Real Japanese whisky distillery
History of Japanese whisky
1. THE EARLY DAYS 1923-1945
Yamazaki distillery was founded as 1st Japanese whisky distillery in 1923 by Shinziro Torii who is founder of Suntory and Masataka Taketsuru who learned Scotch production during 1918-1920.
They released 1st Japanese malt whisky "White label" in 1929.
Masataka Taketsuru left from Suntory and founded Nikka to produce his ideal whisky. Nikka build Yoichi distillery in 1934. Some other whisky distilleries were founded before WW2 including Taisho Seishu in 1929 or earlier, Fujisawa distillery in 1937, Kamiya-Asahikawa distillery in 1938? and ditillery in Kodama Jozo in 1942?. However these distilleries are no more exist today.
Some other Japanese companies were producing "whisky" from beginning of 20th century however these were "imitation whisky" made from neutral spirits, flavor/color additive and sugar.
2. EXPLOSIVE INCREASE & SURVIVAL 1946-1969
Many local small companies started whisky production along with post war reconstruction. Their whiskies were called Ji-whisky (Local whisky).
Most of them were imitation whisky made from neutral spirits, caramel color, flavor additive or bottled import bulk whisky but some companies started their own distillation. Around 15 new whisky distilleries were founded in this period although the half of them were disappeared shortly and only Saburomaru distillery(1952) and Eigashima distillery(1964) have continued whisky distillation without stopping till today.
Sanraku merged Ocean (former Daikoku Budoshu) and became Sanraku Ocean in 1962. It became 3rd biggest whisky distillery company and they competed hardly with Suntory and Nikka. They focus on Karuizawa distillery and Kawasaki distillery and installed Coffey type column still in Kawasaki distillery in 1969 (Nikka installed it in 1966)
3. GOLD AGE JI-WHISKY BOOM
Major whisky producing companies built new distilleries like Miyagikyo distillery by Nikka in 1969, Hakushu distillery and Chita distillery by Suntory in 1973 and Fuji Gotenba distillery by Kirin also in 1973 to compete with Scotch which import was liberalized in 1971 and import tax was decreased drastically in 1972.
Ji-whisky(meaning is local whisky) made by small producer was booming around 1980 although some of them were blended and bottled import bulk whisky in Japan.
Whisky production and consumption in Japan recorded highest figure in the beginning of 1980s.
(Whisky production was 350,000L in 1980)
You can find some bottle from this period today. But you need to note that some of them were made from import bulk whisky and some other might be distilled by stainless pot still instead of copper one. Stainless pot still whisky normally has sulfur flavor like burned rubber because stainless pot can't remove sulfur compounds from mash steam during distillation.
4. ICE AGE
Whisky production in Japan was going to shrink because of Shochu/Chuhai boom and it became only 1/4 of 1980 in 2009.
(Whisky production was 60,000L in 2009)
Distilleries of Suntory, Nikka and Kirin survived in this ice age but Sanraku Ocean couldn't survive and their Kawasaki distillery was closed in 1987 and Karuizawa distillery which was their last whisky distillery stopped commercial distillation in 2000.
Most of small distilleries were also stopped including Shinshu distillery in 1992(Restart in 2011), Ohito distillery in 1996, distillation by Sasanokawa Shuzo in 1990s(Restart as Asaka distillery in 2016), Hanyu distillery in 2000, Ishiwa distillery in 2005. Only Saburomaru distillery and Akashi distillery were continuing distillation except for major big companies. In add, Sasanokawa Shuzo and Shinshu distillery continued only bottling.
However seed of Japanese whisky Renaissance sprouted.
Chichibu distillery which is Japanese craft whisky leading company today was founded in 2007.
5. RENAISSANCE OF JAPANESE WHISKY 2010-
Whisky production in Japan was recovering to nearly half of 1980s peak due to 3 reasons.
(Whisky production in 2018 is 130,000L)
1. Whisky demand started to increase from 2010 because of Highball(Whisky&Soda) boom.
2. Malt whisky domestic demand jumped due to TV drama Massan (Story about life of Masataka Taketsuru) in 2014.
3. Nikka and Suntory expanded their export after they continued to got several awards in international whisky competitions like ISC, SWSC and IWSC almost every year.
Suntory, Nikka and Kirin invested their distilleries to increase whisky production capacity and some stopped distilleries (Shinshu distillery, Sasanokawa Shuzo as Asaka distillery and Helios Shuzo) restarted.
In add, 15 new distilleries including 5 micro distilleries and Chichibu distillery 2nd plant were founded between 2015-2020.
6. PLANNED NEW DISTILLERIES
Still 10 more whisky distilleries are planned.
Some of them took press release, some others got whisky production licence. But whisky production licence might be only bottling and it expire if no production or less production than minimum annual requirement (6,000L) for 3 years.
Most expected one is Niseko distillery by Hakkai Shuzo which is leading company of Jizake (local craft sake).
7. RICE WHISKY & STAINLESS POT STILL
Behind Japanese whisky boom, Japanese rice whisky also became boom in USA.
Actually it's rice base Japanese traditional rice spirits Shochu/Awamori aged in cask. But Shochu/Awamori has color less requirement so if it gets too much brown color by long years cask aging, distillery is allowed to label as just spirits instead of Shochu/Awamori in Japan. But they can label as whisky in USA because US law doesn't limit enzymes for mashing to malt enzyme and Koji enzyme is allowed as whisky.
Some other Japanese companies are making malt whisky by stainless pot still which is normally used for Shochu/Awamori. But stainless pot still can't remove sulfur compounds contained in malt from mash steam during distillation therefor whisky distilled by it normally has sulfur flavor like burned rubber.
Story of Japanese whisky distilleries
1. OCEAN GROUP FOOT PRINT & GENEALOGYR
Sanraku Ocean became 3rd biggest whisky distillery group in Japan when Sanraku and Ocean were merged in 1962. They concentrated on Karuizawa distillery for malt whisky and Kawasaki distillery for grain whisky with coffey column still. But they closed Kawasaki distillery because of losing competition with Suntory and Nikka. Kirin became owner and decided closing Karuizawa distillery during end of Japanese whisky ice age although Karuizawa single malt was getting many awards in international whisky competitions as same as Suntory and Nikka.
Shizuoka distillery by Gaia Flow took over some facility of Karuizawa distillery.
2. SURVIVOR OF 80s JI-WHISKY
Within 20 years after WW2, more than 15 new distilleries were founded in Japan. These whisky was called Ji-Whisky (It means local whisky) and it was boom around 1980. However only Saburomaru distillery by Wakatsuru Shuzo and Akashi white oak distillery by Eigashima Shuzo survived as distillery and continue till today.
Saburomarut target elegant and peated whisky which was major style in Islay Scotland in 1970s. They are very innovative company and they developed molding technology pot still ZEMON which is 1st case in the world and established local Mizunara cask supply chaine.
3. BEHIND THE SCENES OF ICHIRO'S MALT BIRTH
Akuto familiy was owner of Toa Shuzo with Hanyu distillery but it got bankrupt and new owner decided stopping whisky business and discarding all whisky cask stock.
Ichiro Akuto was looking for someone who keeps these casks and finally Sasanokawa Shuzo accepted his request. These casks were bottled as Ichiro's malt and its sales supported Chichibu distillery's early days. Chichibu distillery became top runner of Japanese craft whisky today.
When Sasaokawa Shuzo restarted whisky distillation as Asaka distillery, Ichiro advice distillation technique.
Toa Shuzo restarted whisky business with same brand name (Golden Horse Musashi/Bushu) but it is made by import bulk cask.
4. NEW CRAFT JAPANESE WHISKY DISTILLERIES
After Ichiro's malt success, many companies joined whisky business but some producers are just bottling import bulk whisky and supplying as Japanese whisky. Some others are distilling by stainless pot still instead of copper one or hybrid micro pot still instead of full size copper pot still set. But these distilleries have full equipment to produce real Japanese whisky.
Yuza distillery plans to supply only their single malt and their new born has very elegant flavor.
Akkeshi's new born is available in market today. It has very clear but rich peated taste.
5. NEW CRAFT JAPANESE WHISKY MICRO DISTILLERIES
After success of Ichiro's malt, some micro distilleries are also founded. Annual distillation capacity is 6000 L or a little more because 6000 L is minimum volume for whisky production license in Japan. Normally these distilleries are producing not only whisky but also gin and other liquor.
Okayama distillery is 1st micro whisky distillery during today's Japanese whisky Renaissance and main bottle is "triple cask" which is vatting of Sherry cask, Brandy cask and Mizunara cask.
Chugoku Jozo has been supplying Togouchi whisky since 2003. Togouchi is name of their aging cellar which they diverted railway tunnel. Actually Togouchi whisky is made from imported bulk whisky but they started their own distillation in 2017 and it will come in 2021.
6. WHISKY BY AWAMORI DISTILLERIES
Awamori is regional traditional spirits made from rice in Okinawa islands. Normally they are using stainless pot still but only Helios Shuzo is using copper pot still.
Helios Shuzo were producing malt whisky KAMIYA only for Taiwan market in 2000s. They stopped whisky distillation in 2008 but seems to restart in 2015.
Some other Awamori distilleries are aging white rice spirits distilled by stainless pot still in cask and exporting to USA as rice whisky. Because Awamori has color less requirement so if it gets too much brown color by long years cask aging, distillery can label as just spirits instead of Awamori. However they can label as whisky in USA because US law doesn't limit enzyme for mashing to malt enzyme and Koji enzyme is allowed for whisky.
7. HONBO SHUZO
NEVER GIVE UP
History of Honbo Shuzo whisky was a series of hardships and setbacks.
Honbo Shuzo invited Kiichiro Iwai in 1945 and let whisky distillery project in him. He designed Yamanashi distillery according to Taketsuru note. It started production in 1960 but closed in 1969 due to sales situation,
They retried whisky distillation by Kagoshima distillery as tentative porduction site in 1980 which is Ji-whisky boom and they built Shinshu distillery in 1985. However whisky market went to shrink seriously from 1983 and long ice age was comming. So that Shinshu distillery stopped in 1992.
They restarted Shinshu distillery in 2011 and built Tsunuki distillery in 2016. They are the only one Japanese whisky producer with multi distilleries and aging cellar except for Suntory and Nikka.
8. MASATAKA TAKETSURU CRAFTMANSHIP
Nikka is Japanese whisky leading comapny founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru after his 10 years working in Yamazaki distillery. Name of Nikka came from Nippon Kaju (It means Japan fruit juice) because they were producing apple juice in their early days to wait for whisky cask aging.
They have Yoichi distillery, Miyagikyo distillery and Tochigi plant including aging cellar and cooparage (cask factory) today. Yoichi distillery is called Niika's highland and Miyagikyo distillery is called Nikka's lowland due to malt whiskey taste in those distillery. They are also producing grain whisky by coffey column still in Miyagikyo distillery.
They focus on more product quality than commercial issue so they installed coffey column still for grain whisky as 1st Japanese company but they were slow to start makers Bar. They are smaller than Suntory but strong presence in premium segment.
9. PIONEER OF JAPANESE WHISKY
Suntory is 1st Japanese comapny which start whisky dstillation. 1st whisky distillery is Yamazaki distillery founded in 1923 together with Shinjiro Torii who is founder of Suntory and Masataka Taketsuru who learned whisky making process in Scotland in 1918-1920.
Suntory has been Japanese whisky leading company since foudning Yamazaki distillery and produced several whisky boom and lifestyle in Japan.
They have Yamazaki distillery, Hakushu distillery, Chita distillery and Omi aging cellar with own cooparage(Cask factory) today altough 4th distillery was not realized and ended as papar plan.
They have been producing not only whisky but also several fashionable life style trend with their whisky in Japan.
10. KIRIN'S CHOICE & PITY OF KARUIZAWA
Kirin group opened their 1st whisky distillery, Fuji Gotenba distillery in 1973. It is producing both malt whisky and grain whisky. Their column still for grain whisky is complex of multi column, doubler and kettle.
Kirin group merged Mercian (Former Sanraku Ocean) which had Karuizawa distillery but they decided to close it in 2010 which was end of Japanese whisky ice age.
11. PLANNED JAPANESE WHISKY DISTILLERIES
Some more coming whisky distilleries are announced by press release and/or media. Additionally some other companies got whisky production license according to Japan tax office which controls alcohol tax. However licensed company might do only bottling without distillation and also licence expires if no production within 3 years.
Hakkai Jozo is one of the most famous local sake brewery in Niigata pref. but they decided to build whisky distillery in Niseko, Hokkaido which is one of the most famous international ski resort in Japan.
12. ONCE EXISTED DISTILLERIES BEFORE WW2.
There were some other whisky distilleries without Suntory and Nikka before WW2 although no more exist today as whisky distillery.
Most famous one was Tommy whisky made by Fujisawa distillery of Tokyo Jozo which started whisky distillation before Nikka and they competed with Suntory and Nikka as 3rd main player before and after WW2. But they lost competition and bankrupt in 1955.
Shirakawa plant was founded by Daikoku Budoshu (Sanraku Ocean as later days) but sold to Takara Shuzo in 1947. They upgrade to Shirakawa distillery and it was producing single malt whisky till 2003 but after closing Shirakawa distillery, Takara focus only on "whisky" with neutral spirits for low price market.
Japanese whisky distillery map for visitor availability
Most of distilleries accept visitor with reservation however distillery which have English guide tour is very limited.