For nearly 200 years, Kiuchi Shuzo has been making sake in the town of Naka, in Ibaraki prefecture, 120km northeast of Tokyo. Not afraid of a little challenge, the company spearheaded the craft beer movement in Japan from the mid-90s onwards, and in 2016, they started dabbling in whisky, too. Using a small hybrid still in a corner of their Hitachino Nest Brewery, the staff at Kiuchi Shuzo started making micro-batches of whisky on an occasional basis. Away from the public eye, nobody was quite sure what sort of weird and wonderful things they were up to at Nukada Distillery.
As it turned out, Kiuchi Shuzo was working on something much bigger, too: a larger, stand-alone whisky distillery located in the town of Yasato, near Mt Tsukuba. Keen to offer our readers the very first preview of the new distillery ahead of the official opening, we managed to twist the arm of the good folk at Kiuchi Shuzo and so it is, on a sunny Tuesday morning in early March, that we find ourselves making our way through the Ibaraki countryside to the latest pin on the Japanese whisky map.
We are welcomed at the distillery by Toshiyuki Kiuchi, who runs the company together with his brother Yoichi, and Sam Yoneda, the 31-year-old head distiller, who is half-Japanese, half-Scottish. Don’t expect a Taketsuru-like narrative of Scottish tradition transplanted to Japan, though. The Kiuchi brothers have a radically different vision for their whisky enterprise.
“We are looking to create a genuinely new kind of whisky, not a copy of Scottish whisky,” Toshiyuki asserts. “Most craft whisky distilleries in Japan are set up as copies of Scottish distilleries. To a certain extent, I see parallels with the craft beer movement that took off in Japan 20 years ago. Most craft brewers then were copying the German style. We were one of the first to enter the field of craft brewing after the government relaxed regulations governing micro-brewing in 1996, but right from the start, we set out to create our own style of beer.” It’s not hard to see why the Kiuchi brothers would have a similar vision for their whisky. At the time of writing, the Hitachino Nest beer brand with its familiar owl-logo is available in 45 markets and is the most widely recognised Japanese craft beer worldwide. Clearly, they’re doing something right.
The idea to set up a stand-alone distillery took root in early 2018. “We started scouting for locations about two years ago, and initially we focused on abandoned schools,” Toshiyuki relates, “but the buildings we came across were in very poor condition and not really suitable for whisky-making. Then, we found this building, which was designed by a famous local architect and was used as a community centre. It was a little smaller than I would have liked, but we worked around that. The building was 50 years old and had been damaged by earthquakes, so we completely renovated it. In retrospect, it probably would have been cheaper to tear it down and build a new structure from the ground up.”
In what may seem like another irrational move, the distillery kit was sourced from many different companies around the world. There is reason for this madness, though. “We are beginners in the field of whisky,” Toshiyuki explains, “so we want to try lots of things and find a direction… find our way. If we had ordered all distillery equipment from one place – say Forsyths in Scotland – we would be constrained in our thinking by that particular set-up and we would be making whisky in that particular style, following Scottish practice. But, we have engineers in-house, and we have know-how from sake brewing and beer brewing, so we designed the distillery ourselves and sourced the equipment from companies around the world that, in most cases, we already had a relationship with.” A mad puzzle, surely? “Yes, but setting up a beer brewery is much more complex – more tanks, bottling lines, etc. – so setting up a whisky distillery is much easier by comparison,” Toshiyuki laughs.
As Sam walks us through the distillery, it becomes clear that rather than being irrational, the puzzle-method was, in fact, the only method that made sense for what they were looking to do at Yasato distillery. We start off in the grain store. “We want to use grains other than malted barley as well, so we have a set-up here that facilitates that: two bag stations and a separate small feed, and in all three cases, the grain can either go through our four-roll Alan Ruddock mill and into the hopper, or be directed straight to the hopper.” When we are there, the bags hold malted barley and rice bran (the bi-product of polishing rice for sake-making), respectively. The rice bran doesn’t need to be milled, so that can be sent straight into the hopper when preparing the grain bill for mashing. “At the moment,” Sam points out, “we’re using a grain bill that’s roughly 80 per cent malted barley and 20 per cent unmalted local wheat, so in this case, we hand-feed the wheat through the small feed and mill that together with the malted barley that is sent from the bag station.” In addition to barley and wheat (malted and unmalted) and rice bran (which they are getting from their sake brewery), the team at Yasato distillery is also planning to use local buckwheat and they’re talking to a potential corn supplier up in Hokkaido. “Tomorrow, we have a bit of peated malt coming in,” Sam says, “but we won’t go further than lightly-peated. Just like we don’t have a ridiculously hoppy beer in our portfolio, we are not looking to make a really peaty whisky either.”
The grist hopper has a capacity of 1.6 tonnes, but standard batch size at Yasato distillery is 1.2 tonnes, which results in around 6,000 litres of wort. “This probably has to do with the fact that everything at our beer brewery is designed for 6,000 litres or multiples of that,” Sam remarks. In the mash room, there are two tuns: a mashtun, made by Ziemann Holvrieka and fitted with a Steeles masher made by Briggs, and a lautertun made by Briggs. The mashtun has a steam jacket, so it can be used as a cooker to accommodate the different gelatinisation temperatures of various grains. The ‘first water’ phase (3.3kl) takes place in the mash tun; the ‘second water’ phase (3.2kl sparge) in the lauter tun. “We don’t do a ‘third water’ (used as the ‘first water’ of the next batch),” Sam points out, “because doing so isn’t economical enough.”
So far, we have a variety of grains. It’s not too much of a gamble to expect a variety of options for the next stage of the production process, too: the fermentation. “We have four wooden washbacks indoors, made by the Italian company Garbellotto. They have a capacity of 8,400l but are only filled to 6,000l. Two washbacks are made of mixed oak – Slavonian and French – and two are made of French acacia. But we also have four large stainless steel fermenters outside. They’re fitted with jackets to control the temperature, as it gets really hot in this area in the summer. They have a capacity of 17,600l (filled to 12,000l), so at some point in the future, when we do two mashes a day, they will come in handy.” Unsurprisingly, there’s more to the story here, too. “Kiuchi Shuzo has a long history of using different types of yeast – for sake and beer brewing, for example – so we have a separate area for yeast propagation here at Yasato Distillery, with a tank to boil some wort and five 500l propagation tanks,” Sam explains. “So far, we’ve only used ale yeast and distillers yeast, because the piping isn’t in place yet in this part of the distillery. That’s next on our list.”
The stillroom is the only part of Yasato distillery that’s ‘straight out of Scotland’: a 12,000l wash still and an 8,000l spirit still, with shell-and-tube condensers, made by Forsyths. “We went for a simple shape – straight head and slightly downward lynearm – because we have lots of variables to play with in terms of flavour before we reach the distillation stage,” Sam points out. When we’re there, a Briggs technician is fine-tuning some distillation parameters. It’s the last day of commissioning and, tomorrow, they’ll be on their own. Exciting times at Yasato Distillery.
We move to the tasting room to check the first new make produced at the distillery: three different grain bills and yeast types and, unsurprisingly, three very different flavour profiles. All present agree the one produced the day we are there is a winner, 80 per cent malted barley, 20 per cent unmalted wheat and distillers yeast, but this is just the beginning of the explorations.
The tasting room offers a stunning view of Mt Tsukuba. “We have a great roof terrace, too, and I thought it would make for a nice barbecue area,” Toshiyuki says, “but Sam talked me out of that. Health and safety, and all that.” A selection of cask samples from Nukada Distillery is available for tasting while taking in the view. Our favourite from the line-up is NK013: 50 percent malted barley, 25 malted wheat, 25 unmalted wheat, ale yeast and matured in a 100l ex-Koval Bourbon cask. But there’s bound to be something for each palate.
No casks had been filled yet at Yasato Distillery, but a quick look around the filling store and the display warehouse offered an indication of what to expect. “We have good quality Oloroso and Fino sherry butts that we get through our distributor in Spain,” Toshiyuki points out, “and we also have a handful of ex-Early Times Bourbon barrels here and 200 more in our brewery.” There is a small warehouse beside the main building, but Toshiyuki is planning to build an additional warehouse in the woods behind the distillery. In this line of work, you’re never really done.
Located along the so-called Fruits Line between Tsukuba and Kasama, and with various flower parks nearby and the characteristic pottery of the Kasama area produced further down the road, Yasato Distillery is bound to attract lots of visitors. What sort of visitor experience would suit the set-up is something Toshiyuki and Sam are contemplating at the moment. The lack of public transportation is the only downside, but Toshiyuki sees opportunities there, too. “We could have a shuttle or even do a one-day tour, visiting our Kiuchi sake Brewery, the Hitachino Nest beer Brewery and Nukada Distillery, and then Yasato Distillery… a drunkard’s wet dream,” Toshiyuki laughs. As always with Kiuchi Shuzo, watch this space!
A look at the distillery building
Sherry butts in the display warehouse in the distillery building
The wooden washbacks
Head distiller Sam Yoneda next to the wash still
The heart of the spirit run
A look at the stills
The mash room (with the mashtun in the front of the picture and the lauter tun in the back)
Toshiyuki Kiuchi with Sam Yoneda checking the quality of the spirit