By Tomonori Takenouchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterJapanese whiskies, particularly original brands produced by small-scale distilleries, are drawing in fans alongside major manufacturers’ products.
Strong individual traits produced by “craft whisky” or “local whisky” provide consumers with a greater range of scents and flavors to try.
An unusual highball, Nagahama-hai, is gaining a following. The highball — a whisky and soda cocktail — is provided at a restaurant adjacent to Nagahama Distillery in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. It is characterized by its faint aroma of malt and its clean flavor.
Five production staffers make the whisky using malted barley — the same ingredient for making beer.
As whisky requires a lengthy aging process, the distillery has yet to officially sell it. However, its “new make” whisky — the technical term for freshly distilled but not aged whisky — is available as an ingredient in the Nagahama-hai cocktails that the distillery makes by mixing the clear and colorless malt whisky with carbonated water and adding shishiyuzu, a kind of yuzu citrus fruit local to the area.
The distillery is located near Lake Biwa and was established in November 2016 by Nagahama Roman Beer Co., which operates a business that produces and sells craft beer. The size of the distillery is a little under 30 square meters, distinguishing it as the smallest distillery in the nation.
“I hope customers will enjoy Nagahama-hai by envisioning how the whisky will be after it has aged three or five years,” said Nagahama Roman Beer President Takashi Kiyoi.
Eigashima Shuzo Co. in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, also enjoys brisk sales of its whisky.
Launched as a joint-stock company in 1888, the establishment obtained a license to produce whisky in 1919. The distillery continues to make whisky, allowing it to age in barrels at its seaside distillery facing the Seto Inland Sea.
The firm started selling Single Malt Akashi, which some consumers say smells of the sea, in 2007.
Orders of the single malt are on the rise from France and other foreign countries in recent years, with half of the sales being for export, according to the firm’s production department chief, Akito Ueda.
Meanwhile, some non-liquor companies have begun entering the whisky-producing industry.
Kenten Co., a food import firm in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, established Akkeshi Distillery in the town of Akkeshi, Hokkaido, in 2016.
“I hope to produce whisky that’s unique to Akkeshi: something that goes well with oysters and cheese — both local specialties,” said Kenten President Keiichi Toita, also a whisky enthusiast.
There were about 10 distilleries in the nation 10 years ago, and that has now increased to about 20, according to Japan Whisky Research Center representative Mamoru Tsuchiya.
A highball boom has continued for about 10 years. NHK also aired “Massan,” a serial drama about a Japanese entrepreneur who established a whisky distillery and his wife. The story was based on the founding of Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.
“Due to these factors, a wider range of generations are now enjoying whisky,” Tsuchiya said.
Venture Whisky in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, has been showing a pioneering presence as a small-scale distillery. The distillery has received high praise at worldwide competitions for its Ichiro’s Malt, Tsuchiya said.
“Microdistilleries produce small amounts of whisky, and that is exactly why they can adapt quickly to any circumstance. They can produce unique whisky rooted in their areas such as by using local barley,” he said. “These distilleries can also be a tourist resource, helping the local economy.”
The Seijo Ishii supermarket chain started dealing in domestic craft whiskies around 2011. It now sells six brands and aims to add more.
“There are many [Japan-made] high-quality whiskies that can compete with major manufacturers’ products and foreign brands,” said Atsushi Horigami, owner of Zoetrope, a shot bar in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. “I hope customers find their favorite whisky by comparing them.”
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