Welcome back to our Japanese Whisky series! In case you missed the first entry, we talked about the history of Japanese whisky, including how it came to Japan, what type of whisky it typically is, how best to enjoy it, and more! I highly recommend you give it a look before reading this one since it has a lot of important, interesting background info on whisky culture in Japan. You can find it here.
Last time we mentioned the two most famous Japanese whisky companies, Nikka and Suntory, and talked about how they came to be. Today, we’ll be exploring some of the other companies you should definitely check out, and we’ll give you the scoop on what types of Japanese whisky they have to offer!
While over 90% of whisky in Japan is made by Suntory and Nikka, they are certainly not the only companies that produce Japanese whisky, and they definitely aren’t the only ones that are worth trying. Over the past decade, the total number of active whisky distilleries in Japan has more than doubled–growing from 9 in 2011 to the 26 distilleries that are open today. Several of these are owned by the same company, providing them with distilleries in multiple locations, but that growth is showing just how quickly Japanese whisky is becoming more popular, and how many companies are starting to see that there’s a huge demand for it. Outside of the top two, Venture Whisky, Akkeshi Distillery, Kinryu Co., Sasanokawa Sake Brewery (who operate the Asaka Distillery in Fukushima), Kiuchi Shuzo, and more have made the leap into whisky production in Japan.
So, let’s talk about what these companies have to offer, shall we? First up, we have Kinryu Co.’s Yuza Distillery, which is located in Yamagata Prefecture and began operation in 2018. The company is Yamagata Prefecture’s only Shochu producer, but have noticed that the sales of shochu have declined over the years, and decided in 2015 to pivot towards distilling whisky. As such, they are now not only Yamagata Prefecture’s only shochu producer, but Yuza distillery is also the only whisky distillery in the area. Since they are such a new distillery, they have not released many different whiskeys to date, but earlier this year, they released the Yuza Single Malt Japanese Whisky First Edition for a limited run. Since the company was created to help save their business, Kinryu Co. has stated that they want to make sure that they do whisky the right way, and have committed to only making single malt whiskies, rather than using world blends like many of their contemporaries.
Next up, we have the Akkeshi Distillery, located in Akkeshi, Hokkaido. Distilling since 2016, Akkeshi firmly believes that their location in Hokkaido is the perfect place with the ideal environment for whisky distillation. They’re right next to the sea, which provides them with “pure, clean air” and “thick, salty fog” as well as fantastic soil. Due to these conditions, Akkeshi seeks to produce an unprecedented, unique whisky that’s the best they can possibly make. Their primary series of Whisky is the New Born “Foundations” series, which currently has 4 different whiskies to offer. According to their website, the series is titled “Foundations” because it “represents the Dream, Beginning, Establishment and Birth of a new era in Japanese whisky.” Pictured here is the Foundations 2 blend, which is a blend of peated malts that is matured for 8-17 months in bourbon casks. It was even rated 94 points in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2020!
One other interesting note: Akkeshi recommends you pour their whisky over raw oysters, as is tradition on the island of Islay, and is the absolute best pairing for their whisky.
Even long-time storied Sake producers have entered the whisky business, such as Sasanokawa Sake Brewery. While the company has been producing sake for over two hundred years, they first tried their hand at whisky distilling in the 1940s. However, they weren’t at their own distillery and did not produce much at the time. In the years since then, Sasanokawa has dabbled here and there with whisky production, but finally decided to make the leap to opening their own distillery in the city of Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture in 2016. It was named the Asaka Distillery and has been producing high-quality whisky ever since then.
The Asaka Distillery has a close relationship with our next entry, Chichibu Distillery, and its owner Ichiro Akuto, and many speculate that the influence of Chichibu will definitely have an impact on the whisky that Asaka produces. The varieties of whisky available at Asaka are quite diverse, including both blended whisky and single malt among others, but the one I want to share with you today is quite unique.
Combining malt whisky and grain whisky, Asaka boasts the oldest craft whisky in the Tohoku area, which is the most prominent in their Cherry Whisky series. Pictured here is the Asakano Cherry Whisky EX, which was released in 2018, but there are several other varieties in their cherry series worth checking out. If you’re interested in whisky with a cherry finish with notes of oak, you should definitely give Asaka’s whisky a try!
Our penultimate company for the day is Venture Whisky, founded by Ichiro Akuto. The company runs the Chichibu Distillery, which is easily the most famous distillery not owned by Suntory or Nikka. The distillery’s popularity is in no small part due to its founder, who some call “The Rockstar of Japanese Whisky.” For a brief introduction to his background, Akuto’s ancestors have been renowned Sake producers in Chichibu since the 1700s. His grandfather started working with whisky in the Hanyu Distillery in the 1940s, before it ultimately closed its doors in the 1990s. Akuto actually acquired the remaining stock from the Hanyu Distillery, and used it to launch the Chichibu Distillery in 2008. The remaining stock is now used as part of his brand Ichiro’s Malt and sold through the new distillery. Many of these whiskeys are single malt, with Chichibu taking a lot of inspiration from Scotch whisky like many of their contemporaries.
The two we’re highlighting today are single malts from the Ichiro’s Malt series, but Chichibu also produces some world blends, implementing Scotch, American, Irish, and Canadian whisky that they then age in Chichibu. This distillery has a lot to offer and definitely deserves just as much support as the big two!
The last company I want to discuss today is Kiuchi Shazo, the operators of the Yasato Distillery which produces Hinomaru Whisky. With its home in the city of Naka in Ibaraki Prefecture, Kiuchi Shazo has been manufacturing sake, shochu, kikumori, craft beer, and more since 1823. They decided to start producing Japanese Whisky after producing canned whisky highball in 2019. Since it was such a great success, they built Yasato Distillery at the foot of Mt. Tsukuba in 2020 and began fully producing whisky from then.
The main brand of whisky that Yasato Distillery produces is known as Hinomaru Whisky, and although they’re fairly new to the Japanese Whisky scene, they hit the ground running by winning the gold medal at the 2022 Tokyo Whisky & Spirits competition with the Hinomaru Whisky Blended Newborn 2022 edition, which is stated to start commercial sales in August this year. This blend uses both malt and grain whisky combined with wheat from Ibaraki prefecture and is aged at the bottom of Mt. Tsukuba. If the competition is anything to go by, it should fly off the shelves when it launches later this year!
So what do you think about these companies and the whisky they have to offer? Are you going to add them to your liquor cabinet at home? While Japan is fairly new to the world of whisky, the abundance of companies and overwhelming desire to make it the best it can be is admirable, and already drawing the attention of whisky lovers all over the world. Be sure to try these blends the next time you see them!
Feature Photo Credits: Akkeshi Distillery
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