Interview: Kimio Yonezawa, Owner-Toji, Akashi Sake Brewery & Kaikyo Distillery

We've been following Kaikyo Distillery's secretive development for a while. Late last year, we came across trademark filings that revealed the official name of the distillery, and we were soon able to connect the company with Hatozaki whisky.

Today, I'm happy to report that the Kaikyo Distillery is no longer just the subject of speculation. Turns out it's even operational. Kimio Yonezawa, owner/Toji of Akashi Sake Brewery, has agreed to go on the record exclusively with us here at nomunication.jp.

In the interview, we discuss the distillery's background, current offerings, technical details, future plans, and plenty more. Given there hasn't been much information made available up to now, this interview represents the most public announcement of the distillery to date.

The interview was conducted entirely in English, so you'll be reading Yonezawa-san's own words rather than my translation. Despite me bombarding him with questions, Yonezawa-san took the time to answer each one thoroughly and with full transparency. This is something the Japanese whisky scene needs more of!


Whiskey Richard (WR): Can you tell us about yourself, and how your family got into distillation? What prompted the move into Japanese whisky?

Kimio Yonezawa (KY): The Yonezawa Family, brewers since 1856. My family did not start distilling until 1918 and mostly produced local spirits such as Shochu & neutral alcohol. In the build-up to our celebration of 100 years of spirit production, we decided to replace our old stills with new copper twin pot-stills specifically to produce single malt whisky. The Kaikyo Distillery shares premises with their Akashi Sake Brewery and has held a whisky production licence since May 2017.

The stillhouse, central to the production facility, is currently undergoing enlargement and is being moved within the site to new purpose-build buildings. It will feature two pot stills built by Forsyths of Scotland (the world’s leading malt whisky still manufacturer).

The new building has been named The Kaikyo Distillery after the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge that lies in front of the distillery. Proud of their heritage and provenance, the company has also shared other historical aspects of their home city, Akashi in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan, in the imagery and branding of their new spirits.

WR: Can you tell us anything about the ownership of Akashi Sake Brewery? I've read that the Akashi Sake Brewery was acquired by Mossburn Distillers, and the most official page I could find online for Hatozaki is run by a Marussia Beverages-related company.

KY: In preparation for the new venture, owner-Toji Kimio Yonezawa(me), who is the 4th generation head of the company, has extended my distilling experiences by exchanging knowledge and techniques with master distillers in Scotland. This has included reciprocal visits with the brewers and distillers of sister distillery, Torabhaig, on the Isle of Skye and the blenders and maturation team of the Mossburn Whisky Company. The Akashi Sake Brewery, Torabhaig Distillery and Mossburn Distillers are all part of a family-owned Swedish investment company. And also Marussia Beverages and Akashi Sake Brewery have same investor. Therefore we work together and Marussia Beverages is our official importing and distributing company for us. Some of the products are managed by Marussia Beverages. We simply work together in one umbrella.

WR: Can you provide an introduction of the Hatozaki whiskies? I see there is both a Hatozaki Finest Japanese Whisky, and a Hatozaki Small Batch Whisky. How are they different? Are either of them using whisky distilled in Japan?

KY: The Kaikyo Distillery Company will produce two complimentary but different types of whiskies:

Our Family Reserve Single Malt Whiskies which are double distilled in the new copper pot stills and aged in a selection of oak casks. Distillation of this signature single malt only commenced in May 2017 and the company does not expect to release any bottled whiskies until 2022.

The Hatozaki whiskies are the result of our’s long standing interest in fine whiskies from around the world. They are blended from my collection of maturing barrel stocks all of which have been aged at their original distillery before being brought to the Akashi cellars. These whiskies (both Japanese and foreign distilled malt and grain whiskies) vary in age and flavour profile. I have aged the spirit in a broad mixture of different cask sizes and types from American Oak Bourbon 200L Barrels to Spanish Sherry seasoned 500L Butts… … from Hogsheads of 250L that have previously contained our XO plum Umeshu to 400L first-fill Japanese Mizunara Oak. I also have asked the master coopers at the Ariake Co. to make some special hybrid oak casks which have been re-headed with other woods such as Cherry. Hatozaki whiskies started from 2018.

The first releases from Kaikyo Distillery are:
The Hatozaki Finest Blended Whisky
This is a premium blend of whiskies, aged up to 12 years in barrel with a minimum malt whisky content of 40%. Although Japanese regulations do not require the mention of blend constituents and age on their labels, the company will always use the ageing stocks at their finest. This means each batch may contain a different proportion of each individual whisky at a different age, and we choose not to state these.

Hatozaki Premium Blended Whisky is light in style with a rich backbone of malt whisky character. Cereal notes and a light sweetness allow for the whisky to be used in both highball and straight pours. Uncoloured and not chill-filtered.
Hatozaki Small Batch Pure Malt Whisky
A vatting of 100% malt whiskies which have been aged in imported bourbon casks, imported sherry casks and native Mizunara oak barrels. Each batch is never more than 20 barrels of whisky in size and the whiskies have a minimum age 5-6 years.

Hatozaki Pure Malt has a rich profile of sweet cereals and malty dried fruit with a light touch of smoke and honey on the finish. Uncoloured and not chill-filtered.

Hatozaki Blended Whisky is exactly same liquid as USA Hatozaki Finest whisky. It is more marketing point that we changed the name. Hatozaki Pure malt whisky is same as USA Hatozaki small batch. USA is 750ml and for other country we do 700ml.

WR: If the Hatozaki whiskies do use whisky distilled in Japan, which distillery is the whisky from? Is it from a third-party?

KY: No, not all of them. My blends in other whiskies from my ageing barrel stocks… …these include both single malt and single grain whiskies from Scotland and North America.

As you know it is not the tradition, unlike Scotland, Canada or the USA, for companies to swap or sell bulk stocks to any great extent. Where we have small stocks of whisky that have been distilled in Japan we blend with it and at this point in time we have no intention of bottling other distillery spirit as a straight product nor would we make public their source.

WR: Are there any plans to release Hatozaki whiskies in Japan?

We hope so, but demand has been unexpectedly high for our first two whiskies so it may be 2020 before we make arrangements for domestic sales.

If you would like to drink our own malt whisky, unfortunately, probably not until 2022-3, it is quietly ageing in our Akashi warehouse.
Hatozaki ‘Omakase’ Whisky
Very select small batches and single casks will be bottled under the Omakase range at natural barrel strength. Omakase translates as ‘I’ll leave it to you’ and that’s what happens, I wanders through the cellar to select occasional casks as I taste my way through the ageing stocks. The first Omakase casks will be released in late 2019 but I will leave it to decide later in the year what they will be!

WR: Getting to the Kaikyo Distillery. It's been two years since the whisky distillation license was granted in May 2017. What has happened in this time, and what is upcoming?

KY: Since we acquired the licence in 2017, we are making single malt whisky and preparing the blended whiskies to release in public, so we are working in parallel.

WR: Can you provide any technical details about the Kaikyo Distillery? For example, your water source, peating, mash tuns, and how many/what type of stills will be used? What is your expected capacity once fully operational?

Our distillery is undergoing its second enlargement in the last five years and when completed will produce 250,000 bottles per year. The distillery will utilise the following equipment:

  • 0.7 tonne Semi-Lauter Mashtun
  • 3500 litre Fermenters
  • 3500 litre Copper Wash Pot Still
  • 2200 litre Copper Spirit Pot Still

The stills have been designed with tall thin necks, in relation to the bowl, to produce a lighter and fruitier spirit which will age well but show light floral and malty notes at a younger age. We asked the famous Scottish company Forsyths of Rothes to make the stills. Currently, the new distillery is producing at only 20% of potential whilst the refurbishment works are being completed, which is scheduled for Jan, 2020.

Water: We are using local spring water source in our distillery. Adjusting the water to most suitable water to meet our whisky profile.

We intend to use a variety of barley and yeast. However, in the first few years we will use mostly Scottish Malted Barley, predominantly non-peated. Occasionally, a heavily peated malt will be made with 50-75ppm Malt. We have experimented and will continue to do so with a variety of yeasts, including: Mauri’s Pinnacle MG+, Lallemand’s Anchor and Fermentis’s SafSpirit C70 & M1.

WR: Are there any plans to open the distillery to the public in the future?

KY: Unfortunately, not quite yet, while the building work is being completed it is not possible to visit the distillery, but a tasting showroom is being planned for mid-2020. From then, visitors will be welcome to discover all the products the company makes which include Sake, Umeshu , Yuzushu and our Japanese Gin and Whiskies.

WR: Given the Kaikyo Distillery's proximity to the Eigashima White Oak Distillery -- about 10km -- can you tell us anything about your relationship with them, or any plans to work together in the future?

KY: Very good friends for many years, however we have no current plans for any co-operation.


Thank you for the interview, Yonezawa-san!

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