From the few pictures I’ve seen, Suntory’s Hakushu distillery lies in a particularly beautiful setting. Seen from afar, its twin pagoda roofs, connected near the top by a covered walkway, nestled in a deep forest surrounded by mountains…it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic, if not idealized, setting for Japanese whisky making. It came as a surprise to me, at least, that beneath this arboreal splendor, lies what was at one time, and fairly recently at that, the world’s largest distillery.
Suntory founded Hakushu in 1973, purchasing not just land enough for the distillery, but a large area around the site as well to protect its reportedly exquisite water source. Hakushu lives quite high as distilleries go, at an elevation of nearly 2300′ which is about 750′ higher than Scotland’s highest distillery, Braeval. Initially, there was one still room with 12 pairs of stills (that’s 24 stills for the mathematically challenged, and yes, I am one of you), but in just seven short years, these 24 copper beauties were apparently running full steam and Suntory realized they needed what all overburdened distilleries need – more stills. A second still house came online in 1981, adding 6 more pairs (that’s 12 stills…) to the total. Now, with all 36 stills galloping along at full speed, Hakushu was able to claim the title of largest distillery in the world.
Alas, les bon temps did not roulez for long (yes, I know that’s French, I don’t know Japanese). Over the years, recession, tax increases, and the resulting lack of demand for the booze led Suntory to mothball the original stillhouse in 2006. The remaining functioning stills (12, by my count) are of myriad shapes and sizes, allowing Hakushu to produce many different styles of whisky, most of which serve Suntory’s popular blends. The distillery produces a range of spirit, from non-peated to heavily peated, all from malted barley they’ve imported from Scotland. The majority of maturation takes place in American Oak casks with some ex-Oloroso butts and a small percentage of new Japanese Oak casks making up the rest. In Japan and the rest of the world where Hakushu is more readily available, it’s core range is made up of a no-age-statement malt and 10, 12, 18, and 25 year old expressions along with limited edition releases. Here in the wasteland of the U.S., the Hakushu range is limited to…this 12 Year Old. Lightly peated, this one is created (or at least marketed) to be consumed both neat and in the “mizuwari” style (highball with water and ice).
The Nose: A really fresh, inviting, warm nose, with chocolate covered cherries, lush vanilla-tinged honey, cedar wood, and juicy raisins. Subtler notes of crushed almonds and dry hay. Very light peat notes, lightly medicinal yet covered in more floral honey. A small hint of smoldering grass and green wood smoke adds a nice counterpoint.
The Palate: Honey and dried fruit to start with a slightly oily mouthfeel. A lithe, cocoa-tinged burst of fruit and woody spice, with winey grapes, juicy tart apples, fresh grated ginger and green cardamom. A subtle bit of white pepper accompanies a nice swell of mild peat and smoke towards the end.
The Finish: A nice combination of citrus sweetness and complex tannins linger with oak, cedar, and drying spice, cardamom, white pepper and raw clove. That wisp of smoke from the nose and palate gracefully wafts through the finish as well.
Thoughts: This one is a delicious, intricate puzzle and has quickly become a regular in my cabinet. At times I find it similar to Highland Park 12 in that it’s a great all-around whisky with very well-structured hits of fruit, wood-spice, smoke and sweetness. But there’s also an exotic complexity that has just kept me coming back for more. Japanese whiskies can definitely be different animals and in my limited experience with them, perhaps none have shown off their unique quality more than this one. I spent most of my time with this one neat, but it’s equally delicious over ice, or in that tall glass with ice and water – diluted as such, it remains full of flavor. A painstakingly well-crafted whisky, light and crisp yet full of deeply complex flavors, highly recommended.