Whisky aging in charred barrels
Plenty of cool clear water, wood for barrels, peat for dehydrating malt, coal for stilling, barley, a cool climate and a quiet environment…. Unsatisfied with Kyoto’s Yamazaki, Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Japanese whisky, had the goal of ideal whisky distilling, and chose, with uncompromising dedication, Yoichi-cho, a town located on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Taketsuru, who learned whisky making in Scotland, wanted to manufacture high-quality whisky. Japanese whisky, born of the sincerity of Japanese craftsmanship, is attracting attention from around the world.
It’s said that the shape of the pot still used for distilling determines the character of the whisky. Taketsuru, who studied malt distilling in Scotland, commissioned a Japanese copperware artisan to make a pot still; in 1930, the first pot still in Japan was created. The shape of the Yoichi pot still, with its straight neck, is said to allow for the distilling of strong whisky. Even today, the whisky is distilled over a coal fire, with the coal being shoveled into the oven every ten minutes. In response to the upsurge in the request for Japanese whisky, as of this year, the company has begun round-the-clock production.
I was impressed by the words of factory manager Kimiaki Iwatake. He took up his post in 2019. “It will require more than ten years before the whisky I’m preparing now is available on the market. Most likely, I won’t be here anymore at that time.” The blender’s job isn’t just about mixing whisky; it’s concerned with grasping the number and type of barrels, how to lay down the whisky in those barrels, how to prepare the various malt and grain whiskies, and how to make better use of the aged whisky products. Iwatake says, “It is about silently and patiently remaining engaged in blending the past and future.”
The storehouse was also very impressive. The barrels, it seems, are used many times, but both new and reused barrels are charred inside with a burner. Malt whisky, particularly, is aged within charcoal. Inside the cold, dim storehouse, one is enveloped by the aroma of maturing whiskies. Doubtlessly, the whiskies are sleeping. In the cold, tranquil, snow-covered resting place in Yoichi, surrounded by whisky barrels that have been sleeping for more than ten years, unconsciously, I give a passing thougtht to the world of ten years hence.
The story of Taketsuru’s long journey in the pursuit of making a genuine whisky, through the founding of his own distillery in Yoichi, is known through the TV drama, “Massan”. Masataka Taketsuru’s wife, Rita, who came from Scotland, shared in her husband’s hardships in this town. Their home has been reconstructed in the distillery. Inside, there are umeboshi (pickled plums) prepared by Rita many decades ago. Left just as they were are the piano Rita played as well as Taketsuru’s favorite jackets, constructed from western textiles. It seems that Massan, a beer lover, drank whisky after dinner.