I visited the Hakushu distillery owned by Suntory, located in the Yamanashi prefecture, about two hours by train from Tokyo in Japan. There is a new Hakushu single malt whisky on the US market.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Hakushu was built in 1973 and is located at a high elevation - 700 meters above sea level. (Scotland's highest distilleries are Dalwhinnie and Braeval, both about 355 meters.) On the train ride there, your ears are continually clogging as you change elevation. The distillery is on a large site to protect its water source, and doubles as a bird sanctuary.
The Yamazaki distillery used to grow at least some of its own grain up until around 1970, but now they import all their barley. It is grown and malted in Scotland and shipped to Japan. Suntory buys malted barley at two different peating levels; basically unpeated and at highly peated at at 25 ppm phenol content.
They grind the malted barley on site, then put it in the mash tun with hot water to expose the fermentable sugars and transfer it to the wooden washbacks for fermentation. They ferment it using both brewers' and distillers' yeast.
They have six pairs of stills at Hakushu; two of them the same shape and one not currently used. Thus they have four active still shapes producing different whiskies. As there is another whisky boom, they're currently distilling 24/7.
As Hakushu is at a very high elevation, the whisky ages more slowly with less wood influence on the spirit. Though they use five types of barrels at the other single malt distillery Yamakazi, at Hakushu they focus on two: ex-bourbon and hogshead. (Hogshead barrels are reconstructed bourbon barrels made a little larger, holding 230 liters rather than 180.) They do, however, age ex-sherry butts (Spanish oak, 480 liters), and puncheons (new American white oak, 480 liter).
They rechar some barrels after using them to age whisky about four times, but after they rechar they only use them one more time. Distillery General Manager Mike Miyamoto says that the whisky aged in rechar barrels is more astringent than with regular ex-bourbon barrels.
The smell of a recharred barrel is amazing! It's like campfire wood and sugars, even marshmallowish.
At Hakushu they use only racked warehouses, in earthquake-safe metal racks that go about 13 levels high.
Here they use peated and unpeated barley, four still shapes, and five types of casks (though they focus on two.) They say that between them (2x4x5) they make 40 different types of whisky at Hakushu.
Regardless, to make up the Hakushu single malt they primarily include three whiskies distilled on-site: unpeated malt distillate aged in hogshead barrels, unpeated malt distillate aged in sherry butts, and peated malt distillate aged in ex-bourbon barrels.
We sampled each component separately and then the Hakushu 12 and 18 year old blends. With three widely different distillates, Hakushu is almost more of a blended malt (vatted malt) than a single malt.