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When you think of the great whisky-producing regions, rugged mountains are always a part of the scene: cool mountain air; a stiff breeze to fill your lungs; a sense of adventure. When it comes to distilling at altitude, there is one country that is quite literally head and shoulders above the rest, and that country is Japan. Irish whiskey, American Bourbon and Scottish whisky distilleries are found at considerably lower heights above sea level than those of the Japanese. With Japanese whisky in such high demand, could this be the secret of their success?
There is a certain romance to whisky-producing at high altitude, the implication being that the whisky is more pure, clean, authentic. Water is taken at source to provide the basis of the finest drams. Life on the mountains is far from the bustle of cities, so there’s plenty of opportunity to focus on the distilling process. It is widely believed that terrain imparts specific qualities to the whisky produced there and whisky distilleries at height are thought to distil superior spirits.
Japan has three of the highest distilleries in the world: the now ‘silent’ Karuizawa distillery is the highest at 850 meters above sea level, its produce now one of the rarest and most valuable whiskies on the market; Mars Shinshu, the highest operational Japanese distillery at 792 meters; and Hakushu, the ‘forest’ distillery at 700 meters. For comparison, Dalwhinnie distillery (the highest in Scotland) is only at 355 meters above sea level.
The Karuizawa Distillery was established in 1955 in the foothills of an active volcano, Mount Asama. The location was notable for being the highest distillery in Japan at 850m above sea level. Despite being the smallest whisky producer in Japan, Karuizawa had a global reputation for producing first-class malt whiskies. The popularity of Karuizawa has grown rapidly in recent years, in particular since the closure of the distillery in 2011. We are proud to host a large selection of whiskies from the renowned Karuizawa distillery.
Mars Shinshu is nestled deep in the mountains, between Japan’s steep Southern Alps and its Central Alps. Having been distillers for more than a century in the south of the country, the Hombo family chose to move the distillery to this spectacular mountain setting in 1984. The site boasts a cool temperature and soft granite aquifers filtering fresh snowmelt. Take a look at the wide selection of whiskies we offer from Mars Hombo.
Hakushu, romantically named the ‘forest distillery’, is found at the base of Mount Kai-Komagatke and exists in a unique climate 700 meters above sea level. It is located by the pristine waters of the Ojira River, which has been designated by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment as one of the highest-quality water sources in the country. Whiskies from the Hakushu distillery are among some of the most popular wordwide.
Is Higher Better?
Is it just coincidence that these exceptional distilleries are found at high altitude, or is there some truth in the belief that higher is better for whisky distillation?
It is true that higher altitudes are good for natural partial low pressure distillation.
To understand why this is, it’s important to note that the temperature at which water boils increases with pressure. At higher elevations, where atmospheric pressure is lower, the boiling point is lower. This is good for the distillation process because temperature control is one of the most important factors in distilling a good spirit.
The process of distillation separates the spirit from congeners, which are chemicals, sometimes toxic, produced during the fermentation process. High temperatures result in both the spirits and congeners distilling off together, making them hard to separate. Low temperatures allow for spirits and congeners to distil off at different points. The lower temperatures involved in distillation at high elevations mean that the spirit is more easily separated from the congeners.
At sea level, the alternative is to distil the spirit many times over to remove the congeners. As a result, many of the great aromas are lost. High altitude allows for the easier separation of the good stuff from the bad, so the whisky will retain all the wonderful, natural aromas of the original spirit. This natural effect is so desirable in whisky distillation that some distilleries at sea level worldwide use pressurised stills to reproduce the low pressure distillation that is naturally found at high altitudes.
In short, the highest placed distilleries in the world are making good use of their location to produce the best tasting spirits, and the laws of physics are on their side. Home to distilleries that are at some of the highest altitudes in the world, the Japanese clearly understand what it takes to distil a fine spirit and this could go some way to explaining how they have become leaders in the world whisky industry.
As if paying homage to their country’s natural affinity for producing great whisky, many of the best Japanese whisky bottles depict the country’s highest peak, Mount Fuji. Hibiki 21 year old is one such example, with a beautifully illustrated bottle depicting Japan’s sacred mountain. Once again selected the best blended whisky in the world at the World Whiskies Awards 2017, the beautiful bottle is a reminder of what makes many Japanese whiskies exceptional. The Hibiki 17 year old also has a very elegant design inspired by Mount Fuji.
Kirin has a distillery at the foot of Mount Fuji and pays tribute to the influence of Japan’s mountains with the design of some bottles, including this Fuji-Sanroku 18 year old limited edition. Of course, we could not finish without mentioning Japan’s top silent distillery of altitude, Karuizawa, who produced this spectacular cask strength bottle, offering an exceptional view over Mount Fuji and Japanese whisky of the absolute highest quality.
Taking their commitment to whisky to even higher heights, Suntory have even sent whisky into space to investigate how zero gravity affects the maturation process. In addition to stimulating public engagement with science, Suntory hope this research will help them produce smoother whiskies back on Earth. It is one of many ways in which Japanese whisky producers are pushing the boundaries to develop and refine their craft.