Nozawa Onsen Distillery: gin, whisky, and hot springs in a snowy village

On September 10, 2021, a groundbreaking ceremony took place at the site of the upcoming Nozawa Onsen Distillery in Nagano prefecture. The team behind the project first reached out to me about a year ago, and they recently agreed to go on the record exclusively for readers.

As a boarder myself, I’m thrilled to see that Japan is getting a second gin & whisky distillery in a famous onsen/ski resort town. Hokkaido’s Niseko Distillery recently kicked off operations, but for those of us living in Tokyo, it’s great to have something closer to home.

Nozawa Onsen hosted the biathlon in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Interestingly, Nozawa Onsen has the highest ratio of Olympic athletes of anywhere in Japan in its population: the village has a population of around 4000 people, yet it produced 15 Olympians. That means one in 267 people who call it home are Olympic athletes.

Getting back to the distillery, it’s one that fits with the recent trend of Japanese whisky distilleries being started by non-Japanese people. But that doesn’t mean the founders are fresh off the boat. It’s the same team behind the Stay Nozawa hospitality company. Some members of the team have been in Japan longer than me!

It’s important to highlight the community aspect of the village of Nozawa Onsen. With just 4000 people, it’s close-knit. Nozawa Onsen requires villagers, including non-Japanese residents, to pay dues and help keep the village running. That means shoveling snow from roads, cleaning onsen, maintaining public works, and running the famed Fire Festival. The Nozawa Onsen Distillery won’t just be “located” in the village. It’s aiming to become an integral part of the village’s culture across all seasons, and further invigorate the area.

Managing Director and Founding Partner Bradley de Martino Rosaroll, who I interviewed for this piece, is an Australian who has lived in Nozawa Onsen since 2016.

WR: What makes Nozawa Onsen unique as a location for a gin and whisky distillery in Japan?

Nozawa Onsen is already well known as a year round tourist destination with pristine mountain water and quality produce. Not only foreigners but a large number of domestic tourists visit for snow sports, onsen, mountain biking, hiking, relaxation and purity of the mountain air.

By repurposing an old canning factory that is only a 2 minute walk from the main street, we will tap into the natural flow of more than 450,000 visitors that come to Nozawa Onsen every year, ensuring that the distillery will become one of the “must do” tourist attractions.

We aim to give back as much as we take from our relationship with the village, bringing more tourism and expressing the uniqueness of this mountain home through our products.

WR: Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen are the go-to destinations for winter sports in Nagano these days. I expect your whisky making season will coincide with the snow season, correct? Any plans specifically catering to non-Japanese tourists that will presumably visit once they’re allowed back?

Yes, we will be producing through winter which is the primary high traffic time for Nozawa and many foreigners visit during the snow season.

However we are not specifically aiming at inbound tourism but tourism in general by building a destination distillery, with tasting rooms, gift shop and large gardens. Visitors will be able to see into the working distillery while taking part in tasting sessions and master classes.

WR: The Fire Festival is one of the things that characterizes Nozawa Onsen for me. Any plans to collaborate with the festival?

The Fire festival is a significant event every year and also, culturally, incredibly important to the people of Nozawa Onsen.

Whilst we have some interesting ideas around collaborating with the Dosojin Matsuri, for special releases and fundraising, we believe that it is in the best interest of the village and our distillery to develop plans together in keeping with the culture of the village.

By working together with the Dosojin Matsuri and the Autumn Sarutahiko Reisai as well as initiatives with local young people, we can help add more vitality to the entire village.

WR: Have any decisions been made regarding equipment, particularly your mash tuns and pot stills?

We are very keen to be relevant in the Japanese Whisky community while bringing new production techniques, equipment and flavour profiles to the industry.

We made the decision very early on to steer away from the ’traditional’ Japanese style and focus on a more New World style to give us the freedom to experiment with our New Make.

We will be using a Hammer Mill to feed our closed top 2200 liter Mashing Vessel from Carl Distilleries in Germany.

The fermentation will be done in 2200 liter Stainless Steel tanks. Our stills, also from Carl, are a 1000lt wash still and 700 lt spirit still both with indirect heating.

Added to the system will be a mash filter giving us a more modern filtration style with higher yield and lots of flexibility to ferment on the grain or go all the way to the still with grain in wash.

WR: The Nozawa Onsen Distillery will be making both gin and whisky, correct? What can you tell us about the gin?

That is correct. Whisky is obviously a long term game so it is exciting to be able to enter the market with a unique gin that starts to define our brand, while we wait for our whisky to mature.

We will be producing a Gin that fits into the new Japanese category but it will be distinctly Nozawa Gin; a reflection of the ‘Spirit of Nozawa Onsen’.

Our production team will develop the base recipe for our signature gin which will evolve with other local seasonal botanicals to create special releases.

Our marketing team describes it this way: Drink a distilled essence of our Japanese mountain home. Taste the seasons, festivals, the snow and the forest. Drink the Spirit of Nozawa. Shinshu, Japan

WR: Is there any meaning behind the Nozawa Onsen Distillery logo?

The logo of Nozawa Onsen Distillery was developed based on the theme of Circulation or The Cycle of Life which refers to the timeless turning of the seasons and their produce. The snow and rain that falls today permeates the mountains for 50 years and returns to us as pure spring water. The botanicals that burst from the mountain each year produce the foundation of our flavour profile.

It is a seemingly simple circle, mountain contour and ripples in a pond.

This then forms the central motif of the labels and around the circumference they carry many hidden elements that represent the four seasons and rhythm of life in Nozawa Onsen.

WR: Have any plans been made regarding your sources for raw materials? Many of Japan’s smaller whisky distilleries have been looking to source malt locally.

We will start with Australian malted barley but we are also actively looking into a program with some local farmers to produce a Nozawa product. Hopefully finding someone to do the malting won’t be a problem by the time we can get this going!

Our equipment allows us to work with other grains so some of our R&D time will be spent around other locally grown options like soba and wheat.

WR: I imagine you are still in the early stages of planning, but is there anything we should expect of the distillery’s gin and/or whisky, in regards to flavor profile?

The majority of our whisky production will be single malt and the filtration options will give us a diversity in new make profiles that is yet to be realised.

We will settle on a style that suits where we go with our barrel program.

Thanks to the team at the Nozawa Onsen Distillery! will of course keep you up to date with the latest progress.

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