Yoshitsugu Komasa’s family have been in spirits production in Japan for decades. The story began with Komasa Jyozo, a shochu company based in Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu. “The business was founded in 1883, so we’re actually celebrating our 140th anniversary this year,” notes Yoshitsugu, the fourth generation of his family to lead the business. His great-grandfather started by producing sake for nearby shrines, and his grandfather, Kanosuke Komasa, launched Mellowed Kozuru, Japan’s first shochu aged in oak casks. Yoshitsugu continues, “My father expanded the company during the shochu boom in Japan, and I took on the challenge of taking the family business into new territory – whisky and gin – whilst continuing to strengthen the shochu backbone of the company.”
Born into one of the leading shochu families in Kyushu, Yoshitsugu seemed destined to continue down the path the previous generations had forged. “Watching my father and grandfather at work since I was a child, I became fascinated by the world of distilled spirits, so it was only natural I felt the drive to work in this industry myself.” After graduating from high school in Kagoshima, he enrolled at the Tokyo University of Agriculture to study liquor production and fermentation and joined Komasa Jyozo upon completing his studies. He took on the management of production and overseas sales and was tasked with developing the company’s shochu business.
Whisky had been on Yoshitsugu’s radar long before he joined the family firm. “During my college years, I travelled around Scotland with my father and we visited many whisky distilleries. Looking back on that time now, I think those experiences were formative in steering me in the direction of whisky,” he says.
In 2014, Yoshitsugu decided to take the plunge and work in earnest on adding whisky production to the family business. “When I was in charge of Komasa Jyozo’s overseas business, I travelled around the world trying to broaden the appeal of shochu, but to tell the truth, it was a struggle in many places. In 2014, I visited Scotland to sell shochu, and our products were well received, but the expected order never came in.
“I was aware of the reasons why shochu is a relatively hard sell, of course. Shochu isn’t really a go-to beverage before, during, or after a meal, and other than in the context of Japanese food, there aren’t all that many settings in which shochu is a natural fit. I began to feel that it made more sense to compete on the global stage in a category that is known and loved in all corners of the world: whisky. In a way, it’s the common language of
Although Yoshitsugu didn’t enter the field of whisky from a standing start, there was learning to be done. He explains that his whisky business was informed by the experience of making Komasa Jyozo’s Mellowed Kozuru barrel-aged shochu. “With the aim of starting whisky production, I went to Scotland and the United States for practical training at various distilleries, and after three years, I was able to obtain a whisky licence and start making whisky.”
As the location for the new distillery, Yoshitsugu developed land the company owned next to the three massive warehouses where its shochu is matured. It’s a stunning location, right by the East China Sea, but the place holds special significance for the company and the Komasa family. Kanosuke Komasa, the second-generation president, had a vision to build a brand home for Mellowed Kozuru on the plot of land; there are even some images showing the intended plans from 1982. Kanosuke Komasa passed away before the plans got off the ground, but his grandson felt this was the perfect place to start a new challenge and named the whisky distillery after his grandfather.
Construction of the Kanosuke Distillery buildings began in March 2017 and production started on 13 November that year. In the spring of 2018 the distillery was officially opened to the public, and many people have made the trek since.
Asked what sets Kanosuke apart from other craft distilleries in Japan, Yoshitsugu points to three factors. “First of all, there is the location. The distillery faces Fukiagehama beach, which is one of Japan’s three largest sand dunes as well as a prominent nesting place for loggerhead sea turtles. The warm climate of southern Kyushu and the sea breeze create a unique maturation environment here.
“Second, we’re aiming to produce a mellow whisky. This is a key concept for us. One of the ways in which we try to create a whisky with a rich yet delicate and mellow character is by using recharred ex-shochu casks. No matter what product you drink from our whisky line-up, it will always have a ‘mellow core’ to it.
“And finally, we’re whisky distillers but we come at this with 140 years’ experience as shochu makers, so we’re actively using procedures and technologies cultivated in shochu production to take Japanese whisky in directions that haven’t been fully explored yet. Therefore, we believe that enthusiasts will experience Kanosuke whisky as something unique and original, not only among whiskies from around the world, but also among the various whiskies coming from Japan.”
Even though Kanosuke Distillery has only been active for a little over five years, there has been a steady stream of releases. “Since the start of production in 2017, we have released the New Make and New Born expressions,” Yoshitsugu relates. These releases were meant to make whisky enthusiasts part of the journey, and the quality was evident right from the start. The distillery released its first single malt, Kanosuke 2021 First Edition, on 16 June 2021. This was followed by a Second Edition in the autumn of that year, and then by a limited-edition expression in 2022. Concurrently, Kanosuke has been releasing distillery exclusives and expressions in its ongoing Artist Edition range (launched in 2022), as well as private bottlings.
A milestone was the launch of the Single Malt Kanosuke in January 2023. It’s still extremely rare for a Japanese craft distillery to have a core-range single malt available in the market, but judicious planning on the part of the Kanosuke team made this possible. “We have enough aged stock in our warehouses,” Yoshitsugu says. “In the future, we plan to release single grain and blended whisky products that will also be available year-round.” He adds that the team is also considering various regular limited-edition releases.
The mention of grain whisky may come as a surprise, but away from the spotlight, the company has been producing grain whisky for a couple of years. In 2020, a grain whisky licence was acquired for the company’s existing Hioki Distillery (which is primarily used for making shochu), a 10-minute drive from Kanosuke Distillery. “In the field of shochu, we continue to take on new challenges,” Yoshitsugu explains, “so it was only natural for us to take on the challenge of producing grain whisky, using our shochu production know-how.”
The grain whisky made at Hioki is batch distilled and made entirely from barley. The mash bill consists of 90 per cent unmalted two-row naked barley and 10 per cent dehulled malted barley. The wash slurry is double distilled at vacuum pressure using two stainless steel shochu stills and the spirit is filled into wood for maturation. “The first grain whisky we made is now three years of age and we’re thinking about commercialising a single grain expression in the not-too-distant future. We also have our eyes set on making a blended whisky, combining the malt whisky from Kanosuke Distillery with the grain whisky made at Hioki Distillery,” Yoshitsugu reveals. As they say: watch this space.
As always with Japanese whisky, the question on everyone’s mind is: will there be enough to go around? Kanosuke is well placed to meet demand globally thanks to its partnership with Distill Ventures, Diageo’s drinks accelerator. Yoshitsugu first met representatives from Distill Ventures in 2019, at a time when the Kanosuke Distillery had only released some New Make and New Born expressions. “Our whisky wasn’t even three years old, but Distill Ventures visited Kanosuke Distillery and we talked frankly about various things,” Yoshitsugu explains. “In order to fulfill our ambition of expanding the family business globally through the common language of whisky while making the most of our shochu technology, we felt a partnership with a team of experts with a wealth of experience globally was the way forward and Distill Ventures was a perfect fit for us.”
Two years after the partnership with Distill Ventures was formalised, Yoshitsugu and his team separated the whisky business from parent company Komasa Jyozo, establishing the Komasa Kanosuke Distillery as a separate entity.
Asked about his vision for the future of Kanosuke – the brand, the distillery, and the company – Yoshitsugu doesn’t hesitate: “We aim to be a leading presence in the world of distilled spirits, making the most of our history and our dedication to craftsmanship whilst continuing to create global synergies by connecting with other liquor producers around the world. At the same time, we value our local community and aim to revitalise the region through the work we do, so that we become an indispensable part of the region.
“Ultimately, we want to delight people with our products, so that they feel genuinely glad to have come across our whisky.”