spirit of the city

Hiroshima’s Sakurao Brewery & Distillery embodies a century-long distillation legacy, blending tradition and innovation. With local botanicals and pioneering methods, the distillery is a testament to Hiroshima’s craftsmanship spirit and its cultural essence.

It’s been 100 years since whisky was first produced commercially in Japan. A century later, what was once a fringe project in Osaka has flourished into an annual production of over 170 million litres of Japanese whisky that’s enjoyed all over the world. The town of Sakurao in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, is home to both a vibrant landscape and, proudly, the Sakurao Brewery & Distillery, nestled along the pristine shores of the Seto Inland Sea. It’s here that traditional distilling techniques meet the essence of the local region to create world-class whiskies, each standing as evidence of Hiroshima’s rich heritage of craftsmanship. Alongside gin, it also has the unique distinction as one of Japan’s rare establishments producing both exquisite Japanese malt whisky and grain whisky of the highest calibre.

Just across the bay from UNESCO World Heritage Site Itsukushima, Sakurao Brewery & Distillery launched over a century ago in 1918 as a sake brewery. Only two years later — the same year Jujiro Matsuda founded Toyo Cork Kogyo, which would go on to become Mazda Motor Corporation — Sakurao Brewery & Distillery obtained a whisky distillation license, virtually unheard of at the time in Japan.

Unlike Scotland, Japan had not yet developed its domestic industry for whisky: there were neither maltsters, cooperages, nor bottlers. This made establishing a whisky distillery in Japan extraordinarily difficult; yet, in Hiroshima, where difficulty presents opportunity, the city’s artisans saw a welcome challenge.

This pioneering spirit has remained a significant part of company culture in the ensuing one-hundred years. In the 1960s — the same decade Mazda released the iconic Cosmo Sport — Sakurao Brewery & Distillery released Japan’s first-ever sake packaged in a paper carton. The distillery continued trailblazing for the Japanese whisky industry with bottles like “Togouchi” and “Glory Extra.”

Leading up to the company’s 100th anniversary and driven by a desire for modernisation, the company initiated the launch of the distillery’s current brands. Proving their challenger spirit, this pivotal moment also marked the introduction of gin production, with the highly acclaimed “Japanese Dry Gin Sakurao Original” and “Japanese Dry Gin Sakurao Limited,” which have since garnered widespread acclaim. Original is crafted using nine botanicals from Hiroshima, focusing on fresh local ingredients like Hiroshima’s famed oranges, lemon, yuzu, hinoki, and green tea. Limited further amplifies the botanical basket with cherry blossom petals from the distillery’s hometown of Hatsukaichi, and — in a rarity for Japanese gin — locally grown juniper berries. The shells of oysters, a well-known delicacy of Hiroshima Prefecture, add a touch of salt.

As a testament to both its success and the continued excellence of Japanese enterprise and craftsmanship, a selection of Sakurao Brewery & Distillery’s gin and whisky offerings — including Sakurao and Togouchi single malts — was served to the presidents and prime ministers who arrived in Hiroshima earlier this year for the 49th G7 Hiroshima Summit.

Hand-picked juniper berries from Hiroshima give Sakurao’s dry gin its unique taste and refreshing aroma

“Hiroshima’s rich nature provides a variety of botanicals, particularly lemon, orange, and other citrus near the sea.”

Sakurao Distillery

Calling forth on expertise obtained over the distillery’s long history of blended whisky, their single malt whisky operation commenced in 2017. Hiroshima Prefecture’s Oze River provides the distillery’s water.

Fusing these traditional techniques with state-of-the-art infrastructure and a craftsman’s pursuit of constant improvement, this philosophy is known as monotsukuri, a Japanese term that encompasses the concept of craftsmanship. Much like Mazda, also headquartered in Hiroshima, Sakurao Brewery & Distillery prides itself on meticulous attention to detail, and continuous improvement in the process of creating high-quality products. Today, the distillery utilises equipment imported from Hungary and Germany alongside Japan-made unblended whiskies, vital for its delicate fermentation setup.

One of four stills is a custom-built stainless steel still that taps into the region’s long history of distilled liquor, offering vacuum distillation before the distillate heads into a six-plate copper column still. Vacuum distillation lowers the air pressure inside of the still, thus lowering the boiling point of the mixture, enabling the masters to capture more flavourful and aromatic components of the grains. Then, taking advantage of all six plates of the column still, the mouthfeel of the liquid coming off the still is creamy and soft. In Hiroshima Prefecture, it’s a technique possible only at Sakurao Brewery & Distillery.

Hiroshima: The City of Craftsmanship 

Amid a flourishing craft tradition around the world, Japan stands out for its depth of expertise and abundance of master-level disciplines, which are representative of the refined expressions of the human spirit over a long period of time.

Across Hiroshima’s esteemed craft community, Mazda Stories meets the individuals engaged in four distinctive crafts: ceramics, brush making, metal leaf artisanship, and master tool dye making. Each of these artisans embodies an unwavering dedication to their craft, honed through relentless pursuit and learning from past mistakes.

Click here to explore their creations, contrasting training methods, and aspirations for the future.

Sakurao Brewery & Distillery’s maturation setup is unique amongst all Japanese whisky distilleries. The on-site Sakurao Warehouse, adjacent to the Seto Inland Sea, exposes casks to sea spray over the years in Hiroshima’s temperate climate, adding an element of saltiness to the liquid gold contained within. But the true innovation is instead found at the Togouchi Warehouse. This warehouse is in a 750-metre-long former rail tunnel in the hills of nearby Akiota. With capacity for 4000 casks, the tunnel offers a maturation environment found nowhere else in the world. The high humidity found inside the tunnel year-round means that casks capture moisture dripping off the walls, leading to the liquid volume of the cask remaining the same throughout its maturation (known as the ‘angel’s share’, on average a cask can lose between two and five percent of volume while it matures).

“The sea and mountains are nearby. Warm breezes blow in from the sea during the summer, and cool breezes blow in from the mountains during winter. This temperature difference accelerates the maturation process.”

Sakurao Distillery

With two kinds of malt, both Japanese and imported unblended whiskies, four stills, two vastly differing maturation environments, and countless cask types, the Sakurao Brewery & Distillery can create a wide range of Japanese whiskies. It is then down to the honed senses of the distillery’s master blenders to formulate whiskies that end up in bars and homes across the world. With this much variety, their initial single malt releases were not one bottle, but three: Single Malt Japanese Whisky Sakurao, aged only at the distillery, Single Malt Japanese Whisky Togouchi, matured solely in the Togouchi Tunnel, and Single Malt Japanese Whisky Sakurao Sherry Cask Stillman’s Selection, highlighting sherry cask-aged whiskies. From September, grain whisky will also be made in-house at Sakurao Distillery.

Not dissimilar to Mazda, Sakurao Brewery & Distillery exemplifies the seamless fusion of time-honoured traditions and contemporary innovation. It is the unwavering dedication and relentless endeavours of the distillery’s craftspeople that not only uphold the city’s rich legacy of craftsmanship but also strengthen its enduring spirit.

Words Liam McNulty / Images Sakurao Distillery & Eric Micotto

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Made in Hiroshima, enjoyed worldwide