Who Says Whisky and Coca-Cola Don’t Go Together? – Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery
Region: Toyama 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.
A nondescript warehouse, you'd have little reason to guess that inside, a couple of young fellows were hard at work, experimenting and trying to create some great whisky. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
Here’s a question for you readers, how do you unite a room full of strangers?
The answer: Tell a room full of whisky lovers you like your whisky mixed with Coca-Cola. You’ll wanna get out of that room right after you land that punchline.
Today, though, we’re gonna take a look at one of Japan’s oldest whiskymakers of sorts, and guess what – they happen to be one of Japan’s four major Coca-Cola bottlers. We’re talking about Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery, which belongs to the Hokuriku Coca-Cola Bottling Company, based out in Toyama Prefecture.
Let’s find out how a whisky distillery came to belong to one of Japan’s major Coca-Cola bottlers – an unlikely combination!
The Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery by day. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
“Be Like Water” – Adapt, Adapt, and Adapt
All the way back in 1927, Kotaro Inagaki, a second-generation president of a brewery, found himself in the midst of one of Japan’s worst economic recessions – the 1927 Showa Financial Crisis. Facing a massive slowdown, Kotaro embarked on a quest to navigate his way brewery out of the crisis. He visited other breweries and there he learnt of how high quality Sake was made. He figured that if his brewery made high quality sake but at affordable prices, he would be able to tide through the recession.
Toyama Prefecture is known for high quality rice and water, making Sake brewing an easy choice, which was what Wakatsuru was founded upon. (Image Source: Is Japan Cool?)
This led to Wakatsuru Shuzo Brewery’s foray into Sake. This was an easy first-choice given Toyama’s high quality rice and waters. The brewery invested in wells and other projects aimed at improving the quality of the water that went into the spirit. This ambitious plan worked brilliantly and so the brewery had prolonged its longevity.
Yet before long, World War II started and the brewery found itself in crisis again. Rice became a restricted resource and with no rice, there was to be no Sake. Again, Kotaro would set out on a quest to pivot the brewery towards something new. This time, he landed on Shochu, Whisky and Port Wine.
A photo of Wakatsuru's early attempts at creating a fermentation laboratory as it shifted towards whiskymaking. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
This was the result of Kotaro’s chance meeting with Shigetoshi Fukazawa, who had previously worked at the Kikkoman soy sauce factory, where he was an expert at fermentation of food products. This led to Wakatsuru’s first whisky – Sunshine Whisky, which was launched in 1952.
Interestingly, the name was the result of a crowdsourcing of ideas for the name of the new whisky. Through more than 2,000 submissions, Wakatsuru had landed on Sunshine Whisky, as the distillery had hoped to inspire resilience in post-war Japan.
An advertisement for Wakatsuru's Sunshine Whisky. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
Alas, less than a year into Sunshine Whisky’s debut, disaster struck! A fire had broken out in the distillation room resulting in six buildings having been burnt down. Yet thanks to the support from the local community, many of whom including farmers themselves who had come to the rubble to help out, the distillery was rebuilt in less than six months. Sunshine Whisky would live to see another day; or perhaps shall we say another 62 years.
Yet all this while Sunshine Whisky never found nearly the success that Kotaro had hoped. The whisky remained safely bottom shelf and truth be told, never really took off given its stagnating whiskymaking processes and lack of improvements in terms of creating high quality whisky. Despite a substantial amount of whisky having been produced, most of it remained in its casks and were never really bottled for sale. According to Stefan Van Eycken’s Whisky Rising, some years only saw 140 bottles of Sunshine Whisky being sold.
Sunshine Whisky unfortunately was not the success Wakatsuru had hoped it would be, though earnest attempts were made at improving its quality. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
This put the company’s whiskies in a peculiar situation when Wakatsuru would periodically put out uncommonly longer-aged whiskies in the Japanese market which stood out in contrast to what was available at the time – first in blends in the 1980s, where Wakatsuru had used 20 year old whiskies in them, and also in the early 2010s when the company would bottle a 20 year old single malt. Of course, it would go without saying that these whiskies would be priced commensurate to their relatively higher age statements – yet, for bottom shelf whiskies, would consumers be willing to bust out for them? Unfortunately, the answer was no. Sunshine Whisky could do little to shed its brand perception.
Wakatsuru's new blend, Moon Glow, which represented a significant improvement in quality. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
The distillery even tried their hand at creating a new Japanese blended whisky under the name “Moon Glow”, which has run for at least five iterations now featuring some of that 20 year old whisky. The Moon Glow attempted to shift customers’ perceptions of their whisky through the brand promise of producing blends that only used whiskies at least 10 years of age – again a bid to use their relatively well-aged inventory as an advantage. While it was met with fairly favorable reviews, even picking up a couple of awards at the World Whiskies Awards (WWA), again there seemed to be a ceiling as to how high they could raise the perception of customers.
In 2016, it was decided that the only way forward, was for a new brand to emerge – the Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery.
Incidentally in a turn of events, Saburomaru happened to find itself sitting on some of Japan's most aged whisky stocks. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
Fun Fact: Saburomaru bottled one of the oldest single malt Japanese whiskies (the term whisky is loosely used here), a 55-year old whisky matured in ex-red wine casks, and distilled in 1960. This competes for the crown with the latest Yamazaki 55 Year Old bottling which was also distilled in the 1960s.
This is where the Coca-Cola bit comes along. As it is now established that “pivoting” runs in the genes of the Inagaki family, they couldn’t just rely on selling 140 bottles of bottom shelf Sunshine Whisky could they?
A vestige from the Cola wars, you'll curiously find many bottlers in every part of the world, each with an incredibly interesting story to tell. (Image Source: Coca-Cola)
In 1962, a decade after launching Sunshine Whisky, the Inagaki family would get into the Coca-Cola bottling business by establishing the Hokuriku Beverage Co. Ltd. Over the next half a century, this would actually hold the success that Kotaro was searching for, as it became one of Japan’s four major Coca-Cola bottlers. In 2012, the Hokuriku Coca-Cola Bottling Company would come to fully acquire Saburomaru Distillery.
And that’s how a Coca-Cola bottler came to get mixed up with a whisky distillery.
The Saburomaru Distillery
“We must not let the only distillery in Hokuriku and its whisky making continuing for so many years die.”
The distillery underwent a massive refurbishment to support this new venture. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
In 2016, it was decided that if Wakatsuru was to become a serious player in the Japanese whisky scene, a refurbishment of its existing distillation site would have to be done. Through an unusual choice of fundraising, Wakatsuru held an online crowdfunder – which actually went much better than expected, raising some $340,000 USD (initial target was $220,000 USD). This resulted in a mass overhaul that saw the introduction of something truly unique – the ZEMON.
Toyama is also known for its copper, supplying 90% of Japan's copperware. (Image Source: The Japan Times)
Before we get to the dubiously named ZEMON, whatever the heck that is, we need context. So it happens that aside from great quality rice and water, Toyama Prefecture is also home to Takaoka city, which is also known for its copperware. The city has a more than 400-year history with the metal and is actually responsible for 90% of Japan’s copperware, as Nomunication covers. The publication goes on to mention that this goes into everything from “bells, Buddha status, lanterns,…”.
"Oigo, Oigo, Oigo..." (Image Source: Japan Cheapo)
Within this microcosm of the copper industry in Japan, is a company known as Oigo Works, which is by far and large the dominant copperware manufacturer. Nomunication also reports that if you spot a huge bell in a Japanese temple, it most likely came from the company. Next time you’re dragging some century old temple steeped in Japanese history into your Instagram picture, give a quick nod to that massive copper bell in the background, clap your hands together and say “Oigo” three times.
As you may piece together, the ZEMON is something made of copper – it is in fact the world’s first cast pot still!
The ominously named ZEMON. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
If you’re really knees deep in the technicality of operating a whisky distillery, you’ll know that the gold-standard Rolls-Royce of distillation pot stills (where the whisky is distilled) comes from Forsyths, a metalworks company in Scotland, - most distilleries use them.
Yet you might be surprised to know that Forsyths has a massive queue, you ain’t the only want in the business of starting a distillery it turns out. As such, waiting for one could hold a distillery up from making their first distillate for years. Not everyone’s got time for that!
Much like a Louis Vuitton storefront, if you're in the market for a pot still, be prepared to wait in line at Forsyths. (Image Source: Whiskypedia)
As such, Saburomaru Distillery has worked with Oigo Works to create the world’s first cast pot still. If you can’t get it, make your own right? After all, Japan’s most renown copperworks company and making of giant temple bells, is just right in your backyard. What’s unique here is that rather than creating a pot still the normal way, as Forsyths does it, which is to hammer copper sheets into the right shapes and welding them together, Oigo Works has instead created a pre-formed mold where copper is poured in, allowed to cool, and thereby takes the shape of the mold. Once the cast is removed, you get your pot still.
Oigo workers casting the lyne arm of a pot still. (Image Source: ZEMON)
As Nomunication wonderfully lays out, there’s some benefits to this method aside from skipping the line at Forsyths. Firstly, this is far less labor-intensive, this also allows for thicker walls and a longer shelf life, is much faster to manufacture and hence cheaper, a wider variety of shapes is also possible, and also different parts can be easily custom-made and swapped out, making the pot still somewhat of a Transformer – you wanna try using a different Lyne arm? No issue! Just swap it out for another.
Nomunication also points out another thing that’s interesting about this particular pot still made by Oigo Works is that an alloy of 90% copper and 8% tin was used, where tin is known for its ability to make alcoholic drinks more mellow, and is used in Sake and Shochu cups. So it goes without saying that we should expect to notice some apparent distinctive features about the whisky that is made using the ZEMON.
This won’t be a one-off initiative for Oigo Works, who is now marketing the same pot still manufacture process to other distilleries who are not particularly fans of long lines at Forsyths.
For more on this, check out Nomunication’s great article on the ZEMON.
Much in the vein of its original namesake whisky brand, Sunshine Whisky, the distillery only produces whisky in the summer, and turns to Sake in the winters. This fairly short production time frame leaves the distillery with some 25 barrels of whisky per year – really, really small by any standards. But that said, keep in mind that Saburomaru is still hanging on to a fairly large inventory of well-aged whiskies that have been made since the 50’s and well into 2016, when they turned focus onto the new Saburomaru brand. So production numbers don’t necessarily equate output of bottles here.
The Tonami Plain holds the ingredients for Saburomaru's whiskies. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
Going into the ingredients, Saburomaru uses imported malt from the UK, with a focus on making smoky whisky, the malt is therefore heavily peated (50 ppm). The yeast used is beer (or ale) yeast and also whisky yeast, for a mixed fermentation to create fruity aromas akin to their Sake.
When I inspected Nada and Fushimi's Sake Brewery, I realized that "Good sake is born from good water".
Although it was in the recession of Showa 2(1927), it threw a big cost and dug a deep well.
By using Shou River's clean water flow, the quality has increased greatly.
-Fusetsu50nen(50th Anniversary Journal),1963
As mentioned in the introduction, Toyama Prefecture is known for high quality, silky water, that comes from the fairly mountainous surroundings of the Hida Mountains and the Tateyama mountain ranges, that connects to Toyama Bay. One nice vestige from the past that has remained is that the distillery continues to use subsoil water from the Shou River, which if you recall, was originally invested into building by Kotaro Inagaki in the early days when he had hoped to improve the quality of Wakatsuru’s Sake. This water which comes from deep underground and is polished by the granite caverns, continues to be used today.
Toyama is known for its high quality water and temperate climate. (Image Source: Wakatsuru)
The seasons experienced at Saburomaru are also fairly slow changing, as it is located on land flanking the Sea of Japan and surrounding by vast paddy fields. Heavy snow is the norm in winter, with warm springs in between, and the climate is fairly humid, with slowly evolving seasons. This allows the whiskies to mature more slowly and age for much longer.
Moving on to barrels used for aging whiskies, Wakatsuru had previously used port wine barrels that the brewery had used to make port wine, when it attempted a pivot from Sake into whisky and port wines. Yet today, the new Saburomaru Distillery follows more closely to industry standards of bourbon barrels, sherry casks and red wine casks. However, in true Ji-whisky tradition, the distillery is actively working with local foresters and cooperages to create local Mizunara wood casks for use in maturing its whiskies, which is certainly something to look out for.
The Man Behind The Revival
While the Inagaki family has continued to run Wakatsuru all these years (more than a hundred years), having stewarded the business from spirit to spirit, through thick and thin, it was the fifth-generation Takahiko Inagaki who sought to revive the company’s whiskymaking ambitions. Given the magnitude of the feat, it would be easy to assume that Takahiko would be just as well-aged as Wakatsuru’s inventory, carrying years of experience under his belt.
The young Takahiko stands unfazed by the ambitious task ahead. (Image Source: Nikkei)
It would probably surprise you then that the man is only 34 years old (only 29 years old in fact, when he kickstarted the crowdfunding initiative to refurbish the distillery). Well, his hunch was right – the demand for Japanese whiskies was fever pitch, and at 29 years old, already successfully raised funds for the newly refurbished distillery. Score 1 – Takahiko.
That said, not much is known about about the young Takahiko. Nikkei did however manage to glean some tidbits about the young whiskymaker’s plans. According to the paper, Takahiko first tried whisky in his college years when he would go fishing in the mountain ranges.
An even younger Takahiko. (Image Source: Nikkei)
"I met whiskey at the fishing club of Osaka University, which I belonged to when I was a student. When I went into the mountains for fishing, I brought sake at first, but it was really heavy, so I decided to use whiskey with a high alcohol content. I changed it. But at that time, I was just saying, "I'm drinking whiskey."
– Takahiko Inagaki, Head of Saburomaru Distillery
Initially Takahiko would take a job in a foreign company in Tokyo, but later decided that he was more curious about manufacturing and decided to return to his hometown, Toyama. He later served at the family’s Coca-Cola business before moving over to Wakatsuru, where he wanted to get to the root of understanding “what is a single malt”.
"When I first entered the distillery, it was very old, with leaks, and my honest impression was that it had a taste, but the building was also tilted. On the other hand, the whiskey itself was hand-made. It was made seriously, and I felt that there was something that would shine if polished.
I found a malt whiskey made in 1960 at the end of 2015. It was known to exist, but it wasn't considered worth it. I thought, 'This is amazing.' In addition to the scent and fragrance, I felt that it was connected to the time of my great-grandfather who started making whiskey. I was confident that it would sell. I thought it would be. "
Takahiko dreams of drinking a 30 Year Old whisky made by himself on the distillery's 100th anniversary. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
As Nomunication reports, the young Takahiko mentions that he would like to drink a well-aged 30 Year Old whisky he’s made himself on the 100th anniversary of the distillery.
"Hokuriku is a Sake culture, but I want to spread the whiskey culture. Different barrels have different tastes. We are also working on a project to make whiskey from local Mizunara barrels."
With Takahiko’s youth, being the youngest distillery manager amongst Japan’s whisky distilleries, it would certainly be interesting (and impressive) to watch Saburomaru’s progress.
The New Saburomaru Whisky
Thus far (as of late-2021), Saburomaru Distillery has released two single malts that can be confirmed to only contain whiskies made by the distillery itself, that is to say these bottles fully qualify as Japanese whiskies under the new JSLMA regulations.
The 22 Major Arcanas of the Tarot Cards Series. (Image Source: Pinterest)
Something I find pretty cool about what looks to be the defining theme of Saburomaru’s release is that the bottles appear set to follow the famous tarot cards, composed of 22 major arcanas and 56 minor arcanas. It seems that we will be seeing a set of 22 Saburomaru’s following the 22 major arcanas. Thus far, the general consensus on these bottlings have been fairly positive and hopeful, seeing a fair bit of promise in what the distillery has in store. Yet, I believe what fans and onlookers are really waiting for is to try whiskies produced using the ZEMON stills, which were only put in use in 2019, and should begin to be released in 2022-2023. Exciting!
Saburomaru 0 - “The Fool”
The inaugural release, “The Fool”, is a heavily peated (50 ppm) Japanese single malt whisky, distilled in 2017 and bottled in 2020, making a 3-year old whisky. This bottling was distilled back when the distillery’s old stills were still in use.
Saburomaru 0 - "The Fool"
As with the tarot cards it follows, the release carries its own symbolism – that of starting from scratch with the opening of new future paths. The tarot card “The Fool” is said to represent Takahiko’s state of mind in revitalizing the Saburomaru Distillery. The Saburomaru 0 is the symbolic bridge between the rich history accumulated at Wakatsuru and the blue-sky future that Takahiko ushers with his fresh eyes.
Nose: Bready, Malty, Iodine, Light Smoke, Gentle Florals and Fruits, Overall Scent of Fermentation
Palate: Peppery, Bready, Malty, Smoke, Spices and Espresso
Finish: Long, Ashy, Bitter Espresso, Curd/Custard, Earthy
Saburomaru 1 - “The Magician”
The second release, The Magician, is said to embody the namesake tarot card’s symbolism, “one change and a new step, transformation, skill, new stage”.
In this bottling, the distillery had replaced the mash tongue that was in use for more than half a century, which holds the key difference from how The Fool was produced.. It was matured for 3 years in first-fill Bourbon barrels and was distilled in 2018.
Saburomaru 1 - "The Magician"
This bottling was also heavily peated, at 53 ppm, and was fermented using a mix of ale yeast and whisky yeast for 3 days. It is said to carry the following tasting notes:
Nose: Vanilla, Woody, Fresh Fruit, Bonfire, Bourbon Barrels
Palate: Malt Sweetness, Vanilla, Lactic Acid, Mellowness, Smoke
Finish: Moves from Barrel Incense to Lingering Smoke
Breaking Traditions – Japan’s First Whisky Swap
What happens when you let a person (younger than the distillery itself) with completely fresh eyes take over a half century old distillery? Unexpectedly you’re gonna find a couple of traditions being broken.
This cask is more symbolic than you think. On the left, Takahiko, and on the right, a staff from Nagahama Distillery. (Image Source: Japan News)
For as long as Japanese whiskies have existed, distilleries have refrained from swapping whisky stocks (ie. exchanging whiskies). The reason? There simply wasn’t a need for it. With only a handful of spirits giants, each boasting several distilleries under their stable, there was plenty of various whisky styles that these giants needed to produce a spectrum of high quality releases. This included the capacity to produce grain whiskies needed to make top shelf blended whiskies, something only a spirits giant would have the resources and financial dexterity to engage in.
Yet with the new JSLMA regulations, it is required that the entire bottling is distilled in Japan – that is to say, the bigger spirits giants can continue operating with minimal issues, yet the smaller distilleries would face a far larger hurdle – they would now have to find a way to get their hands on locally distilled grain whiskies.
A popular example of a "World Blended Whisky", the result of a shortfall of grain whisky production capabilities in Japan. (Image Source: Dekanta)
To get a sense of the magnitude of this hurdle, it should be noted that for a long time, most whiskies labelled as Japanese whiskies, were not entirely or at all distilled in Japan. Very often, distilleries or whisky bottlers (those that retailed whiskies but did not produce any themselves), would import the whiskies they needed from Scotland or Canada. As a result, you’ll often find many labels reading “World Whisky” or “World Blend”.
Not nearly as picturesque as malt whisky pot stills, grain whiskies are produced in continuous stills that sport an industrial aesthetic. Yet these mechnical behemoths hold tremendous power over the landscape of Japanese whiskies. (Image Source: Suntory)
As mentioned, many craft distilleries in Japan ran fairly small operations; even the legendary Chichibu Distillery was long operated out of a couple of small warehouses with less than 10 staff, up until their recent expansion. With such little resources, it is simply impossible for most of them to produce their own grain whisky, the few of which remained in the hands of the whisky giants. If you’re a craft distillery, good luck getting the likes of Suntory giving you some.
As a result, craft distilleries have several options (surprise, surprise, none of them are great); the first is to figure a way to make their own grain whiskies (financial and labor-intensive), the second is to convince another craft distillery to give you some (we’ll get to this in abit), and lastly, a distillery/bottler could relinquish their usage of the label “Japanese Whisky” (basically booted to bottom shelf in the minds of consumers).
Backed by financially heftier parent Komasa Jyozo, a popular Shochu maker, the likes of Kanosuke Distillery has been able to overcome the hurdle by retrofitting their existing Shochu production facilities to pump out much needed grain whiskies. (Image Source: Tabitto)
Now, it turns out that several craft distilleries have mustered the (financial) willpower to build their own grain distilling capabilities; the likes of Kanosuke and Sakurao distilleries have done so. This is in no small part due to their parent company’s extensive operations in retailing other spirits that grants them the necessary cash warchest to engage in larger investments in building out their new whisky ventures.
For the likes of Saburomaru Distillery, unfortunately it does not seem to be the case. They would have to find some other way to get their hands on some locally produced grain whisky. As such, the distillery has opted for what is called a “stock swap”; that is to swap whiskies with another distillery. A totally new, yet increasingly popular choice, even if not for the need of grain whiskies, but to give distilleries some exciting partnerships to shout about and market their bottles. “Chichibu x Mars Komagatake” certainly has a nice ring to it. It is after all, a strategy used by social media influencers who make guest appearances in each other’s channels to drum up hype and cross-market one another.
Taking a leaf out of the social media influencer playbook, distilleries are not just swapping whisky stocks out of necessity, but to tap on cross-marketing synergies. Pictured is Mars' President and Ichiro Akuto, the man behind Chichibu Distillery. (Image Source: Mars Komagatake)
In any case, it turns out that Saburomaru Distillery would hit up another new kid on the block, Nagahama Distillery (from the Roman Beer Company, a popular beer brewery in Japan). This partnership spurned a new set of bottlings for Saburomaru named “Far East of Peat”, a blended malt Japanese whisky, while Nagahama named their bottlings “Inazuma”.
In this particular instance, the first edition saw Saburomaru combine their heavily peated malt whiskies with Nagahama’s lightly peated malt whisky, which was subsequently matured in an ex-Islay cask. While it may not have been necessitated by a need for locally distilled grain whiskies, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get one’s hands on other whisky styles that can broaden the repertoire of one’s blended whiskies.
The products of the collaboration, Saburomaru's Far East of Peat and Nagahama's Inazuma. (Image Source: Nagahama)
Will we see Saburomaru keep up their partnership series of “Far East of Peat” bottlings? Taking a gander at Nagahama who has now released the product of their second stock swap, this time with Eigashima (Akashi) Distillery, it seems most likely the case.
In Saburomaru Distillery's rich tapestry of history, it is a distillery that has certainly gone through a lot, having had to navigate time’s twists and turns. While the majority of the its parent Wakatsuru’s experience with whiskies has been somewhat lackluster, a young wide-eyed Takahiko may just be what it needs to jumpstart its engine and bring the distillery the success it has been waiting for for more than half a century.
For his youth and perceived inexperience, I believe he's already begun to lay the groundwork for what will be mission critical in the road ahead - overcoming the shortfalls of their small scale operations. By being the first to use the ZEMON cast pot still, he's allowed the distillery to expand the styles of whiskies to be produced easily by swapping out various components of the still. By kickstarting the trend of stock swapping, he's ensured that the distillery is able to get its hands on whiskies that it isn't able to produce. These may not seem crucial at the moment, but trust me, they will prove pivotal in the years to follow.
Will Takahiko pull off his ambitious goals? Only time will tell, but I'm certainly rooting for him and Saburomaru. (Image Source: JP Whisky)
I’m certainly eager to try what Saburomaru has to offer, albeit the small size of its output at the moment, I am confident Saburomaru will find its footing and scale. Adaptability is after all in its DNA. After all, as the quote goes, “be like water, my friend”. The really nifty affiliation to the tarot cards series doesn’t hurt either (we’ve seen playing cards, Mahjong tiles, but we certainly haven’t seen this one yet).