Eigashima, the sake and shochu maker who run the White Oak distillery, have been in the whisky business for a long time but only released their first single malt (of the modern era, at least) in 2007.
The company dates back to 1888 and they are supposed to have begun whisky selling in 1919. Those were the wild days of Japanese whisky making before Taketsuru had visited Scotland to find out how it was really done. Nobody knows what the whisky was like, whether it was made using orthodox Scotch techniques or indeed whether it was made at Eigashima at all or just resold by them. However, they carried some interesting labels:
An early Eigashima "Old Scotch" brand
I am not sure when exactly that bottle dates from. It is possible that it is much more recent. For me, though, it conjours up some of the spirit of those wild old days, when it was the done thing to proclaim your whisky "Old Scotch" and then proudly announce it had been "Distilled and bottled by Eigashima Shuzo Co. Ltd" on the same label . It is not so different from what some of our friends in China are doing right now.
The modern era of Eigashima whisky started in 1984, when the current distillery in Hyogo prefecture was built. According to Taylor Smisson and Hideo Yamaoka in the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2008, the White Horse distillery never really got into its stride: "The shochu boom of the mid 1980s, the revision of Japan's Liquor Tax Law in 1989 and the decline of prices of imports took their toll." In recent years, malt whisky has only been distilled on an occasional basis at the Hongo site (which also has sake making building facilities in separate buildings) and all of it had been going into their well established "White Oak" blended whisky brands. A lack of large amounts of lengthily aged malt whisky may be the reason why White Oak's first single malt, released in late 2007 under the "Akashi" label, was only available in a 8yo aged version with a surprisingly limited bottling of 4,500. (Update 20.06.2010: for the latest Akashi malts range and links to relevant reviews, see this post.)
This may be the start of something exciting. Eigashima has as long a history in the whisky business as any Japanese maker and at last is showing an interest in the premium single malt end of the market. The Malt Whisky Yearbook 2008 mentions that most of the whisky at White Horse is matured in sherry hogsheads previously used by Scotch distillers. However, It also mentions that they have malts aged for more than 10 years in sherry butts. Perhaps this will be used in future bottlings?
Identifying White Oak whisky bottlesFortunately for foreigners, White Oak often uses the alphabet to label its whisky. Its "White Oak" brand is usually fairly easy to find. However, the Akashi single malt does use a hiragana to spell out its name. This is what it looks like:
In computer text, in case you want to search for these whiskies on the Japanese internet: あかし (Akashi), ホワイトオーク (White Oak), 江井ヶ嶋 (the company name, Eigashima), ウィスキー (whisky). (Can`t see it?)
Location on the Nonjatta map of Japanese distilleries.
Address in Japanese characters
The details of the early history of Eigashima come from Takeshi Mogi's site. Information about White Oak's recent history and its whisky stocks come from Malt Whisky Yearbook 2008. The photograph of the distillery was taken by the bicycling author of this rather wonderful blog. The photograph of Akashi was taken from the 7-11 shop.