Japanese Whisky Distilleries to Watch 2018-19: Nagahama Distillery, Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery

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.

In this three-part series, 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
Part Two: Asaka Distillery, Chichibu Distillery, Nukada Distillery
Part Three: Nagahama Distillery, Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery (this article)

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. 

Nagahama Distillery

The maker of Nagahama Roman Beer, on the shores of Shiga prefecture’s Lake Biwa, kicked off their distillery in late 2016. The decision was made after a team from Nagahama was visiting Scotland to have a look at the operations of Eden Mill — Scotland’s first single site brewery and distillery. They wanted to act quickly to meet growing demand for Japanese whisky, so rather than go on the years-long waiting list for a pot stills from Forsyths, they went with Alembic stills from the Portuguese company Hoga Stills.

We’ve already seen four new makes come from Nagahama, with the most recent announced in late November 2017. So we know the company is already churning out whisky. Just how much, though? Let’s look at the operations side:

  • Beginning with the wort and mash-tun, they’re leveraging existing equipment used for their beer brewing.
  • This results in about 1600L of wash per batch, though the capacity of the wash still is only 1000L. This means that each batch must be split into two separate distillations — 800L at a time. It also means the spirit distillation has to happen twice as the capacity for the spirit still is 400L. All in all they come up with around 100L of spirit for each entire bach.
  • The spirits are then transferred to mizunara hogsheads or bourbon barrels, with the bourbon casks making up the majority for now.
  • The goal is 40000L of whisky per year.

One of the interesting things about Nagahama Distillery is they seem almost as impatient as us consumers to try their aged whisky. Through Liquor Mountain they were offering mini-casks alongside the aforementioned new make whiskies, so that customers can age the whisky themselves.

Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery

In many ways, Saburomaru is the underdog of the Japanese whisky world. Like a lot of other new players, the distillery is the result of a business venture by an established sake maker: Wakatsuru Shuzo. The distillery officially started making whisky in 1952 on the watch of Kotaro Inagaki, son of the brewery’s founder, because rice was difficult to get ahold of in post-war Japan.  It’s a family of entrepreneurs — the same family that owns Saburomaru Distillery also owns and operates the Hokuriku Coca-Cola Bottling Company (independent of The Coca-Cola Company). In September 2012, Wakatsuru Shuzo was fully acquired by Hokuriku Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

The 5th generation of Wakatsuru Shuzo is one Takahiko Inagaki, presumably the son of Haruhiko Inagaki, president of the aforementioned Hokuriku Coca-Cola Bottling. At only 29 years old, the younger Inagaki-san turned to crowdfunding in 2016 to revamp the aging Saburomaru Distillery. That turned out to be wildly successful as he raised some 38.2mio yen despite an initial 25mio yen target.

The goal of the campaign was straightforward: refurbishing the existing building dating back to 1953, the facilities, and distilling equipment. Refurbishment of the building was completed in July 2017, and updates about the technicals behind the new distilling operation are rolling in via the crowdfunding page:

  • AR2000 malt mill from Alan Ruddock. Malt appears to be 50ppm peated from Crisp
  • 1 ton mash tun
  • They have a single new copper pot still with a shell & tube condensor. You can guess the size looking at the pics here, if you like, since they didn’t tell us. No telling what they’re doing with their old stills.

I do have a couple questions I’m hoping to get answered in the future:

  • The crowdfunding campaign page doesn’t really give us much background on Inagaki-san and his relationship with whisky. In fact he apparently didn’t even know his own family made whisky until just last year. How will he be involved with the company going forward? Will he be hiring a distillery manager with more experience?
  • The page states that the goal of the project is refurbishing the facility for visitors. That’s a noble goal but the implication here is that they’re trying to make it a tourist destination as the first priority. Not a place to make serious whisky. Those don’t necessarily have to be exclusive goals, but is this really where their priorities lie going forward? Toyama prefecture has very little to offer tourist-wise, and I wonder if they shouldn’t focus on making great whisky first.

That said. The Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery may be holding some aces up their sleeve. In 2016, Wakatsuru Shuzo released a 55 year old Japanese whisky, Saburomaru 1960. At over 550,000 yen per bottle, it contains whisky that the distillery has seemingly been sitting on for several decades. And it’s certainly the oldest Japanese single malt there is. Wakatsuru Shuzo has been making a blended whisky, Sunshine, for several decades as well. They also released a Single Malt Saburomaru from 1994. Their most recent release, Wakatsuru Moon Glow, is another blended whisky that uses only whiskies that are at least 10 years old. So this all begs the question: what do they have still maturing, from the pre-crowdfunding days?

It’s clear that the company is going through a transition period. What will 2018-19 bring us from the Saburomaru Distillery?


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