Founded in 2016 by whisky importer, Gaia Flow, the Shizuoka Distillery is one of Japanese whisky’s fastest rising stars. It sits in an idyllic location high in the Japanese mountains in the Tamagawa district of Shizuoka, not far from the famous Mt. Fuji itself, and their liquid encapsulates the peaceful surroundings through its fresh, crisp and refreshing notes.
The distillery was created by Taiko Nakamura and he was keen to ensure that Shizuoka stood apart from the other distilleries dotted around Japan from the get-go. He has succeeded at this in every aspect, from the modern building architecture to the unique stills used and, of course, the truly incredible location.
Location, Location, Location
In terms of beautiful, scenic distilleries, Shizuoka is most certainly up there with the best, only rivalled by Suntory’s Hakushu. There are similarities between the two as well – both sit high in the mountains, surrounded by forests, fresh water sources and an abundance of wildlife.
In fact, there are that many animals around here that, if you are in the area, you may even hear “shishiodoshi” – a blank fired to scare deer and other wildlife away from crops and farmland. Don’t fear, no one is out hunting around here, they have the greatest respect for their wildlife, however protecting one’s source of food and income is a must.
When dekanta TV’s very own Kilara Sen caught up with Taiko Nakamura late last year, he spoke of the local area with passion, while also highlighting the respect that these animals deserve and giving an example of the dangers that they bring. He stated: “There are monkeys, deers, bears and wild boars around there. One of our staff was attacked by a wild boar on his way home and it was a big accident.”
Despite the terrifying ordeal, Nakamura and his staff still hold the wildlife in the highest regard, realising that they must work in harmony with their surroundings if they are to truly succeed in their venture.
As if the surrounding area wasn’t enough to make the distillery stand apart from its competitors, Nakamura went a step further when planning Shizuoka. From the beginning he “wanted to design the distillery so that people can recognize it at the first glance. So I didn’t want to design this distillery in the common Scottish style. I wanted to have a design that is fused with nature and represents the whisky culture at the same time.”
In order to do this, he got in touch with Derek Buston, an American Architect that has been living in Shizuoka for a number of years now. They worked hand in hand to meticulously design every detail of the new distillery, while touring a number of other facilities around Scotland and Japan for inspiration.
The planning took them hundreds of hours, as they developed each room, wall, ceiling and doorway to perfectly suit their needs.
It was clear that Nakamura wasn’t about to rush this project, after all; whisky-making is his passion, a distillery was his dream, and he knew he needed to get it right the first time around, as these opportunities don’t come around very often.
The results are a very modern, but unique looking distillery that meets Nakamura’s requirements of being instantly recognisable, while also being incredibly memorable to anyone who has visited.
Every detail has been designed with an incredible attention to detail, right down to the pond which sits in front of the distillery. The feature is a personal favourite of the founder because “The moment a gentle breeze ripples the surface of the water, it soothes the soul…and when there is no wind in early morning, the surface of water reflects the building just like a mirror.”
Serenity, peace and harmony are the words that come to mind when describing the Shizuoka distillery, its surroundings, and the mindset of those in charge there.
The Stills of Karuizawa
So, it’s a unique distillery, in a beautiful location, managed by a man with a deep-seated passion for whisky production, but what of the spirit itself? How is it being made and what does it taste like?
The first thing of note is that just before the opening of the distillery, Nakamura managed to get his hands on a still from the now silent Karuizawa distillery and this is regularly used here for whisky production.
However, it’s important to note that the goal at Shizuoka is not to produce spirit akin to that made at Japan’s most legendary distillery, but instead to “produce whisky containing the features of this location and Shizuoka.”
Local ingredients are incredibly important to Nakamura and his team and they want them to be fairly represented in their expressions. This, however, does not undermine the use of the Karuizawa still, which has been responsible for creating some of the greatest ever expressions of Japanese whisky in its time. Its quality will no doubt have an effect on the smoothness of the spirit and we are already seeing examples of that in Shizuoka’s first release, but more on that later.
Pioneering New Whisky Processes
While stills are obviously hugely important to whisky production, there are a number of other aspects that have equally important effects on the spirit.
Of course, the barley used is key and Nakamura wasn’t ready to settle for the traditional method of importing it from Scotland. He said “Usually most of the distilleries in Japan import barley from Scotland. We do, but we also use Japanese barley. Japanese barley is more expensive but we are obsessive about creating Japanese Whisky from local source materials.”
He went on to explain the great lengths they went to to make this a reality: “In Shizuoka, barley is originally not cultivated, but we teamed up with local farmers to produce it. This year we harvested more than a dozen of tons of barley. Now we are cleaning it and we will produce a whisky with the results this fall.”
It’s an incredible feat and one that some other Japanese distilleries should take note of.
Another area where Nakamura was keen to innovate was with the washbacks used for fermenting. When it comes to these, Shizuoka are pioneers of the Japanese whisky industry.
Nakamura explained “On the fermentation, we use a wooden ferment washback. Usually Oregon pine is used and we use it because the Karuizawa distillery used that. In addition to that we have washbacks using cedars of Shizuoka. In the Sake industry, it is traditional to use Japanese cedars to ferment, so I thought this method could be implemented in whisky production.
Just one craftsman who works with cedar is left. We asked him to produce the washback for whisky.
To create the washback, the craftsman, local lumberjacks, landlords and I went into the
mountains and picked up every single cedar log that met our high standards. After natural-drying the logs for 1-2 years, we removed any harshness and can finally use them for fermentation. The craftsman also said it was his first time to produce washbacks like these for whisky, so our washback should be the first whisky washback made in Japan in whisky history.”
It’s blatantly obvious that Shizuoka is a real passion project and Nakamura lives and breathes it. The fact that they have a still from Karuizawa, have organised local barley production, and have gone to great lengths to create the first Japanese-made cedar washback, highlights their commitment to innovation and desire to create something different from what is being produced elsewhere in Japan.
However, there is one innovation that piques my interest above all else and really takes Shizuoka into a different stratosphere when it comes to breaking new ground, and that is their ability to create whisky using wood fired stills.
Nakamura believes this was his biggest challenge. He stated: “Distillation by open fire using firewood, which was first implemented around 200 years ago, is also an achievement of my passion to produce whisky utilizing Shizuoka’s nature.
When I came up with this idea, however, there was no distillery which I could
take inspiration from. It was really challenging for me. Then I asked one of my
friends, a baker who built his own furnace in Okinawa. I asked for his advice on my idea producing whisky by open fire, then he introduced me to a pizza restaurant with a huge Kamado. The owner introduced me to his Kamado maker in Tokyo. Finally the maker built our Kamado.
There were two years between me having the idea and making it a reality. Like the washbacks, when I try to do something which nobody has done yet, it takes time and effort.”
The Prologue K and Future Releases
So, how do all of these fantastic innovations and technological advancements affect the whisky being produced at Shizuoka? To delve into that we have to look at their first single malt whisky release – The Prologue K.
Created using the ex-Karuizawa still, using half imported malt and half Japanese grown malt, it was then matured for 3 years in a bourbon barrel. It brings a creamy smoothness that combines with light, fruity notes from the bourbon barrel and crisp mountain freshness. From the nose, to the palate and then the finish, this whisky brings Shizuoka and the surrounding forests to your glass, allowing you to get a taste of whisky from a distillery that is surely a Japanese whisky powerhouse of the future.
As The Prologue K was produced using the Karuizawa still, we will have to wait a little longer to try an expression created using the wood-firing method, and for that one we all have our eyes peeled.