Whisky on the Red Dot #06

FEATURE

Impeccable taste is the natural result of generations of hands-on experience at brewing sake.

Bandai-oroshi: Frosty Winter Mountain Winds Create an Ideal Environment for Aging

At 8:00 a.m. a siren signals the start of the workday as the distillery workers stride to their stations with a sense of pride and purpose.

The distillery team is surprisingly young. Daisuke Taura supervises operations at the distillery despite being a mere thirty-five years old. His unique background is what earned him this position. Before he was tapped to manage operations here, he owned a bar in Koriyama, where his exposure to the Single Malt Scotch Whiskey Caol Ila evolved into a life-changing love affair. The artisans working under him are all still in their twenties.

Each new batch of whisky begins with four hundred kilograms of malt, which is milled into a course grist, then shifted to a mash tun, a large tank, where the grist is blended with twenty-four hundred liters of hot water. After that, the mixture, now called a mash, is moved to a washback, a stainless steel fermentation tub, where it is allowed to ferment for seventy-two hours under the watchful eye of Master Distiller Taura.

One wonders how they establish the standards by which they evaluate their whiskey.

“In sake brewing, one only develops a reliable nose and refined palate over time,” answers Mr. Yamaguchi, adding that this level of refinement is a unique strength of the Asaka Distillery.

He continues, “Sake brewing has a vocabulary as rich as its history, including such nuanced concepts as Amakuchi meaning, roughly, sweetness, Karakuchi or approximately, dryness, Uwadachika, literally the ‘rising aroma,’ relates to the bouquet that rises off of the sake when brought close to one’s nose, and Fukumika, the aroma that is released when one inhales mid-sip. Whisky tasting, on the other hand, tends to borrow vocabulary from more mundane expressions such as ‘vanilla like’ or ‘spicy, a vocabulary that we find frustratingly limiting. It was only natural for us to incorporate our sake brewing sensibilities into our whisky-making.”
 
This unique Japanese sensibility permeates every aspect of operations at the distillery. They have even gone so far as to experiment with using sake yeast from the brewery instead of more conventional imported yeast cultures. They tested four strains of yeast in total, and each one released novel qualities in the spirits it produced. They found the Daiginjo yeast particularly impressive, giving off rich Daiginjo sake overtones as it fermented.

More recently they have begun experimenting with aging whisky in oaken sake barrels. They are excitedly anticipating discovering how the rich umami and delicate nuance of the sake will play out in the finished whisky.

Even the local climate contributes to the quality of this one-of-a-kind product. They have dubbed the Asaka Distillery the windy distillery, after the strong winds that blow across the plane, in particular the merciless cold, dry, winds that blow down from Mt. Bandai in winter. These blisteringly frigid winds, called the Bandai-oroshi, create an extreme disparity between the summer heat and the winter chill, which brings out remarkable flavors in the whisky that the distillery ages here.

The distillery has only been in operation for a little over a year, since autumn of two thousand sixteen, and even though they have only released a very limited number of products so far, the products they have released amply illustrate a uniquely Japanese sensibility that can only have come from their two hundred and fifty year legacy of sake brewing combined with the craftsmanship of a dedicated team of highly skilled young whisky makers.

Words: Pen Editorial
Photography: Kitchen Minoru

After milling, the malt is categorized by texture as husk, grit or flour. The right balance of textures is another crucial element in the whisky making process.

Distillers look intently into the mash tun. A good distiller must watch over the mash with a meticulous eye for time and temperature.

After milling, the malt is categorized by texture as husk, grit or flour. The right balance of textures is another crucial element in the whisky making process.

Distillers look intently into the mash tun. A good distiller must watch over the mash with a meticulous eye for time and temperature.

Whisky matures to perfection in the aging room. Many experimental young whiskies, still in the testing stage, are mellowing here, including some which were brewed with sake yeast and some which are aging in oak sake barrels.

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