A visit to Japanese whisky’s first independent bottler, T&T Toyama

We’ve kept tabs on Japanese whisky’s first independent bottler, T&T Toyama, since they launched their crowdfunding project in May 2021. The team quickly blew past their initial goal of raising 10 million yen, instead raising over four times that amount.

Fast forward about a year, and T&T Toyama‘s warehouse is now complete. Moreover, it’s already filling up with Japanese whisky. Although the warehouse isn’t open to the public yet, company co-founders Tadaaki Shimono and Takahiko Inagaki were kind enough to offer nomunication.jp readers a sneak peek.

Bottlers? In my Japan?

Independent bottlers have existed in Scotland since the early 19th century. We call them “bottlers” rather than distillers because they generally don’t make whisky. Instead, they purchase vast volumes of whisky from distilleries, age it at their facilities, and bottle it themselves. For us drinkers, this allows us to experience our favorite whiskies in new ways: bottlers can offer specific casks, strengths, and maturations that differ from the distillery’s official bottlings.

Japan’s domestic whisky industry celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023. Yet independent bottlers hadn’t existed here because just two makers, Suntory and Nikka, dominated the country’s whisky industry. There wasn’t enough demand from consumers, let alone enough supply from a wide variety of distilleries to support even a single independent bottler in this country.

With the post-Chichibu wave of new Japanese craft whisky distilleries and unprecedented export demand, that situation has finally changed. These small-scale distilleries are scattered across Japan, from the southernmost on Okinawa to the northernmost on a remote island of Hokkaido, and offer products that celebrate their local environments, cultures, and people. There’s finally a chance for independent bottlers to add value for drinkers of Japanese whisky.

Enter T&T Toyama

Inami Toyama-based T&T Toyama is the world’s first independent bottler of Japanese whisky. Officially launched in 2021, the company’s 887.8m² warehouse finished construction in April 2022 on the former site of a cooperage. The driving forces are Tadaaki Shimono, who has run an online single malt whisky shop called Maltoyama since 2013, and Takahiko Inagaki, 5th generation president of Toyama’s Wakatsuru Shuzo. Wakatsuru Shuzo has a history going back to 1927, and they released their first whisky in 1953.

Rather than a relatively “high-paced” maturation that we’re getting used to seeing in Japanese whiskies from locales with warmer climates, T&T Toyama aims to offer whiskies with longer and, thus, deeper maturities. That led to several critical design decisions when building the warehouse. The main requirement is keeping the inside at a relatively stable temperature, i.e., without substantial temperature swings.

The Warehouse

Let’s start from the top. The pictures make it difficult to tell, but T&T Toyama’s warehouse roof is unique. The two-layered roof offers insulation from the sun beating down during Toyama’s summer; the high was 36°C/96.8°F the day I visited. The warehouse has no climate control.

Another decisive move is using cross-laminated timber, or CLT, as the warehouse’s construction material. Developed in Germany and Austria in the 1990s, CLT is especially well-suited for whisky warehouses in Japan due to its degree of thermal insulation, humidity insulation, and earthquake resistance. CLT has about 1/10th the heat conductivity of concrete and 1/350th that of iron. Just 12cm of CLT provides enough heat insulation to touch one side with your bare hands while the other is on fire. The cedar, hinoki cypress, Japanese larch, and other woods used for T&T Toyama’s CLT are also sourced primarily from the local area.

Real-time temperature/humidity data from the T&T Toyama warehouse is available to staff via a web app. Wherever they are in the world, the team can monitor the data collected in and around the warehouse: outdoors plus at the top and bottom levels of the rack. What’s incredibly cool is that the Saburomaru Distillery–about a 15-minute drive away–has the same technology installed in its rackhouse, allowing the team to compare the microclimates of the two facilities instantly.

When examining the peak temperatures in May 2022, they found that while the top rack at Saburomaru’s warehouse hit just above 27°C, the top rack at T&T Toyama’s warehouse didn’t get over 20°C. And the lowest lows were about 1.5°C warmer than Saburomaru.

The T&T Toyama rackhouse has a capacity for about 5000 casks. On my visit, T&T Toyama had already installed racks to accommodate half that number. And those racks were well on their way to being filled.

Casks and bottles

Rather than Hokkaido, T&T Toyama’s mizunara casks use Japanese oak from Nanto, Toyama prefecture. They source casks from a relatively new Toyama-based cooper called Sanshiro Cooperage. Sanshiro is also tasked with T&T Toyama’s shaving and toasting of their Bourbon casks. Shaving involves shaving off the charred layer, then toasting–not recharring by briefly setting them aflame–brings out richer, more aromatic notes.

For now, T&T Toyama brings in new make from six different Japanese whisky distilleries: Eigashima, Kanosuke, Ontake, Osuzuyama, Sakurao, and of course, Saburomaru. Geographically, they’re all in western Japan: two from Kagoshima prefecture, one from Miyazaki prefecture, one from Hiroshima prefecture, one from Hyogo prefecture, and one from Toyama prefecture. T&T Toyama says more distilleries are in the pipeline, so I’d expect we eventually see some from eastern Japan too.

T&T Toyama estimates that their first releases using whisky aged in the Inami warehouse will be available in 2025. Given their lean towards long maturations, I’d expect those initial quantities to be minimal. Still, given the lengths T&T Toyama is going to, it should be exciting to compare their releases to the official releases.

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