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A New Dawn for Sakurao Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Sakurao Distillery

Region: Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

 

(Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

Life is all about beginnings and endings. Often times along the way, one can find themselves stuck in a rut. Breaking out of it ain’t a breeze either. But sometimes all one needs is a spark to inspire the confidence needed to make a leap of faith. 

Sometimes it’s not just a person but perhaps a distillery. That’s kinda the story of Sakurao Distillery based in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan.

 

Chugoku Jozo's Sake (Image Source: Drinks&Co)

Like many other operations in Japan, Sakurao had initially started off their business to cater to local demand and hence focused on local spirits such as Sake instead. Sakurao Brewery and Distillery Co. (also known as Chugoku Jozo in the early days before they decided to jump right back into whiskymaking) was established in 1918 in the precinct of Sakurao, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima. And even then they had harbored ambitions of crafting their own single malt whisky.

This unfortunately wasn’t too successful and by the 1980s the distillery had given up hopes of producing their own whisky. They didn’t want to exit the whisky business entirely and so turned towards importing foreign-made whiskies and blended them to produce what is sometimes euphemistically known as “world whisky blends”.

When the distillery was unable to achieve liftoff with their single malts, they turned to importing whiskies from outside of Japan to produce blended world whisky, which they would age in Togouchi. (Image Source: Fairprice)

This came in the form of the Togouchi brand, which is actually relatively easy to locate in most Japanese specialty stores and grocery stores worldwide. That said, the company was not always so, shall we say, forthcoming with the transparency of their labellings, having called it “Japanese Blended Whisky”. I suppose a person of Japanese descent presumably did perform the blending, but of course one could mistake this to be whisky distilled in Japan rather. 

However, with the new labelling regulations set forth by the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (JLSMA), Sakurao can no longer retain such a labelling unless the contents of Togouchi was indeed distilled in Japan.

 

The distillery took the new JLSMA rules in their stride and so Sakurao Distillery was born. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

This existential crisis of sorts led to something somewhat miraculous – Sakurao Distillery had taken this as an opportunity to revive their long forgotten dreams of producing their own single malt whisky.

Despite the immense challenge ahead, Sakurao Distillery had decided to break out of their rut and make another go at it – they’re now back with their first and second release of their very own single malt whisky. This time compliant with the new JLSMA regulations.

 

 

A New Dawn

Through loads of research, consulting with bartenders, distillery equipment manufacturers and whisky experts around the world, Sakurao felt ready to take on the challenge. The distillery literally put their money where their mouth is and invested $100 million yen into fitting out the distillery, through which they also made sure to stay one step ahead of the game – they brought in enough capacity to produce both malt and grain whiskies, the latter of which is key for making good blended whisky.

 

Sakurao Distillery borders the Seto Inland Sea where the famous floating Torii gate stands. The Itsukushima Shrine is a popular tourist site, which will make the distillery a wonderfully scenic site to visit when opened. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

Something interesting about Sakurao Distillery is that they’re producing two ongoing lines of whiskies – the existing Togouchi, and newly launched Sakurao single malts.

What’s interesting here is that the distillery will use its unique ambient environment in Hiroshima, of seaside and mountains, to produce to differently aged whiskies.

 

 

The Sakurao Single Malt is aged by the seaside, facing the Seto Inland Sea to the south and the Chugoku Mountains to the north. This allows the whisky to mature under warm winds from the sea and cold winds from the mountains, where the whisky rests in the Sakurao warehouses located in Hatsukaichi. This large temperature differential throughout the year accelerates the whisky aging process, while allowing briny sea spray notes to permeate the casks.

Overall this has produced a fairly well balanced whisky with “subtle spiciness and moderate bitterness that delivers a long-lasting woody and smoky scent combined with a deep sweetness”.

 

(Image Source: Sakurao Distillery) 

 

Official Tasting Notes for Sakurao Single Malt
 
Color
Dark Amber with Reddish Tinge
 
Nose
Ripe Grapes, Orange, Bitter Chocolate 
 
Palate
Sweet Vanilla and Smoky Undertones with Subtle Spiciness and Moderate Bitterness
 
Finish
Woody and Smoky Aftertaste with a Deep Sweetness 
 
ABV
54%

 

 

(Image Source: Sakurao Distillery) 

In contrast, the new Togouchi Single Malt is aged in Togouchi, in the town of Akiota, where forests and pristine water streams abound, and nature is teeming between features such as the Sandan-kyo gorge and the mountainous ranges of Mt Osorakan and Mt Shinnyu, the two highest peaks in Hiroshima. The Togouchi Single Malt is aged in probably what is the most unique location I’ve come across – an old railway tunnel that passes through the mountain ranges. The unused railway tunnel has been repurposed by Sakurao Distillery into a second aging warehouse for its whiskies.

According to the distillery, the unaged malt whisky is able to “absorb the subtle scent of the lush natural environment” through its casks and when left to age in the dark and cool (low temperature, but also pretty cool) tunnel, develops gentle, fruity and sweet flavors. This is the location of where Togouchi’s blends have been matured till date.

 

(Image Source: Sakurao Distillery) 

 

Official Tasting Notes for Togouchi Single Malt
 
Color
Golden
 
Nose
Undertones of Tender Green Leaves, Fresh Apples, Sweet Marmalade and Apricots
 
Palate
A Subtle Sweetness that Soothes the Senses
 
Finish
A Refreshing and Gentle Aftertaste
 
ABV
52%

 

More can certainly be said about the new distillation equipment that the distillery has gotten its hands on, but for that you’ll need to head over to Nomunication for a much more indepth look at the distillery from the inside (definitely well worth the read!).

 

The coastal-aged Sakurao single malt. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

 

The Road Ahead 

Thus far these two single malts are the start of Sakurao Distillery’s renewed enthusiasm within the whiskymaking space and are already out in the market. From our gauges, it seems like most of those who’ve managed to get their hands on the bottles have found them fairly pleasing with a sense of optimism towards the distillery realizing their full potential.

 

The distillery is massively ramping up capacity with the new $1 million USD investment. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

But the distillery isn’t stopping here, as it just outfitted its production facilities with an increased capacity for grain whiskies in 2021, the distillery plans to begin bottling blends starting 2023, when their grain whiskies meet the minimum requirement of 3 years of age to be labelled as “Japanese whisky” under the new JLSMA rules.

One thing that is fairly peculiar is that the distillery now has two Togouchis - a blended world whisky Togouchi (the ongoing release) and a new single malt “legit” Togouchi (the new release). Our guess is this will likely persist till 2023 when the distillery is able to begin releasing their own blends, but till then, the Togouchi blend will likely be needed by the distillery to plug the sales gap. Don’t pick up the wrong one!

 

 The new Togouchi single malt. Don't get mixed up! (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)
 

It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the distillery progresses along and at least for the next 3 years, we’ll just have to be content with trying to new single malt.

 

Our Take

This set up of having two different “styles” of whiskies is fairly reminiscent of Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hakushu, Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo, just to name a few. The inverted commas around the word “styles” reflects that in Sakurao Distillery’s case, it is primarily the type of maturation that is different, rather than the method of production.

 

The Togouchi tunnels where the Togouchi single malt and world blended whiskies are matured. This is in comparison with Sakurao's coastal maturation. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

I find this strategy very traditional, which clues me in to the distillery’s true age, having lived another life as Chugoku Jozo, a Sake producer, for over a 100 years. The sensibilities are remarkably similar to old school distillers like Suntory and Nikka, which then hints at what the distillery’s focus will likely be – blended whiskies.

 

The two single malts give fans a rare chance to compare side by side the effects of two completely different aging conditions. But ultimately their blend is what we should be looking forward to. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

Ultimately, the goal of producing various whisky “styles” and also upgrading production to include grain whisky producing capacity, tells you where the distillery’s focus lies. Hence, we should keep in mind that the single malts produced thus far are really only the infant phases of Sakurao’s full transformation. It is the final blended whisky to be released in 2023 that will be the distillery’s crowning glory, hence much of the pressure will be on whether that product is able to show up to such high expectations.

 

The two inaugural single malts show the new distillery is back in business. (Image Source: Sakurao Distillery)

That said, no less excitement should be reserved for the first two single malts and whichever single malts comes next, I’m certainly curious to taste both whiskies and compare them to one another. Rarely do we get the chance to do a side-by-side comparison of two similarly produced whiskies under different aging conditions. 

Who do you think you’ll prefer? The coastal Sakurao or the gentle, forested Togouchi? (Just don’t pick up the wrong bottle)

 

Kanpai!

 

 

@111hotpot