The Shirakawa Distillery operated for nearly six and a half decades before being demolished in 2003. During this time the distillery produced malt whisky, rumoured to be delightfully exquisite. It seemed Shirakawa Distillery would guard her secrets forever until a discovery of its liquid history was unearthed.
An exhaustive trawl through the archive of Takara Shuzo Co.,Ltd, the company that owned Shirakawa Distillery from 1947 onwards, threw up just a handful of documents. Oral history proved elusive too. Shirakawa Distillery will likely guard her secrets forever. All we have is glimpses here and there – fragments of a portrait – and, importantly, the discovery of the last remaining parcel of stock from one of the pioneers of malt whisky making in Japan.
Located a stone’s throw from the Abukuma River and a few minutes’ walk from Komine Castle, Shirakawa Distillery consisted of a patchwork of wood and mortar buildings of different sizes. What types of liquor were produced at Shirakawa during those early days remains a mystery. But, in 1947 the distillery was purchased by Takara Shuzo Co.,Ltd, renovations were carried out and the production of wine, brandy, etc. began in earnest. According to company records, the production of malt whisky started in 1951.
The only remaining parcel of Shirakawa is from 1958; produced at the beginning of the second period of whisky making at the distillery. During this period, the distillery kept working mainly with domestic malted barley, the fermentation was increased to 5 days and the distillation took place in twin copper pots. Spirit was collected at 73.1-57.1%abv, quite a wide middle cut, making for an average still strength of 66.7%. Domestically made 350-litre casks from Tohoku and Hokkaido Mizunara (Japanese oak) remained the go-to for maturation.
Focused as we are on malt whisky, it’s easy to forget that this was a minor constituent of products sold as whisky in Japan until at least the early 80s. All of the whisky produced at Shirakawa was destined to be used in the “King Whisky” blend. By the time malt whisky began to make its way into the market, Takara Shuzo’s focus had shifted to shochu. As a result, Shirakawa was never released by the company as a single malt.
In the Daikoku Budoshu years, Shirakawa Factory was a bustling place with more than 200 employees. By the early 80s however, that number had dropped to about 50. Workers were skilled at making various types of alcohol. The malt whisky production kit included a stainless steel lauter tun with a capacity of 18,000L, five or six stainless fermenters of the same capacity and two copper pot stills with a 9,000L capacity each. There were about a dozen small, racked maturation warehouses, where the year-round cool climate would have allowed the relatively heavy Shirakawa spirit to gently mature.
By the 1990s the Shirakawa Factory had started suffering from old age. Many of the buildings were decrepit and the equipment was old. Ideas and alternatives were discussed but none came to fruition. By the early 2000s, the Shirakawa Factory was on its last legs and merely used as a bottling facility. In 2003, it was closed and the buildings demolished. And with that a relatively small but significant part of Japanese whisky history was lost forever.
If you’re reading these words, you find yourself in the exceptional position of being the final link in the extraordinary chain of events that has led this whisky to its destiny: here for you to savour.