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Pioneering a New Whiskey Style beside Mt Fuji: A Masterclass with Jota Tanaka

Editor's Note: This masterclass by the highly acclaimed Master Blender Jota Tanaka won't be possible without Asiaeuro Wines & Spirits Singapore. Many thanks for the invitation! If you're interested in Fuji Gotemba's whiskies, they are currently available on Asiaeuro's shop here

 

 

Of all the distilleries in Japan, Fuji Gotemba Distillery is the nearest whisky distillery to Mount Fuji.

 

For hundreds of years, it has been the inspiration for numerous artworks; paintings, poetry, and literature. It is climbed by spiritual pilgrims who believe it to be a sacred site, a gateway to the divine world and the home of a powerful fire deity. It is revered for its natural beauty and its status as a symbol of Japan, and has been designated by the UNESCO as an important heritage site.

 

Katsushika Hokusai’s "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" was created over 200 years ago but still remains the most iconic and well-known series of Japanese artwork around the world.

 

Sample analysis has shown that the water currently used by Fuji Gotemba Distillery is derived from snowfall near the peak of Mount Fuji exactly 50 years ago.

 

Mount Fuji, also known as Fuji-san (富士山 in Kanji), is one of the most famous and iconic places to visit in Japan. The active volcano’s significance to the Japanese can be traced back to ancient times.

Fresh, drinkable water is the lifeblood of any civilisation. We could speculate that Mount Fuji’s spiritual significance is linked to its ability to provide pristine drinking water to millions of people in the surrounding region for a millennia. A vast network of groundwater and freshwater springs originating from Mount Fuji spiders out to the surrounding region, providing water that could be used for drinking, cooking and farming. The exceptional purity of the water also makes it ideal for use in brewing tea and saké.

 

 

Thanks to Asiaeuro Singapore, I’m attending a valuable masterclass for Fuji Gotemba Distillery’s 2023 whiskey lineup. Speaking with us in a mild-mannered but emphatic voice was Master Blender Jota Tanaka of the Fuji Gotemba Distillery. Tanaka-san has over 30 years of experience in whiskey production from Four Roses in Kentucky and at Kirin in Japan. Through his storied career, he has pioneered techniques that made Japanese whisky a leading authority on whisky blending. He has won multiple whisky industry awards including the highest possible accolade for an individual that is the World Whisky Awards Hall of Fame (he is only the fourth person from Japan to win this award).

 
A view of Mount Fuji from nearby the distillery (Image Source: Fuji Gotemba Distillery)   

 

Tanaka-san repeatedly emphasised the importance of the environmental conditions and regionality of Fuji Gotemba Distillery since it began operating in 1973 near the foot of Mount Fuji. Of all the distilleries in Japan, Fuji Gotemba Distillery is the nearest whisky distillery to Mount Fuji. According to Tanaka-san, the environment gives it access to 3 “gifts” from Mount Fuji. They are the cool and crisp air with temperatures averaging 12°C, a misty environment with high humidity ideal for whiskey aging and most importantly, pure water from natural underground streams for whiskey-making.

 

 

Interestingly, sample analysis has shown that the water used by Fuji Gotemba Distillery is derived from snowfall near the peak of Mount Fuji a long time ago. How long? 50 years to be exact.

50 years seems like an incredibly long time for water to flow down a mountain. From a geological perspective, Mount Fuji is a composite volcano, in essence one formed from many layers of frozen lava spread during eruptions over 10,000 years ago which have hardened into an extensive conical base today. The microscopically porous nature of volcanic rock on Mount Fuji acts as a natural filter for molten snow, which flows through the layers of volcanic rock over many years, eventually reaching the groundwater and freshwater springs that feed the vast network of natural streams across the region, providing clean and pure water for hundreds of settlements including the location of Fuji Gotemba Distillery.

It is no coincidence that Fuji Gotemba is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. If you think about it, the spirit distilled in 2023 would be made from the same snowfall on Mount Fuji in the distillery’s year of founding in 1973. How romantic an idea!

 

Fuji Gotemba is one of the very few distilleries in Japan capable of producing both malt and grain whiskey on a single site. It is also widely considered to be the greatest grain distillery in all of Japan.

 

(Image Source: Fuji Gotemba Distillery)

 

Newmake spirit is then barrelled in oak barrels and kept in an immense warehouse ten stories high, and where the temperature is kept as uniform as possible for aging consistency. Here is where the cool climate and high humidity of Mount Fuji’s foothills promote very slow aging over a long period of time and a smooth taste profile.

 

Truncated Tale of 4 Stills

Apart from its association with Mount Fuji’s locality, Fuji Gotemba Distillery also took a very different approach in distilling its whiskey, compared to almost all other major Japanese distilleries. While other Japanese distilleries purely follow Scottish tradition and use Scotch whisky equipment (copper pot stills or continuous stills), Fuji instead adopts production techniques from 3 different regions – America, Canada and Scotland. This can be seen from the unique combo of 4 different stills at Fuji Gotemba.

There is the traditional Scottish pot still where malt is concerned, and a Continuous Multi-column Still that also produces Scottish-style light grain spirit.  

 

 

Yet there are also 2 other stills that do not exist anywhere else but in North America. Medium-bodied grain whiskey resembling Canadian whiskey is produced by a Kettle Still and while heavy-bodied grain whiskey is produced by a Doubler Still that is traditionally used by Bourbon-makers in Kentucky.

 

 

For the full story behind these unusual stills, read this feature.

 

You can therefore understand why Fuji Gotemba’s Single Grain expressions are spelt “Whiskey” with an “e” as a nod to its bent towards American and Canadian production methods.

 

Single Blend Pioneers 

We tasted this lineup of whiskies at Master Blender Tanaka’s workshop.

 

Tanaka-san and his team of blenders work towards the quintessential style of Fuji Gotemba, that is a “clean and estery” whiskey.

 

Here’s where the work of Tanaka-san as a master blender really shines.

Most blended whiskies in the market today are generally considered “cheap whisky”, while grain whiskey made in the traditional Scottish style are typically very light and lean, and often had to be supported by more flavourful malt spirit.

Fuji Gotemba is one of the very few distilleries in Japan capable of producing both malt and grain whiskey on a single site. It is also widely considered to be the greatest grain distillery in all of Japan. This is something of a quirk. In Tanaka-san’s words, single grain whiskey from other places are not as flavourful as Fuji’s single grain whiskey.

We were directed to have a whiff of the Fuji Single Grain Whiskey (NAS).

 

 

Interestingly, Tanaka-san presented this particular whiskey to us in two glasses: a standard Glencairn glass for tasting and a non-typical wine glass for nosing the whiskey. According to Tanaka-san, the shape of this wine glass was selected because it best expresses the aromas of the Fuji Single Grain.

And sure enough, the wine glass does help to open up the aromas of the whiskey. Big and sweet aromas of caramel, poached pears, raspberry fruit tarts, cream and even some peaches. Tasting it, I also get very sweet flavours of orange marmalade, raspberries, chocolate and a soft spiciness of rye.

You would recall that Fuji Gotemba Distillery has 3 different types of grain stills: the Scotch-style Multi-Column Light Grain Still, the Canadian-style Medium Grain Kettle Still and the Bourbon-style Heavy Grain Doubler Still.

The Fuji Single Grain Whiskey (NAS) is a blend of all 3 of these styles. According to Tanaka-san, the spiciness comes from the high rye content in the Doubler still, the Kettle still adds a rich profile while the column still adds a layer of lightness to the whiskey.

What is the distillery’s thought process when blending the components of Single Grain Whiskey? Tanaka-san and his team of blenders work towards the quintessential style of Fuji Gotemba, that is a “clean and estery” whiskey. Fuji Gotemba’s research has shown that this style of whiskies is much better suited to the Japanese palate that is used to fish and seafood. Tanaka-san went on: a clean whiskey means the spirit is smooth with no off notes. Estery means that the whiskey is most fruity and floral.

 

The flavour profile of the Fuji Single Grain Whiskey (NAS) (Image Source: Fuji Gotemba Distillery)

 

Tanaka-san pulled up a diagram with a series of cascading graphs visualising the intensity of various flavours as well as the gradual fade that we are supposed to experience when we taste the Single Grain Whiskey. It starts with jammy notes of raspberry jam, orange marmalade, then toasted notes of baked goods, followed by rye bread spiciness and then bright sweet kyoho grapes, with a clean and smooth tasting experience throughout.  

These flavours come from the grain spirit from Fuji Gotemba’s unique stills, as well as the ex-bourbon barrels exclusively procured from Four Roses Bourbon Distillery in Kentucky.

 

In 2002, Kirin purchased Four Roses Bourbon. Since then, Fuji exclusively sources its ex-bourbon barrels from Four Roses for its smooth texture and fruity, floral notes (Image Source: Four Roses)

 

Fuji Gotemba’s grain whiskies have a “humble style” as Tanaka-san describes, with lots of sweetness and a barrel-aged flavour that resembles chestnuts. This is also much more flavourful than most Scottish grain whiskies. Tanaka-san and his team undergo a lot of trial and error in blending various components and they consider how best to express the best parts of each component.

For decades, this high quality grain whiskey has been used by Fuji Gotemba to produce “single blends” – whiskey made of both malt and grain spirit from the same distillery. The distillery’s long experience of producing high quality “single blends” also enables it to bring blended whiskey back into the premium category. As Dave Broom once described Fuji Gotemba’s whiskies: “These are whiskies with a clarity of flavour, a brightness of character which you don’t find in Scotch.

After tasting the Single Grain, we’re directed to taste Fuji Gotemba’s proudest creation: its Single Blended Whisky.

  

 

But before that, we should understand why is it a big deal for Fuji Gotemba to create a “single blend”? Two words: Terroir and control. Firstly, because unlike 99% of blended whiskies (like Johnnie Walker and Chivas), all of the components of the blend come are fermented, distilled and matured at a single distillery in the foothills of Fuji mountain. This gives Fuji’s Single Blend a sense of terroir, or the unique characteristics of the local environment and climate that influence the flavour of the whiskey. Another reason why the single blend is special is because Fuji Gotemba has more control over the production process and can ensure that the final product meets their exact specifications. While other blenders have little control over the quality of the spirits that they use to create their blends, Tanaka-san could work with the distiller to create components which he could then select for his single blends.

Like the Single Grain, the Single Blended has very rich and sweet aromas of caramel, peaches and now with more honey and maltiness. Tasting it, this is very fruity and similar to the Single Grain, but is much more delicate, elegant and smooth with a more understated spiciness. There are many similarities to the Single Grain, but the blend is much brighter, smoother and incredibly easy to drink. Seriously, compare this with a robust Scotch and you would taste a world of difference.

This bottle is a combination of 4 components: grain spirit from the 3 different grain stills, and malt spirit from the traditional Scotch pot still. You can certainly see how the blenders at Fuji Gotemba created their ideal whiskey with a focus on a “clean and estery” flavour profile.  

Tanaka-san added that to achieve their “clean and estery” profile, it is key to have balance. The blenders pay special attention to the bourbon notes to ensure that they do not overwhelm the other more delicate flavours of the spirit.  

The next bottle is the top shelf Fuji Single Blended “2022 Masterpiece”, which contains whiskey with an average age of about 15 years. This includes components that are more than 30 years of age. The whiskey in this batch includes more interesting cask styles such as ex-red wine casks and beer barrels.

 

 

True to Fuji Gotemba’s style, this is sweet, very approachable, smooth and rich. Tasting it, this is very decadent with dense notes of cream desserts, chocolate mousse, black forest cake, strawberries and a finish of sandalwood.

Finally, we’re allowed to taste the most precious of the flight: the 30 Year Old Single Grain.

 

 

This is a blend of grain whiskey that are aged for more than 30 years old, including some aged for up to 40 years. The focus is on Canadian-style grain distillate which had been obtained from the Kettle still. The main batch was distilled sometime in 1988 and watched over by several generations of blenders at Fuji Gotemba.

This is incredibly mellow and refined, the age clearly shows. Very sweet, syrupy and dense palate with a mix of honey, dark chocolate, wood lacquer, toasted nuts and butterscotch. Lots of honeyed notes along with what Tanaka-san mentioned as “incense wood” flavours are present in this one.

 

Read our detailed review of all 4 whiskies here: We're Going On A Hike Through Mount Fuji

 

Two Peaks to watch for

One word that constantly pops up in my mind during this masterclass is “Peak”.

 

Fuji Gotemba prides its unique terroir for producing its whiskey. This is why they currently have no plans to explore maturing their whiskies in other regions of Japan.

 

The whiskey is first made with snowmelt from near the peak of Mount Fuji, and aged in the cool and misty climate conditions of the foothills.

In recent years it’s been getting popular for Japanese distillers to age their whiskies in different parts of Japan. I asked Tanaka-san whether Fuji Gotemba Distillery would ever consider maturing its whiskey in other parts of Japan to explore how different climates would affect the taste of the end product. To which Tanaka-san replied “I’m sure the whiskey would taste different if they were matured in different climates from Mount Fuji. However, at this moment, we have no plans to do so because we are still focused on showcasing the terroir effects of producing whiskey with the help of Mother Nature at Mount Fuji”.

 

Rather than age, blenders like Tanaka-san are trained to look for the "peak" of maturation when they taste whiskies (Image source: Tessa Randello)

 

When someone else asked the question regarding the age of the whiskey, Tanaka-san replied that the NAS expressions contain liquid that are about 8 years + on an average. Over his 30 years of training as a whiskey blender and expert, he sincerely believes that the age of a whiskey does not necessarily indicate how well-matured the whiskey is. “Rather than age, we blenders are trained to pay attention to the peak of maturation,” said Tanaka-san. Regardless of its age, a whiskey could be well-matured and ready for blending or bottling.

 

A refined, elevated “Japanese bourbon”?

Master Blender Tanaka describes Fuji whiskey as a more delicate and fruitier version of a "bourbon".

 

Fuji Gotemba’s whiskies taste so distinct from mainstream Japanese whiskies, especially with its rich and round style and a toasty oak character. Yet it tastes strangely familiar to most whisky drinkers. Most would describe it as a cross between a typical light and floral Japanese whisky with American bourbon whiskey.

Tanaka-san noted this similarity between Fuji and American bourbon and added with pride: “ours is a more delicate, elegant and fruitier version of that.” Indeed, having tasted the stuff myself, I do think that their exceptional blends showcase the best of grain and malt, creating whiskies with a clarity of flavour and a brightness of character that really stand out from other Japanese and Scotch whiskies.

As the distillery celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, it is indeed a remarkable notion to consider that the water used to create these whiskies has taken 50 years to filter down as snowmelt from the peak of Mount Fuji. This long geological process mirrors the patience and care that every generation of blenders at Fuji Gotemba have been applying to their craft since founding in 1973. The unique terroir, production process of Fuji Gotemba Distillery have contributed to the creation of some of the most exceptional whiskies in Japan, and they are definitely a distinct style that is a must-try for any whisk(e)y enthusiast!

 

@CharsiuCharlie