Distillery Focus

New beginnings

Our man visits Saburomaru Distillery as it turns over a new leaf
By Stefan van Eycken
Up until a few years ago, the name ‘Saburomaru Distillery’ would have drawn a blank, even from the most fanatic Japanese whisky enthusiast. Then, in early 2016, when the name started to be heard at whisky events in Japan left and right, it was invariably met with tilted heads and questions along the lines of: is this a real distillery making real whisky from scratch? The answer was yes, but the set-up of the distillery was idiosyncratic to say the least and the bulk of the malt whisky produced at Saburomaru distillery was destined for a bottom-shelf blend called ‘Sunshine Whisky’.

Making whisky is a side gig for the people at Wakatsuru Shuzo, the company that owns and runs Saburomaru Distillery, based in Tonami, Toyama prefecture. Wakatsuru’s main business, since its foundation in 1862, is sake. We fast-forward through the colourful history of the company to WWII, when the Japanese government started rationing rice and many sake producers found themselves in a difficult spot. Necessity is the mother of invention, or so Kotaro Inagaki, the second president of the company, must have thought, when he established a research institute to study ways to make alcohol from ingredients other than rice in 1947. Initially, they focused on making shochu from Jerusalem artichokes. In 1952, they turned to whisky and started selling what would become their flagship product. The public was asked to come up with a name and they settled on ‘Sunshine Whisky’, to symbolise a new start after the war: “Let’s make the sun rise again in Japan, which lost everything during the war, with this spirit that is made from water, air and sunshine,” a document from the time proclaims.

In May 1953, a fire broke out in the stillroom, burning down most of the buildings on site. The distillery was rebuilt in a record time of six months and a state-of-the-art continuous still installed, a so-called Alospas still, which only five other Japanese distilleries had at the time. With that, Wakatsuru Shuzo joined the post-war boom of sake producers dabbling in whisky, made in pragmatic ways that would have made their peers in Scotland reel in horror.

On our previous visit, in June 2016, we saw the remains of that era: a severely dilapidated distillery building; a ‘mashtun’ from the late 60s, which was actually a remodeled rice immersion tank used in sake production; four open enamel tanks, again from sake production, functioning as washbacks; and a single, alumite pot still. But speaking to Takahiko Inagaki, the great-grandson of Kotaro, we also got an inkling there could be a wind of change blowing through the company soon. In his late twenties at the time, Takahiko had a new vision for the distillery, the only whisky distillery in the Hokuriku region. To cover part of the costs of refurbishing the distillery, Takahiko turned to crowdfunding. By the end of 2016, he had raised more than 38 million Yen (c.£250,000), far surpassing his target of 25 million.

On a rainy summer day in August, we take the bullet-train to Takaoka, keen to see the transformation that has taken place since. We’re not disappointed. The building itself has been beautifully restored and whisky-making is in full swing, but it’s not just a functioning distillery, it’s also an engaging visitor experience, with items from its history on display and the old rice malting room used to offer an informative projection mapping experience.

“Our whisky season,” Takahiko explains, “is usually from early June to early September, but this year, we started a little later, as the barley and casks arrived a little later than planned.”

Isn’t it tempting to increase the length of the season with demand for Japanese whisky at an all-time high?

“Whisky making has always been a summer activity at our company, when there’s nothing to do as far as sake-making is concerned. The rest of the year, we need the water for our sake.”

Saburomaru is the only distillery in Japan that specialises exclusively in heavily peated whisky. The barley is imported from Scotland and peated to 50ppm. One batch is one tonne, which takes the new Alan Ruddock mill two hours to process, and they do 40 of these per season. Moving on, our jaw drops at the sight of the new mashtun. “We replaced the old DIY one in May 2018,” Takahiko says, “after 50 years of use, but we didn’t throw it out, so visitors can still see it when they come here.” The new stainless steel mashtun, made by Miyake Industries, is a completely different beast: it’s computer-controlled, features a pinwheel masher (the only one of its kind in Japan) on the outside, and is dressed in a Takaoka copper jacket.

“We use two rather than three waters and are aiming for around 5,000l of clear wort per batch,” Takahiko points out. “4,500l is sent to one of four open-top enamel fermenters, and 500l is sent to a donatub, where it is mixed with ale yeast. This gets added to the next batch, so we end up with 5,000l again in the fermenter. To this, we then add distillers yeast, and leave it for three days.” On the first day, the fermentation is quite vigorous so a portable switcher is put on the top of the washback and water is showered down the side of the fermenter to control the temperature.

On to the distillation. Clearly, a change was most needed in this department. After the successful crowdfunding campaign, the old alumite still was fitted with a copper head and swan neck. This was used during the 2017 and 2018 season, but a proper pair of copper pot stills was at the top of the wish list. Saburomaru distillery is located near the city of Takaoka, which happens to be the biggest production centre of copperware in Japan, with a history going back 400 years. Takahiko felt it made sense to make the stills locally, even though Takaoka copperware involves casting rather than hammering. Pot stills being fairly large, Takahiko reached out to Oigo Works, a local company that specialises in the production of temple bells and the only company capable of creating large-scale bells up to 50 tonnes.

He figured the challenge of making the world’s first cast copper pot stills would be right up their alley and he turned out to be right.
“The alloy used in casting consists of 88 per cent copper and eight per cent tin,” Takahiko explains, “so we did some research in collaboration with a local university to see what the effects on the character of the spirit would be.” He had three tiny stills built, each the size of a whisky bottle: one in stainless steel, one cast from the alloy, and one hammered from copper sheets. These were tested with a stainless steel condenser and a copper condenser, and a sensory analysis was carried out on the resulting spirit. “As expected, stainless steel was a big no – just way too sulphury – but, comparing the spirit made using the other two stills, both in combination with the copper condenser, we discovered that the cast still actually resulted in a slightly less feinty and meaty spirit compared with the hammered copper still.”

The rest is history, as they say. Oigo Works created the stills in about six months time. When we visit the factory, the staff is in the process of making some new mammoth temple bells, but in a corner of a warehouse, the pot still molds are resting.

“Because you’re not dealing with bells, where sound is a consideration,” general manager Shohei Oigo points out, “for a pot still, you can just make molds for one half of the still, cast twice and then put the two halves together.”

Imagine a chocolatier making a big Easter egg and you’ll get the picture. This is also the reason why both the wash and the spirit still are identical.

All nice and well, but beyond novelty, what are the advantages of using cast stills? “The walls are about twice as thick as those of sheet-hammered copper stills,” Shohei Oigo explains, “about 12mm at the thickest points, disregarding the bottom which is 40mm, so they are very durable and have high heat retention, so they are very energy efficient. Parts can easily be replaced in case of wear and tear, as we have the molds anyway. And dreaming out loud, you could easily make different parts and interchange them – for example, a different type of head, or an upward lynearm – and create different types of spirit that way.”

“We wanted a rich spirit, so we went for a shallow lantern head and a short downward lynearm,” Takahiko says. “One batch is split in half, so we charge the wash still with 2,500l of wash. The low wines of three wash still runs combined with the heads and tails of the previous second distillation go into the spirit still and that results in about 800l of new make. During the first distillation, we want to recover a lot of flavour compounds so we use parallel steam blowing and indirect steam heating. For the second distillation, we only use indirect steam and distill slowly to refine the desired character of the spirit.”

When we are there, the new stills are approaching the end of their inaugural season. Takahiko is happy with the way things are going. Comparing the new make made in the Oigo stills – which have been named ‘Zemon’, the local nickname for Oigo Works – and the new make made in the hybrid alumite-copper still used the previous two seasons, we understand why: the Zemon new make is much more chiseled, estery and complex. This bodes well for the future.

“We fill about 140 casks per year,” Takahiko explains. “About 80 per cent of that is ex-Bourbon wood and 10 per cent is ex-sherry.” The remainder is very special. In October 2018, the Toyama Mizunara project was initiated.

Working together with a carpenter in nearby Inami, the foremost woodcarving region in Japan, ex-bourbon casks are refitted with heads made out of local mizunara.

“We have 12 such casks now and want to keep making more. We also have one cask made entirely of Toyama mizunara by Ariake cooperage, with spirit distilled during the 2018 season in it.”

It looks like they’re all set at Saburomaru distillery now. “Not quite,” Takahiko says, “we’re turning an old building into a new racked warehouse with a capacity of 1,200 casks.”

They’ve kept the roof, which is beautiful, but are building new walls. “I have this image of stark white walls with SABUROMARU in big capitals.”

He smiles, “just like on Islay. Once that is done, we’re good for five years or so.”