The Ontake Distillery

Perched atop a mountain overlooking Kagoshima City, Kagoshima Bay, and Sakurajima, The Ontake Distillery offers one of the nicest panoramas you’ll ever see from a whisky distillery. This highly exclusive distillery began operation in December 2019.

Who’s behind it

The Ontake Distillery was launched by Nishi Shuzo, a company whose history goes way back to 1845. These days, Nishi Shuzo is best known for its line of sweet potato shochus under the brand name Houzan. The company is also behind Tenshi no Yuuwaku, one of TWSC 2020’s Superior Gold winners in the shochu division.

Besides whisky and shochu, Nishi Shuzo has also expanded into wine in recent years, acquiring New Zealand’s Urlar in 2018. Casks of Urlar are even found in The Ontake Distillery’s warehouse.

But the company wants each category they are involved in to stand on its own merits. Rather than being a “shochu maker with a whisky operation,” leading one to believe whisky is some sort of sideshow, the company is aiming to make the highest quality whisky they can.

The name “Ontake” collectively refers to the three tallest peaks of Sakurajima: Kitadake, Nakadake, and Minamidake.

What kind of whisky

The Ontake Distillery is yet to release any products. Their first single malt is slated for release in late autumn 2022.

That said, the company’s stated goal is to release high-quality whisky that is 1) clean/pure, 2) aromatic, and 3) full of flavor. The yeasts were selected by Nishi Shuzo’s president himself.

All of the malt is non-peated for the time being. The company’s future plans include in-house malting, which is something that’s not really happening at most Japanese whisky distilleries yet. And not just any malt: they want to source all of their barley from within Kagoshima prefecture. Nishi Shuzo already takes a similar approach to their shochu.

Given the company’s goals of clean/pure and aromatic whisky, they aim to have both the wort and wash as clear as possible. And as you can see in the below gallery, both the wash still and spirit still are shaped to yield a clean distillate. Both have upward lyne arms, and the spirit still’s boil ball helps heavier elements in the distillate flow downward again.

WHERE is it

Kagoshima City in Kagoshima prefecture is probably best known for three things: a very active and iconic volcano named Sakurajima, the “last true samurai” Saigo Takamori, and fantastic shochu bars.

The Ontake Distillery is about 20 minutes away from downtown Kagoshima by car. It’s on a mountain overlooking the city. There is currently no public transport or shuttle bus to reach the distillery, so you’ll need to get there by private car or taxi.

The distillery has fantastic access to spring water coming down from the mountains — about 1000L per minute. This same water supply feeds the golf course as well.

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WHEN did they start

The distillery began operating in December 2019. The distillation season goes all year: there is no downtime.

WHY is it special

The Ontake Distillery is perhaps Japan’s most exclusive whisky distillery. That’s because, at least for now, they devote nearly all of their production volume to filling casks purchased by private owners. So even when they do release their first product to the general public in 2022, it’s likely that only a handful of bottles will be available.

Let’s talk about those owner’s casks. They are all non-seasoned Olorosso sherry casks, and The Ontake Distillery is offering a maximum maturation period of 10 years. So while the price is undisclosed, you can be sure it’s a pretty yen compared to the more easily affordable owner’s cask programs we’ve seen at other Japanese craft whisky distilleries.

Nishi Shuzo already has access to a customer base potentially interested in owner’s casks. Since 2011, the company has owned the Kagoshima Golf Resort. In fact, the distillery sits on the same land: the company owns a large plot atop the mountain. This gives them room to grow. Since The Ontake Distillery has nearly filled one warehouse, plans for a second warehouse on-site are already underway.

Going forward, the Kagoshima Golf Resort itself will be integrated into The Ontake Distillery. It will become a whisky distillery with a golf course. The idea is that cask owners will be able to share their whisky hobby with those close to them at the bar at The Ontake Distillery. Sounds like a nice 19th hole!

That exclusivity comes through visually as well. The Ontake Distillery looks like a members-only resort. The architecture also calls to mind the private art museums you’ll find in resort areas throughout Japan. It’s probably the most luxurious Japanese whisky distillery I’ve ever visited, and it’s certainly the most Instagrammable. I’d guess the total cost was an order of magnitude higher than that of distilleries with a similar yearly output capacity.

Tech specs

-Batch size: 1 ton
-Milling ratio: 2:7:1 (Husks/grits/flour)
-Mash tun: 4700L
-Washbacks: 5x stainless steel @ 6600L each
-Fermentation period: 5 days
-Wash still: Miyake, 1650L, indirect heating, upward lyne arm
-Spirit still: Miyake, 600L, indirect heating, upward lyne arm
-Heart cut estimate: 600L @ 67% abv
-Warehouse: 1x rack type, cement flooring
-Output: 144KL per annum

Planning your visit

The Ontake Distillery is currently not open to the public. And unfortunately it won’t be for quite some time. The company has no plans to open the distillery to the public until 2023.


Images by Whiskey Richard

REFERENCES & Further reading