IF there is one country that has seen its whisky scene booming and becoming a stronghold name among whisky enthusiasts in the past decades, that would be Japan.
The industry started developing in the 1920s thanks to its founding fathers Masataka Taketsuro – who learnt the ropes in the industry by studying and working in Scotland and then bringing his knowledge back to his homeland – and Shinjiro Torii, who founded Yamazaki, Japan’s first whisky distillery, as well as the world famous company Suntory.
There is a strong connection between Scotch and Japanese whisky, the latter having been profoundly influenced by methods of production in Scotland.
However, it came as a surprise as earlier this year an Inverness-based distillery became the distributor of a piece of Japanese whisky history.
A rare allotment of whisky from the lost distillery Shirakawa has been in fact resurfaced and released earlier this year by Tomatin Distillery, the common thread being the company behind the two distilleries: Takara Shuzo.
“I don’t think I have ever heard of a story quite like this since I have been in the industry,” says Tomatin Distillery brand ambassador, Scott Adamson.
“I think that’s something that has taken a lot of people by surprise, first of all that this whisky has been discovered, bottled and released, but also that it was a distillery from the Highlands of Scotland are the company behind the release of this whisky. It’s a fascinating story.”
Founded in the city of the same name in Fukushima in 1939 by a company called Daikoku Budoshu (a company behind the Karuizawa Distillery, another important part of Japanese whisky history), Shirakawa Distillery was then bought in 1947 by Takara Shuzo. Operating for nearly six and a half decades, it produced malt whisky between 1951 and 1969, one of the first distilleries in Japan to do so. The vast majority of the whisky produced was used in Takara Shuzo’s flagship ‘King’ blended whisky brand. However, the 70s took a downturn for Shirakawa.
“From the 1970s, Takara Shuzo and many other Japanese whisky producers started importing malt whisky from Scotland to bolster volumes for the blends, and so, many whiskies from 1970s onwards had good amount of Scotch whisky in them, therefore, Takara Shuzo didn’t need to make more whisky in Shirakawa any more.
“In 1986 the company purchased Tomatin Distillery, which had gone into liquidation only a couple of years before – after a past as one of the world’s largest producers of malt whisky. Takara Shuzo decided that, rather than lose the supply of malt whisky that they were getting from it, they’d rather buy the distillery.”
“We’ve gone on and changed completely now,” says Adamson. “We are a much smaller and focus Far more on quality over quantity, but that’s how we got involved with Takara Shuzu.”
“Ours is a very interesting relationship with them. Whenever I mention at tastings and similar occasions to people that testing Tomatin has been Japanese-owned since 1986, this is often met by healthy scepticism about what that involves.
“The response I’ve always given is that, first of all, if Tomatin had not been purchased in 1986, it might still be a closed distillery. In terms of a country that respects culture and tradition and history, you can’t hope to be bought by a better country than a Japanese company.
“Little things like the fact that we have 30 cottages on site today is great, we are probably the last distillery in Scotland that still owns the houses and provides some to its workforce, so we have 3rd, 4th and 5th generation distillers living and working on site. For a lot of distilleries that were closed in the 1980s, the first thing that happened was that the houses were sold.”
After Shirakawa stopped making whisky it went on to produce shochu – a spirit made by distilling rice, barley or other ingredients and which became the number one selling spirit in Japan in the eighties. Shirakawa Distillery then was demolished in 2003. With it, a small but very important part of Japanese whisky history was gone. In 2011 the land on which distillery was built on was given to the Fukushima prefecture to build an emergency accommodation following the earthquake.
Stephen Bremner, managing director of Tomatin Distillery had become intrigued by parent company Takara Shuzo’s history of malt whisky production in Japan and why so little was known about this aspect of the company’s history. Determined to uncover more, he pieced together anecdotal information from previous employees about whisky production and searched for long lost documents that might shed some light on Shirakawa’s single malt Japanese whisky making past.
The final remaining parcel was identified in Takara Shuzo’s Kurokabegura in 2019. The liquid had been distilled in 1958, aged in casks, then transferred to ceramic jars. When Shirakawa closed, it was put into stainless steel tanks at Takara Shuzo’s factory in Kyushu.
“This is probably the only reason why we are able to have this whisky today,” said Adamson.
“We also learned that this is also the earliest vintage single malt ever released of a Japanese whisky, we don’t have a record of a vintage single malt released in Japan before 1958. So, this discovery is not only important in the story of Shirakawa, it’s massively important in the story Japanese whisky.”
He said that, according to analysis and research, the liquid is known to have been matured in oak casks, however the type of cask and length of maturation remains unknown to this day. What is known is that the batch is from a time when the distillery used mainly Japanese malted barley and Mizunara oak casks.
Limited to 1500 bottles, the Shirakawa 1958 is available to purchase from the distillery’s website and other selected retailers, priced at £25,000 a
This is a rather fascinating dram, multi-layered and complex, a very interesting interplay of ashy feel, a savoury element and a sweet component.
On the nose the wood is at the forefront, a resinous hint that combines with manuka honey and then develops into salted popcorn, then ashes after a barbecue, and then a feel of fragrant. This complexity continues on the palate, the texture of incense spread in a cold room, its mellow smokiness balanced by a kick of pepper, and then an aniseed-like freshness, unexpected, in the background. The finish reminds of that rich yet powdery feel of 85 per cent (or plus) dark chocolate. An umami, salty note lingers in the background.