Whiskey Wednesday: A Bitter-Sweet Hakushu

Life is a bittersweet balance. I’ve been hosting Whiskey Wednesday for going on six years now. It’s exposed me to more bottles and drams than I can count, constantly challenged me to stretch my creative muscles, and introduced me to some of the most delightful nerds/people that I’ve ever met.  I’ve grown as a person, a bartender, a writer and a insufferable know it all.

I never would have thought six years ago that these Wednesdays would be something that I would still be doing, let alone have my thoughts and notes for them become so expansive that they would undergo a biogenesis into a blog that people actually read. I also wouldn’t have survived all these years with some semblance of my sanity intact if things had stayed stagnant. Change, experimentation, and misplaced passion have kept me going.

And now it’s time for another change. After today, Whiskey Wednesday continues but it’ll become more abstract. Less about every scattered soul flocking to the bar once a week for a drink, and more about raising a glass from where ever we might be. So, for my last night behind the stick for the foreseeable future lets combine the past and the future and pour some Hakushu.

The Hakushu Distillery was found in 1973, 50 years after Yamazaki, it often seems to live in the shadow of its older sibling. It also lives in the shadow Mt. Kaikoma in the Japanese Southern Alps. This was a deliberate choice made by Keizo Saji, the company’s second Master Blender. He chose the site primarily because of the quality of the water. The naturally granite filtered water leant a subtlety and effervescence to the distillate but the site also offered a distinct microclimate with the surrounding forest and with it sitting at 700m above sea level its definitely one of the highest elevations for whisky distillation in the world. For comparison Scotland’s two highest distilleries, Dalwhinnie and Braeval, both sit around 355 meters above sea level.

All of this combines to create a spirit that is lighter, more delicate, and often more mellow than its Yamazaki counter points. Also, unlike Yamazaki, Hakushu utilizes peated malt. When combined with the distillery and terrior this peat takes on more of recently extinguished early morning, mountainside cooking fire than more maritime and often aggressive smokes of the Scots.

The distillery also takes to heart the Japanese respect for nature. It strives for harmony with its surroundings right down to its aging warehouses. Built into the mountain itself they utilize earthquake safe, single story tacks that are about 13 levels high. This kind of aging space, combined with the high elevation has allowed them to mature a spirit with relatively low barrel influence, especially for the age of the whiskey.

As for the whiskey itself, both Hakushu and Yamazaki import their barley, both the peated and unpeated barley. However, they do grind, mash and ferment on site. They have six pairs of stills at Hakushu with at least 4 different shapes. They then utilize five different type of aging casks while primarily focusing on ex-Bourbon and hogsheads. All of this diversity in barley, stills and barrels allows them to create what they call a combination of 40 different styles of whisky. Keep in mind Suntory’s primary craft, as they see it, is blending. And unlike Scotland where even rivals will trade barrels back and forth to get unique flavors for blends, Suntory was essentially trying to build a category from scratch. If they wanted diversity they had to make it themselves. And 44 years later it feels like Hakushu is finally coming into its own.

It may seem odd to call a 44-year-old operation “young” but when your primary marks are a 12 year and 18 year old single malt a 44 year old distillery may not be an infant but its still most certainly a toddler.  Hell, the first release of Hakushu 12 wasn’t until 1994, a solid 10 years after the release of Yamazaki 12 year. And while the Yamazaki has the experience and the award that come with it the Hakushu is certainly flexing it’s muscle.

Both the 12 year and the 18 year are primarily composed of three styles of distillate: unpeated distillate aged in sherry buts, unpeated distillate aged in hogsheads, and peated distillate aged in ex-Bourbon. These truly show off the complexity and depth of the distillery creating a whiskey that is light, yet powerful. The aroma of smoked pears wafts over a palette that is green, with a touch of citrus and smoke. The 18 draws out more of the stone fruit qualities while adding a touch more sweetness from the extra oak.

In short, Hakushu also knows what they’re doing and while it may stay in the shadows of its mountain forest home it won’t be in the shadows of its Yamazaki brethren.

So, come share a glass with me because it won’t be long before Hakushu catches up to the Yamazaki awards and it disappears like a forest mist of rarity and also because who knows where we’ll both be the next time we can.

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