanese whisky as a category separate of Scotch and build an identity of its own, especially after initial efforts by Suntory to imitate Scotch whisky had flopped in Japan.
Hakushu distillery finds itself amidst lush forestry that is wildly scenic, surrounded by mountain ranges, and also happens to be the highest elevated distillery, at an altitude of more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It is for this reason that Hakushu is also known as the “Mountain Forest Distillery”. As we’ll uncover, much of this was a deliberate effort by Suntory to channel Hakushu’s natural climate into a unique whisky of its own.
Fun Fact: Hakushu believes in co-existing with its surroundings and has set aside more than 820,000 square metres of forested land and has even established a wild bird sanctuary.
Similar to Yamazaki, Hakushu boasts a sizable distillation facility equipped with multiple stills, enabling the production and subsequent blending of a wide variety of Hakushu expressions. However, Hakushu differentiates itself by exclusively utilizing wooden washbacks in contrast to Yamazaki's combination of wooden and stainless steel washbacks or other Japanese distilleries that employ Mizunara washbacks (such as Chichibu). This unique choice allows the naturally occurring lactobacillus, present in Hakushu's forested environment, to contribute to the fermentation process of the malt, adding distinctive characteristics.
Another notable aspect is that Hakushu is the only distillery within the Suntory portfolio to utilize peated malt, which is imported from Scotland. The soft water used in Hakushu, with its reduced mineral content, allows the lightly peated malt to impart a smoky profile without overpowering the whisky, striking a balance that sets it apart from the more heavily peated Scotch whiskies.
Location, Location, Location
Just like the origins of Yamazaki, Suntory's belief in the significance of water sources for their whiskies led them on a pursuit to discover exceptional water for mashing, a process that converts starch from barley malt into fermentable sugars through enzymes. This quest brought them to the town of Hakushu, situated in the Yamanashi Prefecture, nestled between Tokyo and Nagano. This picturesque location served as the ideal setting for their exploration.
Nestled at the foot of the Southern Alps of Mount Kai Komagatake, Hakushu benefits from the pristine water that originates from the snowcaps, trickles down the mountain range, and is sourced from the Ojira River. This remarkable distillery is enveloped by dense, verdant forests and situated at a high elevation, providing a refreshing and pure atmosphere alongside a humid climate.
The distinctive combination of being the sole distillery in the world situated amidst lush forests at a high elevation sets Hakushu apart. It is precisely this extraordinary location that contributes to the creation of a truly exceptional whisky.
Hakushu has gained renown for possessing one of the highest-quality water sources in Japan, to the extent that it has received official recognition from Japan's Ministry of Environment. Interestingly, Suntory even bottles its own mineral water, known as Tennensui, in Hakushu, which has achieved remarkable popularity across Japan.
As previously mentioned, Hakushu acquires its water from the Ojira River, which converges with the nearby Jingu River, forming a fan-shaped white sandbar at the mountain's base. This geographical feature inspired the town's name, Hakushu, meaning "white sandbar."
In each bottle of Hakushu whisky, you will discover water derived from the melted snowcaps of Mount Kai Komagatake, filtered naturally as it traverses a network of underground granite springs. This pristine snowmelt water possesses a lower mineral content compared to the water used in other distilleries, rendering it remarkably soft yet imparting a distinct sharpness to the taste. Consequently, whiskies crafted with these waters exhibit a delightful and gentle flavor profile, distinguishing them from the deeper and more robust character found in Yamazaki whiskies.
The Hakushu X Factor: Less Distillations
The altitude at which a distillery is situated plays a significant role in shaping the characteristics of its whisky. A higher elevation, coupled with lower atmospheric pressure, allows distilleries to reduce the number of distillations required to remove impurities from the whisky. This reduction in distillations not only eliminates impurities but also preserves the phenyls and esters that contribute to the whisky's complex flavor profile. As a result, the whisky retains more of these compounds, creating a more robust and flavorful expression.
Hakushu, with its exceptional high-altitude location, benefits from this phenomenon. The whisky produced here requires fewer distillations, allowing it to capture and showcase the magnificent natural climate that surrounds the distillery. Additionally, the use of softer water further enhances the whisky's profile, allowing its flavors to flourish like a symphony in full orchestral mode.
The cool, clear air and humidity present in Hakushu's forested surroundings, combined with its elevated location, also have a significant impact on the whisky during the maturation process in on-site aging warehouses. In this humid climate, alcohol evaporates at a faster rate than water inside the cask, resulting in a higher proportion of water compared to alcohol and a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) in the whisky. To mitigate this effect, Hakushu employs smaller casks that minimize the surface area for evaporation, thereby reducing the angel's share (the percentage of alcohol lost to evaporation) to approximately 3% annually, slightly higher than the average of 2% observed elsewhere.
When considering these factors together, Hakushu's climate, characterized by higher humidity and the use of smaller casks, creates a maturation process that is slower and more gentle, resembling the Scottish whisky-making tradition. This deliberate choice of location for Hakushu allows for a compelling fusion of Japanese whisky craftsmanship with a climate reminiscent of Scotland, resulting in a whisky that exhibits a distinctively Scotch-like character, setting it apart from Yamazaki.
In summary, Hakushu's distinctiveness stems from its remarkable location amidst the cool yet humid Southern Alps at a high elevation, the utilization of softer and less mineral-rich water, and the inclusion of peated malt for a delicate smoky profile. The influence of its forested surroundings on the distillate further contributes to its unique character.