The Yuza Distillery opened in 2018 at the base of Mt. Chokai, one of the Tohoku region’s iconic mountains. Two young female graduates from the local university are making the whisky. They are one of Japanese whisky’s first-movers in gender equality, and the whisky is “world standard.”
Header image: Forsyths pot stills. On the left is the wash still, and the right is the spirit still. The downward-sloping lyne arms are comparatively long. It’s a wide-open space, potentially leaving room for expansion.
Images/Text: Mamoru Tsuchiya
Translation: Whiskey Richard
This article originally appeared in Japanese in Whisky Galore Vol.25 / April 2021.Yuza is Yamagata’s first whisky distillery, and like Akkeshi, Forsyths was involved in all steps of its establishment, from planning, to equipment sourcing, then to test distillations. Yuza is in a breadbasket region of the prefecture that’s about 30 minutes away from Sakata by car, In front of the distillery is the stretch of the Sea of Japan, and behind it lies the mighty Mt. Chokai. Sakata is of course known as a port town along the Kitamaebune shipping route, where rice from the Shonai Plain was shipped to Kyoto and Osaka.
Yuza Distillery was established in 2018. The company behind it is a local kourui shochu maker, Kinryu, who “wanted to make a single malt suitable for the world, not just locally,” leading them to bring in Forysths to advise on nearly everything. Yuza’s batch size is currently 1 ton of malt. It’s primarily non-peated, but they did do one peated run at the end of their first season. The mash tun is semi-lauter style stainless steel, while the washbacks are made from wood. This adds work and requires delicacy in things like steam sterilization and batch temperature management, but the presence of lactic acid bacteria and insulation effects added a level of complexity to the fermentation, bringing a more specific aroma and flavor to the end product. Five Douglas fir washbacks are currently in operation.
For the stills, the wash still is straight-head shaped, and the spirit still has a bulge. Technicians from Forsyths began with test distillations and helped teach staff, and the distillery officially started operating in November 2018. What’s unique about Yuza is that the staff making the whisky are both young women. They are both talented women out of the local Yamagata University, and it is their first time making whisky or any alcohol at all. Company president Masaharu Sasaki reasoned that “in order to aim to make world-class, no the world’s best whisky from Yamagata, we need young people.”
Bonafide whisky coming from rice country Yamagata, and made by women. The world awaits to see what kind of flavor Yuza will deliver.
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.