Hakushu

The Hakushu distillery was opened by owners Suntory in 1973, fifty years after the founding of sister distillery Yamazaki. After spending much of its early existence purely as a provider of blend fodder single malt for Suntory’s blends, Hakushu was first launched as a...

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The Hakushu distillery was opened by owners Suntory in 1973, fifty years after the founding of sister distillery Yamazaki. After spending much of its early existence purely as a provider of blend fodder single malt for Suntory’s blends, Hakushu was first launched as a single malt whisky in 1994 and arrived in Europe soon afterwards.

Hakushu’s elder sibling Yamazaki has always been a large scale distillery designed to make crowd-pleasing single malt and blended whiskies. Hakushu was originally set up to continue in this vein, but a major change of direction took place early in the distillery's history, when its function was changed not only to provide the company with extra distilling capacity, but also to fill gaps in Suntory’s stylistic palette.

To that end Hakushu today is a quite different distillery to Yamazaki, and makes rather more quirky and (to the adventurous malt fan) more interesting variations of spirit styles. 

The distillery is located within a forest 700 metres above sea level in the foothills of Mt. Kaikomagatake in the Japanese Southern Alps, where the water quality is extremely high and the cool microclimate is conducive both to distilling with a lot of reflux in the still - providing a light but flavoursome spirit - and to ageing slowly in the Scottish style.  

Hakushu uses only wooden washbacks (18 of them) and today runs eight pairs of stills of notably different shapes and sizes to produce several different single malt spirits. All but three of these stills are direct-fired, and some sources claim that up to 40 different single malt whiskies are made at Hakushu.

This versatility was a far cry from the original Hakushu distillery, which featured six identical pairs of large wash and spirit stills and was expanded with the construction of a second stillhouse (Hakushu 2) in 1977, with another six pairs of the same stills.

In 1981, however, the decision was taken to build Hakushu 3, a new distillery constructed to the east of the original site. Hakushu 3 was equipped with 12 stills in a range of different shapes and sizes specifically designed to enable a wide range of stylistic diversity. In another significant production change, Hakushu 3 was provided with wooden washbacks instead of the steel washbacks at Hakushu 1&2, to provide a further boost to the character of the whisky.

Soon after the construction of Hakushu 3 (now known as Hakushu East), the original two stillhouses Hakushu 1 and Hakushu 2 were shuttered and all single malt whisky production was switched to Hakushu 3. Hakushu 2 was almost completely demolished in 2006 and Hakushu 1 remains mothballed. 

In 2010 a grain distillation facility was added to Hakushu in a further expansion, raising the tantalising prospect of a Hakushu single blended whisky at some point in the future. With admirable caution, over two years were spent experimenting with the specially designed column stills before Hakushu's grain facility officially began production. 2014 saw four more pot stills added to Hakushu’s existing six pairs, bringing the total number of pot stills to 16, the same as at Yamazaki.

One of the key characteristics of most interest to Scotch whisky fans is Hakushu’s production of peated Japanese single malt whisky. Hakushu’s peatiness originally came from lightly-peated malt, but in the 1990s the decision was made to blend unpeated and heavily peated spirits to achieve the same phenolicity. 

This method was subsequently found to be unable to reproduce the desired style, and thus the lightly peated malt was reinstated in 2005. In recent years following the recognition of Hakushu as a world class distillery, small quantities of Heavily Peated Hakushu have been released as a single malt.

The combination of Japanese single malt whisky’s precision and meticulousness, Suntory’s dedication to the ‘correct’ old fashioned Scottish methods of distillation and Hakushu’s adventurous, grassy, smoky style has proven to be enormously successful with connoisseurs of Japanese single malt whisky and the distillery today has a legion of fervent fans. 

Sadly Hakushu has been particularly hard hit by the general shortage of Japanese whisky stock and in Europe the much-loved Hakushu 12-year-old is now seemingly available only at auction for unreasonable prices. The distillery’s army of adherents must wait patiently until Hakushu's maturing stock catches up with demand, although the recent expansions offer a glimmer of hope that aged Hakushu single malt whisky should be more readily available soon.

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