An exclusive Q&A with the Kamui Whisky K.K. team

We recently reported on the groundbreaking ceremony that took place in the far, far north of Japan on Rishiri Island, off the coast of Hokkaido. Though they are declining interview requests from other media for now, Founder Casey Wahl, Head Distiller Javier, and Co-Founder Rusty agreed to an email Q&A session for nomunication.jp.  

Kamui Whisky. In a thrilling twist to the Lincoln County Process, they plan to filter their spirit through volcanic rock from the island. They've dubbed it the Rishiri Filtration Process. Let's jump right into the interview.

WR: Will Kamui Whisky be the first ever customer of Vendome in Japan? They're certainly a big name in the US, and they're developing a track record in American Single Malt Whiskey. How is it working with them in the Japanese market? Do they have on-site training programs, like the ones offered by Forsyths to a lot of the new Japanese whisky distilleries? Are there any details you can share about the still(s) you've ordered?

We believe we've bought the best without a 3-year waiting list such as we might have had with Forsyths, and the price is way cheaper. Our cost versus performance ratio is very strong. (Update 2021/08/13: A representative from Forsyths reached out to say their lead time is currently 10-12 months for a turnkey solution, depending on equipment and automation -- ed.)

Related to the training, Vendome strongly suggested using consultants for the operation and even for the assembly. We are working in cooperation with them with our Distillation and the Kamui R&D team.

What we can share is that we use pot stills and not columns, so we are not in the American trend nor the Gin trend. We are aiming for a product with lots of flavour and smoothness. A balance between tradition and modern distillation. We look both to the past and to the future of distillation, mixing both and becoming a unique Kamui Whisky.

WR: It looks like Hokkaido might one day become the place to be for Japanese grain whisky, especially given the prefecture's corn output. With your connections with Vendome and the Kings County Distillery, is this something Kamui Whisky will be part of?

We have an international team at Kamui Whisky, especially the distillation team, and our Head Distiller. From this diversity we are bringing an inherited, common knowledge in grain spirits from our countries of origins. Our idea is to respect the Japanese Whisky tradition in distillation but to add some twists.

At some point, we would love to make a "Bourbon" style product. Our team already has done research, and brings related experience. We are also aware that there is a corn / bourbon research project, with an eye towards long-term sustainability, that will soon be underway in Hokkaido with several different members of the industry involved; we will very likely be joining in this joint research. Hokkaido's grains will even let us create a Rye or Wheat, also at some point down the line.

WR: Is there anything you can share about your sources for malt and yeast? You're planning on using Hokkaido-grown malt in the future, correct?

The yeast strains we will use will basically be classics of Malt whiskey, same as the base malt.

We will start with a basic layer, with a recognisable flavour, and then add complex layers using other malts or different finishing processes in the aging. We will try to bring the singularity of Rishiri Island into the taste.

As we get things off the ground, I'd love to find a local wild yeast that we can harvest and grow, but that will take us some years to get to, but we already have some University of Tokyo related BioTech experts we are talking to about these things.

WR: What can you tell us about the Rishiri Filtration Process? Calling it a first for whisky seems like an understatement. Will it be one of the many levers pulled to vary your flavour profile across batches, or will it be kept consistent?

The Rishiri Filtration Process is, basically, filtering whisky through volcanic rock before barreling and aging. We are beyond excited about this ‘lever’ and will be using it in many ways. Especially as we develop new flavor profiles. We will be experimenting a lot using this process, but the flavor profiles we decide to mass produce will of course strive to be consistent.

WR: Speaking of the flavour profile, what are you aiming for? Will there be variations by using different rocks for filtration, and different spring water? And you're planning on using peat from nearby, is that correct?

We are still experimenting on the flavor profile. What we thought would be a simple decision has turned into one of the most difficult ones. We have a lot of options on this as, on the island, there are three different volcanic rocks that naturally occur, and each one of those adds its own flavor to the whisky. One adds a sweetness, one adds a more earthy flavor and the third one hits somewhere in-between. But there are 3 distinct flavors. We can then control how much of that flavor gets soaked up into the whisky by manipulating the time and speed of the filtration system. Then, of course, there is the locally harvested peat option. All of this on top of the flavors already coming from the grains and the natural springs of Rishiri, of which there are several, including a newly discovered one on our site.

We will likely get to a lightly peated flavour. The wood will be an important part, since we will primarily use ex-bourbons. It will have vanilla, and some floral hints. We have some Douro valley wine barrels in shipment to us, that will also give us even more levers. So, yea, we’re still experimenting.

WR: You mentioned to Hokkaido NP that you plan to export over half of the product to China and the US. Is there a non-financial reason for this?

We have the connections in place, and our goal at Kamui Whisky is not financial, but to tell the story of Rishiri globally. We want to create a global brand, and have it recognized around the world, so that when anyone from Rishiri travels, tells where they are from, they can do so with pride and know that the questioner will have heard about our tiny island.

The Japanese aren't always great about telling their own story to the world. As a non-Japanese-heavy leadership team, we have the ability to create the bridge and tell the story naturally in English. Bringing anything from Japan to the rest of the World is always a great thing. We love Japan. But we LOVE Rishiri. From the initial idea to where we are now, we’ve always felt welcomed, embraced even, from the community. If you have not been to Rishiri, you should go. We made a promise, first to ourselves and then to the community, that we would bring Rishiri to the World. Whisky is how we will do that.

WR: Are there any other technical details you can share, such as about your mash tuns, fermentation duration, or wood program?

It is 100% natural, just yeast, water and grains, there will be no chemicals to obtain more alcohol during fermentation, NO added colour, nothing unnatural. We will have open fermentation in order to include some ambient yeast and flavour from the Island in a natural way, The extreme weather differences between winter and summer will give us different fermentation durations. Attention to detail and to the weather will vary our monthly schedule.

WR: Besides being cold as hell in winter and one of Japan's more remote islands, what makes Rishiri, and particularly Kamui Whisky's location, a special one for maturing whisky? What makes it attractive for tourists?

We strongly believe that the salty air from the ocean will imbue our whisky with taste. We'll leave the barrel house doors open some days to further add that characteristic.

Being on an island, especially Rishiri with its extreme weather changes, is great for distilling and perfect for aging. The more our barrels expand and contract, the more flavor our whisky gets. The difference in weather throughout the year, with a 30°C range, will add texture to our maturation.

WR: I understand you won't be making gin, but are there any plans to release new make or new borns once they're available?

100% we will be offering a New Make for sale. We can let you know more details on this later this year / early next.

All images are copyright Casey Wahl / Kamui Whisky and were provided solely for this article. 

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