Sometimes whisky changes lives; it really does. If you think I'm being dramatic, just look to Daiko Nakamura, the man behind Shizuoka Distillery.
Nakamura wasn't always in the whisky business. In fact, he was in the renewable energy business; ironically a trend fast integrating into the realm of whiskymaking. Can't run from our past can we?
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 with distribution, he would break into Japan's whisky market by importing labels such as Blackadder, Asta Morris, and the Swedish Mackmyra. But that was not enough for the excited Nakamura, he would go on to start his own distillery - the Shizuoka Distillery.
(Image Source: JapaneseWhisky.com)
Shizuoka Distillery sits by the banks of the Abe Nakagawachi River, nestled amidst the lush mountains of Shizuoka prefecture, not far away from the sacred Mount Fuji. A visit to the distillery would first strike you with its simple yet modern buildings, furnished with local Sugi (cedar) and Hinoki (cypress) wood, its architecture designed to allow visitors to simultaneously tour the distillery and enjoy breathtaking views of the Shizuoka mountains in the backdrop.
(Image Source: His Go)
There is of course much that goes into appreciating a distillery's whisky but if I could point out just two, it would be Shizuoka Distillery's commitment to using local produce and the story of how it got its hands on its mythical pot stills.
Shizuoka Distillery wants to give drinkers a taste of the local - what its beautiful backdrop has to offer. The most intuitive way to do so? To use local produce, of course. From the waters sourced from the nearby Abe Nakagawachi River, to the use of 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 fully local. Which is no feat to scoff at, considering that Japan does not natively grow significant yields of barley crop.
A Tale of Two Pot Stills
Now, if you think I am being dramatic again, with the use of the word "mythical", wait till you hear this - now, in Scotland, we mourn the loss of some incredible distilleries, Rosebank, Brora, what have you. These distilleries have gone on to claim legendary status. In Japan, the whisky community had Karuizawa Distillery. A victim of Japan's economic recession (amidst other factors), the distillery closed its doors in 2000 (and finally shuttered in full in 2011), leading to its equipment being sold in a public auction organised by the city of Miyota (timepiece enthusiasts may recognise this as the birthplace of the ubiquitous Miyota movement).
And who was to take part in the public auction, besides Nakamura? Despite most of the equipment being untenable, this was an obvious buy for Nakamura as the hammer price for the full set of equipment was a quarter of the value of the mill alone. Mills are deathly hard to come by and are exceptionally expensive as they are so well made that the companies making them have gone out of business in the 1970s.
The salvaged equipment has become a key part of Shizuoka Distillery, and Nakamura has even gone as far as to adopt the format of Karuizawa Distillery for his own distillery’s layout.
This is what became to be known as Pot Still K, for Karuizawa.
One of the last few photos of the pot stills at Karuizawa Distillery before the distillery was torn down. Shizuoka's Pot Still "K" was one of the pot stills salvaged from Karuizawa Distillery (Image Source: Sunday’s Grocery Blog).
The distillery has another Pot Still, W, which is named after its use of woodfiring to heat the pot still. It is worth noting that Shizuoka Distillery remains the only distillery in the world to use firewood (local, what more!) to heat its stills.
A look under the wood-fired still at Shizuoka Flame-heated stills tend to result in a weightier distillate compared to steam-heated stills. (Image Source: Shizuoka)
Only a small handful of Scotch distilleries continue to use flame-heated stills, such as Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas and Springbank. Back in Japan, Yamazaki and Hakushu are also known to use flame-heating, with the bulk of the industry transitioning to steam-fired stills. However, all these aforementioned use either gas or coal fire rather than firewood which Shizuoka relies on. Yet Shizuoka Distillery believes that this method will give rise to a more robust and intensely flavored whisky.
It is these twin unique stills that give rise to what we will taste today, the Prologue K and the Prologue W.
Tasting the Prologue K and Prologue W
Ultimately, 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” and roughly transliterated as “Jimoto no uisuki”). For this, Shizuoka Distillery is a distillery worth watching out for.
The distillery’s first bottling is the Shizuoka Prologue K Single Malt bottled at 55.5% Abv and matured for 3 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” also indicates that this was produced using the ex-Karuizawa still.
The second bottling is the Shizuoka Prologue W Single Malt bottled at 55.5% Abv and matured for 3 years in both first-fill bourbon casks and virgin American oak casks. The barley was sourced from 3 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.
I managed to taste both single malts in a pair to experience the differences and nuances between them. Boy, this was certainly worth the exercise!
Shizuoka Prologue K “Karuizawa Still” Single Malt, 55.5% Abv
Colour: Golden straw. Thin but long trailing legs that indicate some oiliness.
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.
Palate: Mildly sweet, chewy and oily with surprising complexity and elegance.
The palate is more bold and robust in flavour than the nose but overall still quite refined. The initial sip brings a basket of refreshingly sweet and crisp yuzu fruits, white pomelos and Okayama white peaches.
Okayama white peaches are pink and milky white, with an aromatic floral note with rich but mildly sweet flesh.
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.
Finish: 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 on the palate, so it almost feels like a chamber orchestra transitioning into a violin solo of fading vanilla oakiness and spice.
My take of the Prologue K
I once had the opportunity to taste the Karuizawa still new make (read our review of the Shizuoka Karuizawa Still new make here), which I merely thought was promising. This has exceeded my expectations considerably and it’s incredible to think what magic has been done by 3 years of maturation.
The Prologue K is in my opinion one of the most worthwhile NAS Japanese whiskies to try. 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.
After this bottle, I can confidently say that Shizuoka Distillery is worth its hype and fan-adoration.
Bright and refreshing with a satisfying texture and an unusual elegance for a NAS. This is a 3-year-old prodigy.
Shizuoka Prologue W “Wood-fired Still” Single Malt, 55.5% Abv
Colour: Golden straw. Slightly thicker legs than the Prologue K.
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.
Palate: 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).
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.
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.
Finish: The finish is quite long, with fading notes of lemon sponge cake and candied ginger.
My take of the Prologue W
This is another impressive NAS from Shizuoka. Like the Prologue K, this is more complex than most other NAS Japanese whiskies 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 almost seems like the Prologue W was designed as an answer to that because the finish here is much longer!
Decent complexity delivered by a great Kanagawa tidal wave of robust flavours and a rich texture uncommon to NAS Japanese whiskies.
Overall, it’s interesting to see how these two single malts have similar core flavours but with several obvious aspects of contrast. I like that they form a neat Yin and Yang, making for a very enjoyable 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.