Deep in Japan's snow country, along the coast of the Sea of Japan, you'll find the unassuming Yuza Distillery. Here, a small team, new to making whisky, is tasked with saving a Yamagata shochu maker from the bleak economic outlook of Japan's countryside.
Who's behind it
Yuza Distillery is Yamagata prefecture's only whisky distillery. The backstory doesn't span multiple generations, and it's not borne out of someone's relentless pursuit of his or her personal hobby.
Instead the Yuza Distillery is a story of business. It's the result of a Yamagata-based shochu maker facing the harsh reality of Japan's demographics. To avoid certain doom, they are pivoting to whisky.
Kinryu is Yamagata's only company specifically making shochu. But not just any shochu: they make kourui shochu, the kind of shochu that's deliberately neutral so it can be used in drinks like the lemon sour.
If you don't feel like drinking a lemon sour after seeing that, well, you're not alone. Things are quite grim for kourui shochu makers. For starters, domestic sales of shochu are declining. Within shochu, kourui shochu has been declining even more sharply since around 2005. To make matters worse, 95% of Kinryu's sales come from within Yamagata prefecture. Like many of Japan's more rural prefectures, Yamagata's population is projected to decline by about 30% by 2045.
None of that has snuck up on Kinryu though. For the past two decades the company has been looking to diversify, getting involved in things like running apartments, retirement homes, wind power generation, and M&A.
At one of the yearly distiller's union meetings in Tokyo, there was discussion of how Venture Whisky's Ichiro's Malt was awarded Japanese Whisky of the Year. It immediately dawned on Kinryu president Masaharu Sasaki that whisky-making wasn't just for huge companies; smaller craft shops could also accomplish great things.
Kinryu itself is a conglomerate of nine different sake makers, meaning Sasaki-san had to get the sign-off from nine different executives to move forward with the venture into whisky. Despite the estimated 700 million yen initial investment plus 100 million per year in costs, essentially gambling the entire company's future on the move, none of the nine were opposed to the plan. The only condition was that he do it right. That the Yuza Distillery makes whisky that can compete with the best the world has to offer.
What kind of whisky
Yuza Distillery has thus far refused to release any new borns or new make whiskies to the public. If you spot the team at a whisky festival, though, you may be able to try some.
They have also stated that they will only release single malts. This means we won't see any of the "world blend" whiskies that we are currently seeing from some other new Japanese whisky distilleries.
Because Yuza began distillation in late 2018, the expectation is their first single malt will hit in winter 2021.
WHERE is it
Yuza-cho, Yamagata is in Tohoku, Japan. Because it sits on the Sea of Japan side of Tohoku, it's in the heart of Japan's snow country. While neighboring Miyagi prefecture may be home to Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery, the climate of Yamagata is markedly different. Yuza-cho itself sits on the coast, and has a massive 40°C average temperature difference over a year. The Yuza Distillery expects this will significantly speed up their aging: they estimate 8 years maturing in Scotland will equate to 5 years in Yuza.
Sasaki-san spent three years and made 17 trips to the area before finalizing on Yuza Distillery's location. He wanted to see all four seasons. Though mountaintop and other spots were initially considered, he ultimately committed to the current location for practical reasons: it was easy to bring in large equipment like pot stills and mash tuns, and it has plenty of access to water. While the distillery currently needs 22 tons of water per hour for cooling, the town of Yuza provides 50 tons per hour.
Yes the town -- the Yuza Distillery uses municipal water. In 1996, Yuza-cho's underground water was recognized as one of the top 100 in Japan by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. There are natural springs throughout the town.
WHEN did they start
The Yuza Distillery has been the works since around 2015. After spending a few years scouting out a location, it seems things fell into place relatively quickly.
Their whisky-making license from Japan's National Tax Agency came through in September 2018. In November 2018, they officially kicked off their distilling.
WHY is it special
That aforementioned determination to do things the right way drove some important decisions at the distillery. While many distilleries lay out their equipment within a given space, Yuza Distillery was designed around the distillation equipment based on recommendations from Forsyths. Their wooden mash tuns are made in Japan using Douglas fir personally selected by Sasaki-san in Canada.
The team at the Yuza Distillery is comprised of fresh faces in whisky, two of whom are women. This was done on purpose. Rather than rely on industry veterans or experts, which might result in a situation where the veteran ends up calling all the shots, Sasaki-san wanted to start with a blank slate. Instead, the team relied on Forsyths' orientation and training that's included when you order a whisky setup from them.
Yuza Distillery follows a concept they call TLAS. Tiny, lovely, authentic, supreme.
-Mash tun: 5000L
-Washbacks: 5x Canadian Douglas fir
-Wash still: Forsyths, 5000L, indirect heating
-Spirit still: Forsyths, 3400L, indirect heating
-Warehouse: 2x dunnage type
-Output: 105KL per annum
Planning your visit
The Yuza Distillery is not open to the public, and apparently has no plans to offer tours for the foreseeable future.
Images from Yuza Distillery's homepage and Facebook page
REFERENCES & Further reading
Suwabe, Shinichi. ジャパニーズウイスキーで世界に挑む 新世代蒸留所からの挑戦状 [Taking on the World with Japanese Whisky. Challenge from New-Generation Distilleries]. Recipbook, 2019.