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Supper and Shizuoka Whisky Tasting with Nakamura-san

Note: Many thanks to Samsu Huay Kuan – our favourite cosy new Japanese whisky bar in Singapore – for hosting this tasting session!

 

The people running this distillery are clearly inspired folks.

 

Shizuoka Distillery, the embodiment of Taiko Nakamura's dreams. A visit to Kilchoman Distillery in Scotland and a meeting with Chichibu Distillery's Ichiro Akuto convinced Mr Nakamura that his dream was to make his own whisky. (Image Source: Web Restaurant Salt)

 

Nestled in the lush foothills of the sacred Mount Fuji is a region famous for its verdant green tea plantations, fiery wasabi and sweet, juicy mikan oranges. In fact, Shizuoka Prefecture’s mild climate and quality of sunlight allows it to produce 40% of Japan’s green tea and 80% of Japan’s wasabi. But there is more to this land than just its famous agricultural bounties.

 

Taiko Nakamura, President of Gaiaflow Distilling Co. Ltd. which operates Shizuoka Distillery (Image Source: Gaiaflow)

 

Add whisky to another great produce coming out of Shizuoka, because this is where Shizuoka Distillery is located – a humble rising star of the Japanese craft whisky scene. At the heart of the distillery’s process are its one-of-a-kind Pot Stills K and W. The first was salvaged from the legendary ghost distillery Karuizawa while the latter is currently the world’s only known direct wood-fired pot still that uses burning wood to heat the base, a very old technique that creates a rich and distinctive flavour profile. Shizuoka Distillery also took the trouble of tracking down the only living Japanese saké washback craftsman and had him build a Japanese cedar washback, traditionally meant for saké, for whisky.

 

Pot Still K was salvaged from the legendary ghost distillery Karuizawa (Image Source: Gaiaflow)

 

Pot Still W was specially designed by Nakamura's team to permit direct wood-fire distillation (Image Source: Gaiaflow)

 

The ex-Karuizawa pot still is in essence a piece of antique, and one can imagine how difficult it might be to have to work with such old equipment. In an interview with us, Shizuoka Distillery’s founder, Taiko Nakamura-san, has also described how much of a challenge it is to operate a direct-fire still: 

“The first thing about firewood is that it takes time to procure and prepare it… The thickness and dryness of the wood also varies greatly, so the burning of the wood is done by a specially trained person. The difficulty in adjusting the flame makes distillation difficult… The risk of using an open flame is great and there is always the risk of burns and fire. It is truly hard work!” 

The people running this distillery are clearly inspired folks.

 

| To learn all about the story of Shizuoka Distillery, read our interview with Shizuoka’s Taiko Nakamura

 

We recently attended a whisky tasting workshop hosted by Shizuoka Distillery’s Singaporean partners Samsu Huay Kuan – one of our favourite Japanese craft whisky bars in Singapore.

 

Owner Jeremiah Kee with the lineup of Shizuokas today. Put aside your Suntories or Nikkas for a moment and try the extensive collection of Shizuoka and other craft Japanese whiskies at Samsu Huay Kuan..

 

The tasting session takes us through a lineup produced by Shizuoka’s famous two pot stills. Bottles labelled “K” were distilled using Pot Still K, while bottles labelled “W” were distilled using Pot Still W.

 

 

To demonstrate the progression from still to barrel and then bottle, the lineup also includes new make – essentially “whisky” from both pot stills before it has been aged in a barrel. There’s also one private cask bottling featuring a blend of whiskies from both pot stills K and W.

Let’s dive right in to tasting.

 

Oh look - even supper was served.

 

New Make Spirit by Karuizawa Still (bottled by BlackAdder for Singapore)

 

Now, this looks like water but smells and tastes like anything but - anyone who has tasted moonshine would know.

The unaged spirit is rich and sweet, somewhat corn-like and a very apparent slightly woodsy, fragrant vanillic note that reminds one of boiled pandan leaf.

In the mouth, also very sweet and vanillic with a growing warmth and white pepper.

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

Prologue K Single Malt, 55.5% ABV

 

This is bright, crisp and refined with soft, mildly-acidic fruits. Very characteristic of first-fill bourbon barrel whiskies. It is quite mild and takes a brief moment to open up initially, but develops into bright and slightly acidic notes of apricots and light Japanese plums. 

In the mouth, this is also quite refined. Crisp and sweet notes of yuzu, white pomelos and Okayama white peaches combined with a mild briny minerality. Very nice complexity!

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

Pot Still K (100% Japanese Barley) Single Malt, 55.5% ABV

 

This is quite similar but feels slightly sweeter in aroma than the Prologue K. Opens with sweet smokiness – not really peatiness but smokiness. Heady aromas of honey, muscat grapes, lemon zest and even some marshmallow.

In the mouth, it’s punchy, medium-bodied and oily. More honey, peppercorns, grapefruit balancing out the sweetness and a tea-like aromatic ashiness. 

There’s quite a bit more brininess and minerality here – reminds me of a Caol Ila single malt!

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

New Make Spirit by Wood Fired Still (bottled by BlackAdder for Singapore)

 

Now, let’s compare this with the New Make K. This is equally sweet but softer, less peppery and has a somewhat more viscous texture. Also a good amount of sweet vanilla, but this time with a dash of slight funky preserved pickles or salted vegetables.

In the mouth, this is rounder and indeed sweeter than the New Make K, with flat peaches, some passionfruit but with noticeably more smoke, dryness and chalkiness.

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

Prologue W Single Malt, 55.5% ABV

 

Now this is approachable and enjoyable. Fresh, honeyed, floral and just sightly mineral. Bolder and more forthcoming flavours than the Prologue K for sure.

The palate is sweet and robust – sweet notes of honey, apples, apricots and a lively spiciness of ginger. Slight bitterness and a faint tea-like smokiness I could have imagined – this is supposed to be unpeated.

It’s interesting how some aging has significantly reduced the chalkiness earlier detected in the new make.

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

Pot Still W (100% Imported Barley) Single Malt, 55.5% ABV

 

By far our favourite of this entire tasting session. This is ostensibly the most honeyed and sweetest, with a bend towards a malty and rich profile.

On the nose, lots of decadent vanilla and honey, with a touch of singed wood and eucalyptus herbal candy. 

In the mouth, very very flavourful, opening with sweet honey with a good shake of cracked black pepper. Also lots of malt, graham crackers, toasted marshmallows before turning towards straw and wood from a barnyard.

Again, like the Prologue W, richness is the main allure here. This isn’t the most complex whisky that a connoisseur would love to mull over, it’s fairly straightforward but has very attractive rich toasted notes that would bring you back to it over and over again.

Read our review of this bottle here.

 

Private Cask Bottling 村木家の酒 Peated Malt Ex-Bourbon, 64.6% ABV

 

The final item in this tasting is a bottling made from peated malt comprising of whisky made from both Pot Still K and Pot Still W. This is a bottling for a private individual “Muraki” (村木家) who purchased a cask from Shizuoka.

This has a similar age but noses and tastes nothing like the others. Lots of dark maltiness in this one, with the usual honeyed sweetness and aromas of toffee, Guinness stout, caramel, toasted graham crackers.

In the mouth, also lots of depth with vanilla, roasted walnuts, toffee fudge, mild solvent notes and a dry oaky aroma that fades into burnt sandalwood smokiness.

The cask is supposedly ex-bourbon, but I would guess that this cask had been charred to a much greater degree than others used in the distillery’s standard bottlings. It doesn’t have the same Speyside-style crispness or brightness of the Pot Still K or Pot Still W, but appeals with its hefty notes of dark chocolate and dark malt here.

 

A chat with Nakamura-san

 

In the midst of the tasting, we were joined by Nakamura-san – the person responsible for making these whiskies himself.

Speaking to us about his experience working with Japanese barley and Scottish barley to produce the recent Pot Still K and W, Nakamura-san shared that whiskies made with Japanese barley tend to be lighter in character, with a focus on bright fruitiness and floral notes. On the other hand, Scottish barley tend to be heavier and maltier in character.

This is immediately clear if we were to compare and contrast the fruitier and brighter Pot Still K (made from 100% Japanese malt) with the very rich, honeyed and toasty Pot Still W (made from 90% Scottish and 10% German beer malt).

 

 

Like every other whisky-maker, blending is one of the most important processes in achieving the right finalflavour for Shizuoka’s whiskies. Nakamura-san also shared briefly about his team’s process in selecting batches of whiskies to blend, and the ideal flavour profile he strives to achieve.

Before blending, the team would taste the whiskies from over a hundred casks and take detailed notes of their flavour profiles. Next, they would begin creating “prototypes” for a specific expression – such as the Pot Still K. This is a long process of trial and error, and about 20 to 30 prototypes would be made for each expression. From these prototypes, they would select a mix with the intended flavour profile that best matches the identity of Shizouka Distillery and the specific expression.

In the case of the Pot Still K, Nakamura-san looks to highlight the taste of Japanese barley. The team therefore blends their whiskies with a view to creating a fruitier flavour profile. In the case of the Pot Still W which features peated malt, Nakamura-san looks to create a balanced and aromatic peated whisky.

Where the Contact S or United S are concerned, Nakamura-san looks to blend a whisky features both the fruitiness and lightness from the K and the richness and robustness from the W. The blending team thus looks to create an expression that is as smooth, balanced and approachable.

 

Japan’s contemporary grape wines often use of local and wild Japanese grapes, showcasing an interesting local palate and terroir unique to Japan. Craft whisky makers from Japan are beginning to shine a spotlight on Japanese wines from their use of Japanese wine casks (Image Source: Hannah Kirshner)

 

Interestingly, it seems that wine casks are increasingly popular amongst craft distillers Japan. While most whiskies tend to be matured in ex-bourbon casks at Shizuoka, one challenge that Nakamura-san’s team faces with younger sherry casks is that they may end up with notes of sulphur. This is why Shizuoka prefers using local Japanese wine casks over sherry casks.

In our minds, Nakamura-san’s story is worth some admiration. In a society that prizes and celebrates multi-generational craftsmanship – as in the case of 300-year-old saké brewers or multi-generational sushi restaurants – Nakamura stands out as a successful example of a first-generation whisky-maker. He has come a long way and has taken Shizuoka Distillery very far in the Japanese craft whisky scene, and earned the respect of whisky lovers from around the world. There is still an air of humility coming from Nakamura-san, who has shared in a previous interview that as a young distillery, he believes Shizuoka is still finding its way in creating its signature character.

Finally, we asked Nakamura-san what goes through his mind when he sees a bottle of Shizuoka Single Malt at the bar.

 

 

Nakamura stroked his chin and furrowed his brow and went “hmmmm” for quite a while, giving our seemingly simple question a surprising amount of consideration. Perhaps the man was reflecting on his last 10 years working as a distiller. Or perhaps he just couldn’t remember the last time he had free time to go to the bar for a drink. Wait - did the network fail on us?

Anxious… and curious about what whisky lovers would think of my whisky,” he finally said.

Well, I – for one – have tasted the stuff and have incredibly high hopes for Shizuoka.

 


We absolutely enjoyed this Shizuoka tasting and chat with Nakamura-san. If you'd like to learn more about his story and Shizuoka Distillery, we recently did an in-depth interview with Nakamura-san, who showed us how much hard work is involved in making whisky, gave us some travel recommendations for Shizuoka, and even gave us some advice on finding the right life partner.

Click here to read our interview with Taiko Nakamura, the founder of Shizuoka Single Malt!

 

@CharsiuCharlie