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Fore! Ontake Distillery: The Shochu Maker Melding Golf, Whisky And Sherry Casks - A Country Club Worth Signing Up For!

View from the Ontake Distillery! 


One distillery alone in Japan holds the clear distinction of being the most scenic - it's not even up for debate!

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.

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!



Ultimately Ontake seems to be heavily focused on its private cask buyers program - after all, they've fitted out a whole golf course for them! - and so any Ontake that's released into the wild by the distillery for the public is probably more of a sneak peak into what the private buyer's get to have. It's certainly a very unique marketing standpoint in getting folks to pick up their own cask - and so exclusivity is definitely a big part of the Ontake brand! You likely won't find too many of them out there on shelves for sale, which is quite the opposite of other distilleries that have typically focused on getting their bottles into as many stores as possible.

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!



Thus far, the distillery has only launched to the public it's inaugural expression, Ontake The First Edition 2023, which is a Japanese single malt whisky that's very interestingly been aged in first-fill Solera Sherry casks, 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 - we've reviewed it here!

Ontake has also laid out plans for a second expression to be launched in 2024, with its first limited edition slated for 2025! And if this might seem relatively limited, remember, you can always pick up your own private cask, play a round of golf and have as much Ontake whisky as you want!