Regional Focus

Country Focus: Japan — An unexpected whisky journey

Taking a tour around Japanese whisky’s ever-changing whisky landscape
By Stefan van Eycken
Admiring Hatozaki whisky at Kaikyo Distillery.
Admiring Hatozaki whisky at Kaikyo Distillery.
To say that the current Japanese whisky scene is marked by an unbridled optimism is to point out the obvious. Whisky distilleries keep popping up all over the map. In 2007, there were seven active distilleries and most of those were like ghost towns. Now, any figure mentioned – over 30 at the moment – is bound to be inaccurate in a matter of weeks. Not a month goes by without a new distillery project coming to light. It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover all of the new distilleries, so we’ll just put the spotlight on the latest one to fire up the stills: Niseko Distillery. The back story – existing sake brewery enters the field of whisky – may sound like the typical plot, but there’s a bit of quirkiness involved, too.

The story starts more than 10 years ago, and the figure entering the scene is Jiro Nagumo, CEO of Hakkaisan Brewery Co., a sake powerhouse founded in 1922 in Minami-Uonuma at the foot of Mount Hakkai in Niigata. Niigata prefecture benefits from the heaviest snowfall on Japan’s main island of Honshu and is known for its top-notch ski resorts. Jiro Nagumo’s local resort, Naeba, was once the most famous in Japan, but in the early 2000s, Niseko (on the island of Hokkaido) became the most popular skiing destination in the country, favoured by travellers from all of the world for its exceptional powder snow. Keen to figure out how to help revitalise his local ski resort, Nagumo began making regular visits to Niseko. As it happened, he fell under the spell of Niseko himself and, over time, became convinced that it just might be the perfect place to build a whisky distillery. He shared his plans with the locals and found that they were equally keen. The rest is history, as they say.

Nagumo established Niseko Distillery Co. as a subsidiary of Hakkaisan Brewery Co. on 25 February 2019 and construction started in the spring of 2020. The distillery sits on a 9,990-square metre plot leased from the town, located near the Niseko Annupuri International Ski Area. The distillery building was completed on 21 December 2020 and then, little by little, equipment sourced from various corners of the world was pieced together: a four-roll Bühler mill from Switzerland, a 1-tonne full-lauter mashtun from SK Škrlj, Slovenia, three Douglas fir washbacks with a capacity of 7,500 litres made domestically by Nihon Mokusou Mokkan Co., and a pair of pot stills from Forsyths in Scotland. The wash still has a capacity of 5,500 litres; the spirit still, which has a boil ball, has a capacity of 3,600 litres. There is also a 600-litre hybrid Holstein still at the distillery for the production of gin.

The first whisky distillation took place on 24 March 2021. The idea was to create a “clear whisky that will harmonise a variety of flavours.” The malt used so far is non-peated and imported from the UK, and the fermentation time is four days. Cask types used so far are virgin American white oak coopered in Japan, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry and ex-wine. The distillery’s official grand opening is planned for the latter half of 2021.

As new distillery projects are announced left and right, a small but not insignificant trend is starting to become apparent: the influx of foreign talent – financial, technical or both – on the Japanese whisky scene. Hikari Distillery, located in Konosu, Saitama, was founded by Malaysian entrepreneur Eric Chhoa, but the day-to-day operation is the hands of a Japanese team. The distillery got its licence in the spring of 2020 and has been making whisky since then, but there are no plans to release anything until at least 2025/26. In spite of being the closest whisky distillery to Tokyo, with all the potential (post-pandemic) benefits that that entails, the team at Hikari Distillery is trying to stay under the radar as much as possible for now.

In the case of Kaikyo Distillery, located in Akashi near Kobe, the international link goes somewhat deeper. In the run-up to the centennial of spirits production at Akashi Sake Brewery in 2017, master distiller and blender Kimio Yonezawa decided to team up with Mossburn Distillers with the aim of setting up a whisky and gin distillery. “We now have a brand-new distilling hall with Forsyths twin pots and a separate mash house and ageing cellar,” Neil Matheson of Mossburn Distillers reports. “The co-operation between the two teams [in Japan and in Scotland] is great to see and we have been able to spread our advisory team over all three projects [Torabhaig, Borders and Kaikyo Distilleries] as they grow up.”

Two ground-breaking ceremonies held in July further illustrate the recent influx of foreign talent on the Japanese distilling scene. On 4 July, ground was broken on the remote northern island of Rishiri ahead of the construction of Kamui Whisky Distillery. Founded by American entrepreneurs Casey Wahl and Rusty Smith, the distillery is expected to be up and running by the end of the year. In a first for Japan, the pot stills are manufactured by Vendome Copper & Brass Works from Louisville, Kentucky. The distillery will be run and operated by an international team and one of the more unique aspects of production will be running the new make through volcanic rock from the island prior to barreling and ageing, something the team has dubbed the “Rishiri filtration process”. The plan is to export over half of the product, once ready, to China and the US.
Bottlings from T&T Toyama

For our second ground-breaking ceremony, held on 27 July, we’re in more familiar territory for whisky enthusiasts. Karuizawa Distillers is the brainchild of Koji Shimaoka, who worked in investment banking for more than two decades before moving into the hotel business. The long-term vision for the company is to establish several distilleries – hence the plural – in the Karuizawa area, bringing distilling back to the region after the much-lamented loss of the iconic original Karuizawa Distillery, which was mothballed in 2000 and demolished in 2015.

The first project for Karuizawa Distillers is Komoro Distillery, located in the city of the same name. Aiming for the stars, Shimaoka assembled a top-notch international team, with Ian Chang, formerly of Kavalan in Taiwan, as master blender and vice-president. Shimaoka’s vision for Karuizawa Distillers also includes a whisky academy, led by Eddie and Amanda Ludlow of The Whisky Lounge, which will be taken around the world for pop-ups and masterclasses in various cities.

Word on the street is that another foreign party is looking to construct a large-scale distillery in Japan, so it’s likely that we will see an increased international involvement in Japanese whisky making in the near future.

In this busy landscape, it is easy to forget that the three largest whisky producers in Japan – Suntory, Nikka and Kirin – have slowly but surely been catching up with the ever-increasing demand for Japanese whisky over the past decade. This is happening away from the public eye for the most part, but the indications are there that it won’t be long before much of the whisky laid down since the increase in production post-highball boom (i.e. 2008) will be ready for market.
Niseko Distillery

Three large warehouses have been constructed at Suntory’s mammoth Omi Aging Cellar site in Shiga prefecture since 2017. Construction of the most recent one (with a capacity of about 40,000 barrels) was completed in the spring of this year. At Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery, construction has begun on a new warehouse with a capacity of around 7,000 casks; scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, this is Warehouse No. 29 and, significantly, the first new warehouse added to the Yoichi complex in 32 years. Meanwhile, at Kirin’s Mount Fuji Distillery, a renovation has just been completed. Two sets of new pot stills and four wooden washbacks came into use in June 2021, and a new warehouse has been added as well. With most of the attention going to the craft producers these days, it will be interesting to see how the market shifts once the ‘Big Three’ have enough mature stock to ensure a more sustained (and varied?) presence on the shelves of liquor stores both at home and abroad.

At a time when, collectively, the Japanese whisky industry is moving towards greater transparency and accuracy in labeling and presentation, an issue that many producers are grappling with is the dependence on whisky imported in bulk from abroad. There are no easy answers, but a move away from the idea that ‘whisky producers in Japan don’t sell or swap whisky’, which most in the industry consider to be set in stone, seems necessary and healthy. The three big producers in Japan have the wherewithal to create a varied palate of spirit types in-house, but craft producers lack the economies of scale to do so. Stock swapping would allow small-scale producers to have a more varied palate of Japanese whisky components (i.e. those distilled in Japan) to play with.

One industry figure in favour of stock swapping among Japanese craft distillers is Saburomaru’s distillery manager and blender Takahiko Inagaki. Saburomaru Distillery produces only heavily peated whisky, using malted barley peated at 50ppm mixed with five per cent local non-peated barley, so it would obviously benefit from obtaining different types of spirit from other distilleries in Japan. But the reverse is true, too. For other Japanese craft distillers, having some heavily peated Saburomaru spirit maturing in their respective warehouses could come in handy when creating some of their blends or blended malts.

In March 2021, Inagaki showed that he wasn’t just talking the talk when the first-ever collaborative releases of Japanese whisky went on sale. Saburomaru Distillery had swapped some of its heavily peated aged malt whisky for some lightly peated spirit from Nagahama Distillery. The respective companies then went on to create two types of blended malt each: one a Japanese blended malt, and
the other a so-called ‘world blended malt’, using malt whisky imported in bulk from Scotland in addition to the two Japanese malts. Saburomaru launched its creations under the banner Far East of Peat (700 and 7,000 bottles), while Nagahama Distillery named its releases Inazuma, meaning ‘lightining bolt’ in Japanese (700 and 6,000 bottles).

These products may have been the first collaborative Japanese whisky releases, but it wasn’t the first case of collaboration between craft whisky distillers in Japan.

Unbeknownst to other Japanese whisky producers, Venture Whisky (Ichiro’s Malt) and Hombo Shuzo
(Mars Whisky) actually swapped some stock way back in 2015. New-make spirit was exchanged and then filled into wood and aged by the receiving party. After a little over five years, each company created a blended malt incorporating the stock it had received from the other party. Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries 2021 Chichibu x Komagatake (10,200 bottles) and Mars Whisky Malt Duo Komagatake x Chichibu 2021 (10,918 bottles) went on sale in Japan towards the end of April 2021. Whisky enthusiasts were clearly enamoured with the results as much as with the ethos.
Plans for Karuizawa Distillers’ Komoro Distillery

As important as these two collaborative release projects are, they remain somewhat anecdotal in the grand scheme of things. Since then, however, a structurally much more ambitious project has been launched: T&T Toyama, the first independent bottler of Japanese whisky. The brainchild of Takahiko Inagaki of Saburomaru Distillery and Tadaaki Shimono, founder of independent online whisky retailer Maltoyama (hence T&T, in reference to their first names), the joint venture is based in Toyama prefecture and was established using crowdfunding. Inagaki and Shimono managed to raise more than £260,000 in the spring of 2021 and they aim to raise a further £200,000 to facilitate the construction of a dedicated warehouse with tasting space in the town of Inami, in Toyama prefecture, by April 2022.

T&T Toyama has been built on the Gordon & MacPhail model, with new-make spirit being purchased from distilleries and filled into carefully selected wood. This isn’t just marketing speak: Inami is well known for its extensive wood-carving district, and T&T Toyama is working closely with an independent cooperage a mere five-minute drive from the projected warehouse site. The cooperage makes casks with mizunara heads, as well as casks made entirely out of local mizunara, but T&T Toyama is particularly keen to use ex-bourbon barrels that are d-echarred and then toasted, as well as hogsheads. The cooperage will also play an essential role in maintenance and repairs as the stock in the warehouse grows.

Up until a year or two ago, the idea of purchasing new make from distilleries in Japan to be aged by a third party would have been declared pie-in-the-sky by anyone familiar with industry practice there. The options were limited, and even if you were mad enough to try and managed to find the proverbial exception to the rule, that would still only have given you spirit from one distillery – not exactly a workable business model for an independent bottler. The proliferation of craft whisky distilleries in Japan over the past couple of years, established by existing liquor producers (shochu producers, for the most part), has changed all this.

Despite there being no precedent for it in Japan, Shimono says distilleries were willing to supply T&T Toyama with new make after learning about the nature of the business. “With the exception of one, the distilleries we approached were all very new distilleries, and they understood where we were coming from. We also had the framework in place, with Takahiko being distillery manager himself and therefore having a whisky licence – because ageing is considered ‘production’ in Japan and therefore requires the sort of licence distilleries need to operate – and myself having been involved in whisky retail for the past eight years. So it wasn’t like this was a project of a couple of shady figures coming out of the woodwork.”

Inagaki and Shimono visited craft whisky distillers across Japan to taste new make, quality being of prime importance. For the time being, they have supply agreements with six distilleries. Aside from Eigashima Distillery, all the others are fairly new kids on the block: Sakurao Distillery (in Hiroshima prefecture), Kanosuke and Ontake Distillery (in Kagoshima prefecture), Osuzuyama Distillery (in Miyazaki prefecture) and Saburomaru Distillery, which has a longer history on paper but is essentially a new distillery in an old shell (reopened in 2018).
Koji Shimaoka, the businessman behind Karuizawa Distillers

On a hot summer’s day in early August, we sit down with the two T&T Toyama founders to taste five of the new makes they’ve received so far. “We don’t have the Osuzuyama new make yet,” Inagaki explains, “because they use 100 per cent local barley which has only just been harvested this year.” (Readers who enjoy shochu will know the company behind Osuzuyama Distillery, Kuroki Honten, as the producer of the acclaimed barley-shochu ‘Hyakunen no Kodoku’ – 100 Years of Solitude.)

It’s a rare treat to be able to taste new make from a handful of Japanese distilleries side by side. Idiosyncrasies jump out left and right, but the one that is love at first sip for all at the table is the Ontake new make: flavourful and complex, yet clean and polished. “Sherry wood is the default wood at Ontake Distillery,” says Shimono, “so it will be interesting to see how we can nurture spirit of this extraordinary level in ex-bourbon casks. And that’s what we want to do as independent bottlers: to offer a perspective on these single malts that differs from that of the distillery where the new make comes from.”

The volume purchased from each distillery varies, based on how much or how little they can spare, but is currently in the range of 500 to 1,000 litres a year. That’s not all that much, but T&T Toyama is in it for the long haul, and the founders are keeping their eyes peeled for other potential sources of new make. The first release is scheduled for 2025, and the aim is to present all T&T Toyama releases as single-cask bottlings at cask strength. The labels on the bottles with new make – which are for events and tasting purposes only, not for sale – feature the Japanese iris. “We’ve called this ‘Breath of Japan’,” says Shimono, “which is a somewhat clumsy translation of the Japanese word ‘ibuki’, a sign of something new and fresh... The Japanese iris is considered a lucky charm, but its Japanese name, ‘shoubu’, is also a word that carries the connotation of ‘battle’
or ‘contest’.”

It’s likely that others will be inspired by the example of T&T Toyama to follow in its footsteps. The Japanese whisky landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade, so one can imagine a future in which new make and/or maturing stock leaves a distillery to continue its journey under someone else’s wings.