Distillery Focus

A beginner's state of mind

For a new distiller it's time to wake up and smell the whisky
By Stefan van Eycken
Most new distilleries come with a compelling story – a gripping epiphany, a serendipitous meeting, a lifelong ambition finally realised, a seemingly impossible dream nurtured into reality, a dead past resurrected… anything to grab the attention of the market. When we arrive at Yuza Distillery, Japan’s latest addition to the whisky map, president Masaharu Sasaki tells us straight off the bat not to expect a fancy backstory. Savvy marketers advised him to invent one, but he’s a down-to-earth man. He likes to tell it like it is, and what it is is a simple case of ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.

Kinryu, the company behind Yuza Distillery, was founded in 1950 in Sakata city, in Yamagata prefecture, located on the north west coast of the main island of Japan. It was a joint venture funded by nine local sake producers, initially to make neutral spirit (which is added to most sake to improve the taste and/or inexpensively increase volume, depending on who you ask). Over time, they started making and selling so-called korui shochu, which is shochu made in a continuous still – in the case of Kinryu, from molasses for the most part. Kinryu is the only specialised shochu maker in Yamagata and the bulk of what they make is sold in their home prefecture. And there’s the rub. Overall consumption of shochu (as well as sake) has been on the decline for decades. But there’s an even more alarming downward curve in play here. Over the next three decades, the population of Yamagata is expected to fall by more than 30 per cent, twice as hard as the national average, which is bad enough. The people at Kinryu didn’t need a crystal ball to figure out their company would be in pretty dire straits a decade or two down the line. “We knew,” Sasaki says, “The time to act was now, while there was still time, rather than twenty years later.”

Masaharu Sasaki tells us straight off the bat not to expect a fancy backstory

Unsurprisingly, they turned to whisky in search of a brighter future. “We started thinking about entering the field of whisky two years ago,” Sasaki continues, “But we didn’t want to rush into anything. The more we looked around and the more we spoke with craft producers in Japan, the more we realised this was the right path for us.” After a trip to Scotland and a visit to Forsyths in February 2017, the wheels were set in motion. “We spent one year looking for a suitable location and had 10 candidate sites, but the one we finally settled on, in Yuza city at the foot of Mount Chokai, ticked all the boxes,” Sasaki explains. Mount Chokai has the highest precipitation of any mountain in Japan, so there’s an abundance of good quality spring water, which explains the huge patchwork of rice fields in the area. “We need around 22kl of water per hour for our operations, but we can easily get over 50kl/h here, so we’re assured of both quality and quantity.” The scenic beauty of the area was another consideration. The shape of Mt Chokai changes depending on the angle it’s viewed from. Looking through the large windows of the still house, the twin peaks stand out beautifully. Movie buffs may be familiar with the view, as the Academy Award-winning movie Departures (2008) features an iconic scene filmed a stone’s throw from where the distillery was built. “Of course,” Sasaki hastens to add, “Practical considerations were important, too. There’s good access for lorries, access to electricity and we can discharge our pot ale and spent lees, the latter after removing toxic levels of copper, directly into the local sewer system. That all makes life easier.”

For the equipment, Kinryu decided to go with Forsyths rather than with their Japanese colleagues at Miyake, again, a matter of pragmatism. “Miyake is aimed at pros. They come in, install the equipment and leave. Forsyths was a better fit for us, because they show you the ropes and offer tremendous support to beginning whisky distillers,” Sasaki explains. The team from Forsyths spent three hot summer months getting the distillery ready, and on 27 September 2018, the local tax office granted Yuza Distillery its whisky-making licence.

A year and a half and £5m later, Kinryu was ready to embark on its exciting new adventure.

When we arrive at the distillery, they are just 10 days into their first season. “The team from Forsyths spent the latter half of October carrying out the commissioning of the distillery, so test distillation started on 13 October,” Sasaki points out, “But our first official distillation took place on 4 November.” Things are running smoothly and nothing indicates that the four people working here are absolute beginners. The team assembled by Sasaki consists of mashwoman Shione Okada, stillwoman Miho Saito and warehouseman Koji Sato. It’s an incredibly young team. Okada and Saito are fresh out of university. Sato is 32 and left his job in banking to pursue his dream of making whisky. “I didn’t want to bring in an expert or a veteran,” Sasaki explains, “Because then it becomes that person’s distillery. I wanted to start from zero, with young, motivated people and put our own stamp on things.”

The vision of the distillery team is encapsulated in an acronym they came up with: TLAS. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but other configurations of the same letters would have been a bit unfortunate. Nomen est omen, and all that. T for Tiny, “because that’s what we are,” Sasaki says. “We can’t make much – only about three barrels a day.

We work six days a week and do five batches of one tonne. In the future, we’re hoping to do seven batches a week.” The L… we’ll come back to later. The A stands for Authentic. “Even though sake consumption is on the decline, those who make sake using traditional brewing methods remain,” Sasaki explains. “Our thinking is the same with respect to whisky-making, which means: traditional Scottish distilling practice albeit with a Japanese mindset.”

The set up and processes are textbook Scottish: a 5kl lauter tun, three waters for the mashing, five Douglas fir washbacks, distillers yeast, 90-hour fermentation time, a 5kl straight-head wash still (Macallan-inspired) and a 3.4kl spirit still with a boil ball (Glendronach-inspired), both with downward lynearms and shell-and-tube condensers. With a little cosmetic pagoda, it would have been straight out of Speyside.
The barley used is imported from Scotland, too. The house style is non-peated but Sasaki plans on doing some heavily-peated batches at the end of the first season, in July 2019. Asked what sort of spirit they are after, Sasaki shrugs and says, “We’re figuring that out now, but we’re aiming for a rich, yet clean spirit. Our approach at the moment is a fast first distillation combined with a narrow cut during the second distillation.” To taste the new make, we move to one of the warehouses. Full-bodied but chiselled with beautiful barley sugar, tempura batter and under-ripe fruit notes, it’s got just the right amount of sweetness and a touch of salinity, as well. Beginner’s luck? Don’t think so.

The maturation regime couldn’t be more classic: 63.5% ABV filling strength, primarily ex-Bourbon casks supplied by Speyside Cooperage and dunnage warehouses. Even the filling store occupying the corner of Warehouse 1 is retro: an old-fashioned platform scale to weigh the casks before and after they’re filled. When we are there, there are only a handful of casks in the two warehouses – all Bourbon barrels. “We filled our first cask on 6 November. We’re at number #11 now, which is a leaker, but we’re planning on filling 14 casks this afternoon. Ex-Bourbon wood is the priority, but I ordered some ex-sherry casks, too. I quickly learned it’s not like going to the supermarket. I got laughed at when I asked for a container of sherry casks… I got five casks instead. We’ll see.” The climate is very different from Scotland but Sasaki feels they got the better deal. “We’ve got a temperature difference of 40°C in the course of a year, from -5° in the winter to 36° in summer, so we’re expecting our whisky to mature faster. A five years old Yuza would be like an eight years old Scotch.” Or so the accountant is hoping.

Kinryu is not in a hurry to release their whisky, though. Which brings us to the S, for Supreme. “We’re focusing on single malt exclusively. We don’t have the scale or the skills to compete with other companies in the blends market. Also, quality is what we are after, so we’re not going to release anything premature. Sake makers in this prefecture routinely take the highest awards at competitions domestically and abroad, so they made it clear to us they were supportive as long as we kept the flag of the region flying high – which we aim to do.”

And that brings us to the L – for Lovely. “It’s very dark here during the winter months,” Sasaki explains. “People wear dark clothes, eyes cast down as they walk, leaning into the wind. I want Yuza Distillery to be an element of brightness, of loveliness if you like, in this landscape. So that, when people see the bright white walls of our distillery with the phone-box red doors and window frames, they get the feeling there’s something different – something special happening here.”