Finally, another independent Japanese cooperage: Hida Barrel

Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture-based Nissin Furniture Crafters has announced their entry into the coopering industry, making them only the second company in Japan to offer American oak or Japanese oak casks. The new brand is called Hida Barrel.

Nissin Furniture Crafters traces its history back to 1946 when the company launched as a maker of dining tables, chairs, sofas, and similar Western-style furniture. But the woodworkers of the Hida area have been known for much, much longer, rising to fame in the Nara Period (710-794) for their work on temples such as Nara’s World Heritage Site, Todaiji. The Hida craftsmen were even “featured” in one of the world’s first fiction novels, The Tale of Genji.

Getting to Hida Barrel itself, Nissin Furniture Crafters has utilized their craft expertise and built their own machine specifically for making these casks. The company notes that this machine offers a world-first approach to fitting barrel heads to the barrel.

Ordinarily, this fit is accomplished using a device called a crozer, which cuts grooves into the ends of the staves. The barrel head’s edges then get rounded so that they fit inside the grooves. After applying beeswax to ensure no leakage, the heads are squeezed into the grooves using a head press.

Nissin Furniture Crafters hasn’t been specific about how their new in-house machine changes this process other than to say that “the step to eliminate the gap between the head and the barrel” is not required. So they’re not using beeswax? Not utilizing a head press? They haven’t said.

In any case, orders are already being taken for the casks. They’re available in American oak and Japanese oak varieties–I believe that’s “Japanese oak” and not Mizunara–at 220L. The company estimates American oak will cost around 200,000 yen and Japanese oak around 250,000 yen.

How long will you have to wait? They say they’ll be able to cooper around 15 casks per month, given a yearly yield of 180 casks. The maximum lead time, presumably for Japan’s domestic market, is 45 days.

The company already has its first customer at the nearby Hida Takayama Distillery.

Coopering is a massive industry in the US, where around 4 million barrels are produced annually. But here in Japan, the big whisky companies have entirely in-housed coopering operations, with Suntory famously pioneering the use of Japanese mizunara oak during and after WW2 due to their inability to import Bourbon casks from the US (duh) or sherry casks from Europe.

More recently, though, with the rise of Japanese craft whisky, there are more and more distilleries that don’t have the expertise or budget to cooper their own casks. Importing ex-Bourbon/sherry/wine/whatever casks may be the default choice, but surely a second independent cooperage in Japan offering virgin American and Japanese oak casks will be a welcome addition to the industry.

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