Shizuoka Distillery is one of the most hotly anticipated in the wave of Japanese craft distilleries starting to hatch out of their shells, ready to hit the market. The allure towards Shizuoka Distillery could not be clearer – founded under Gaia Flow, an existing distributor of popular independently bottled whiskies under the Blackadder and Asta Morris brands, the company already had a strong presence in Japan.
Nakamura has taken every step to build Shizuoka into a fan favorite. (Image Source: Shizuoka Distillery)
The distillery's founder, Nakamura, is himself a real whisky history buff, having purchased and refurbished stills from the now defunct legendary distillery Karuizawa, and has also gone a long way to incorporate lots of local ingredients – you could say Shizuoka is hitting all the right notes.
The distillery actually has a really cool story, which you can check out here.
Now with two debut releases under their belt, the Prologue K and Prologue W, as well as the first drops of whiskies from their private cask program, the market is just waiting for a mass market release to go all in on.
Today, we were fortunate to get out hands on Shizuoka’s new makes from Interco-mle, a Singaporean distributor of Blackadder.
We have with us a new make from the Karuizawa Still (which probably became Prologue K), the Wood-Fired Still (which likely became Prologue W), and finally a 16 month new make that was matured in a bourbon barrel. These were all bottled at 63.3% abv and were made of unpeated malt.
Shizuoka New Make: Karuizawa Still, 63.6%
Colour. Clear, basically the color of water. Keep in mind, whiskies take most of their color from the oak cask maturation process. They are usually colourless upon distillation.
Now, we’re gonna wanna be careful with this as new makes run at a very high ABV. Here it’s a potent 63.6%.
Carefully nosing it, allowing the initial alcohol sting to fade off (or maybe my nose is becoming immune), it’s clean and fairly soft and mellow. It has a very apparent vanillic note that is also very sweet.
There’s also something very familiar here… I sat on this for awhile, and then it struck me, it smells like boiled pandan. Pandan is a fragrant tropical plant beloved for its sweet aroma, and is widely used in Southeast Asia, whether it’s in the form of a paste, extract or a powder, it is used to flavor everything from appetizers to mains and of course desserts.
While this might simply look like grass, it was once touted by the British as the Southeast's answer to vanilla for it's wonderful soft yet fragrant aroma. (Image Source: Healthline)
I really like this pandan base note because it smells so soft, yet fragrant and its aroma is very distinctively tropical. There’s also some desiccated coconut flakes here as well to go along with that.
On the palate, again very sweet and vanillic, with a growing warmth but surprisingly less burn than one would expect. It’s very clean with a good sprinkle of white pepper. That said, it does grow in intensity, so you’re going to wanna go slow.
A sight familiar to any frequenter of cafes. (Image Source: The Good Trade)
The finish is long and warming. The pandan makes a reappearance and then closes out with some bitterness and also something comparable to charcoal water.
I give this two pandan leaves.
Shizuoka New Make: Wood-Fired Still, 63.6%
Color here is also water-colored, ie. colourless.
Nose here is softer and rounder than the K new make. The same sweet vanilla but this time with a dash of braised preserved salted vegetable, something you’d typically be served as a side dish for braised meats in Southeast Asia.
The scent of a slightly sour but vegetal aroma that comes from fermentation. (Image Source: China Sichuan Food)
The palate is rounder and less bitter than the K new make, but with noticeably more smoke, though still very light. A firmer body than K as well.
Still very sweet with a good amount of vanilla, vanilla pods even. On the whole this is more balanced and well-rounded than K.
Hmm, perhaps we could have a more popular Prologue W than Prologue K it seems.
Quite an evolution from braised preserved vegetables to vanilla pods. (Image Source: Mashed)
The finish is very long, but this time much more gentle. The bitterness is still apparent but very soft and again a good pouring of vanilla. On the whole very sweet and clean and crisp.
This one piqued my interest, it gets a intrigued smiley.
Shizuoka New Make: 16 Month Bourbon Barrel. 63.6%
Colour is still fairly light, close to that of honey water. There is actually colour on this one since it’s matured for 16 months in a bourbon barrel, so some of the oak has infused into the distillate.
Just a squeeze of lemon. (Image Source: Wikihow)
On the nose, the aroma is on full display here, it’s not all barley sugars and vanillin this time. Of course, those high notes are still present but this time it’s much more multi-faceted. You now have a big part of the whisky picture joining – the woodiness from the oak. The counter effect is that the new make is not nearly as clean or crisp as the previous two samples. It has also mellowed out significantly. Really tells you what 16 months can do.
There are fruity notes here – orchard fruits, ripe apples. There’s also caramel and some sweet cream. The texture is also creamier and more oily, that much firmer as well.
The warmth blends well with the spices and vanilla here, with just a touch of chilli flakes. (Images Source: Delish)
On the palate, spice and vanilla cream here. Still very light bodied, but certainly we get some cinnamon, nutmeg, almost like a chai latte, with some actual chili flakes.
It is more oak-y, with tannins and woody bitterness, but again a firmer body. This will probably mellow out given time in the cask. But promising so far.
The finish is again warm and lasting, that much has stayed constant. This time more caramel and oak bitterness, and guess what, a light gentle smoke. What a pleasant surprise, now where did that come from?
Given that this was obviously the most matured of the lot, really showed promise, it gets a salivating smiley.
Now when tasting new makes, we must keep in mind that these are not meant to be sipped and enjoyed in their current form. If they were, there would be no need to go through the remaining maturation process before it can be retailed as whisky. No, no, these exist to build fans; to get the word out, so that there’s something to show for.
Most whisky producers, even in Japan where they previously did not have to abide by strict whisky aging requirements (of 3 years), would still find it hard to bottle a whisky any younger, simply because it won’t taste good.
To build a presence you can't just ask people to follow your Instagram right? You gotta give them a drink, even if it's 63.3% abv. (Image Source: Shizuoka Distillery)
So what do you do during those 3 years while you wait? Some turn to bottling easier to distill spirits such as gin or vodka, while others bottle their new makes. By doing so, they have a foot in the door at live whisky events and for visitors who either chance upon or make the pilgrimage to the distillery itself. It keeps people excited. We all love the idea of potential don’t we?
With new makes what we’re looking out for is what are some of the characters that stand out in the way the distillery is producing their whiskies. Are there certain high notes or base notes that are unique to the new make? How is the pre-whisky evolving enroute to earning its full whisky stripes? This keeps fans involved in the process and ready to sweep the bottles that finally appear after the long wait.
A bottled taste of Shizuoka. (Image Source: His Go)
With the Shizuoka new makes, it seems that at the early stages we can identify some unique traits already. The strong aromas, the sweetness, the light smoke, the firm body, the fruitiness. It tells us we can expect the final bottles of whisky to shape up along those parameters as they become increasingly less amorphous. As a fun little experiment, you can contrast these notes to the Prologue K or Prologue W, and see if these traits materialized.
Based on what these, I’d say I’m pretty excited about a mass launch and I can’t wait to try what Shizuoka has to offer. If you’d like to learn all about the Shizuoka Distillery itself, check out this article on the distillery here.