James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Whisky Cathedral in the Japanese Alps

A Whisky Cathedral in the Japanese Alps

Whisky in Japan

The Hakushu distillery is tucked away in the Japanese Alps. A two-hour bus ride from Tokyo takes you to an increasingly more remote and beautiful landscape, passing by Mount Fuji en route to the lush, rolling mountainsides of the northwestern portion of the Yamanasahi Prefecture.

Hakushu is one of Suntory Whisky’s two single-malt distilleries. The other, Yamazaki, has the loftier reputation and greater name recognition among American drinkers. But Hakushu has its own hardcore devotees, enthusiasts who relish the distillery’s pleasantly smoky, fruity, and crisp whisky. It ages wonderfully well on its own and also ends up as a distinctive component of Suntory’s blended whiskies, such as Hibiki or Suntory Toki.

The entrance to Hakushu’s visitor’s center is a stunning auditorium-sized room, lined with nearly a dozen retired pot stills of assorted shapes and styles, their once vibrant copper now nearly black. A dark wooden paneled walkway leads you past this monument to the whiskies of yesteryear, with several large, bright, and impressive chandeliers hanging from the rafters. This gorgeous room is more whisky cathedral than visitor’s center.

As great as that may be, it’s all prelude, because where you really want to be is Bar Hakushu, the almost-hidden tasting room located in the gift shop at the distillery. A jaw-dropping stash of Japanese whisky waits within, with unbelievably cheap prices.

Rare, highly-sought after expressions from the distillery, such as the Hakushu 25-year-old, are readily available, costing just ¥2,900 a pour, or roughly $25 at current exchange rates. Keep in mind, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a bottle of the stuff to go for $2,900—that’s dollars this time—back home in the U.S.

Of course, if you haven’t had enough, you could always scope out the prices for bottles in the shop as well. You’d be surprised how much exquisite Japanese whisky you can jam pack into a suitcase for an intercontinental flight back home. Be sure to check behind the counter for some extra-special whiskies the shop stashes away from everyday customers. That is, if they restocked after we bought them out.

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