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A "Quick" Look into the Japanese Whisky Industry & Distilleries - Part 2

Updated: Jun 9, 2022


Image by The Whisky Business


Japanese distilleries included in this article


Please do see our article A "Quick" Look into the Japanese Whisky Industry & Distilleries - Part 1 for distilleries missing from this list, and to read more about the birth of Japanese whisky.


 

Changing Winds on The Shores of Japan


The Japanese Whisky industry is going through not only a new renaissance but a transformation. Since 2016 multiple distilleries have been established by companies who hope to ride the lucrative wave of making Japanese whisky. Diversity is good for any market and many brewing companies have invested in stills to jump onboard to make spirits. Many of them are already making great new-makes to let their possible customer base know what they are up to, and give an idea of what to expect in the future.


Sometimes Japanese whisky-drinking enthusiasts are offered a product that might disguise itself as something that it's not. Some "Japanese Whiskies" are only labeled as "Products of Japan". Many of them include whisky that wasn't matured or produced in Japan or can't be classified as whisky by European standards. And there laid the problem - Japanese whisky wasn't governed by a body that specified what can be labeled as whisky by their standards.

Image by Forbes


Many older producers that sell their products worldwide are applying the Scottish standards of making whisky because of their shared history and the birth of Japanese whisky. Some companies have applied the US grain whiskey regulations to their products made from rice - rice whisky meets the guidelines of American grain whiskies but not Scottish. Some recently established "whisky" distilleries in Japan decided to skip rope with origins, quality, and labeling to cut corners and costs. For many, using rice as their grain is the natural ingredient they are familiar with because of their long history of making shochu or sake.


New rules were put in place by The Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association in 2021 to challenge the integrity of the Japanese whisky-making industry and try to regulate what Japanese whisky should be. (There just seemed to be way too many newcomers playing by their own rules.) The new guidelines are officially coming into effect in 2024. This was done to give companies with already established whisky-distilling facilities, that chose to import their whisky from other countries, time to start distilling their own product that will meet the new standards. Of course, there will always be "rascals" who choose not to play by anyone else's rules and will find loopholes one way or another.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Working Japanese Distilleries in 2022 Part 2


New Japanese whisky distilleries are sprouting like mushrooms when it rains, and we (like many others out there) find it hard to keep up. Some new distilleries have also chosen to keep their existence a secret and provide only a little if any, information about their business. So do excuse us if we have forgotten to include some operational distilleries - and let us know so we can keep our list updated!


In this second part of Working Japanese Distilleries in 2022, we look into lesser-known projects that are already producing whisky. Plus some familiar names that are making a comeback!


We have made the conscious decision to leave out distilleries that make whisky using rice like Osumi - established in 2014, started whisky distillation in 2016, and owned by Suntory - that produces Rice Whisky.


Please note we will not be including distilleries that have been announced or are under planning or construction without any current whisky production. We have chosen the list-type approach for this article for clarity and easy re-visiting.

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

Fuji Hokuroku

Location: Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi

Founded: 2020

Whisky First Distilled: July 2020

Owned by: Ide Brewery

Brands: New Pot Zero Series, Daijukai (Taikikai) Malt Grain Whisky AKA

Blend, Fuji Hokuroku Highball

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Ide Brewery in Yamanashi prefecture at the foot of Mount Fuji acquired its license to distill whisky in 2020. The company's experience was based on sake production and the distillery team were all novices when it came to whisky - making their venture a trial-and-error based.


The spirit is going through a double distillation before being put in casks. The distillery uses sake yeast to make their whisky. Fuji Hokuroku produces both malt whisky using imported barley and grain whisky from rice.


Although the distillery side of the business is new, they have already launched 3 different "whisky" products: New Pot Zero - malt spirit distilled at the site launched November 2021, Daijukai Blended Whisky - malt and rice grain whisky launched in December 2021, and Fuji Hokuroku Highball launched in November 2021. Hokuroku is waiting for the milestone year of 2023 to launch its first 3-year-old single malt whisky.

 

Hanyu (New Distillery)

Location: Hanyu, Saitama

Founded: 1941-2000, Rebuilt and re-established in 2021

Whisky First Distilled: February 2021

Owned by: Toa Shuzo Co Ltd. under Hinode Holdings

Brands: Hanyu, Golden Horse Blend

Image by Dekanta


The first Hanyu distillery was established in 1941 by Toa Shuzo - and its owner Isouji Akuto (Ichiro Akuto's grandfather). They were granted an alcohol distilling license in 1946 but concentrated on distilling grain whisky from rice. Their first introduction to Scottish-style whisky was using whiskies sourced from Scotland and released under the name Golden Horse, which got them in trouble with the owner of White Horse Blend.


It wasn't until 1980 that the Hanyu distillery concentrated on distilling and bottling their malt whisky. With the decline of Japanese whisky consumption, the distillery finally ceased its production in 2000 followed by the dismantling of the distillery in 2004. The owner concentrated their efforts on sake and shochu production. Toa Shuzo sold the 400 existing Hanyu barrels to Ichiro Akuto, who managed to bottle the whisky, create a demand for it, and build his distillery in Chichibu to continue his family legacy. The most famous bottles of Hanyu are the Card series which are considered highly collectible.

Image by Bonhams


In 2020 Tao Shuzo announced its plans of rebuilding and reopening the New Hanyu distillery with production commencing in February 2021. The two copper stills at the distillery have been made using blueprints of the old Hanyu distillery stills. Many have raised their concerns about the quality of the new spirit and its ability to stand alongside the old Hanyu whisky without the help of the Akuto family's expertise in distilling. But in the end, only time will tell.


The project gathered money in April 2021 through crowdfunding to help with the cost of building a visitors center. 1426 people came to the rescue, and 100 sets of New Pot 2 bottle sets were made available to purchase. Please note that Toa Shuzo has kept the Golden Horse blend brand alive over the years bottling imported whiskies, but the brand has been "relaunched" with a banner "2021 Restart". By doing the math we can say with confidence that the blend does not yet include any whisky distilled at the new Hanyu distillery.


 

Hioki

Location: Hioki, Kagoshima

Founded: 2020

Whisky First Distilled: March 2020

Owned by: Komasa Jyozo

Brands: Komasa Gin

Image by Quantima Group/ The Whisky Ardvark


Komasa Jyozo established its first malt whisky distillery Kanosuke in 2017. In 2020 they established the Hioki grain distillery 10 minutes down the road from Kanosuke, on their already existing Kagoshima plant that till then had concentrated on making sake and shochu. Only a few grain distilleries existing in Japan, the now partially Diageo-owned whisky distiller, decided to distill their grain whisky keeping in mind the upcoming new regulations concerning Japanese whisky production.


The grain whisky distilled at the Hioki distillery will play a major role in the upcoming blended whisky releases from Komasa Jyozo, although at the moment it's hard to say what the brand name will be. The distillery is currently making Komasa gin using their horizontal pot still but will be using two stainless stills to produce whisky with double distillation. The distillery does not have a column still to its name.

 

Ikawa

Location: Ikawa, Shizuoka

Founded: 2020

Whisky First Distilled: November 2020

Owned by: Juzan Co. Ltd. under Tokushu Tokai Paper

Brands: Unknown

Website: No official website

Image by nomunication.jp

In 2020 the Ikawa distillery took the title of "The highest working whisky distillery in Japan" with its remote location 1200m above sea level in the Minami Alps. Maybe due to its accessibility - or their lack of - there isn't too much information about the distillery available, and they have mainly kept to themselves.


The distillery is owned by the parent company Tokushu Tokai Paper which also owns the heavily wooded area where the distillery is located. With this connection to wood and paper, it's easy to understand that the Ikawa distillery site includes a cooperage under a contract with the woodworking company Wasugi.


 

Niigata Kameda

Location: Konan-ku, Niigata

Founded: March 2019

Whisky First Distilled: February 2021

Owned by: Niigata Micro Distillery G.K under Otani

Brands: Niigata Kameda New Pot

Image by The Whisky Ardvark/ Niigata Kameda distillery


Located at the Kameda Industrial Park, the Niigata Kameda distillery started distilling its malt whisky in February 2021. Owned by a seal maker Otani, the distillery is their first venture into making whisky in their modified seal warehouse. The plan is to use both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks to mature their whisky.


Currently, there are only 3 bottlings available on their official website - all of them new makes. They offer an opportunity to have a taste of the clear spirit distilled through their pot stills and imagine what it could become.

 

Ontake

Location: Kagoshima

Founded: 2019

Whisky First Distilled: December 2019

Owned by: Nishi Shuzo

Brands: Ontake

Image by nomunication.jp


In 2019 the shochu maker Nishi Shuzo established their beautiful distillery on a 300-acre land overlooking Kinko Bay and Mount Ontake. The distillery is due to release its first single malt in 2022 but has relied heavily on its "owner's cask program" to fund its venture. At the moment all whisky, made by using Nijo barley, is matured in oloroso sherry casks.


The Ontake distillery has stated that its goal is to produce clean, aromatic, and flavorful malt whisky. Nishi Shuzo also owns the nearby Kagoshima Golf Course, which will be connected to the distillery in the future, making it the perfect holiday destination for whisky-loving golfers.


 

Osuzuyama

Location: Takanabe, Miyazaki

Founded: 1998

Whisky First Distilled: November 2019

Owned by: Kuroki Honten

Brands: Osuzu Malt New Born, Osuzu Gin

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Osuzuyama distillery was established in 1998 and first made barley shochu, but in 2019 started producing whisky. The barley for all of the distillery products is sourced from a 19-acre site owned by Kuroki Honten, and malted on-site using "box malting". Both hybrid still and copper pot still are used to distill their whisky.


The distillery has been inspired by the Osuzu Mountain which got its name from a legend of a white horse and its master who were thought to descend from the mountain to visit a shrine. The white horse would have a golden osuzu "bell" on its neck.


So far the Osuzuyama distillery has released a couple of different editions of its new make under Osuzu Malt - including spirits aged 18 months and 27 months. They also produce multiple expressions of Osuzu gin on-site.

 

Rokkosan

Location: Rokkosan, Kobe, Hyogo

Founded: 2021

Whisky First Distilled: July 2021

Owned by: Axus Holdings Corporation

Brands: Rokkosan Whisky, Rokko Pure Malt

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


The Rokkosan distillery in Mount Rokko in Kobe, 931 meters above sea level, officially started its whisky production in July 2021 with a single pot still. The distillery is surrounded by beautiful nature and uses highly guarded Mt. Rokko water in its whisky production. The owner Axus Holdings has a vast portfolio including wine and spirits import, and cosmetic products, and has been involved with the Welsh Penderyn whisky distillery in the past.


Currently, there are 2 different 12-year-old expressions available made by using imported unpeated and peated malt whisky from Scotland.


 

Shindo

Location: Asakura, Fukuoka

Founded: 2020

Whisky First Distilled: August 2021

Owned by: Shinozaki Co. Ltd

Brands: Takamine

Website: www.shinozaki-sake.com/

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Located in the Shinozaki distillery and brewery in Fukuoka, the Shindo distillery is dedicated to the company's production of single malt whisky. Shinozaki has made the Takamine koji-fermented whiskey for some time now alongside their main beverages like sake and shochu, but with the new distillery up and running they have established themselves as one of the newest running whisky distilleries in Japan. Unfortunately, a lot of information hasn't been made available about the Shindo distillery.


With the plans of growing its wood to be used in the production of whisky, the Shindo distillery is looking to release its first single malt in 2024.

 

Shinobu

Location: Nishikan Ward, Niigata

Founded: 2018

Whisky First Distilled: March 2021

Owned by: Niigata Beer Co. Ltd

Brands: The Shin, Shinobu

Image by Shinobu Distillery/ The Whisky Ardvark


The Shinobu distillery was built in an old re-furbished warehouse owned by Niigata Beer on their compound in Niigata. Although they were granted a license to make whisky back in 2017, Niigata Beer took an additional 4 years to put its plans into action. Their strategic partner Shin Group is also involved with the Eigashima distillery, making it possible for future collaboration between the two distilleries which is not that common with Japanese whiskies.


The Shinobu master distiller Ken Usami has announced that they have already expanded their distillery to meet the high demand. Also, they are almost done building a new distillery 50km away in Tsugawa, Niigata. They also plan on growing their own Mizunara Trees - that's a long time plan since it takes around 150 years for the tree to be ready to be used.

In 2018, the owners released their Shinobu whisky brand which uses imported world whisky that has been finished in Japan in Japanese Mizunara - not specifying how long. But how can there be a high demand justification for building and expanding distilleries when so far their sales are mainly based on selling imported whiskies?


 

Yamaga

Location: Yamaga, Kumamoto

Founded: 2021

Whisky First Distilled: October 2021

Owned by: Yamaga Distillery Co., Ltd under MCA Holdings

Brands: Yamaga New Pot

Image by The Whisky Ardvark/ Yamaga Distillery


The Yamaga distillery in Kumamoto has close ties with Hombo Shuzo which owns the Mars distillery - in fact, they are connected by blood. The president of MCA Holdings is part of the Hombo family and reached out to them to learn how to make whisky. Although so far that's as far as their collaboration goes, the future might hold bottlings of Mars/Yamaga whisky.


The distillery is equipped with a 4.6-meter-high bulge-shaped pot still and is looking to release its first whisky in 2024. The New Pot -release bottled at 60% ABV has only been available to purchase at the distillery shop but as suspected has sold out quickly.

 

Yoro

Location: Yoro, Gifu

Founded: 2018

Whisky First Distilled: October 2018

Owned by: Gyokusendo Shuzo Co., Ltd.

Brands: Peak Whisky

Website: www.minogiku.co.jp/

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Sometimes also referred to as Gyokusendo due to its location in a small brewery by the same name, the Yoro distillery makes Ji-whisky under the name Peak Whisky which was quite popular in the 70s and 80s in Japan. The old Peak Whisky included UK-bought malt and malt distilled at the site that was blended and matured up to additional 10 years in sherry casks before grain whisky (rice?) was added. After the demand fell, the distillation of whisky was abandoned.


Enter 2019 when the distillery relaunched their Peak Whisky brand with the "New Born" edition distilled in October 2018 by using UK imported barley. Sold in a 200ml bottle, the spirit was bottled at 55% ABV.


We found it hard to try and find any information about the distillery site itself due to the lack of information made available by the owner and barely existing press releases. Guess they are trying to make a very quiet return, hopefully, this time with only barley in their sight.

 

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