The Kameda Industrial Park–a ten minute drive from JR Niigata Station–is where you’ll find the Niigata Kameda Distillery. It was built by Otani, the biggest maker of seals in Japan. Why would a seal maker enter the whisky market? We visit to find out.
Header image: The two pot stills were made by Forsyths. On the right is the wash still, and the left the spirit still. When we visited, it was the first time the wash still was being used.
Text: Yuko Ogawa
Images: Mamoru Tsuchiya
Translation: Whiskey Richard
This article originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.25 / April 2021.February 9, 2021, in the afternoon. The day we visited the Niigata Kameda Distillery to cover it was also their first wash distillation. “We’ve finally gotten started,” says the smiling Mr. Koji Douda. Douda-san is an executive for Otani, the largest company in the seal industry, known for its 120 “Hanko no Otani” stores throughout Japan. Why would a seal maker do whisky?
“I’ve always liked whisky, and I was telling my wife that because of the recent whisky boom, I was worried I might not be able to drink Japanese whisky anymore. Her reply was, ‘well, how about you make it yourself?’ From that moment, I started thinking more seriously about actually making an attempt.”
The seal industry is more or less driven by domestic demand. With more businesses moving towards paperless processes, the market is shrinking. Douda-san says that he had been thinking for some time that he wanted to get involved in a business that also had potential outside of Japan.
In 2018, Douda-san took part in an entrepreneurial program, where one of the speakers was Toru Yamai, chairman of famed outdoor brand Snow Peak. Yamai-san discussed how it was better to start businesses in things that you like. This gave Douda-san the necessary resolve: in 2019, he established Niigata Micro Distillery G.K. with his wife. They refurbished one of the warehouses for seals and turned it into a distillery.
Their original plan was to begin production in Spring 2020, but due to COVID-19, some essential equipment did not arrive in time. The two stills from Forsyths arrived in May, but the mash tun from Ziemann didn’t arrive until half a year later, in November. And the technicians from overseas who were supposed to setup and program the equipment couldn’t enter Japan. As a result, the start was about a year later than planned.
At the moment their process starts with a batch of 400kg of malt. That malt is supplied by both Crisp and Muntons. The Ziemann mash tun is like what you’d see at a beer brewery, and “it makes clear wort,” says Douda-san. Three of the six washbacks are made by Italy’s Garbellotto, and are made from Acacia wood. The other three are stainless steel. After a fermentation of about 90 hours, around 2000 liters of wash is fed into the wash still.
On the day of our visit, I tried the low wine, and I was surprised at how well-rounded it was. This is probably due to their ability to get clear wort. And the lantern-shaped still likely has an impact as well. Maturation, for the moment, is planned to happen in sherry casks and Bourbon barrels.
“We Niigata residents like the aromas of brewing, given the prefecture is famous for both rice and sake. That’s why we too are aiming for an estery, light, and clean whisky. We’re currently in talks with local farmers to have them grow “Yukimi” six-row barley, so we expect to be able to make whisky using it soon. We are also setting up a plan to have our whisky matured in the bilge of the Awashima Line ferry that links Murakami City with Awashima. One day, we also want to make grain whisky using Niigata-grown rice.
It’s worth paying attention to this Niigata seal maker’s new challenges.
Mamoru Tsuchiya is Japan’s foremost whisky critic. He is the Representative Director of the Japan Whisky Research Centre, and was named one of the “World’s Best Five Whisky Writers” by Highland Distillers in 1998. He served as the whisky historian for NHK’s Massan and he has published several books such as The Complete Guide to Single Malt Whisky, Taketsuru’s Life and Whisky, and The Literacy of Whisky. He is the editor of the bimonthly Whisky Galore, Japan’s only print whisky magazine.