Visiting unique terroirs, meeting passionate (and therefore fascinating) artisans, and tasting the finest local products – both in terms of food and drink…
And it was on one of these trips that we got to travel Japan from north to south. For any visitor, the Land of the Rising Sun is an extraordinary destination. Juggling ancient tradition and futuristic modernity, the country creates a culture shock that is difficult to overcome. In just a few days, our itinerary took us to visit six Japanese distilleries.
Taketsuru’s legacy is everywhere to be seen, and his presence becomes particularly tangible when visiting the house he lived in with his Scottish wife. The furniture and décor, alternating between oriental and western references, create an authentic reflection of the couple. In the living room, visitors can sit in the master’s chair and get a sense of how important Rita was to him. When looking around the room, our attention is drawn to her piano, her paintings, and English books signed with her husband’s nickname, «Massan»… In the kitchen, there is even a huge jar filled with the umeboshi (pickled plums) made by Rita’s own hand! In this small house where time has stood still, the couple’s spirit lives on, filling the atmosphere with profound tenderness.
Yoichi stills are heated with a naked flame.
Mistake Taketsuru’s figure statur in Yoichi.
“Armed with a pipette and measuring cups, we give free rein to our palates to create the perfect blend.”
Swans welcome us on a small lake in the centre of the distillery as we discover the brand new visitor centre. At Miyagikyo, nature appears to have reclaimed the land. And it was also for the natural environment that Taketsuru chose the site, in particular for the purity of the water from the Nikkawa river. Surprisingly, the name is pure coincidence, and «kawa» simply means «river» in Japanese. We pass in front of a nameless building which is home to the distillery’s two famous Coffey stills. Imported to Japan in the 1960s, they were originally used at another site, in Nishinomiya, before being installed in Miyagikyo in 1999. From the outside, you would never guess that all of Nikka’s grain whiskies – the base for all of their blends – are produced under this one roof! The single malts are distilled in another building a little further way, where its large copper pot stills are housed. Unlike Yoichi, everything is designed to produce a delicate and fruity eau-de-vie. These imposing steam-heated stills encourage extraction of the lightest compounds. This produces a completely different style of spirit from Yoichi. When he was the master blender, Taketsuru decided to produce two completely contrasting single malts so that he could create the most complex blends possible.
Miyagikyo pot stills
Japanese Single Malt – 46%, 70cl
Limited Edition of 2934 bottles
Japanese Single Malt – 46%, 70cl
Limited Edition of 3132 bottles
Japanese Single Malt – 46%, 70cl
Limited Edition of 1926 bottles
From the outside, the cream coloured corrugated iron walls give this building built in 1985 an industrial feel. Only the two stills presiding over the entrance remind us of its pioneering past. The copper on these large stills has been blackened over years of loyal service, as we can read on the plaque which states, «1960 – 2014». Initially designed for the Yamanashi distillery (Mars’ second historic distillery, which closed in 1969), then moved to Shinshu, they are based on sketches from a certain Masataka Taketsuru… This is one of the Hombo group’s proudest claims, that Taketsuru’s first employer was none other than Kiichiro Iwai, founder of Mars Whisky.
Shinshu’s old stills
It is here, in Kagoshima, that we find Tsunuki, built on the ashes of a former shochu distillery. Tatsuro Kusano, the young master distillery, greets us at the door. At just 29 years of age, he has been put in charge of the distillery, which opened in 2016. He is incredibly passionate about his work and it is with rare enthusiasm that he shows us around the grounds. This comes as no surprise, however, as Tsunuki and all of its brand new equipment represent an incredible playground, and few distillers enjoy the same freedom as Kusano, whose only remit is to produce the best whisky possible. His daily work therefore involves continually testing new methods. The barley used is the same as at Shinshu. There are four types, divided into their level of peating, from «unpeated» to « highly peated » (50 ppm). This is one of the only things the two distilleries have in common.
Tatsuro Kusano, master distiller at Tsunuki distillery
Built in 2015 by the English group Number One Drinks (known for distributing Karuizawa and Hanyu), the distillery is brand new. The copper on the stills reflects the steel tanks and refrigerators. Because everything here is in one place. Along one wall, there is a pot still, a small column still, and then a series of miniature 1-litre pot stills that the master distiller uses to test new recipes. In the centre of the room are the steel tanks where the botanicals are infused. At their feet, two barrels on the ground are proudly inscribed
« Karuizawa » and « Caroni ». Inside the latter is the gin from our catalogue!
Mural fresco at Kennin-ji
The brand-new distillery
The distillery itself is one of the most fascinating we have ever seen. The washbacks are stirred by hand, using a long wooden paddle. The eight large, light beige and grey, mizunara washbacks fill their air with a very particular smell. Akuto, never one to do things the easy way, set himself the monumental task of using this special material. Mizunara is a very fibrous, unstable would that expands and contracts with the elements and every washback is encircled in a metal hoop that staff tighten and loosen as needed. At the back of the room, the Forsyth stills, with their narrow lyne arms, preside over the scene.
Ichiro Akuto, founder of Chichibu distillery
“The chalet-like visitor centre is something of a trophy room, with the awards received by the young distillery (Chichibu turned 10 in 2018) covering every wall, enough to turn its Scottish counterparts green with envy!”
Paris Edition 2018
Japanese Single Malt – 57.3%, 70cl
Small Batch – Hogshead & Wine Cask
Limited Edition of 1357 bottles
first Fill Bourbon
Japanese Single Malt – 58.8%, 70cl
Single Cask #1296 – First Fill Bourbon
Limited Edition of 216 bottles
Belgian Stout Cask Finish
Japanese Single Malt – 57.4%, 70cl
Single Cask #4548 – Belgian Stout Cask Finish
Limited Edition of 250 bottles
CHICHIBU 2011 Ex-Burgundy
Wine Cask Finish
Japanese Single Malt – 60%, 70cl
Single Cask #5080 – Ex-Burgundy Wine Finish
Limited Edition of 210 bottles