[Interview] Ian Chang & Koji Shimaoka of The Komoro Distillery

There are a ton of new whisky distilleries opening in Japan. But there’s only one Ian Chang. He’s now the Vice President of Karuizawa Distillers and Master Blender of the upcoming Komoro Distillery in Nagano. With construction now underway, Ian Chang and company president Koji Shimaoka spoke exclusively with nomunication.jp about what’s in store for fans of Japanese whisky.

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of the Komoro Distillery, let’s get you up to speed. Long-time Karuizawa resident Koji Shimaoka is turning his dream of bringing whiskymaking back to Mt. Asama into reality. The project is ambitious and international, bringing in the famed Ian Chang plus Eddie and Amanda Ludlow of The Whisky Lounge. The project was announced in December 2020, and the groundbreaking happened in July 2021.

And yes, as you can see, Ian Chang is now in Japan. Let’s get started!

Whiskey Richard: First of all, congratulations on breaking ground last year. What is your target for getting things up and running at the Komoro Distillery?

Karuizawa Distillers: Thank you, we are very excited to be in full swing with the construction of Komoro Distillery. We are on target to complete construction, including the installation of the Forsyth stills, in the first half of 2023. We plan to open the visitor centre and start spirit production as soon as we can after this.

WR: Ian, it must have been a tough decision to leave Kavalan, and I understand you had other lucrative opportunities you were also considering. What ended up tipping the scales in favor of coming to Japan to work for Karuizawa Distillers?

KD: It was indeed a very tough decision to leave Kavalan, because it is where I first learnt my craft and achieved industry recognition. However, from a personal perspective, right now I am still young – with a young family – so I wanted to spread my wings to broaden our horizons. I have always been someone who wants to keep learning and improving and finding new challenges. So far, my experience has just been with Kavalan, and I wanted to explore opportunities beyond the confines of what I already know. I wanted to produce quality single malt whisky in a different environment, other than a sub-tropical climate, and here, in Komoro, in Japan, I will be able to achieve that.

When I met Shimaoka-san for the very first time, I found out that we shared the same dream and vision of whisky-making which also matched those of my mentor, the late Dr. Jim Swan’s philosophy. Jim taught me never to compromise on quality and to always pay extreme attention to every detail. Added to this, I have long admired and revered Japanese culture and cuisine, therefore relocation to Japan seemed a perfect fit for me!

WR: With your name attached to the project, Ian, a lot of people might be wondering how much influence your time at Kavalan and the teachings of the late Dr. Jim Swan will have on Komoro Distillery’s style. For example, should we expect to see STR and sherry casks, or no age statements?

KD: Jim was my mentor and, not only taught me everything about whisky, but also about life itself. In truth, he was somewhat of a father figure to me, and the fact that I was under his tutelage for 12 years, whilst at Kavalan, means his influence and legacy will definitely play a huge part of what we plan to do here at Komoro.

For example, we will utilise all the key types of sherry casks, as well as STR and various other cask styles. However, we shall not only concentrate on the sale of single cask, single malt, like I did at Kavalan, but will emphasise the art of blending casks, the Jim Swan way. Komoro single malt whisky, will be bottled with age statements, too, which, again, is quite different to Kavalan.

WR: To my knowledge, Komoro Distillery will be the first in Japan to have a dedicated on-site whisky academy, the KDI Academy. Can you share any additional details about what kinds of programming will be available? Will the programs be tailored for locals, or will they be open to international/non-Japanese-speaking participants?

KD: Yes, it was always our ambition to have a world-class educational element to our project, which is why we brought in my old friend, consultant and educator, Eddie Ludlow. Eddie has decades worth of experience educating people in the way of whisky, and his passion for infecting people with enthusiasm for it is vital to our plans.

Together with Eddie, we are putting together plans for courses and tastings to suit everyone with an interest in whisky, whether they be complete beginners or budding experts. These plans include on-site tastings as well as online tastings with accompanying tasting packs. They will therefore be open to a local and, eventually, international audience.

WR: When the plans for the Komoro Distillery were first announced back in 2020, the batch size was slated to be one ton. Is that unchanged? While it’s fairly standard for new Japanese craft whisky distilleries, it seems small given the project’s budget, the scale that Ian is used to working at, the recent export market for Japanese whisky, and your ambition.

KD: The production capacity of our first distillery of Komoro is very modest, because we want to concentrate on the quality of the spirit.

The budget for the project is focused heavily on the infrastructure of the facilities at Komoro, which are extensive and are not just about the production of whisky. This, of course, does include the distilling equipment from Forsyths in Scotland, which we consider to be the best for us. But it also includes the construction of the buildings (which are now very much affected by the global inflation caused by the Russia-Ukraine war), the land and soil improvement and foundation (due to the fact that we are located on the slopes of Mount Asama, with an elevation of 910 metres above sea level). But, perhaps most importantly, for a state-of-the-art R&D centre, housing our team of quality control specialists, chemical analysts, research scientists, and apprentice blenders, in order to maintain the consistency of quality.

Again, this will follow the philosophy of Dr Swan – whisky-making is the fusion of science and art, where the fundamental science is very exciting and important, but the natural artistic instincts of the blender are equally so.

WR: Why was Komoro chosen over Karuizawa itself?

KD: The original plan was to find a site in Karuizawa due to Shimaoka-san being a 24-year resident of Karuizawa and his love for it. But after years of searching and actually visiting over a dozen sites in all parts of Karuizawa, Shimaoka-san felt none of them were suitable for producing high-quality, single malt whisky. Then, at the end of 2020, he was fortuitously introduced to the current site, by the local government of Komoro City, which was then provided to us, by them, as they were very naturally attracted by Shimaoka-san’s vision for the distillery and potential benefits to the surrounding area. Shimaoka-san maintains an ambition to build a whisky-related facility in Karuizawa, hence the name of the company, and why he set up his company in Karuizawa. He also has his Ambassador hotel there, for accommodation for future visitors to Komoro distillery.

Karuizawa is very close to Komoro city and Miyoda town, where the old Karuizawa distillery was located. The site for Komoro distillery is only about 20 minutes by car from the Naka Karuizawa station and 10 minutes from Komoro Station. Both the Mayor of Komoro city, and Karuizawa town have been very welcoming, and are delighted that we are bringing back distilling to the region, which we all believe will boost the local economy and tourism industry.

WR: Is there anything you can share about the site, your processes/equipment, or other levers you might pull to differentiate Komoro Distillery’s spirit from that of Karuizawa and other Japanese whisky distilleries?

KD: We all know that it is impossible to duplicate 100% a closed distillery’s style. And even if we could, that was never our ambition. We want to create something new and exciting and something that reflects the ’terroir’ of where Komoro is situated and what we’re about, as people and as whisky-lovers ourselves. We are on the edge of a forest, at the foot of a mountain, and much closer to a mineral-rich water source.

We have an international team to help us stay on the right path toward our whisky ‘nirvana’.

We have an unparalleled global industry network which enables us to source some premium casks and raw materials, and will enable a truly interesting and exciting wood management policy.

By applying all of these positives, we hope to help take the Japanese whisky to next level.

WR: Shimaoka-san, in the groundbreaking press release you mentioned that Komoro Distillery would be Karuizawa Distillers’ “first distillery.” Are expansion plans on the table?

KD: Yes, Komoro will be our first distillery. We have long-term plans for multiple distilleries in the future. When the time is right, we would love to share information on this with you!

WR: From other new Japanese whisky distilleries, we’ve seen releases of new make, new borns, gin, and even canned highballs in advance of their first single malts. Are there any plans to give the public these kinds of “previews” of Komoro Distillery’s single malt?

KD: Since the project is fully funded and has the full support of our investors and the city of Komoro itself, we will only be producing Japanese single malt whisky and that’s it! We have no desire or requirement to bottle new-make or to make gin, we will only release the mature whisky, when it is ready. Of course, there may be the opportunity for those visiting the distillery to sample maturing spirit during a tasting, but it will not be bottled for sale until we are happy it is ready.

Thanks to the team at Karuizawa Distillers for taking the time to answer our questions!

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