[Whisky Galore] Sakurao Distillery starts grain whisky distillation, fusing Japanese and Western techniques

The Sakurao Distillery, in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima–nearby the World Heritage island of Miyajima–has taken on a new challenge. This report is the result of my latest visit, in March 2020.

Text/Photos: Mamoru Tsuchiya
Translation: Whiskey Richard

This article originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.21 / August 2020.

Title image: The original shochu still has been commandeered for use as a grain whisky still. The initial vacuum distillation yields estery flavors, then the low wines of three such runs are combined and distilled again in the same still. This time around it’s an atmospheric distillation, and it’s subsequently rectified to increase the abv in the column shown top-right. 

The pace of development at Chugoku Jozo’s Sakurao Distillery is quite shocking. During my last visit two years ago, they had a single Holstein hybrid still for both whisky and gin. This time around (March 2020), they have added a new still immediately next to it, and have begun making malt whisky.

“Though it’s the same mash tun and fermentation tank, we added a new still last year. It’s another Holstein, but this one has more capacity. The first distillation is done on this new still, and the second distillation is on the older still,” says our guide, head distiller Taihei Yamamoto.

One batch at the Sakurao Distillery begins with one ton of malt, from which they extract 4500L of wort, which is subsequently put into the fermentation tank. The wash is then distilled. But surprisingly, the heads and tails from the previous run are not added to the second distillation. Instead, those heads and tails are added to the first run. At that point, the abv is around 10%. “There isn’t much capacity on the second run,” says Yamamoto-san, but it’s definitely a departure from the standard way of thinking. The wash still doesn’t have the column rectifier that the spirit still has. All six plates of the spirit still’s rectifier are used, so there’s as much contact with copper as possible. The new pot that this setup produces is creamy and soft.

That’s the malt whisky operation. But what’s surprising from this particular trip is the grain whisky operation. Rather than the standard continuous still used for grain whisky, Sakurao Distillery’s grain whisky is made using a batch-style approach.

Our raw materials for the grain are 10% imported malt, and 90% domestic barley — the same pealed barley used in barley shochu.Taihei Yamamoto, Head Distiller

Milling is done via a Japan-made hammer mill. That undergoes saccharification in a mash tun, after which it’s moved to a fermentation tank for fermentation. The wash produced is 4500L, the same as the malt. It’s distilled using the stainless shochu still, then the Holstein column with its six plates.

It’s a combination of whisky distillation techniques and shochu distillation techniques, where the first distillation is vacuum distillation only. Three such runs are combined and put together to also go into the column still at atmospheric pressure to increase the abv. The Sakurao Distillery is the only distillery in the world using this system.

Sakurao is currently aging whisky in three different locations: a warehouse in the distillery, within the Togouchi tunnel, and a third location. The company is also experimenting with adding sensors inside their casks to measure the temperature, acidity, and pressure, then analyze them with AI.

Eyes throughout the world are watching Sakurao to see just how advanced, and how far their whisky-making can go.

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