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A "Quick" Look into the Japanese Whisky Industry & Distilleries - Part 1

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

Foreword: When we started writing this article we had no idea what kind of rabbit hole we had gotten ourselves into. We quickly (but not soon enough) realized that instead of listing 25 working whisky distilleries in Japan we were baffled by the vast number we were now facing. So instead of writing an article, apparently we are now writing at least two. Hope you enjoy!

Image by USA Today - Hakushu Distillery Entrance Lobby


Japanese Whisky Distilleries Included in Part 1



 

Introduction


Image by DMARGE


10 years ago, Japanese whisky was an almost unknown concept for many whisky drinkers. With the rising interest in Scottish single malt whiskies, whisky enthusiasts reached out to other parts of the world to find the next big thing. Enter Japanese whisky!


Even though the tradition of making whisky in Japan dates back to the 1930s, it wasn't until 2015 when Jim Murray "awarded" the title of "the best whisky in the world" to Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013, that Japanese whisky became extremely sought after. Things got out of hand and he has often been blamed/credited as the person who started a boom that the Japanese whisky industry wasn't prepared for.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - Yamazaki 2013 Sherry Cask


With only a limited amount of Japanese whiskey bottled and produced, many expressions sold at a reasonable price disappeared quickly from specialist whisky retailers' shelves. Restocking soon became a task that could not be met. But with great demand comes a boom of new distilleries to try and catch the trendy wave.


We wanted to catch up with the Japanese whisky industry and make a simple list of the working distilleries currently operational in Japan with an easy-to-understand overlook. But before we can understand the present, we need to understand the past, so we have provided a small introduction to the history of whisky-making in Japan.


 

Brief History of Japanese Whisky


No peak into Japanese whisky history would be complete without mentioning Mr. Masataka Taketsuru. He has been credited with the title of "the father of Japanese whisky" as he was the first whisky distiller in Japan and the one who introduced whisky-making into the beautiful island nation.


Masataka Taketsuru was born in 1894 in Takehara, Hiroshima to a family that had been making sake since 1733. He was interested in organic chemistry and distilling, and in 1918 embarked on a mission, paid by the company Settsu Shuzo, to Scotland to study chemistry at the University of Glasgow. A year later he started his short apprenticeship at Longmorn distillery in Speyside, followed by a short stay in Bo'ness distillery in Lowlands. In May 1920 he started his third distillery stay at Hazelburn distillery in Campbeltown before returning to Japan later that year. He had gained 2 things on his 2-year visit: the knowledge of how to make whisky, and a wife called Jessie Roberta AKA "Rita".

Image by BBC - Masataka Taketsuru & Rita

Unfortunately on his arrival, he found out that Settsu Shuzo had abandoned its plans to produce whisky due to the recession caused by The First World War. Thankfully his newly gained knowledge didn't go to waste when he was contacted by Shinjiro Torii, who owned a company called Kotobukiya Limited (that later became known as Suntory). Taketsuru was hired under a ten-year contract to help plan and build Japan's first whisky distillery Yamazaki, which fired its first stills in 1923.


After Taketsuru's contract ended he decided to distance himself from Torii and founded his own company Dai Nippon Kaju Co., Ltd., later shortened to Nikka. The first Nippon Kaju distillery was established in 1934 in Yoichi, Hokkaido named after the location. Taketsuru wanted to make whisky on his terms in his ideal location, which was seen as a betrayal by Torii. To this day Suntory officially doesn't recognize Masataka Taketsuru as having anything to do with the birth of Japanese whisky. Talking about shunning with a samurai way!

Image by Dekanta - Shinjiro Torii & Masataka Taketsuru


By the time Masataka Taketsuru died in 1979 at the age of 85, he had built a sizable company able to produce and bottle multiple types of whiskies. Shinjiro Torii had built his empire including the Yamazaki distillery and opened bars around the country to introduce his cocktail called "highball" mixing whisky with water. Torii sadly passed away in 1962, and never saw Suntory's two other distilleries, Chita 1972 and Hakushu 1973, established.


Other whisky distilleries were also established over the years including Karuizawa in 1955 and Hanyu in 1980 but sadly closed before Japanese whisky gained popularity overseas. Both Karuizawa and Hanyu whiskies are regarded as highly collectible.


 

Part 1 - Working Japanese Whisky Distilleries in 2022


Many Japanese whisky producers and distilleries have a long history of making alcohol. Most families/companies that choose to adventure into whisky have produced other beverages in the past including sake, beer, or wine. The word "Shuzo" in many company names in Japan can be roughly translated into "Brewing Company" - referring to the tradition of sake or beer brewing the company has been involved with. Thank you "Whisky Richard" from www.nomunication.jp for the word clarification.


Japanese whisky is known for its attention to detail - it's an art form with complexity as fine as origami. Similar to Irish whiskey distillery operations, one distillery can produce multiple types of whisky under one roof from peated style to light and airy, and from grain whisky to single malts.


Unlike many Scottish whisky distilleries, Japanese whisky makers don't exchange whiskies with each other or sell their spirit to other brands. This has on some occasions resulted in so-called "faux"-whisky bottlings, where the product is labeled as "Product of Japan" but has resourced some or all of the spirit from abroad. In 2021 the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association rewrote the old lax rules to legally restrict what can be called Japanese whisky and gave companies 3 years to sort themselves out. Please find the new regulations at http://www.yoshu.or.jp/statistics_legal/legal/pdf/independence_07.pdf


Please note that we will not be including Japanese whisky distilleries and brands making whisky from rice.


We have listed 37 working Japanese whisky distilleries in operation in 2022. Please see Part 2 for distilleries missing from this article.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Akkeshi

Location: Akkeshi, Hokkaido

Founded: 2015

Whisky First Distilled: 2016

Owned by: Kenten Jitsugyo

Brands: The Akkeshi

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Akkeshi distillery in Hokkaido is inspired by Scottish heavily peated whisky from Islay using Japanese peat. After testing their concept in 2013 by using whiskies produced in other Japanese distilleries, the Akkeshi distillery was founded in 2015. The first series released by Akkeshi were part of the New Make Foundation -series (4 bottlings), but in the last couple of years, they have launched bottlings under the 24 Solar Terms -series.


Although the distillery style has been described as "heavily peaty", Akkeshi also uses unpeated barley to make their selection of grain and single malt whiskies.

 

Asaka

Location: Koriyama, Fukushima

Founded: 2015

Whisky First Distilled: June 2016

Owned by: Sasanokawa Shuzo

Brands: Yamazakura

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Asaka distillery's parent company Sasanokawa Shuzo dates back to 1765 with its production of sake. In 1946 Yamazakura Shuzo adventured into whisky by making what could be called "low-quality blends". Importing Scottish whisky and using molasses the company released their 80s hit "Cherry whisky". The Asaka distillery, with 2 small pot stills, was built on-site in an unused warehouse in 2015 to celebrate the company's 250th anniversary.


Sasanokawa Shuzo launched their ji-whisky brand Yamazakura in 2014 by using old casks of whisky maturing on site. Ji-whisky is a name given to whiskies produced in small local distilleries and breweries.


As an interesting side note, the warehouses at the site were used by none other than Ichiro Akuto himself in 2004 to store his barrels of Hanyu, and according to legend, it was him who encouraged Sasanokawa to get back into producing whisky.


 

Chichibu #1

Location: Chichibu, Saitama

Founded: 2007

Whisky First Distilled: 2008

Owned by: Venture Whisky, Founded by Ichiro Akuto

Brands: Ichiro's Malt, Chichibu

Website: No official website

Image by Dekanta - Ichiro Akuto


The story of the Chichibu distillery is a story of Ichiro Akuto and his vision to make craft Japanese whisky. Sometimes called "the whisky wizard", Ichiro comes from a family of 21 generations of Sake-makers dating back to 1621. Ichiro's grandfather Isouji Akuto ventured into whisky in 1948 under a company called Toa Shuzo importing and blending whisky and founded the Hanyu distillery in 1980. Unfortunately, the distillery only operated for 30 years before shutting down in 2000.


Ichiro himself worked as a salesman for Suntory but left to join his family business in 1995 at the age of 28. The company fell on hard times and was forced into bankruptcy in 2000, but Ichiro stepped in to buy casks of Hanyu in 2004 forming his company Venture Whisky Ltd and later releasing the famous Hanyu Card Series.


The Chichibu#1 distillery distilled its first whisky in 2008. With a relatively small distilling set-up, Ichiro has managed to produce highly sought-after great quality whisky that is hard to come by. The distillery is famous for using mainly locally grown barley, and their use of Japanese Mizunara Oak.


The distillery site also includes 7 warehouses, a fully operational cooperage, and from 2019 the second Chichibu distillery.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Chichibu #2

Location: Chichibu, Saitama

Founded: 2019

Whisky First Distilled: 2019

Owned by: Venture Whisky, Founded by Ichiro Akuto

Website: No official website


Unlike many other distillery owners, Ichiro Akuto decided to build his second distillery only a couple of minutes down the road from his first one in his hometown of Chichibu. Chichibu #2 differs from Chichibu #1 in two major ways: It's five times bigger and mainly uses imported barley from England and Germany to make its whisky. Chichibu #2 is set to produce a more robust style of whisky to meet the high demand for Japanese whisky worldwide.


We like to think about the two Chichibu distilleries as sisters. Chichibu #1 is the older but smaller sister specializing in traditional Japanese values, while the bigger and younger sister Chichibu #2 is influenced by the Western world. It's traditional versus worldly.


 

Chita

Location: Chita, Aichi

Founded: 1972

Whisky First Distilled: 1972

Owned by: Suntory Chita Distillery Co., Ltd.

Brands: The Chita Single Grain Whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Also known as SunGrain Chita Distillery because of the factory it is located in, is the only massive grain whisky distillery in Japan. The facility is a joined venture of Suntory and Zen-Noh, and it produces anything from grain whisky to animal feeds and fertilizers.


The distillery makes three different kinds of whiskies, made from corn from Canada and the US, and malted barley from Finland, that are used in many of the Suntory-owned blends including Hibiki and Suntory Whisky. In 2015 The Chita Single Grain was launched as a stand-alone brand.

 

Eigashima

Location: Akashi, Hyogo

Founded: 1919

Whisky First Distilled: 1984

Owned by: Eigashima Shuzo Co. Ltd

Brands: Akashi, Tokinoka Blend

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Also known as Eigashima Akashi White Oak Distillery, the Eigashima distillery in Hyogo is often credited with the title of the oldest whisky distillery in Japan. In reality, even though they were granted the first license to distill whisky in Japan in 1919, they didn't put it to use until the 1960s when they started producing whisky for the home market. In 1984 the current Eigashima distillery was built and established.


The first Akashi whisky bottling was released in 2007 as an 8-year-old expression. At the moment the core expressions released are Akashi Single Malt and Akashi Blended Whisky. There has been some confusion over the latest bottlings from Akashi because the brand has also been bottled as White Oak Akashi Whisky. Somewhere along 2021, the brand was changed to just Akashi, since both names were used during 2021. To be completely honest, we are confused as well. Also, the sign outside the distillery has been changed although we were unable to pinpoint exactly when. Some limited release bottlings may also only post the name Eigashima on them.


Whisky is only distilled during the warmer half of the year for 7 months, and the company still concentrates mostly on producing sake under their Kamitaka-brand.


 

Helios

Location: Naga, Okinawa

Founded: 1961

Whisky First Distilled: 1980-2001 - Restarted December 2017

Owned by: Helios Distillery Co., Ltd

Brands: Kura the Whisky, Reki Pure Malt, Kyoda Single Malt, Kamiki

Blend

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Also known as Kyoda Distillery, the Helios Distillery in Okinawa has been making spirits including rum and Awamori for decades. They first adventured into the world of whisky-making in the 1980s but by the beginning of the 2000s, the craft was forgotten.


At the moment the distillery bottles whisky under the name Kura (which they use for many of their products, but not to be confused with Kura-whisky from Mars Shinshu distillery) which contains imported malt from Scotland. Some speculate that old bottles of Kura Single Malt were distilled from rice instead of barley. Other "questionable Japanese whiskies" produced by Helios are called Kamiki Blend (a mix of Japanese and whisky sourced around the world) and an older brand Reki Pure Malt.


In 2020 the Helios distillery released their 2017 distilled Kyoda Single Malt which was distilled on-site.

 

Hikari

Location: Konosu, Saitama

Founded: 2019

Whisky First Distilled: 2020

Owned by: Eric Chhoa - Hikari Distillery Limited

Brands: Not yet pronounced

Images by Nomunication


A small Hikari distillery with great transport links to Tokyo was granted a distilling license in 2020. The distillery and its owner have kept mostly to themselves without any big press releases. One of the reasons might be that they don't plan on releasing anything before 2025/26 when their whisky has nicely reached the age of single malt.


The distillery is owned by a UK resident Eric Chhoa and only employs 4 people in its Flemish-style buildings. The house-style whisky is made using barley imported from the UK, but plans are in place to start using locally grown barley. The distillery will also be making peated-style whisky in small quantities.


Hikari is using only first-fill casks for their whisky but the plans include using Japanese cedar, yamazakura, and chestnut casks for finishing in the future. The maturing of the whisky will be affected by the hot environment, and distillation will only be done from late October to early May every year.


 

Hakushu

Location: Hokuto, Yamanashi

Founded: 1973

Whisky First Distilled: 1973

Owned by: Suntory Whisky

Brands: Hakushu Single Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The history of the Hakushu distillery site is a story of 4 distilleries instead of one. The original distillery "Hakushu #1" was established in 1973, followed by "Hakushu #2" next door in 1977 which doubled its production size. In 1981 Suntory finished their new distillery "Hakushu #3" making the 2 previous distilleries redundant. The new distillery was equipped with different sizes and types of stills making it possible to produce multiple types of whiskies. The old distilleries only had huge stills with a limited product range, and the decision was made to close them for good. These big stills can now be seen in the entrance hall to the new distillery. The fourth distillery on site is a small grain whisky facility introduced in 2010.


The distillery is sometimes referred to as "Mountain Forest Distillery" because of its location high up in the Southern Alps surrounded by a vast untouched forest.


Hakushu single malt was first introduced in 1994 but spent most of its early days overshadowed by its older brother Yamazaki. Hakushu is an important component of many Suntory blends including Hibiki.

 

Kaikyo

Location: Akashi, Hyogo

Founded: 2017

Whisky First Distilled: 2016?

Owned by: Marussia Beverages

Brands: Hatozaki Whisky, 135 East Gin

Image by Summerton Whisky Club/ The Whisky Ardvark


Named after the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in front of the distillery site, the Kaikyo distillery was built on the same site as the Akashi Sake Brewery in 2017. The distillery was soon picked up by Marussia Beverages whose portfolio includes Torabhaig Distillery in Skye, The Borders Distillery, and Mossburn Distillers & Blenders.


The Kaikyo distillery was an extension made on the compound to celebrate the Yonezawa family's century-long journey into distilling spirits. The master distiller and blender Kimio Yonezawa is the first family member to concentrate on making whisky. While they wait for their stocks to mature the Kaikyo Distillery has released their blends under the name Hatozaki, which are blended using both Japanese and imported Scottish whiskies making people question their statement of being "the warmest of the great Japanese Whiskies".


 

Kanosuke

Location: Hioki, Kagoshima

Founded: 2017

Whisky First Distilled: 2017

Owned by: Komasa Jozo

Brands: Kanosuke

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Also known as The Komasa Kanosuke Distillery, The Kanosuke distillery is owned by shochu maker Komasa Jozo and was built next to the brewery's warehousing on vacant land. The first distillery single malt was released in June 2021 with an ex-shochu cask finish after the initial New Make releases. The distillery style is unpeated but they are able to produce peated whiskies as well.


In September 2021 it was announced that Diageo had acquired a minority stake in the distillery making it Diageo's first step into the world of Japanese whisky ownership.

 

Kuju

Location: Takeda, Oita

Founded: 2021

Whisky First Distilled: February 2021

Owned by: Shouji Utoda

Brands: Unknown

Image by Kuju Distillery


Formerly known as Kusumi Distillery, the Kuju distillery in Takeda, Oita is described as a craft whisky distillery, and is located in a refurbished sake brewery. It was founded by Shouji Utoda who some of you may know for his involvement with Fukuoka Whisky Talk. Utoda trained whisky-making at the Chichibu distillery.


At the moment the Kuju distillery is mainly using imported barley although tests with locally grown barley have been made with the plans consisting of only local grain. They also plan on widening their barrel aging range from bourbon barrels to sherry, wine, rum, Armagnac, and Cognac casks.


 

Kurayoshi

Location: Kurayoshi, Tottori

Founded: 2017

Whisky First Distilled: 2017

Owned by: Matsui Shuzo An Unlimited Partnership

Brands: Matsui Single Malt, Kurayoshi Pure Malt, Tottori Blend, San-in

Blend, Matsui Gin The Hakuto

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Although the Kurayoshi Distillery owned by Matsui started distilling its spirits in 2017, it first appeared on the scene in 2015 with the introduction of the brand Kurayoshi Japanese Pure Malt Whisky. Because Japanese distilleries don't exchange whiskies with each other, it also became clear that they were mostly bottling imported whiskies and labeling them as Japanese (which they were not).


Matsui whisky has raised other questions as well when it comes to their product line that is sold under 4 different names. Their oldest expression so far is 18-years-old which makes it impossible that they have distilled the product themselves. They have kept a low profile with their whisky distillery and started their distillation operation away from the public eye. The first age-statement whisky that might have been distilled at the Kurayoshi Distillery was a 5yo Sherry Cask released in 2022.


Also, Matsui Shuzo An Unlimited Partnership was established in 1969 stating that they started distilling spirits. With the whisky distillation starting in 2017 how can they post the establishing year 1910 on their label when even their predecessor Ogawa Shuzo sake company dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868)? There's a lot of fishiness going around here.


In 2022 Jim Murray awarded the title of "Best Japanese Whisky" to the 18-year-old Kurayoshi Pure Malt which we think tells a lot about his integrity.


 

Mars Shinshu

Location: Miyada, Nagano

Founded: 1985 - Mothballed 1992-2011

Whisky First Distilled: 1985

Owned by: Hombo Shuzo Co., Ltd.

Brands: Komagatake, Iwai

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Hombo Shuzo Co., Ltd. has an impressive portfolio of distilleries under its name for a Japanese whisky producer. Under the name Mars, Hombo Shuzo has had 4 distilleries in total, although only two of them are currently operational. The story of Hombo's whisky-making is closely linked to a man called Iwai Kiichiro. If you've never heard of him before here's why he should be remembered by historians of Japanese whisky.

Image by Japanese Whisky - Iwai Kiichiro 1883-1966


Iwai Kiichiro was a Japanese engineer who in the 1910s was employed by Settsu Shuzo. Yes, the same Settsu Shuzo that sent Masataka Taketsuru to Scotland to study whisky making. In fact, Kiichiro was Taketsuru's boss and mentor. After Settsu gave up on its plant to distill whisky due to financial difficulties Kiichiro teamed up as an advisor with his friend in Hombo Breweries. Kiichiro's dream of making whisky became a reality when in 1960 the company opened its first distillery called Yamanashi with the help of Taketsuru's whisky-making notes. The distillery made heavily peated whisky that unfortunately didn't suit the consumer preference at the time.


Mars Yamanashi only lived for 9 years before the plan of making whisky was scrubbed and the distillery was converted into a winery. In 1981 Hombo started making whisky again in their Kagoshima plant but was soon replaced by a new 2 pot still distillery 800 meters above sea level in Nagano called Mars Shinshu - officially called Hombo Shuzo Co Distillery.


Unfortunately, the Mars Shinshu distillery plant was established just before the demand for whisky in Japan dropped and was mothballed in 1992 to wait for better times. In 2011 Hombo reopened the distillery in hopes of getting on board the new whisky boom.


Today the whisky produced at Shinshu is regarded as one of the hidden gems of the Japanese whisky world - not to mention the company's older stock distilled before 1992. The distillery uses imported unpeated and heavily peated barley (50ppm) but also used locally grown barley for the first time in 2021.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Mars Tsunuki

Location: Minami-Satsuma, Kagoshima

Founded: 2016

Whisky First Distilled: October 2016

Owned by: Hombo Shuzo Co., Ltd.

Brands: Tsunuki, Komagatage Tsunuki

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The "second" Mars distillery, Tsunuki, was established in 2016 to meet the growing demand for whisky. The distillery mainly uses the same malts as Shinshu but has adapted more experimental methods of making whisky including specialty malts and yeasts. The first bottling of single malt was released in 2020 - "Tsunuki The First" - that represented the distillery's unpeated style.


 

Miyagikyo

Location: Sendai, Miyagi

Founded: 1969

Whisky First Distilled: 1969

Owned by: Nikka Whisky

Brands: Miyagikyo Single Malt, Nikka Coffey Grain, Nikka Coffey Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Before 2001, the Miyagikyo distillery was known as the Sendai distillery. The name change came after Asahi took control of Nikka. The distillery itself is located in a valley, that according to legend took Masataka Taketsuru 3 years to find. He wanted a second distillery to widen his ability to produce different types of whiskies and to make his blends more complex.


The Miyagikyo distillery was equipped with larger stills than that of Yoichi to produce a lighter style of whisky. The distillery also houses two enormous Coffey stills imported by Taketsuru from Scotland in 1963 (installed at Miyagikyo in 1999) that are now used to produce Nikka's Coffey range.


Since 2015 Miyagikyo NAS has been the only continuous expression of Miyagikyo single malt. Whiskies produced at the distillery are major components in all Nikka-owned blends.

 

Mt. Fuji

Location: Gotemba, Shizuoka

Founded: 1972

Whisky First Distilled: 1973

Owned by: Kirin Group

Brands: Fuji

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Formerly known as Fuji Gotemba distillery, Mt. Fuji distillery started as a joined adventure between Kirin Brewery, Chivas Brothers, and Seagram & Sons. Kirin Group took over the full ownership of the distillery in 2002. The distillery is located only 12km from the peak of Mount Fuji using fresh water from the mountain that reportedly snowed down some 50 years ago.


At the time of writing, there are only two whiskies bottled under the "Fuji" label: Single Grain Whiskey and Whisky (blend). The distillery is known for using multiple methods to produce its grain whiskies inspired by bourbon, Canadian and Scottish grain whisky traditions. The distillery has released multiple expressions in the past including Kirin Whisky, Fuji-Sanroku with age statements, and different vintages. Most of their whiskies are intended for the Japanese home market, but the two newest expressions were also launched in the US in September 2021.


 

Nagahama

Location: Nagahama, Shiga

Founded: 2016

Whisky First Distilled: November 2016

Owned by: Nagahama Roman Beer Co.,Ltd.

Brands: Nagahama Single Malt, Amahagan World Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Japan's smallest distillery, Nagahama, is located near Lake Biwa in Shiga and was built as an extension to the Nagahama Roman Brewery that dates back to 1996. Built in 7 months, the distillery started operating in November 2016. Nagahama uses unpeated barley imported from Germany and peated barley (20ppm) from the UK, and fermentation is done using the same methods as they use to make beer. The distilling cycle is divided into two with only one type of barley distilled at one time.


The first single malt was released in 2020 under the name Nagahama, but the distillery also uses malts from around the world creating their Amahagan World Malt - a mixture of Japanese and imported malts. The whisky is matured in a "Hobbit Hole" cave embedded into the side of a mountain.

 

Niseko

Location: Niseko, Hokkaido

Founded: 2020

Whisky First Distilled: March 2021

Owned by: Niseko Distillery Co., Ltd under Hakkaisan Brewery

Brands: Niseko whisky, ohoro Gin

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Niseko distillery was founded in 2020 by Jiro Nagumo, the CEO of sake producing Hakkaisan Brewery. The distillery is located near a popular Naeba ski resort in Hokkaido and hopes to target international clientele in the future. While they are getting ready for their earliest possible whisky launch in 2024, the distillery is distilling gin.


According to the distillery, they are looking to produce whisky with a light character that will easily harmonize with different flavors.


 

Nukada

Location: Naka, Ibaraki

Founded: 2016

Whisky First Distilled: February 2016

Owned by: Kiuchi Shuzo

Brands: Hitachino Highball

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


In 2016 Kiuchi Shuzo started to make whisky in the corner of their Hitachino Nest Brewery AKA Kiuchi Brewery in Naka with a small hybrid still. According to a legend, the inspiration for their whisky came from overstocked barley and the rest is history.


The first whisky product from the distillery was launched in 2019 in a form of "Hitachino Highball" - a ready-to-drink canned beverage with 9% ABV. The whisky used for the highball is 100% distilled at the Nukada distillery and includes both 3-year-old grain and malt whisky aged in sherry casks. The distillery also uses its hybrid still to produce gin.

 

Okayama

Location: Okayama, Okayama

Founded: 2011

Whisky First Distilled: 2011

Owned by: Miyashita Sake Brewery

Brands: Okayama Single Malt, Okayama Craft Gin & Vodka

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Previously known as Miyashita Distillery, the Okayama distillery in Okayama was established in 2011 by sake and beer brewer Miyashita Shuzo. The first batches of whisky distilled at the site were made using an existing shochu still but in 2015 a copper hybrid still was installed for their malt whisky production. With only a small amount of whisky distilled every year, bottles of Okayama can be hard to locate.


The first bottling of Okayama single malt was released in 2015 to celebrate the distillery's 100th anniversary. The expression was aged for 3 years in ex-brandy barrels.


 

Saburomaru

Location: Tonami, Toyama

Founded: 1952

Whisky First Distilled: 2016 with new standards

Owned by: Wakatsuru Shuzo

Brands: Saburomaru Single Malt, Sunshine Grain Whisky, Moon Glow

Malted Grain Whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Wakatsuru Shuzo has been making sake since 1862. The Wakatsuru Whisky distillery was established in 1952 and the first brand "Sunshine Whisky" was launched the following year. Since 2016 they have upped their game of quality and updated their distillery equipment going from what could be considered low-quality whisky to a serious contender. In 2019 the world's first pair of cast copper pot stills, also known as Zemon stills, were installed to give them an edge. www.zemon.oigo.jp


The Saburomaru distillery has been experimenting with local Toyama Mizunara casks and Toyama barley alongside imported heavily peated (47ppm) malt.

 

Sakurao

Location: Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima

Founded: 2018

Whisky First Distilled: 2018

Owned by: Chugoku Jozo

Brands: Togouchi Blended Whisky & Single Malt, Sakurao Single Malt,

Sakurao Gin

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Before the Sakurao distillery was established in 2018 and started to distill its whisky, the owner Chugoku Jozo has been importing whisky from the UK. And even though the company's "whisky production" dates back to 1938 they launched their first internationally available brand Togouchi in 2003 by using an imported blend of whiskies.


In 2021 the first Sakurao Single Malt and Togouchi Single Malt were released. The distillery has two sites for maturing whisky: The distillery for Sakurao and disused underground tunnels for Togouchi. In the future, the distillery tends to concentrate only on self-distilled spirits.


 

Shizuoka

Location: Shizuoka, Ibaraki

Founded: 2015

Whisky First Distilled: October 2016

Owned by: Gaia Flow Distilling Co., Ltd

Brands: Shizuoka Single Malt, Blended M Blend

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The founder of Gaia Flow, Taiko Nakamura, was inspired by his visit to the Kilchoman distillery in 2012 to the extent that he founded his own distillery in 2017. The Shizuoka distillery houses 3 pot stills, one of which used to distill whisky at the now-closed Karuizawa distillery. Shizuoka uses malt imported from Scotland, Germany, and Canada, but also Japan. With 3 different styles of stills and malt sourced around the world, the Shizuoka distillery makes various styles of whisky.


In 2020 they released their first single malt "Prologue K" which had been distilled using the old Karuizawa still.

 

Yamazaki

Location: Mishima, Osaka

Founded: 1923

Whisky First Distilled: November 1924

Owned by: Suntory Whisky

Brands: Yamazaki Single Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Yamazaki Distillery was the first Japanese distillery designed only for the production of malt whisky. The location of the "factory" was chosen by Shinjiro Torii near Osaka, which was the center of commerce at the time with good links to transport. The first bottling of Yamazaki single malt was released in 1984 but it wasn't until 2015 that the Western world started to fanatically empty the shelves carrying the name Yamazaki.


The distillery can produce a variety of different types of whisky - using different levels of peat. Yamazaki single malt is also used as one of the components in Suntory's blends - most notably in Hibiki.


 

Yasato

Location: Yasato, Ishioka, Ibaraki

Founded: 2019

Whisky First Distilled: March 2020

Owned by: Kiuchi Shuzo

Brands: Hinomaru

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Yasato distillery in Ishioka is the second Kiuchi Shuzo-owned distillery. Located in a renovated old town hall, the people at Yasato plan to produce one-of-a-kind whisky by using different grains and yeasts, wine, rum, small bourbon, and non-oak barrels.


Yasato distillery is capable of producing twelve times more whisky than its sister distillery Nukada in Naka. Hinomaru whisky has been announced to be launched in 2023.

 

Yoichi

Location: Yoichi, Hokkaido

Founded: 1934

Whisky First Distilled: 1936

Owned by: Nikka

Brands: Yoichi Single Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


"A dream child" of Masataka Taketsuru, the Yoichi distillery, is located in the coastal mountain town of Yoichi, Hokkaido where the conditions reminded him of Scotland. The first release of whisky saw the daylight in 1940.


The distillery itself is said to be able to produce up to 3000 different types of whisky, but from September 2015 the only bottling carrying the name Yoichi released from the distillery is labeled as NAS - Non-Age Statement. Whisky produced at the Yoichi distillery is a major component of the Nikka blends with its house style described as "peaty and heavy".

 

Yuza

Location: Yuza, Yamahaga

Founded: 2018

Whisky First Distilled: November 2018

Owned by: Kinryu

Brands: Yuza

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Yuza distillery near Mount Chokai in Yamahaga is a "tiny" distillery that plans on releasing high-quality Japanese whisky. Kinryu - the company that owns Yuza - is a joint adventure of 9 local sake brewers.


The first spirit run happened in 2018 and they weren't looking to release any bottlings in the near future - or as they like to put it, prematurely. That said, they released their first bottling of Yuza in 2022. Patience versus income - which won?

 

Part 2 Coming Soon!


Also, Please Stay Tuned For Our Upcoming Article About Closed Japanese Whisky Distilleries #thewhiskyardvark #whiskyardvark





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