Closing the Circle

Closing the Circle

Japanese craft brewers become whisky chasers

Production | 02 Jun 2017 | Issue 144 | By Stefan van Eycken

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2016 saw an unprecedented boost in the number of whisky distilleries in Japan, with no fewer than six new distilleries starting production. Not all of these are built from the ground up. In fact, three of the distilleries are tagged on to breweries, meaning the mashing and fermentation is carried out in kit that was already in place, with distilling equipment added on site. This represents a development on the Japanese whisky scene that is likely to inspire others if whispers about new projects left and right are to be believed.

Miyashita Shuzo in Okayama was the first brewery to expand into the field of whisky. They started single-distilling some of their hoppy beer in a (stainless steel) shochu still in 2003 and filled that into American white oak casks. This wasn't 'whisky', of course, but encouraged by the way it was developing during maturation, they began to think about making proper whisky. Miyashita Shuzo acquired their whisky licence in 2011 and then started doing non-hopped mashes and double-distilling those. They kept using their good old shochu still but whisky distillation and stainless steel are awkward bedfellows. The folks at Miyashita must have realised this because by July 2015, a brand new (copper, mercifully!) hybrid still had been installed on the premises. They have been using that for the production of their whisky ever since. Distillation takes place once a week all year round - slotted in between beer-making - and they try to use as much local barley as possible. Most of the new make is filled into ex-sherry and ex-brandy casks.

Local barley was the driving factor behind Kiuchi Shuzo's decision to expand into the field of whisky. Company director Toshiyuki Kiuchi insists the move was not motivated by a desire to jump on the bandwagon of the Japanese whisky boom (circa 2008). His plans predate the boom by several years. As a brewer, Kiuchi was keen to revive the first Japanese variety of beer barley ('Kaneko Golden'), which had been created in 1900 but disappeared in the 1960s as the industry switched to new varieties with a better cost-performance ratio. Kiuchi encouraged local farmers to grow the barley but it soon became apparent that there was a lot of what he calls 'junk barley', ie. barley that wasn't suitable for beer making because of the high protein content, which can cause a beer to throw a haze, reduce mash efficiency, decrease a beer's stability and drive up total processing costs. Kiuchi figured there was one way to avoid all that junk barley going to waste and that was to distill it. The investment in a bigger brewhouse delayed his distilling plans by several years, but by February 2016 they were ready to start making whisky at Nukada Distillery, which is basically a corner in a warehouse of the Nukada brewhouse.

Here too, they opted for a hybrid still, albeit one of their own designs which was made in China. The still is quite small (1kl) so the folks at Kiuchi Shuzo are fairly limited at the moment, but reinforcement, a 6kl still of the same type, is on the way. Toshiyuki Kiuchi has a soft spot for sherried whiskies, The Macallan in particular, so quite a bit of the new make is filled into sherry butts.

Nagahama Distillery is the latest addition to the whisky distilleries map of Japan. Located in the picturesque town of the same name in Shiga, it is also the smallest one in the country. One of the things that is striking about Nagahama Distillery is how quickly it was set up. Whereas most companies take years to get from the planning stage to the reality of an actual distillery ready for production, it took Liquor Mountain - the retail company behind Nagahama Distillery - a little over seven months. They didn't have to start from scratch, of course. Nagahama Distillery is, in fact, an extension of Nagahama Roman (with the emphasis on the second syllable, as in 'romantic') Brewery. The brewery was set up in 1996 as a brewpub. Again, the first half of the whisky-making process, mashing and fermentation, takes place in the equipment used for beer-making. For the second half of the process, a small 'still room' was created behind the bar counter. A glass wall was put in so anyone visiting the restaurant can see the distillery in action!

Looking at the still house, very few people would suspect that the inspiration for Nagahama Distillery came from Scotland, but that's where the idea for the project was born. The inspiration didn't come from any of the iconic, well-known, traditional Scottish distilleries, but from the new wave of small-scale distilleries. In November 2015, a small team from Liquor Mountain visited a number of new distilleries in Scotland, among them Strathearn and Eden Mill, with the intention of looking into the possibility of importing their products. What they saw impressed them, but it wasn't until they returned to Scotland in April 2016 that they considered setting up a whisky making operation of their own in Japan along similar lines.

Strathearn Distillery started producing whisky in October 2013 and, at the time, it was the smallest distillery in Scotland. The pot stills used at Strathearn are tiny (1,000l and 500l, respectively) and not of the type generally used in Scotland. They are fitted with alembic heads and traditionally used for making calvados, Cognac or pisco. Made by Hoga Stills in Portugal, they are favoured by many smaller craft distillers, particularly in the US. They are cheaper than traditional pot stills and faster to get delivered. Whereas at Forsyths, you would be on a waiting list for four years, Hoga Stills can get your stills made and delivered in the span of a few months. The approach and set-up at Strathearn Distillery inspired the people at Eden Mill, another brewery that expanded into a distillery. The folks there ordered similar alembic stills from Hoga Stills and started making whisky in November 2014. Eden Mill was the first combined brewery/distillery in Scotland so it isn't hard to see why the Liquor Mountain team felt inspired by their experiences visiting these two distilleries. They had a brewery in Nagahama, so an extension of that operation into the field of whisky suggested itself, especially given the unquenchable thirst for Japanese whisky, both at home and abroad.

In July 2016, work on setting up a whisky distillery within the Nagahama Roman Brewery premises began in earnest. Pot stills of the same type and size as those used at Strathearn were ordered from Hoga Stills. Unlike other distilleries-in-progress the whole project was kept under wraps, so it came as a big surprise when the distillery was officially announced to the public via social media on 1 November. The Hoga stills arrived in Nagahama on 10 November and the first distillation took place a week later (16-17 November).

Nagahama Distillery president Takashi Kiyoi walks us through the process on site. For the time being, two types of barley are used: non-peated (imported from Germany) and medium-peated barley (20ppm, imported from the UK). For some mashes, a small proportion of peated barley is added to the non-peated barley, creating a sort of lightly-peated variation. The latter was the case for the first batch ever distilled at the distillery. The idea now is to have a non-peated season, followed by a peated season.

The mashing takes place in the same mash tun and lauter tun used for beer making. One mash consists of 400kg barley, which results in 1,600l of wash. This is then sent to one of six stainless-steel fermenters (2kl capacity each but only filled with 1.6kl) on the second floor of the same building. Again, the fermenters are part of the original brewery set-up. Once the wash is pumped up to a fermenter, distiller's yeast is added. After 60 hours, the wort is pumped down to the still house. Everything is very hands-on at Nagahama Distillery, so the staff literally have to connect a hose pipe to the bottom of the fermenter on the second floor and lower it down straight into the spirit still on the first floor… all manually. The same applies to removing the draff from the mashtun. This is done by hand and it's a laborious process. The draff is then picked up by farmers from the area, who use it as fertiliser to grow crops for the restaurant at the brewpub. Talk about closing the circle!

As explained above, the pot stills are of the alembic type, fitted with a larger head in order to yield a better reflux, which is meant to produce a cleaner spirit. Seeing as the spirit still only has a capacity of 1,000l, one fermenter (ie. 1,600l) is split between two distillation runs. In the morning, 800l is distilled; in the afternoon, the remaining half is charged and distilled. The same applies to the spirit still, which has a capacity of 500l and is usually charged with 400l of low wines per run. The middle cut is made by taste. One complete distillation run results in about 100l of new make, at around 68% ABV. When a sufficient amount of new make has been collected, it is reduced to 59% ABV and filled into wood, mostly ex-Bourbon.

It's the nature of the beast that brewery/distilleries are somewhat constrained by the double focus of their operations, but the small scale of production at Okayama, Nukada and Nagahama distilleries allows for a level of attention to detail and experimentation of the kind that would be harder to pursue at larger distilleries. They may be small, but they are dreaming big. As the saying goes - watch this space!
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