School is in Session at the Shizuoka Distillery

The Shizuoka Distillery has announced the opening of the Shizuoka Whisky School, enabling enrollees to get hands-on experience distilling authentic Japanese new make. The two-day entry-level course covers everything from grinding malt into grist through maturation.

As in many countries, distilling alcohol at home is illegal in Japan. Short of attending a university course or taking a job at a distillery, this means there are essentially no opportunities for curious fans to try making their own spirits. While many of us whisky types visit distilleries and get caught up in the details of what goes into a dram, we’ve never actually experienced the physical labor that makes those details possible.

Enter the Shizuoka Whisky School. Day One runs from 1:30PM-5PM, and covers:

  • An introductory classroom session speaking to the history of whisky, how it’s made, and the schedule for the two days
  • Grinding malt, then sieving the grist to verify the grinding ratio
  • Pulling wort via the mash tun and fermenting it into mash via the mash tuns (including tasting samples of the liquid at various stages)
  • Distilling on Shizuoka’s famed “W” wood-fired direct-heating still, the only of its kind in the world. This part also includes splitting firewood and throwing it in the fire under the still
  • A tasting session of new make and seven component whiskies to gain an understanding of how blending impacts the final product

Day Two begins earlier, running from 9:30AM to 2:30PM:

  • Checking the status of the fermentation and getting inside one of Shizuoka’s wooden mash tuns to see what it’s like to clean one
  • Opening the spirit safe to get an idea of the changing aromas of the heads, hearts, and tails, to make a middle cut
  • Putting new make into a cask and bottling some new make to take home
  • Graduation ceremony
  • Whisky and lunch to celebrate

That lineup sounds like it could be quite interesting for any whisky nerd, and epic for Shizuoka fans. It comes with a huge caveat, though: the course is only in Japanese. I realize that’s a dealbreaker for many readers of this site, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to cater to other languages.

The first class will be offered on July 14 and 15, 2023. Then there’s the cost: 34,960 yen, which includes a Shizuoka polo shirt, 200ml of new make, and your completion certificate. Notably, it does not include transport to and from the distillery or any accommodation for the night of the 14th.

If you’d like to apply to the lottery, you can do so via this Google Form from 10AM JST on June 12 to 11:59PM on June 16. The big question, then, is how many spots are available? Just six! Shizuoka Distillery is not huge, so a smaller group to do this kind of thing is a given. Winners will be informed on June 19. If you miss this round, the distillery has said the next is planned for around October.

Should the language barrier be too high or cost prohibitive, my advice is to keep your eyes open. Nikka Whisky famously ran a two-day “My Whisky” program at the Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries twice a year right up until COVID-19 shut the program down. It offered experiences coopering, filling a cask, then moving it into a warehouse. A decade later, a bottle from “your” cask is sent to your home. As of this writing, the company has not disclosed any plans to resume the course.

Other Japanese craft whisky distilleries have already disclosed plans to offer similar hands-on educational programs in the future. The upcoming Komoro Distillery, for example, is slated to have its “KDI Academy” on site.

Whether it’s Shizuoka, Nikka, KDI, or somewhere else, it seems like we’ll finally have a range of options going forward. One might question the logic of paying to do manual labor, but to many Japanese whisky fans, it somehow makes sense.

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