Shirakawa: unearthing a forgotten Japanese distillery
Author: Hannah Crosbie
Ahead of its limited release, Stephen Bremner, Managing Director at the Tomatin Group, discusses his discovery of the earliest-known vintage Japanese whisky to have ever been bottled.
Whisky, by nature, is incredibly collectable. The prized gems in any enthusiast’s collection comprise limited runs, rare vintages and underrated distilleries. But every now and then, a truly unbelievable release comes along – with a story to match.
This release from Shirakawa is one of them. Three years ago, something truly special was unearthed in its long-abandoned distillery: 1,500 bottles of single malt whisky from 1958.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHIRAKAWA
Although there is much excitement for this incredibly rare release, Shirakawa wasn’t always lauded for its whiskies, as Stephen reveals. “During its lifetime, Shirakawa actually produced a variety of wine and spirits,” he says, “particularly shōchū, a distilled Japanese drink usually made from rice, barley and wheat.”
However, quality whiskies were also produced in this time. From 1951 to 1969, the malt whiskies that Shirakawa produced were rumoured to be brilliant, but they were ultimately destined for the famed “King” and “Ideal” whiskies by Takara Shuzo – Shirakawa’s parent company. The constituent parts were clearly good enough to be blended into the world-famous names, but the distillery was never afforded the opportunity release their own single malt.
Records show that whisky production was discontinued in 1969 – which marked the start of the distillery’s collapse. The fall of Shirakawa’s whisky production in the 1960s feels somewhat ironic, given the meteoric rise of the category in Japan in the mid ’80s. But by then, the distillery’s focus lay elsewhere.
“By the early 2000s, Shirakawa was on its last legs,” Stephen says. “In this time, it was only used as a bottling facility.” The buildings were demolished in 2003, and the land was donated to build emergency housing after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in ’11. And so Shirakawa’s potential was left a mystery – one to be uncovered by a curious Stephen Bremnin.
AN UNLIKELY DISCOVERY
“I had become intrigued by Takara Shuzo’s history of malt whisky production in Japan,” Stephen explains. “Very little was known of Shirakawa, but undeterred, I kept asking questions, hopeful that some liquid trace of its existence remained somewhere.” After an exhaustive search through Takara Shuzo’s company documents, it seemed that this famed distillery’s secrets would remain just that – secret.
That is, until 2019 – when 1,500 bottles of 1958 single malt whisky were discovered from Shirakawa Distillery.
“When I discovered the year the bottles were from, I was completely astounded,” Stephen recalls. “I soon realised that what we had discovered was extremely rare. If it wasn’t for this discovery, Shirakawa would have remained a lost, unknown distillery – destined for the history books. It only felt right that we released this bottling to share with the world.”
So how does a bottle of Japanese whisky fare over 64 years? Extraordinarily well, as it happens. Whisky critic and expert Dave Broom reports an “expansive palate and succulent texture” with a drop of water showing “clear maturity and a hint of incense.”
It’s clearly an exciting dram, but in the eyes of an avid collector, what makes the 1958 Shirakawa so special?
“Shirakawa 1958 offers a window into the history of Japanese whisky,” Stephen says. “For collectors, this is an opportunity that will never arrive again. This is a rare and unique chance to taste a piece of liquid history.”
Register your interest in the 1958 Shirakawa here