Suntory, a Japanese drinks company, began making whisky in the 1920s at the foot of a mountain in Kyoto. Decades later, its chief blender scoured the countryside in search of a site for a second distillery before settling on a corner of Yamanashi Prefecture in the centre of Japan’s main island.
It is a picturesque spot: the Hakushu distillery is perched in the forested foothills of the Yatsugatake mountains, a range of mostly dormant volcanic peaks dotted with hot-spring resorts. But the location wasn’t chosen for beauty alone. The local water, which softens and purifies as it passes through alpine granite rocks, is the mother-lode ingredient in Suntory’s award-winning whiskies. Blended and stored in casks, the whisky absorbs changes in temperature and humidity, “slowly taking on the distinct aroma and flavour” of the local environment, according to my guide (the distillery tour begins with an invitation to take a deep breath of the forest).
The Japanese love of whisky began in the 1920s, when Masataka Taketsuru, a chemist from a sake-making family, returned from an apprenticeship in a whisky distillery in Scotland with a Scottish wife and the desire to introduce the Japanese palette to a new spirit. He helped to establish a whisky distillery for Suntory and Japanese drinkers soon developed a taste for it. When there was a lull in demand for local whiskies in the 1970s and 1980s, Suntory embarked on a strategy to give Japanese whiskies renewed cachet.
It is paying off. In the past decade, Japanese whiskies have begun thumping Scottish thoroughbreds in whisky-tasting competitions. Some brands are now as difficult to find as a seat on the bullet train during Obon holidays: shipments of Suntory’s Hakushu 12 and Hibiki 17 were suspended in 2018 because they couldn’t be made fast enough to meet demand. The value of scarce whiskies has shot up, too: just 50 bottles of Yamazaki, a 50-year-old spirit, were made, and last year a bottle sold for $299,000 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
For some devotees the trek to Hakushu is akin to a pilgrimage, so it is fitting that the tour begins in a cathedral-like visitor centre lined with old casks. The basic technology of brewing has changed little from a century ago. Barley is soaked in water to germinate, then dried, mashed, fermented and distilled. The slogan of the past still applies: wakon-yosai (Japanese spirit, Western knowhow). It isn’t enough to mimic Scotch; Japanese whisky must be better, says our guide. Suntory has tinkered with every part of the process, from fermentation and storage to the size and shape of stills.
The most important part takes place later, in a cavernous room where the spirit ages, drawing on the casks for its oaky flavour and golden colour. This can’t be sped up. As the whisky matures, up to 3% evaporates each year: “the angels’ share”. Were it not for Yamanashi’s cool forest air, the loss would be greater.
The tour climaxes with a tasting. A cask whisky, a lightly peated malt and the famed Hakushu single malt are placed before us. We’re invited to make a highball, a salaryman staple where the whisky is mixed with sparkling water. Our guide transforms this into a 40-proof version of the Japanese tea ceremony: just the right amount of water and ice are stirred into a glass, topped off with a single leaf of mint, before we are allowed to drink. The malt tastes smoky and sweet, rising up from the back of the throat to fill the nostrils, leaving behind whispers of yuzu and thyme – and a warm, mid-afternoon buzz.
Three tipples to try
Suntory’s iconic brand was made famous by Bill Murray’s turn in the 2003 film “Lost in Translation”, which is about an ageing film star who goes to Japan to make a whisky advert. Sweet and smoky, with a fruity residue of strawberries and pear.
Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt
Named after the so-called father of Japanese whisky, this amber blend from the Nikka distiller, is aged in a combination of woods, including sherry casks and new American oak. It is a good starter for many novice whisky drinkers. Chocolatey with a hint of coffee in the aftertaste.
Suntory’s smooth and soft single malt is one of the most revered of all Japanese whiskies. Fans say it tastes rich and milky and leaves behind hints of figs and walnuts.