The Japanese Boom

The Japanese Boom

A huge increase in demand leads to rapid expansion

Production | 22 Apr 2016 | Issue 135 | By Stefan van Eycken

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There was a time when one could have written about the Japanese whisky landscape and the need for updates five or ten years later would have been minimal or nil. It's safe to say those days are gone. In an unprecedented case of synchronicity, no fewer than six (and possibly one or two more) new whisky distilleries will have to be added to the map in 2016. The analogy is not perfect but that would be the equivalent of Islay doubling its distillery count in twelve months' time. Hard to imagine, yet it's happening in Japan.

Of the six new distilleries, two are built from the ground up, whereas the other four are expansions of existing liquor operations. The two brand new ones, Akkeshi Distillery and Shizuoka Distillery, are being constructed at an eerily similar pace despite the fact that they are owned by different companies and located in geographical areas with vastly different construction challenges.

Akkeshi Distillery is a project of the Tokyo-based import/export firm Kenten, but it is located in the cold north of Japan, on the Pacific coast of eastern Hokkaido, an area of wild beauty with 'fog rolling in from the ocean over seemingly endless wetlands rich in peat.' Akkeshi is famous for its oysters, so if all of this conjures up images of Islay, rest assured the associations are not accidental. Keiichi Toita, CEO of Kenten, first fell in love with whisky after drinking Ardbeg 17 Years Old and has been an aficionado of Islay malts ever since.

Akkeshi Distillery will be equipped with a 5,000l wash still and a 3,600l spirit still, manufactured by Forsyths. While the inspiration, equipment and the methods of production come from Scotland, the people behind Akkeshi Distillery want their whisky to be an expression of the unique terroir.

Peat is clearly an important element of that. Initially, non-peated malt will be used to get the distillery up to speed. Long-term, the plan is to use local barley and to try out various types of local peat to see what sort of flavours they impart to the whisky depending on the peat bogs' proximity to the mountains or the sea. Similarly, Toita is thinking of having a warehouse up in the mountains in addition to the warehouse on site (which is near the sea), to be able to experiment with different maturation conditions. Both of these will be of the dunnage type, and the casks used will be mainly Bourbon and sherry, but Toita also hopes to be able to source mizunara, which grows relatively abundantly in Hokkaido.

Kenten is hoping to have the distillery buildings completed by April 2016, the equipment installed over the summer, obtain their distilling license by September and to start making whisky in October. Gaia Flow, the company behind Shizuoka Distillery, is also planning to have the distillery built by April. Their Forsyths stills (5,000l and 3,500l) will be delivered in the autumn, but they'll be starting to make whisky a few months earlier than the people at Akkeshi Distillery. That's because Taiko Nakamura, CEO of Gaia Flow, has a few interesting things up his sleeve. Bear with us.

In 2012, Nakamura was touring Islay as a regular whisky fan, with no background in the drinks business whatsoever. Kilchoman - new, small and compact but producing a whisky that was acclaimed in all corners of the world - left an indelible impression on him. Soon after he came back to Japan, he started thinking about setting up his own distillery. Nakamura established a whisky import company to get into the drinks business and started looking for land. After two years, he found the perfect site in his own neck of the woods, Shizuoka city. The water was of high quality and the environment - lots of green and mountains - was 'just like in Scotland' (sounds familiar!). The easy access by car - between Tokyo and Nagoya - and the support from the local people, including farmers (who are keen to provide local barley) and city officials (who agreed to lease the land to Gaia Flow), were additional motivations to set up the distillery there.

In addition to the two pot stills he ordered from Forsyths, Nakamura bought a 1,800l hybrid still from Holstein to allow him to also produce spirits, like gin, using local botanicals and Shizuoka's signature produce tea and mikan. The hybrid still will also be used to make whisky initially, which is why Shizuoka Distillery will likely be up and running before Akkeshi Distillery. In 2015, Nakamura also bought the entire Karuizawa Distillery equipment at a public auction. Most of it was in abominable condition but a few key pieces were still in working order. Of the four Karuizawa pot stills, only the most recent one (dating from 1975) will be reused at Shizuoka Distillery, albeit equipped with a new heating system. The old Karuizawa Porteus malt mill will also be used at Shizuoka Distillery. This alone made the auction a no-brainer, as the hammer price for the entire distillery equipment was a quarter of the value of the mill alone.

In addition to single malt, Nakamura is planning to produce blended whisky, spirits (gin and brandy) and liqueurs on site. Grain whisky for the blends will be brought in from elsewhere, but in-house production of a small portion of their grain whisky needs is possible.

Hombo Shuzo, owners of Mars Shinshu Distillery, surprised the Japanese whisky community in January when they announced they were adding a second distillery to their portfolio. Their new distillery will be located in Kagoshima, which may sound familiar to fans of Mars whisky. Hombo used to make whisky in Kagoshima as an interim solution from 1978 to 1984. At the time, they used tiny hand-made stills. This time round, it will be a proper distillery. It will also be in a different location, in Tsunuki, next to the old Hombo family house.

Pot stills - inspired by yet another Islay distillery - have been ordered from Miyake and the first spirit is planned to flow off the stills in November. Both Hombo distilleries will only produce whisky for about six months a year, which begs the question whether it wouldn't be more cost effective to distill whisky all year round at just one distillery. Aside from practicalities (both sites are also used to produce other types of liquor), the reason is terroir. Since Shinshu and Kagoshima are very different in terms of altitude and climate, the whisky is expected to reflect those differences in various ways. It's not about quantity and cost efficiency but about character and variety.

Sasanokawa Shuzo is a liquor producer based in Koriyama city, Fukushima. Although nihonshu and shochu are their bread and butter, they're not exactly new to the whisky game. They started making whisky - which can mean a lot of things in Japan - in 1948. Last year marked the 250th anniversary of the company and plans were drawn up to finally establish a proper whisky distillery on site. Since Forsyths had a four year lead time, they decided to order stills from domestic maker Miyake. The first discussions were held in January 2015, and in December, the stills (2,000 and 1,000l) were delivered. The plan is to start producing whisky - non-peated for the most part - in April or May.

For the two remaining new whisky producers, Kiuchi and Miyashita, whisky will be a side business. Both are companies with a long history in nihonshu making and both expanded their operations to beer-making 20 years ago.

The unexpected rise in demand for Japanese whisky, both at home and abroad, has created a unique situation. The major producers are struggling to meet demand and have been focusing all their energy on satisfying their core markets. The six new distilleries starting out this year are all aiming to have their first product ready by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It'll be interesting to see whether the liquid will be able to match their and our expectations.
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