Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Distillery Tour #2: Suntory Hakushu Distillery (Japan)

As promised 2 or so weeks ago we're kicking off the first of many JapanTour14 posts, with a tour of Suntory's Hakushu Distillery, a few hours West of Tokyo.

Both Suntory tours (the Yamazaki tour post will be up soon) took a bit of planning for this trip. When booking hotels and deciding where to be and when, we thought we should probably consult the distillery opening days, given we were travelling around The Emperor's Birthday and New Year. Good thing we did, both distilleries were planning large closures over the new year period, but luckily we managed to squeeze in during their last days thanks to some help from Suntory Australia.

The Hakushu Distillery is located about 2.5hrs by train West of Tokyo. We took a JR train (which was included in our JR Pass, but otherwise would have been ~$120AUD / $755HKD return each) to Kobuchizawa Station, and then a 10-15min taxi ride (~$22AUD / $138HKD) to the distillery itself. A free coach service provided trips back to the station, and may have even arranged pickups if we'd enquired. You know you're in the right place when the (small, rural town) train station shop has a display like this:

Often seen as Yamazaki's younger brother, Hakushu (founded 50 years later in 1973) has a core range that echoes Yamazaki's (NAS Distillers Reserve, 12yo, 18yo, 25yo) but with a very different spirit. Far more earthy and herbal, and after one look at the distillery it's not hard to see where this might come from. In addition to being one of the world's highest distilleries (at an altitude of 700m), resulting in lower pressure / temperature distillation, Hakushu is set amongst some of the most dense and luscious alpine forest in Japan. It really is a beautiful setting, with the distillery, visitor centre, and barrel houses dotted around this stunning backdrop:

We joined the tour as the only non-Japanese speakers, and were given a headset with a pre-recorded tour guide in English (we knew to expect this - neither of Suntory's distilleries run tours in English). The tour, as I'd read beforehand, is pretty much a standard whisky tour. It takes about 40 minutes all up (including a brief bus trip), and you get to see the mashing, fermentation, distillation room (although only through the windows as it was closed for maintenance) and one of the larger barrel houses. You can also spend some time wandering around the (small but interesting) museum before or after your tour.

The tour does get you up close and personal at times (walking past the Douglas fir washbacks, walking between the large pot stills when the room is open, getting up close to the barrels etc...) but unlike certain Scottish distilleries, there's no cask tasting, no in depth discussion of the wood management program, or other sorts of things you might expect if they ran an "enthusiasts" tour (hint hint Suntory, this would be awesome). I guess given the popularity of Japanese whisky at the moment, that's not overly surprising. The tours are still very popular, running every 30 minutes (and with at least 25 people on ours).

The highlight of the tour was the non-temperature controlled barrel house. Unlike any ageing warehouse I'd ever seen in person, the automated racking system stacks barrels at least 12 high, and as far as the eye can see in pretty much all directions. A seriously mammoth facility. Impressive, but somewhat lacking that sense of tradition or hand-craftedness you get wandering around a traditional ageing warehouse (wait for the Yamazaki tour post).

Notice I said "highlight of the tour"? The REAL highlight actually came after the tour, when we visited the tasting room....

The standard tour (which by the way is completely free) includes a Hakushu highball (though we were kindly ushered aside for a tasting of the 12 and 18, and given a few departing gifts from the giftshop which was a lovely gesture!) but those willing to stay after the highball are in for a real treat. Apart from having a great setting (check out that outlook above), the most impressive part of this room was the whisky menu, and its frankly ridiculous prices. Hakushu or Yamazaki 18? That'll be ¥500 (just over $5AUD / $33HKD). Hibiki 21? That'll be the same. 1995 single cask Yamazaki? ¥200 (just over $2AUD / $13HKD). 1986 single cask Yamazaki? Whoa big spender, that'll be ¥800 (just over $8AUD / $52HKD). Granted the serves were all 15mL half-drams, but for us that was perfect, as it meant we could try more whiskies.

For the whisky nerds (guilty) they also had the various component whiskies that make up whiskies like Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 17 - including Mizunara cask, sherry cask and puncheon varieties. All between ¥200 and ¥1,200. The new make Chita (grain) was also interesting, and as steal at ¥100 (yes, $1AUD / $6.60HKD).

The menu wasn't limited to Japanese whiskies either, with a number of the whiskies Suntory either owns, or has exclusive distribution rights to in Japan, at similarly fantastic prices. Everything from Macallan 30 (both Sherry and Fine Oak), to Bowmore 25 to Glenfiddich 18 to Laphroaig 18, and even Jim Beam if you're feeling so inclined.

Of course we made the most of this opportunity (leaving some out knowing that Yamazaki, which we were visiting 2 days later, would likely have a similar menu), and decided we'd catch the later shuttle bus back. Or the one after that...

Our final visit was to the gift shop, which is worth visiting, but which I feel we should warn you about. Anyone expecting to pick up a bunch of single cask, rare, limited release Suntory whiskies is likely to be disappointed. You know how Japanese whisky is popular in pretty much every market now? Well it's even more popular in Japan. Some stores struggle to get even the most basic bottlings, and so the idea of finding a cheap, distillery-special single cask bottling was never going to happen. The shop did actually have an odd-looking 300mL Hakushu bottling for ¥1400 (which was included in our gift, along with some very nice pens made from old casks), though details were scant and we've yet to crack it open. The Suntory shop in Osaka, on the other hand, does have the odd limited bottling (generally in 200-300mL sizes) which are relatively cheap and (from our tasting) very enjoyable. Worth seeking out if you're ever in Osaka.

All up, we both had a thoroughly enjoyable time and would recommend the tour to anyone who enjoys their whisky...but make the most of it, don't drive, and give yourself an hour or so after the tour to sample the menu.

Steph & Martin.


  1. How are the prices there compared to the airport duty free?

    1. They're pretty standard, but airport duty free doesn't have a big Japanese range at all (they often run out of even the most basic stuff).

      I wouldn't really bother with duty free in Japan - prices are excellent in the retail shops, and the range is much better.

      You'll get Hakushu a little cheaper in the retail shops than at the distillery, but at least you'll FIND it at the distillery, so if you don't want to miss out, pick up a bottle there. :)


  2. Is that black box the Yamazaki 25? I know the 18 has a similar box but that looks like a 25. If so, did you see how much it was? I'll be there next month

    1. Pretty sure those were the 18s. They did have some 25s, from memory around 190,000yen, although we were there in Dec last year, so it wouldn't surprise me if they no longer have any stock.

      Great price to try by the dram at the distillery tasting bar though!