Chances are you've stumbled upon this article because you like Japanese whisky. And that's probably because of Suntory or Nikka. You're the person that's spent just a little bit too much on that bottle of Yoichi 12, because it's too damn good to pass up. You're the one that stops by the "World Whisky" section of your local liquor shop, always hopeful that--somehow--everyone else missed that bottle of Yamazaki 18 just sitting there.
Is there any end to the shortage in sight?
For the major players, probably not. It takes a long time to make good whisky. But the more you know about new whisky distilleries popping up in Japan, the better chance you have at finding something you like earlier. The emphasis on age statements in the whisky world is thankfully going away -- we now all know not every whisky needs to be aged for 12 years to be wonderful.
So let's take a look at some of the lesser-known Japanese whisky distilleries that you, the Japanese whisky fan, should be keeping an eye on over the next year or so. You can find all of these and many more distilleries, even non-whisky distilleries, listed on the Japan Distillery Map.
Part One: Shizuoka Distillery, Akkeshi Distillery (this article)
Part Two: Asaka Distillery, Chichibu Distillery, Nukada Distillery
Part Three: Nagahama Distillery, Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery
Disclaimer: This article contains forward-looking statements. I have no insider connections to any distilleries listed here, so I cannot guarantee any whisky will, or will not, be released.
It's been quite a journey for Nakamura-san, who originally launched Gaiaflow Co. Ltd. as a renewable energy company. After a chance meeting with Akuto-san of Ichiro's Malt/Chichibu Distillery fame, he joined the dark side and reorganized Gaiaflow as a whisky importing firm. Only a few years later he managed to find a flat plot of land in mountainous Shizuoka, also winning an auction for the distillation equipment from the defunct Karuizawa Distillery in March 2015. Construction of the Shizuoka Distillery was completed in August 2016. Whisky production began in October of the same year, with liquid going into casks from December. The Shizuoka Distillery has been closely watched by Japanese whisky fans; both 2016 and 2017 owners casks sold out quickly. More recently we covered the Premium Bottle Selection program, where the first bottles are to ship out in March of 2018. My expectation is that we'll see some standalone bottles coming from the Shizuoka Distillery in 2018 or 2019. More likely the latter as it's the critical 3-year mark for the company's whisky!
Looking at some of the more technical aspects of their distilling operation, Whisky Magazine Japan finds:
- One of the 3500L four pot stills from the Karuizawa Distillery was salvageable, though it did get a new heating unit (a percolator instead of steam coils). It has a horizontal line arm. The other 3 old stills are going on display.
- The Porteus malt mill was also salvageable -- this dates back to 1939.
- The vast majority of whisky will be non-peated, though peated will be done for a very limited period each year.
- Mash tun is 1-ton lauter tun from Miyake Seisakusho.
- There are 4x 7000L Oregon pine washbacks, with plans to expand to 12.
- Two new Forsyths stills: 5000L wash still (direct-fire) has a horizontal line arm, 3500L spirit still (steam coil) has a downward arm. Both have a bulge as well as a shell & tube condensor
- This gives Shizuoka Distillery the choice between the 3500L steam wash still from Karuizawa & the 5000L direct-fire wash still. For now it's the only distillery in the world using firewood to heat their direct-fire still.
- There's yet another 1800L Holstein hybrid still, but it's unclear what this will be used for as Shizuoka Distillery won't be making any gin or brandy.
- The first Dunnage-style storehouse has capacity for 1000 casks but some of this space is taken up by the display area for the display Karuizawa stills. No info on the casks themselves though.
It's also worth noting that the Shizuoka Distillery was designed specifically with distillery tours in mind. These tours are slated to be open to the public from Spring 2018. Nakamura-san has also expressed interest in offering programs similar to Nikka's "My Whisky" or the Springbank Whisky School.
What happens when a successful Japanese businessman and lifelong fan of Islay scotch sets out to recreate Islay malts in his home country? The Akkeshi Distillery.
That businessman is Keiichi Toita, founder of Tokyo-based food importer Kenten Co. Ltd. Apparently during Japan's highball boom, he got fed up that everywhere was sold out of decent whisky, as it was all being snapped up quickly. His solution? Make his own whisky.
And when I say whisky, I mean Islay malts. He'll tell you himself, he's very upfront about this. Everything about the Akkeshi Distillery -- even its location in a remote part of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido -- is crafted specifically to stay true to the authentic Islay scotch methods of making whisky. The equipment is basically all Forsyths, all imported from Scotland. The malt? Yes, all imported from Scotland for now, though the team may switch to local barley and peat from Akkeshi one day. There's even oysters! The team estimates the facility sits on top of a 2-50m layer of peat as well. Distillation kicked off in late 2016.
The Akkeshi Distillery's temperature swings, while not as extreme as BOX's, go from -20°C in winter to 25°C in summer. This should make maturation go faster than other regions of Japan. This means that the company may have some amazing whisky to present well before the 3-year mark. On the other hand, they're in no rush to bring sub-par products to market either. There are no outside investors, no crowd-funding behind Akkeshi Distillery.
- The mash-tun is a 1-ton semi-lauter
- 6 stainless steel closed-style washbacks
- They have two Forsyths stills: a 5000L wash still and 3600L spirit still, both pear-shaped like Lagavulin's. Both with shell & tube condensors
- Two Dunnage-style aging warehouses: one in the mountains and one next to the ocean. In addition there's capacity for 400 casks in the distillery facility itself
- The casks will be bourbon, sherry, mizunara, as well some less traditional ones like red wine, rum(!), and Sauternes
- Capacity is 300,000L per year
I'll be attending the Akkeshi Distillery's seminar at the upcoming Whisky Festival Tokyo 2017, so hopefully I'll get more details soon!
Whiskey Richard is the founder of nomunication.jp, and has been saying he has lived in Japan for ten years for the past four years. He enjoys drinking basically anything except straight-up Campari.