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Whisky Reviews

Ontake The First Edition 2023 Japanese Single Malt Whisky


How about that! We're going to taste what has been billed as whisky from Japan's most scenic distillery!

Most folks in the Japanese whisky scene would probably already have guessed Ontake, and they're right! Ontake Distillery sits on a mountaintop (400m above sea level) overlooking Kagoshima City and Kinko Bay, in the south of Japan, and not just that, it's got a golf course attached to the distillery! This makes Ontake the third whisky distillery in the Prefecture.


View from the Ontake Distillery! 


The distillery comes from Nishi Shuzo, a spirits producer that has been historically best known for making Houzan branded sweet potato Shochu (and so it's no surprise that they're in Kagoshima, which is well known for sweet potato or imo shochu). Nishi Shuzo is well-established and dates back to 1845, and just as is quite usually the case for many Japanese companies, they're engaged in quite a number of things, including operating a New Zealand winery, and then of course in 2019 had begun distilling whisky at Ontake Distillery.

The name "Ontake" comes from the collective name of the three tallest peaks of the Sakurajima volcanic mountain ranges that reside in Kagoshima - individually they're known as Kitadake, Nakadake and Minamidake.


Sakurajima volcano.


So how did the whole golf course come about? Interestingly, Nishi Shuzo had already purchased the Kagoshima Golf Resort in 2011 (it's about 20 minutes by car from Kagoshima City), and had initially outsourced the resort operations to a contractor. Nevertheless after several years, the contractor had pulled out and left Nishi Shuzo to operate the golf resort themselves. Around that time, Nishi Shuzo was also on the hunt for a suitable site for its whisky distillery, particularly looking for somewhere with clean water and air, the obvious key ingredients for good whiskymaking.

And so the idea came up that the distillery could instead be housed within the golf resort itself! After all Nishi Shuzo had a pretty sizeable plot on the mountain top, and further to that, folks at the company probably thought there'd be some synergy as its golf club members could on the one hand be offered something unique in the form of private casks of whisky, and that would serve the dual purpose of getting the distillery its first customers. Really taking down two birds with one mountaintop golf club!


The once golf course.


And so preparation works were done to not only establish an on-site whisky distillery, but to even construct a barrel-ageing warehouse in the premises of the golf club. Early private casks were offered only to members of the golf club, and this filled up pretty quickly, which even meant constructing a second warehouse for storing barrels, as the first one was already filled up less than 3 years into its operation. The company's manager had mentioned that this would be a positive for cask owners who could visit their casks regularly, check-in on the maturity of the whisky (private casks can be matured on-site for 10 years, longer than most other whisky distilleries in Japan), chat with friends and have a round of golf!

Ontake would also make it a point to further differentiate itself by using non-seasoned Oloroso Sherry casks (which appears to be Solera casks, which are well-aged casks used in the Sherry-ageing Solera system), as opposed to the industry standard of using casks that are seasoned with Sherry for the specific purpose of dumping out the Sherry and using it to age whisky (and hence seen as lower quality Sherry casks). Yeasts were specifically selected by Nishi Shuzo for the project, and the distillery focuses on using non-peated malt, though having stated that they do hope to do their own in-house malting in the future, along with fully using locally-grown Kagoshima barley.


Very Shochu-styled!


That said, the company did consider that perhaps the Ontake Distillery shouldn't be seen as just a nifty sidepiece to its golf club, and so has aimed to emphasise the distillery's importance, which came in the form of major renovation works to the golf course. They're so serious about their commitment to be a bonafide quality whisky producer, that they even returned all of its golf club member's deposits and closed it off for a period, with the goal of making Ontake a "distillery with a golf course for a garden".

On top of that, there'll be a new clubhouse and private cask owner's room, a reception building with a dining room and a whiskey shop - moving forward, the golf course will only be available to members of the Ontake Distillery Owners' Club, that is you've got to own a cask of Ontake whisky for you to play golf there. 



Sounds a little bit overboard? Well, the company points towards traditional whiskymaking countries such as Scotland and Ireland, where some of the most scenic golf courses neighbour some incredibly historic whisky distilleries such as the Old Bushmills Distillery that has even hosted The Open golf tournament in 2019.

Well, from what I've heard so far, the entire venue is incredibly luxe and aesthetic, with many folks who've visited saying that it's most certainly the most gorgeous whisky distillery in Japan!



Now, I typically prefer to keep write-ups producer/bottler isolated, but I think to not acknowledge the zeitgeist here might be alittle incomplete. There's not only much anticipation towards Ontake because of all that's been done to establish the distillery, the fact that the distillery's location is so unique, or that it comes from a highly regarded Shochu producer (Nishi Shuzo) - it has to be acknowledged that some of that excitement also comes from the fact that Ontake's Kagoshima neighbour, Kanosuke Distillery, has been on a bull run as of late and have simply burst out of the gate with great results, having leveraged its expertise as a Shochu-maker themselves (Komaza Jyozo, which produces the Mellowed Kozuru aged Shochu). The hope here is obviously that Ontake follows the same trajectory!

And so with all that said, we're now going to try Ontake's first publicly released single malt Japanese whisky! This is Ontake 'The First Edition' (or stylised as 'The 1st Ed'), which was matured in first-fill Solera Sherry butts, bottled in 2023 (so presumably around 5 years old? Although it is technically an NAS), at 43% ABV.

PS. This was very generously shared at a local bottle share, big shoutout to the friend who shared this!

Ontake The First Edition 2023 Japanese Single Malt Whisky, 43% ABV - Review


Tasting Notes

Colour: Amber

Aroma: Prominent Sherry, we're talking dried plums, stewed prunes, leather, accompanied by some aromatic rancio that's abit of barnyard, alittle yeasty without bordering on sour, it's giving dried foodstuffs you'd find at a local market. It's moderately rich, though not quite dense but neither is it light.  

Taste: Really smooth, rich, big honeyed notes, lots of stewed prunes and plums, leather, light toffee. Medium-bodied here with a dominant prune and honey note.

Finish: More rancio - leather, barnyard, plum candy. There's a deep and concentrated sweetness at the core of long-cooked plums, perhaps pie filling. It's accentuated by a soft milk chocolate note too.


My Thoughts

It's hardly ever that we get to try a whisky aged in a Solera Sherry cask (which is presumably at least 20-30 years old, and having been pretty much soaked in higher-grade Sherry the entire time, as opposed to having been seasoned with Sherry which typically ranges from a few months to less than 2-3 years of Sherry contact, as well as being in contact with lower-grade Sherry) - and it's certainly yielded some interesting results.

For one, the Solera Sherry cask's influence is really mellow and soft. It's given the whisky lots of prunes and plums, as well as having developed quite a big honeyed and rancio character, but that said this wasn't particularly dense or rich, and hadn't quite touched the classic heavy "fruitcake" Sherry - chocolates, leather, tobacco, toffee; those richer, denser and darker flavours that we typically associate with Sherry cask maturation. Don't get me wrong, it's there, it's just rather light.

It was nevertheless a very unique take on a Sherry profile that we hadn't quite seen before, with the rancio being very well developed - you've got all these dried fruits of plums and prunes that give off this mustiness. Kudos to Ontake, it's gotten that rancio under control quite well, without being too overwhelming and turning sour. That said, I do wish it had more depth, richness and intensity or punchiness. 

This could either be the result of the cask being more inactive and inert after its prolonged use, or the result of Ontake's efforts to make a very clean profile for its whiskies which has meant focusing heavily on having a very clear wort and wash, and having configured their setup similarly. Regardless, it's certainly a decent first showing - it'll be interesting to see where Ontake goes from here!