Distillery Focus

The whisky makers at Japan's new Hikari Distillery are thinking outside the box

Understanding Hikari Distillery’s imaginative but pragmatic approach to distilling
By Stefan van Eycken
The Hikari Distillery gates
The Hikari Distillery gates
Walking through the gates at Hikari Distillery, it would be easy to think one was arriving in a picturesque part of the Low Countries. Facing the visitor are two imposing blackish-grey twin buildings with stepped-gable façades typical
of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish architecture.

To the left, in contrasting white, is a stately country house that seems to be plucked straight out of rural Flanders. And yet, we’re in the Japanese countryside, about an hour north of Tokyo. Aside from some effluent tanks waiting for pick-up, nothing gives away the connection with whisky making. Walking closer, the top of the wrought-iron inner gate connecting the twin buildings confirms that this is a distillery, after all.

The motto ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, meaning ‘While I breathe, I hope’ in Latin, seems to be another nod to old Europe. Actually, this was the motto of the Kingdom of Sarawak. “That’s the state within Malaysia on the northern coast of Borneo, where I’m from,” explains distillery founder and CEO Eric Chhoa. “As for the architectural style, I just happen to have a soft spot for the sort of historic buildings you see in cities like Antwerp, Bruges and Amsterdam.”

Hikari Distillery is somewhat unusual in many regards. It’s the first foreign-owned licensed whisky distillery in Japan. One might have expected the team at the distillery to make a big song and dance of this, but something else that sets this enterprise apart from its peers – certainly in Japan – is that they are shunning the spotlight as much as possible: no press releases, no grand openings, no bottled new make, no seven-month-old or work-in-progress liquid released, no private casks sold and no visitors, please. Finally, after a year of arm-twisting, the team was ready to welcome the press – two years and a few weeks into production.

The Hikari distillery team

Even though Eric has enough business acumen to know that no PR is often the best PR, the distillery’s low-key stance is pragmatic rather than strategic. He explains, “We weren’t sure how our enterprise would be perceived by the Japanese whisky community, so rather than be distracted by that, we decided to focus on the task at hand, which is to create a top-quality, distinctive single malt whisky. Also, we have a very small team here.”

That’s not an exaggeration, as it turns out. In addition to Eric, who literally lives at the distillery during the week and is very much a hands-on CEO, here’s Masao Okuzawa, mashman, stillman, warehouseman and jack-of-all-trades rolled into one, and Emi Ueno, who takes care of administration. And that’s it: essentially, a trio.

d Malaysian businessman ended up making whisky in the Japanese countryside is a long story. The short version is that Eric discovered Scotch whisky in his early 30s in New York City and quickly developed a fondness for it. By that time, after periods studying in Japan and in the US and working in investment banking for a couple of years, he was back in Malaysia and the UK, running a fibre-optic cable and components business.

“I spent the past 25 years of my life working in that particular industry,” Eric relates, “but, on business trips, I would often try to make a detour via Scotland. On my 40th birthday, I decided to set up a distillery.” In the course of the next decade, Eric sought out opportunities to learn more about the whisky-making process and worked as an apprentice at various distilleries.

The Hikari Distillery site

“The two that stood out for me were St. George’s Distillery in Norfolk and Strathearn Distillery in Perthshire – the former because my own distillery ended up being a very similar size and the latter because everything was done on a very small scale, with very little mechanical assistance and lots of elbow grease,” Eric adds.

On his 50th birthday, Eric decided to move his whisky project into overdrive. In 2014, he started looking for a location. Japan was his main focus, but Australia – Tasmania, in particular – was on the table, too. “I had spent many years in Japan, knew the culture very well, and felt this was the right place to build my distillery,” Eric explains. “There’s a strong brewing tradition in Japan and a fastidiousness and commitment to quality that’s ingrained in the culture.”

Eric was keen to find a site within a one-hour radius from Tokyo and found a suitable piece of land in Konosu city, in Saitama prefecture, which he purchased in the summer of 2015. The site has an interesting history. According to Eric, there used to be a minor castle here and, more recently, a silk-processing factory. Raw silk would be transported from neighbouring Gunma prefecture down the Arakawa River, and there was a vibrant silk processing industry in Konosu until faltering demand for silk, the inflow of cheap silk products from overseas and improvements in chemical fibres forced many factories to close their doors. The factory that was on Hikari’s site was in that unfortunate position, too. Interestingly, it apparently produced silk parachutes for the war effort during World War Two. In the 1970s, the factory disappeared and, since then, the land had been unused.

That the site had serious potential for whisky production was suggested by the historic presence of many sake breweries in the area, along the Nakasendo, one of feudal Japan’s highways. Water quality is of key importance in sake brewing and an analysis of the local groundwater confirmed that it ticked all the right boxes for whisky making, too. For the equipment, Eric reached out to distillery fabricator Forsyths: “I wanted a very compact distillery with all the production equipment on skids – sort of like giant Lego blocks – to facilitate implementation as well as to allow for easy reconfiguration.”

Keen on exploring new ideas, Richard Forsyth Jr saw the logic in this approach and made it happen. The equipment arrived in Japan in November 2019 and the team were fortunate enough to complete commissioning before the pandemic hit. The first spirit came off the still on 24 February 2020, and the first cask-filling took place on 11 March.
Having a distillery is one thing – finding the right person to actually make whisky is another. Japan is not exactly blessed with a giant pool of skilled whisky makers, so Eric cast his net a bit wider, looking for a local with brewing experience and the right mindset.

The distillery buildings

He struck gold and found Masao Okuzawa, a man in his early 50s from neighbouring Ibaraki prefecture, who had a wealth of experience in the fields of craft beer, sake and wine production. Importantly, since working as a bartender in the mid-80s and discovering Scotch whisky, he had always harboured the hope of one day being able to work in whisky production. He is Hikari’s shokunin – a word often translated as ‘artisan’ or ‘craftsman’ but, in Japanese, the connotations include a total commitment to one’s craft and a journey towards perfection.

Hikari Distillery’s production season runs from the end of October to about mid-June. The rest of the year, it’s simply too hot for comfort – fermentation would be compromised and cooling at various stages of the production process would be a serious struggle. “We’re next to Kumagaya city,” Eric points out, “which is the hottest place in summer in Japan, so you can imagine it gets rather toasty – think 42°C – in the production building.”

The distillery takes its water from a borehole on site, drilled to a depth of 120m. In an average week, the team processes four batches of one tonne. Malted barley is imported and unpeated for the most part. Heavily peated malt (50ppm) is used occasionally, and, later this year, the team will also be using some medium-peated malt (24ppm). Mashing takes place in a stainless steel semi-lauter tun with a copper canopy. Then, the wort is sent to one of six stainless steel washbacks (7,500-litre capacity) without temperature control. For non-peated production, distiller’s yeast is used in conjunction with brewer’s yeast. For peated batches, the team uses distiller’s yeast only. The standard fermentation time at Hikari Distillery is 90 hours, but the team has experimented with shorter and longer fermentations as well. For the distillation, a 5,500-litre lantern-type wash still and a 3,600-litre spirit still with a boil ball are used – both fairly squat (because of building height restrictions), steam-heated, with descending lyne arms and shell-and-tube condensers. Distillation is unhurried – both runs are 10 hours on average – and the aim is to create a floral, fruity new-make spirit.

The spirit is filled into wood at 63.5% ABV and about 85 per cent of production ends up in ex-bourbon barrels. Other cask types used so far are ex-oloroso and ex-manzanilla butts, and ex-barley shochu puncheons. So far, about 500 casks have been filled, all maturing in Warehouse No.1, which is dunnage-style. Construction of a new, much larger warehouse on site started in October 2021. “When ready, this will have a capacity of around 3,000 casks,” Eric says, “so we should be good for the next six to seven years.”

The above may give the impression of a fairly run-of-the-mill operation, but there is some decidedly non-standard production going on at Hikari Distillery as well. “It’s important to have some creative freedom,” Eric points out. One of his recent projects involved Manuka-smoked malt, imported from New Zealand. The resulting new make has obvious attractions. It is very liquorice-forward, with a nice spice kick and gentle wood smoke in the background. “We’ve filled lots of this into ex-Woodford Reserve rye casks,” Eric reveals. “We have a soft spot for these casks and are hoping they will mesh well with the character of the new make.”

Hikari’s dunnage-style warehousing.

Masao’s projects – affectionately dubbed ‘Okuzawa Specials’ by the team – push the envelope even more. His first involved three different types of malt (crystal, chocolate and heavily peated), which were distilled separately, then vatted together and rested for 10 months in 1,000-litre clay pots (which had previously been used for resting barley shochu) before being filled into Japanese chestnut casks. The plan is to finish them later in casks fitted with sakura (Japanese cherry wood) heads.

For his second ‘special’, Masao distilled rye and wheat malt, again resting the distillate in the clay pots for 10 months before filling it into ex-bourbon wood. Masao has recently also ventured into making small-batch grain whisky, double distilling a mash bill consisting of 65 per cent malted barley and 35 per cent Yamada Nishiki rice (famous for its use in high-quality sake brewing). “It’s a very expensive kind of grain whisky,” Masao muses. “But we are keen to try out grain types other than malted barley.” Outside Warehouse No.1, 14 casks are waiting to be filled with his first grain whisky trial: 225-litre bespoke casks made from European virgin oak with one of the heads made from Japanese cypress.

There’s something refreshing about the self-contained approach of the team at Hikari Distillery. “It allows us to think outside the box,” Eric points out. “That’s important to us.” Similarly, the team at Hikari is in no hurry to release anything, and there are no plans for bottling until at least 2025. Even then, the plan is to export 90 per cent of the whisky – mainly to the UK, mainland Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore. With capacity for only around 60,000 bottles to sell each year, there won’t be much left for the domestic market. Those are worries for the future, though. For now, there’s plenty to be done, and the team plan to continue as they started: heads down and working quietly.