GOTEMBA, SHIZUOKA PREF. - Two hours by bus from Tokyo, nestled at the base of Mount Fuji, sits the Kirin Fuji Gotemba Distillery.
At a massive 155,000 square meters, the distillery is one of the largest in the world, and distills both malt and grain whisky. Most importantly for the curious visitor, the distillery offers free tours to the public. So, craving some fresh air and an escape from sweltering Tokyo, I headed out to the cooler climes of Shizuoka Prefecture.
At the distillery, I am greeted by a neatly dressed guide who leads our group into a cinema lined with barrel lids stamped with the date “1973,” the year of the distillery’s first bottling. The room lights up, and a video takes us through the history of the distillery and highlights the importance of its water source, Mount Fuji. The water used at the distillery filters through the mountain over a period of 50 years and brings a light, fresh taste to the spirit.
What follows is a sensory exploration of the whisky. Fragrance boxes filled with local flora give an intimate introduction to the plants that lend their flavor to the drink; photos give an idea of what they look like in their natural settings. It’s a brilliant technique to capture the attention of both the novice and seasoned whisky drinker.
Though the whisky produced is closer to Scottish “whisky” than American “whiskey,” much of the equipment used is imported from the States. The great silver stills we encounter are the nuts and bolts of the operation, and a low mechanical hum emanates from them and through the room. I follow the group and cross over a bridge only to realize that we are walking through the distillery’s 10-story storage facility. Through a panoramic glass window, we can see the ex-bourbon casks in which the whisky is being aged, some varieties for up to 25 years.
At the tail end of the tour, we’re given a taste of two whiskies from the distillery’s selection. The guide enthusiastically explains the history and tasting notes of both and takes orders for our preferred serving: straight, on the rocks or in the classic Japanese style, whisky and soda.
The first I sample is the Kirin Fuji-Sanroku.Neat, it has a clean taste with a subtle hint of brown sugar and the smoky smell of oak acquired from the charring on the inside of the barrels. The second is the Kirin Fuji-Sanroku Signature Blend which is darker and sweeter than the first and has rich notes of caramel, vanilla and chocolate.
The tour over, I can’t bear to leave without first picking up a couple bottles of the ambrosial spirit, to accompany my newfound knowledge of Japanese whisky.
Whisky distilleries close to Tokyo
From Hokkaido to Kyushu, there are whisky distilleries scattered across Japan, but some are just day trips from Tokyo:
- Nestled in the Southern Alps in Yamanashi Prefecture, Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery is a whisky heavyweight and its Hibiki 21 won the award for the World’s Best Blended Whisky in 2017. Two hours from Tokyo by train.
- The Chichibu Distillery was founded in 2004, and uses the Saitama Prefecture climate to create their signature peated single malts. Tours must be arranged in advance. Three hours from Tokyo by train and bus.
- The Miyagikyo Distillery is home to Nikka whisky. The creator of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, is known as the father of Japanese whisky. Three hours from Tokyo by train and bus.
The distillery runs free 70-minute tours every day of the week. Tours can be booked in advance at www.kirin.co.jp/products/whisky_brandy/gotemba/tour (Japanese only). Staff speak English but the majority of the tour is conducted in Japanese. The distillery is around two hours from Tokyo. Catch a bus from Shinjuku Station to Gotemba Station and then a bus or taxi to the distillery.