Distillery Focus

Heart of Oak

Chris Bunting visits Japan's most maritime distillery
By Chris Bunting
There was something unsettling about the seaside in front of the White Oak Distillery at Akashi. I have always romanticised the sounds of the sea – the seething of pebbles under retreating waves, the gurgling of the water at a sea wall, the clap and hiss of stormy surf -but at Akashi in March all this was drowned out by a mechanical drone: an incessant and intimidating sound that did not come from the land behind me but from the sea itself and not from one direction but from wherever there was water.

I didn’t understand it at first, but after a few minutes inspection through a telephoto lens, I realised that the noise came from a fleet of motor boats working from about 50 metres to one km out to sea. There were many dozens of these craft, all repeating an utterly incomprehensible ritual: each boat would approach a net and then dive under it! Not beside it, or over it; the boat would actually pull up the net at its prow and dive under the ropes until it popped out on the other side. Then, with a great roar of its motor, it would turn 180 degrees and do exactly the same thing in the opposite direction. The boats never seemed to move on: just back and forth under the same net.

Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me. I approached a craggy faced old fisherman in a greasy baseball cap, who was casting a couple of lines from the shore: “What are they fishing for?” “Seaweed,” he grunted, allowing his cigarette to do a little jig in his mouth but never letting his eyes stray from the sea. Our conversation had finished.

It was only after I retreated to the distillery that Mikio Hiraishi, president of this small whisky maker in Hyogo prefecture, Japan, explained that the boats were farming “nori”, the dried seaweed you get wrapped around sushi. The seaweed is grown on nets floating in the water and the nori-men dive under the ropes so they can pull off the crop.


The whole place reeks of the sea. The Akashi strait produces a full 18 per cent of Japan’s nori but is also one of the country’s richest shallow water fishing grounds, famous for its sea bream, octopus, sand lance, conger eel, mackerel and countless other coastal species. This is not just any fishing community. The area has been tied up with the sea in the Japanese imagination for about as long as the nation has been writing about itself. The great 7th century poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaru wrote a famous verse about a boat in the mist on Akashi strait and, since then, just about every writer of substance seems to have felt obliged to go to Akashi to put in their tuppence worth. The haiku poet, Basho, wrote about an octopus pot and the human condition at Akashi.

White Oak is Japan’s most maritime whisky distillery. It is not a specialist whisky maker: the beautiful old wooden buildings that occupy the centre of the Akashi site are used for brewing sake, while a tall, rickety corrugated-iron structure across the road produces the indigenous distilled spirit shochu. The whisky operation is housed in a smart, white painted structure opposite the sake kura. This building, housing the entire whisky making process in a single large hall, was built in 1984 but the company’s whisky tradition goes back much further.

Eigashima Shuzo, White Oak’s parent company, began brewing sake in 1888 and obtained its first whisky manufacturing licence in 1919. This is a startling fact: the opening of Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery in 1924 is normally considered the beginning of proper whisky making in Japan. 1919 was the year when Masataka Taketsuru, who worked with Torii at Yamazaki and later founded Suntory’s great rival, Nikka whisky, went to Scotland to discover whisky distilling. If Eigashima were a little less scrupulous with the facts they might push a claim to be longer established than both Suntory and Nikka, but that is not their style. Hiraishi-san was brutally honest when I put it to him: “We have no evidence of a whisky pot-still here at that stage. We don’t know what that whisky was but there is no pot still.”

Whatever was in those early shipments, and it was probably imitation whisky or rebottled imported spirit, there is nevertheless a 90-year “whisky” tradition at Akashi. At some stage (the company is unclear on exactly when), proper pot stills came into use. Two tiny old copper stills are still on display on the stairs to the distilling hall. Then, in 1981, at the crest of Japan’s post war economic and whisky booms, the owners decided to significantly expand their production capacity by building the modern facility.

The timing could not have been worse: overall consumption of whisky in Japan peaked in 1982/83, just as the stills were being put in place, and has since nosedived. In terms of volume, the Japanese market for whisky last year was about one fifth its size in 1981. At the same time, a series of WTO decisions and changes in Japanese law massively increased the accessibility of premium foreign whiskies and removed the old tax breaks for domestic makers. Distillers like White Oak, which had specialised in the cheap, relatively low taxed second-grade (“nikyu whisky”), were hit by a bus. The 4,500 litre wash still and 3,000 litre spirit still at Akashi have never reached full production and are currently only operating in June and July, after the sake and shochu making seasons. This is “toji” produced whisky. “Toji” is the name reserved for a master brewer of sake or distiller of shochu and accords those who have earned the title the greatest respect and even quasi-spiritual functions in the production of the indigenous alcohols. At Akashi, there is no room for standing on ceremony: Toji Kenji Takenaka’s three man team makes the whisky too.

Until recently, the vast majority of the spirit was put into cheap blends but there have been some exciting changes afoot at White Oak. In 2007, the distillery released its first single malt whisky, the 8 Years Old “Akashi” single malt (500 ml bottle, c. 2,500 yen), which was generally favourably received (see the tasting section) and, this January, a 5 Years Old (45 per cent alcohol) single malt is being added to the range.

White Oak’s previous concentration on cheap blends means that stocks of longer aged spirits are in extremely short supply. There were reports a few years ago of the “angels’ share” in Akashi’s warehouses reaching 8 per cent a year. The distillery now has that loss down to a more acceptable three per cent every year and longer ageing looks feasible. The new 5 Years Old Akashi will be a reasonably priced fixture in the distillery’s range while the longer aged whiskies are serving their time. Later this Spring, there will be a one-off bottling of a 12 Years Old Akashi (59 per cent alcohol) from one of the very few older casks in the existing stock.

“We are a combined whisky maker, with only a small amount of whisky in our overall production range. This gives the advantage of enabling us to produce a small amount continually, without having to rely on the whisky to support the company,” Hiraishi-san told me. “Until now, we have made a lot of cheaper whisky but we are now committed to gradually increasing the amount of single malt.”

Despite the 90 years of history behind White Oak’s whisky, we are at the very start of the story of “Akashi” as a single malt brand. The road will no doubt have its ups and downs but I know there are some prominent figures in Japan’s whisky world who are desperately hoping that White Oak are able to follow up on their successful 8 Years Old bottling (see tasting panel). An active and high quality independent distillery on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, complementing Ichiro Akuto’s tremendously exciting new Chichibu distillery in Saitama, would greatly enhance the diversity of the Japanese whisky scene. During the past decade, the whisky world has got used to praising the whiskies of the large Japanese companies (Suntory, Nikka and Kirin) but perhaps the ten years will see the emergence of smaller Japanese makers such as White Oak capable of holding the world’s attention.


Tasting



White Oak is Japan’s most maritime whisky distillery but, judging by the 8-year-old Akashi single malt, it wears that mantle in a particularly Japanese way. If you are looking for the salty tastes blown in on sea gales, you are going to be disappointed. The Akashi’s nose is quiet, with bread and green apple notes, and it is little more assertiveness in the mouth: a rounded, sweet drink, with a hint of liquorice and very light finish.

I started to understand how it could boast of being “maritime”, however, at a meal table laden with a rich harvest of seafood from buzz and the bustle of the famous fishing lanes on Akashi’s doorstep. In Japan, most people expect to drink whisky with food and this is definitely a whisky designed for the meal table. The style, while obviously still in whisky territory, has strong similarities to some sakes and the cleaner tasting barley shochus: a rounded and controlled sweetness.

I preferred the plain Akashi nori and, after a dalliance with cream cheese and wasabi to accompany the seaweed, I arrived at a killer combination: long slivers cut from a block of Parmesan wrapped in the plain nori. The cheese and seaweed offered salty, savoury flavours that set off the sweet, mild spirit deliciously. Another type of seaweed from Akashi, “kukiwakame”, was less successful (too sweet). The chewy iidako “rice octopus” was moreish but, again, the sugars in the food made the pairing with the whisky uninteresting. The big hit of the evening was a grilled anago
(sea eel) pulled out of the Akashi strait. Anago is typically served with a rich, brown “tare” sauce but fishermen who are really proud of their catch sometimes leave this off so the fish can be properly tasted. I tried my anago with a generous shaking of salt and a glass of Akashi single malt and any scepticism I had harboured about this most mild and polite of Japanese whiskies fell away. Again, the key was the spirit’s ability to accommodate and set off the strong flavours in the eel.

In the Japanese classicThe Tale of the Genji, the hero finds himself exiled from court to the Akashi coast. Pining for an elegant lover in the capital, he expects to find only ugliness and roughness among the fishermen but instead meets a new lover, “The Akashi Lady”, a woman of surprising refinement for such a rustic location.

It is early days yet to make a judgement about the quality of White Oak’s emerging line of single malts but, based on their 8 Years Old single malt, ladies and seaweed may not be the only thing that Akashi does with aplomb.


Information



Visiting the distillery

The White Oak Distillery does not have a regular tour. However, visits can be arranged if you contact the distillery before the day of travel (telephone: 078-946-1001; company website www.ei-sake.jp). It is not possible to arrange tours on Saturdays, Sundays or national holidays. Whisky, shochu and sake can be bought on the premises.