Sometimes, whisky changes lives; it really does. If you think I’m being dramatic, just look to the founder of Shizuoka Distillery, Daiko Nakamura.
Shizuoka Distillery, along with renowned names like Chichibu, are tip of the spear in a promising movement the past decade to revitalise the spirit of Japanese craft whisky, also known as Ji-Whisky (“地元のウイスキー” roughly transliterated as “Jimoto no uisuki”). For this, Shizuoka Distillery is a distillery worth watching.
Founder Daiko Nakamura was originally in the renewable energy sector. A fateful visit to Scotland’s Islay farm distillery, Kilchoman, and a chance encounter with Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu fame, left Nakamura inspired. He was convinced that whisky was where he wanted to be. First, as a distributor, he broke into Japan’s whisky market by importing labels such as Blackadder, Asta Morris, and the Swedish Mackmyra. But that was not enough; he would go on to start his own distillery: the Shizuoka Distillery.
The Shizuoka Distillery sits by the banks of the Abe Nakagawachi River, nestled within the lush mountains of Shizuoka prefecture, not far away from the sacred Mount Fuji. On the first visit to the distillery, one is struck by its simple yet modern buildings, furnished with local Sugi (cedar) and Hinoki (cypress) wood. The architecture is designed to allow visitors to simultaneously tour the distillery and enjoy breathtaking views of the Shizuoka mountains in the backdrop.
There is much that goes into appreciating a distillery’s whisky, but if I could point out just two, it would be (1) Shizuoka Distillery’s commitment to using local produce and (2) the compelling story behind its pot stills.
Shizuoka Distillery wants to give drinkers a taste of its locality with the use of local produce. From the waters of the nearby Abe Nakagawachi River, to the locally-grown barley (to a growing extent), and also the firewood used to heat one of its pot stills, Shizuoka Distillery aims to one day be entirely local. This is no mean feat, considering that Japan does not natively grow significant amounts of barley.
Next, we have its special pot stills. Scotland today still mourns the loss of cult malts such as Rosebank, Brora, and Port Ellen. The Japanese whisky community had its own cult ghost distillery: Karuizawa Distillery. Karuizawa was a victim of Japan’s economic recession and had to be shut down in 2000, leading to its equipment being sold in a public auction. Shizuoka stepped in and purchased one of the salvaged Karuizawa pot stills – this became known as Pot Still K.
Another of Shizuoka’s pot stills is unique for being heated directly by firewood; it is known as Pot Still W. As far as I know, Shizuoka Distillery remains the only distillery in the world to operate a firewood-heated pot still.
I managed to have a taste of Shizuoka Distillery’s heavily anticipated first and second single malt expressions. These came in a pair to help one experience the differences and nuances between the two malts. The set of both single malts runs around US$210 at time of writing.
The first bottling is the Prologue K Single Malt, bottled at 55.5% ABV and matured for three years in first-fill bourbon barrels. Half of the barley used was locally sourced in Japan, and the other half was imported- presumably from Scotland. The letter “K” in the name indicates that this was produced using the ex-Karuizawa still.
Shizuoka Prologue K Single Malt – Review
First-fill bourbon casks. Three years old. 55.5% ABV.
Colour: Golden straw. Thin but long trailing legs that indicate some oiliness.
On the nose: Bright and crisp with a refined intensity and soft, mildly-acidic fruits. This takes a brief moment to open up initially, but develops into bright and slightly acidic notes of apricots and light Japanese plums (known as umeboshi). This is as much fruit as I get, but the story doesn’t end. The acid from the fruits quickly gives way to smooth, sweet notes of mild vanilla and creme brûlée.
All the above is integrated with a curiously oily aroma that I didn’t quite expect in a Japanese whisky. There’s a faint but unmistakable oily, solvent-y note complimented by some minerality. The various flavour elements are very well-rounded and with nothing in particular falling out of place or sticking too far out.
In the mouth: Mildly sweet, chewy and oily with surprising complexity and elegance. The initial palate is more bold and robust in flavour than the nose but overall still very refined. The initial sip brings a basket of refreshingly sweet and crisp yuzu fruits, white pomelos and Okayama white peaches.
There’s a slight spiciness from black pepper and fennel seeds, but what takes my focus is on the mild gasoline notes with a briny minerality that is enhanced quite a bit with the oily texture and mild viscosity. There is also a mild note of sweet marzipan and light vanilla.
This holds quite well with some water. After adding a splash, the spice dissipates, sweetness and minerality are significantly enhanced, and the palate actually begins to reveal some ripe tropical fruits such as pineapples and mango.
The finish is clean and straightforward and about as shy as the initial nose, ending in a relatively short note of mild vanilla and fading spice. The contrast with the plate is interesting. There was a lot going on the palate, so here, it almost feels like a chamber orchestra transitioning into a violin solo of fading vanilla oakiness and spice.
I once had the opportunity to taste Shizuoka’s “Karuizawa still new make”, which I thought was just promising. This has exceeded my expectations considerably and it’s incredible to think what magic has been done by three years of maturation.
The Prologue K is, in my opinion, one of the most complex and enjoyable NAS Japanese whiskies. This has all the fresh, bright, citric fruit notes I tend to love in my Japanese whiskies, but with an uncommon minerality, ripe tropical fruit notes and a satisfying oily texture to boot.
I would have preferred a longer lasting finish, but there’s a lot to love here. One word that I couldn’t get out of my mind whilst tasting this was the “elegance” of it all. The flavours are multi-layered, with great balance and integration in a way that I would have expected this to be at least 8 to 12 years old. Bright and refreshing with a satisfying complexity and an unusual elegance for a NAS. This is a three-year-old prodigy.
(I would have happily rated this a 8/10 had the price been a little lower).
The second bottling is the Prologue W Single Malt bottled at 55.5% ABV and matured for three years in both first-fill bourbon casks and virgin American oak casks. The barley was sourced from three places – Japan, Scotland (both peated and unpeated) and from Germany (beer malt). The letter “W” indicates that this was produced using the distillery’s famous wood-fired pot still.
Shizuoka Prologue W Single Malt – Review
First-fill bourbon casks, virgin American oak casks. 3 years old. 55.5% ABV.
Colour: Golden straw. Slightly thicker legs than the Prologue K.
On the nose: Fresh, honeyed and floral and sightly mineral. The flavours are distinctly bolder and more forthcoming than from the Prologue K.
This opens with big and distinctive notes of honey, caramel and Lotus biscuits. There’s considerably more fruitiness and sweetness here compared to the Prologue K. Honey and caramel are followed by fresh, fruity notes of fresh apples and apricots. There is also a distinctive note of orange oil very often seen in Scottish bourbon-cask whiskies such as Glenmorangie. There’s also a mildly grassy and spicy note that is evocative of fresh cut rosemary and peppermint.
In the mouth: Sweet and robust with mild heat, smokiness and a richer texture. The palate opens with sweet notes of honey, apples and apricots, paired with a lively spiciness of ginger and star anise. Behind the fruit and spice is a hint of lemon sponge cake slathered with icing sugar. Fruit and spice then evolves into minerality, gasoline and solvent-like notes that are very similar to the Prologue K. The difference here is that it’s a little sweeter, and reminiscent of drinking warm sake.
There is a slight bitterness, and I felt hint of very faint smokiness that I might have imagined (I only later read that there was a component of peated Scottish malt).
Addition of water brings out more interesting notes of sweet pears, a mild roasted Chinese chestnut nuttiness (“lìzi” or “栗子”) and a green tea-like character.
There are many aspects here that are similar to the Prologue K, especially with the combination of fruits, minerality and multi-dimensionality. It’s clear that they are from the same distillery. However, the flavours here are more pronounced, a tad more astringent, and are delivered with a slightly richer texture.
The finish is quite long, with fading notes of lemon sponge cake and candied ginger.
This is another impressive NAS from Shizuoka. Like the Prologue K, this is more complex than the average NAS Japanese or Scotches.
The Prologue K (the earlier bottle) could seem a little shy initially, so I like how the flavours for the Prologue W are significantly more pronounced. Yet, it does feel a little rough around the edges due to its strong amount of spice and mild astringency (perhaps due to the virgin oak).
And as I said earlier, I felt that the Prologue K was a little short on the finish. It’s nice that the finish here is much longer- it almost seems like the Prologue W was designed as an answer to my offhand thought!
Pretty decent complexity delivered by a wave of robust flavours and a rich texture uncommon to NAS Japanese whiskies.
Overall, it’s interesting to see how these two Japanese malts have distinctly similar core flavours, but with several obvious aspects of contrast. I like that they form a neat Yin and Yang, making for an engaging side-by-side tasting experience.
Between the two bottles, the Prologue K is the winner for me. Both are very enjoyable bottles of NAS that punch way above their age-class. But if I were being pedantic, the Prologue K exhibits a remarkable level of refinement, complexity and a Goldilocks-worthy balance of flavours that is quite uncommon in modern single malts of such age.