Distillery Focus

In the shadow of Mount Fuji (Gotemba)

Gotemba Distillery enjoys special status in Japan. Dave Broom visited it
By Dave Broom
It is hard for any westerner to understand the role which Mount Fuji has within the Japanese psyche.

The highest mountain in Japan, it is the archetype of what a mountain should look like, rising from a plain in a perfect cone. Yet Fuji is about more than just aesthetics. It is a sacred mountain, a place of spirits, deities and Buddhas. It is shorthand for Japan, physically and philosophically. It is... Fuji-san. It is also home to a distillery.In Scotland, distilleries seem an integral part of the landscape. Most of them sprang up in areas which had been known for moonshining; they were either former bothies or were close to them.Japan though is different. Here, the whisky industry is not yet 100 years old. Japanese distillers had to start from scratch to find their sites and with no moonshiners to help them, that could take a number of years.“It took three years of searching between Osaka to Tokyo to find this site,” says Hideaki Kito, the tall, affable master blender of Gotemba’s owner, Kirin.The criteria? “Water and climate.” Any distillery needs a plentiful supply of pure water and the fact that there are no buildings or industry between the distillery and Fuji means that there are no contaminants in the soil. What’s more, the deep lava beds act as a natural filter for the snow melt from the mountain.As for the climate? Gotemba stands at a height of 620m therefore it is cool – only a shade warmer than Scotland – something which Kito-san argues is essential for prolonged aging. There is also, one would think, a deeper reason for putting a plant so close to the symbolic heart of Japan.Gotemba was built in 1973, a boom time for Japanese whisky, as a joint venture between Kirin breweries and Seagram. When the Canadian firm’s whisky interests were sold to Pernod-Ricard, Kirin bought back its share of the business – and snapped up Four Roses as well.There was a subtle change of strategy at this time. Although Gotemba had always made a lighter style of whisky (which fitted into the Seagram template) having total control of the venture has allowed Kito-san and his colleagues to push things out even further.It is wrong to think of Japanese whisky as being a Scottish copy. The tasting in the last issue shows that clearly.These are whiskies with a clarity of flavour, a brightness of character which you don’t find in Scotch. Even the distilleries who make the heaviest styles (Karuizawa, Yoichi) have this quality. Gotemba, however, deliberately accentuates it.As Kito-san says: “We make whisky in Japan, therefore we make Japanese whisky!” Initially that seems both sensible and simple, yet that statement carries an implication which suggests that Gotemba’s rivals aren’t quite doing that.What is ‘real’ Japanese whisky?“It has to be based on Japanese culture, Japanese food. We eat a lot of fish for example, therefore we have to create a match for this with the whisky. Our research showed that clean and estery whiskies are much better suited to the Japanese palate.” And the style?“We import Scotch whisky, so we had to differentiate ourselves from that. We also looked at Suntory and Nikka and aimed into a different place from them. Everything we make is a variation on light and estery. It’s not the broad-based approach of the others.” The site, like most Japanese distilleries, is sprawling, though the production unit is surprisingly small. The mash tun, grain cooker and pot stills are in one room, the column stills are in another. Stylistically, everything is geared towards light and estery and as we walk Kito-san gives little clues as to how this is achieved.Like all Japanese distilleries the malt is shipped across from Scotland and the wort is crystal clear.“If it’s not clear then you get more fusel oils created in the fermenter and the spirit will be more ‘tailsy’.” Ferments (again in the Japanese mould) are long (three days) with the temperature being kept to below 30ºC in order to create the desirable esters; as is the use of one of four yeasts cultured at the distillery, each of which gives a different flavour profile.The pot stills were modelled on Strathisla’s (an ex-Seagram plant), “because its character is clean and balanced,” and while the shape will have an influence on the character, a greater impact lies in the fact that the fill level is very low, thereby maximising the time the alcohol vapour can interact with copper – which has the effect of lightening the spirit.The real surprise lies in the grain whisky distillery. Here there are three different types of stills: a multi-column still, which makes the lightest spirit; a ‘bourbon-style’ beer still and doubler for the ‘heavy’ grain; and a Canadian-style kettle and column which makes what Kito-san calls a “continuous batch distillate.” Here, the spirit is distilled to 70% ABV before flowing into the ‘kettle’ (a sealed tank fitted with a steam coil). Once this is full the steam is turned on and the vapour is run through a small rectifying column. The result is a medium-bodied grain which complements the very light malt distillate.Everything is aged in American oak barrels.Unusual? Well, there’s bits of Japan here: Nikka has Coffey and column stills at Sendai; and Canada – in particular Gimli (an ex- Seagram plant) but it is the use of the flavouring grain which is Gotemba’s.Most firms use grain to lighten malt. Here that is reversed. At Gotemba, the grain is used as the heavier spirit, the malt as the light – try the firm’s newest arrival, the mid-priced ‘single blend’ Fuji-san to see how effective it can be.Kito-san opens a door and we step out onto a flat roof. Fuji leaps into our faces, so close that you feel you could touch it. The steam from our breath rises up its flanks, the only clouds in the cornflower-blue sky.“You see? Nothing between us and Fuji-san.” And behind us? “No industry... just a training site for the defence force.” So, you’re telling me that you decided to build a distillery in between an active volcano and a bombing range? “Yes!” And how often does Fuji erupt? “The cycle is 200 to 300 years long.” When was the last time it happened? “298 years ago!” He roars with laughter. It isn’t just the whisky which is Japanese... it’s the attitude as well.Malt: Scottish peated to four different levels: light to heavy
Mashtun: Full Lauter
Worts: Crystal clear
Yeast: Three types all cultured at the distillery
Fementation: In stainless steel fitted with cooling jackets. Minimum length 30 hours, max temperature 29ºC
Pot stills: Two wash (lamp glass shape); two spirit (with boil bulb) Lyne arm angled slightly upwards. Low fill
Column stills: 1) Beer still + doubler 2) Five linked columns 3) Kettle + column
Maturation: American oak barrels Fuji-san 50% ABV (single blend)
10 per cent 20 year old malt.
50:50 grain and malt
Colour/nose: Rich gold. Ripe aroma has the candied notes of the grain; coconut, stewed apple, not nuttiness. No maltiness, pure and light. Lifted and more aromatic, water gives it an attractive lift. I do love the perfumed nature of this
Palate: Clean and zesty. More apple and ripe pear broadens in the mouth. Finish a little short, but fresh. Zesty with water, spicy, light tobacco