The Quiet Rebel Revolutionising Japan's Whisky Landscape
"When I first entered the distillery, it was very old, with leaks, and my honest impression was that it had a taste, but the building was also tilted. On the other hand, the whiskey itself was hand-made. It was made seriously, and I felt that there was something that would shine if polished.
I found a malt whiskey made in 1960 at the end of 2015. It was known to exist, but it wasn't considered worth it. I thought, 'This is amazing.' In addition to the scent and fragrance, I felt that it was connected to the time of my great-grandfather who started making whiskey. I was confident that it would sell. I thought it would be."
Takahiko Inagaki, Founder of Saburomaru Distillery
Takahiko (left) leads the team at Saburomaru Distillery. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
Takahiko Inagaki, the young gun behind the revival and refurbishment of up and coming craft whiskymaker Saburomaru Distillery, is no stranger to breaking conventions.
Takahiko, himself the fifth-generation of the Inagaki family who has been behind Wakatsuru Brewery and Hokuriku Beverage (one of Japan's major bottlers of Coca-Cola), has sought to bring his family's whiskymaking up to speed by restoring its reputation for making quality whiskies. No simple a challenge.
In his mid-30s, Takahiko is easily one of, if not, the youngest chief distiller of a whiskymaker in Japan. That's tough for a country steeped in tradition.
If It Ain't Broke, Break It
For decades, Japan's whisky scene was dominated by several whisky giants - Suntory, Nikka, Mars (or Hombo Shuzo) - the usual suspects. That cast a spell that basically preserved the local whisky landscape in a freeze. You would mostly get your whiskies from these three giants (and several much smaller outfits) and with the market share and financial might they possessed, they were well able to keep to themselves for the most part - "you do your thing, I'll do mine" - a standstill, essentially.
Aside from the fateful intertwined history the Big Three share, their recent history has had little overlaps. From Left to Right: Shinjiro Torii and Yamazaki Distillery (Below), Masataka Taketsuru and Yoichi Distillery (Below) and Kiichiro Iwai and Mars Shinshu Distillery (Below).
Aside from the lineage they share - the architect behind Suntory's Yamazaki was none other than Nikka's founder Masataka Taketsuru, whose mentor happened to be Kiichiro Iwai who advised a young Taketsuru to journey to Scotland to learn whiskymaking and would later use Taketsuru's handbook to establish Hombo Shuzo's early Yamanashi Plant - the giants now far removed from their early shared history, had little need for any collaboration. Reputation? Check. Resources? Check. Whiskymaking Know-How? Check. Financial Backing? Check, and check. The giants needed no help and were perfectly content with the way things were.
Yet, when Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu Distillery came along, he caused quite the stir - reinvigorating the craft whisky scene. This spurred a whole new generation of craft whiskymakers - Saburomaru, Nagahama, Sakurao, Kanosuke, the list grows longer each year. These distilleries have in recent years begun to put out their first bottles and they've certainly impressed, with their outstanding ingenuity and quality, much of which have started to be taken noticed of by the international whisky community and have done well at major whisky competitions.
Ichiro Akuto comes to give Japanese whiskymaking a much needed shake up. (Image Source: PUNCH)
As a result of this growing stir, no longer do the Big Three dominate and keep a firm hold on the whisky scene, there is now more room for a blossoming of what is produced and can be found locally. Yet, while that all sounds starry-eyed and hopeful, as they say, the devil is in the details. Real concerns such as operation hurdles, financial constraints and the lack of a reputation, are just some of the challenges that these new starlets must contend with and overcome, if they are to differentiate themselves and stand out.
Amongst the looming concerns they face, is the issue of grain whisky supplies. Grain whiskies are considered a key element in whisky blends, helping to meld together single malts and marry them harmoniously. This is certainly no issue for the likes of Suntory which has the Chita grain distillery to produce much needed grain whiskies for their Hibiki blend. But this is far greater an issue for these much smaller craft distillers due to their much smaller production capacity and distillation facilities that can barely cope with producing enough malt whisky, much less simultaneously producing the two.
It might surprise some to know that even some of their beloved cabinet staples such as the ever popular Nikka From The Barrel have not been safe from the new Japanese whisky regulations. (Image Source: Nikka)
To make matters much harder, new Japanese whisky regulations dictate that for bottles to carry the "Japanese Whisky" title, the whiskies contained must be of local origin - distilled and matured in Japan. This has not only thrown a wrench in the ability of these craft Japanese to demonstrate their breadth of styles, as the use of imported grain whiskies will nullify their ability to carry the "Japanese Whisky" label, but has even rocked the steady boat that is Nikka, whose popular "From The Barrel" blend became a casualty to the new rules.
Some more financially muscled distilleries like Kanosuke or Sakurao have opted to produce their own grain whiskies, in part because these distilleries are not completely new to the spirits business, with interest in other spirits such as Shochu, Sake or even...Coca-Cola. These distilleries serve more as a way of getting a foot into the booming Japanese whisky scene or are bait-and-switches, hoping to recapture some fancy for their mainstay spirits.
Kanosuke Distillery remains one of the few lucky ones to have afforded the ability to have their own grain whisky production, by switching up their existing Hioki Distillery which was originally established (well before whisky!) to produce Shochu. (Image Source: Kanosuke)
Most aren't so fortunate. And so they face some hefty restrictions on their ability to demonstrate what they can do with whisky in a country that notoriously loves a good Highball (a cocktail that is usually enjoyed with meals, usually made with ginger ale and blended whisky).
Yet another operational hurdle is again to do with production capacities. Small as they already are, these craft distilleries have fairly minute production means - Saburomaru and Shizuoka each have two pot stills for distillation, even veteran craft distillery Chichibu only recently expanded to four pot stills with their second distillation site. Now contrast that to the likes of Suntory's Yamazaki which boasts 16 pot stills and Hakushu's 24 pot stills - it is a clear David versus Goliath story. These matter when you consider that more pot stills means more variations in distillation techniques and processes which results in more styles of whiskies produced, which in turn determines how creative a distillery can get with what they produce. And you know how much fans love a new release to pique their interest. No shiny new bottle, no buzz, which means hampered fanbase building.
The likes of well-established distilleries such as Yamazaki (pictured above) clearly outnumber craft distilleries in production capacity, which allows them to produce a greater variety of whisky styles. (Image Source: Yamazaki)
As you may now piece together, the David and Goliath story is certainly not as simple as the namesake fable would suggest. The glory and the gains to be had by these craft distillers should they succeed are tantalisingly clear, but the journey there is anything but easy.
Our intrepid Takahiko-san may seem like a laidback Millennial simply trying to make good whisky, but the moves he's made has quietly yet forcefully led a revolution. While he may not have sought out to do so, his journey through Japan's whisky landscape has laid bare that much needs to be changed, and Takahiko has proven that he is the man for the job.
Breaking The Mould
In 2016, Takahiko could see the early signs of what was to be a wave of insatiable thirst for Japanese whisky. Having deemed the distillery's equipment to be outdated, he estimated that it would take some fresh investment to bring the distillery up to date.
Takahiko took a fairly unconventional approach to refurbishing his family's distillery, opting to do it via an online crowdfunder, the proceeds with which he purchase the first cast copper pot still, which he helped pioneer with local coppersmiths Oigo Works. (Image Source: Asahi)
He opted to do this via an online crowdfunder - a pretty modern way of fundraising that certainly would not have been the modus operandi of his predecessors who were more familiar with taking out a bank loan.
This was a success and raised $340,000 USD which far exceeded the initial target of $220,000 USD. This would itself prove an inspiration to newer distilleries who have since followed suit.
He subsequently opted for yet another unconventional way of refurbishing the distillery - retrofitting the longstanding distillery with a new brand (now named Saburomaru Distillery) and new pot stills. Instead of going for the traditional (and standard) Forsyth's welded copper pot stills, Takahiko couldn't wait to get started, and went for the ZEMON copper cast still - the first of its kind. A choice that has far reaching implications for the whiskies we can expect to see coming out of the distillery.
For more on Saburomaru Distillery, check out our feature on them here.
Instead of conventional welding of the pot stills used for whisky distillation, the ZEMON is cast using a mould, an approach that carries with it several important benefits, namely skipping the line at Forsyths. (Image Source: Oigo)
As Nomunication wonderfully lays out, there’s some benefits to this method aside from skipping the line at Forsyths. Firstly, this is far less labor-intensive, this also allows for thicker walls and a longer shelf life, is much faster to manufacture and hence cheaper. Secondly and more importantly, it also entertains a wider variety of shapes, also allowing for different parts to be easily custom-made and swapped out. This makes the pot still somewhat of a Transformer – you wanna try using a different Lyne arm? No issue! Just swap it out for another. This allows Saburomaru to overcome the lack of an army of pot stills and still produce a variety of whisky styles by swapping out various parts of the ZEMON still.
As most craft distillers are fairly constrained by size, they tend to not be able to enjoy the luxury of having multiple pot stills each with different specifications. The ability to create a more versatile pot still is a brilliant way of working within the constraints without having to compromise too much on the spectrum of styles of whiskies that Saburomaru is able to produce and work with.
Since then, other distilleries such as the soon to be launched Hida Takayama Distillery have begun to follow suit.
No Man Is An Island
Remember we talked about how craft distillers are small on production scale but big on heart? One way to overcome the lack of a variety of whisky styles available for blending is to exchange whiskies with other craft distillers. This not only gives craft distillers more whisky variety on hand to play with, but also helps drum up excitement with collaborative bottlings - cue *when worlds collide*.
Takahiko kickstarted Japan's first real collaborative effort between local distilleries, an ingenious way to expanding craft distiller's variety of whiskies with which they can tinker with. (Image Source: Maltoyama)
With new whisky flowing out of the historic distillery, Takahiko then sought to harness the rising tide of craft Japanese distilleries by initiating the first ever whisky swap with fellow craft distillery, Nagahama Distillery.
This partnership spurned a new set of bottlings for Saburomaru named “Far East of Peat”, a blended malt Japanese whisky, while Nagahama named their bottlings “Inazuma”.
A collaboration between craft distillers Nagahama and Saburomaru. (Image Source: Nagahama)
In this particular instance, the first edition saw Saburomaru combine their heavily peated malt whiskies with Nagahama’s lightly peated malt whisky, which was subsequently matured in an ex-Islay cask. While it may not have been necessitated by a need for locally distilled grain whiskies, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get one’s hands on other whisky styles that can broaden the repertoire of one’s blended whiskies.
Takahiko seems set to make this practice last as what followed was a second stock swap with Eigashima (Akashi) Distillery.
Even the veteran trendsetter himself, Ichiro Akuto, saw himself swapping Chichibu's whiskies with Big Three member, Mars. (Image Source: Japanese-Whisky)
This seems to be catching fire; even the veteran rockstar himself, Ichiro-san took part in a little stock swap of his own, swapping whiskies with biggie Mars, although their partnership saw only an exchange of whiskies to be matured under different climates (Mars whisky matured in Chichibu's warmer climate, while Chichibu whisky was matured in Mar's colder Nagano Alps) instead of a blending of the two whiskies.
Will we see more whisky swaps taking place? We wouldn't bet against it.
Third Time's The Charm When It Comes To Breaking Traditions
Not wanting to stop there, Takahiko subsequently decided to start T & T Toyama, Japan's first independent bottler of Japanese whiskies.
While independent bottlers are commonplace, the likes of Compass Box, Douglas Laing, Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), the list goes on; in Japan, there is none.
T & T Toyama have got a whole pipeline of independently bottled Japanese whiskies awaiting us! One of which to keep your eyes on is their series "Breath of Japan". (Image Source: Maltoyama)
Not only has an oligopoly of the Big Three made such an otherwise commonplace entity redundant, in one of the world's largest whisky markets, but regulations also posed a major hurdle. As Nomunication lays out, a company would need a distillation license if they even wanted to bottle whisky. And even if they did, what incentive would any of the Big Three have to sell you their whiskies and besides, with so many releases annually, was there ever really a need for more variety between the three?
But of course, times are a changing. With the wave after wave of new Japanese distilleries coming out, a bustling scene of many more producers and even more new whisky styles and variations, it would seem like a job for an independent bottler to go behind the distillery doors on our behalf and pick up some amazing casks or maybe rejig them back in the lab and show us what can be done with some creative mixing and matching or tweaks to the maturation of the whisky that we would otherwise have to be ready to lose an arm and a leg for, getting up at ungodly hours to fight the crowds for a bottle from some of the hottest Japanese distilleries.
For more on what is the vital role independent bottlers play in the whisky scene, check out our 3 Minute feature on them here.
Takahiko and Taadaki put the T & T in T & T Toyama. (Image Source: Maltoyama)
T & T Toyama has listed on their crowdfunder page that in particular, they'd focus on toying with the casks used to age and finish the whiskies they get their hands on, intending to use shaved ex-Bourbon casks which will then be toasted instead of the usual re-charring (which has been popular in quite a number of young distilleries who've consulted the late Dr Jim Swan who pioneered the Shaved, Toasted and Recharred (STR) method that helps young whiskies taste much more mature than their age, some of whom included Scotch's Kilchoman, UK's Bimber and Cotswold distilleries, Taiwan's Kavalan, Wales' Penderyn, and even India's Amrut). T & T Toyama will also look to differentiate the bottles that will come out from their stables by aging them in Saburomaru Distillery's hometown, Toyama, instead of the various locations these casks hail from.
The first all-Japan blend by a Japanese independent bottler. (Image Source: PR Times)
Their first ever all-Japan release will be part of a set of two bottles titled "The Last Piece", one of which will be a Japanese Edition and the other a World Edition.
"THE LAST PIECE" compares the individuality of each distillery to a piece of a puzzle, and at the moment when the puzzle becomes one painting in the last piece, a whiskey with a completely new charm in this whiskey blend. I imagine that will be born. The blending is done by Takahiko Inagaki of T & T TOYAMA, Komei Shimono and whiskey blogger, Mr Kuririn, and the label design expresses that the charm and individuality of the original sake of each distillery are combined and harmonious. Therefore, I adopted Japanese kumiko as a motif."
The Japanese Edition (Batch No. 1) will see for the first time a blend of five different Japanese single malts - Eigashima, Nagahama, Saburomaru, Sakurao, and a mystery Japanese distillery will all feature in this blend, aged at Saburomaru's Toyama Prefecture.
Batch No. 1 will run a total of 300 bottles and be bottled at 50% ABV and will go on sale 19th April, 2022.
The two prime suspects - Kanosuke Distillery (Left) and Akkeshi Distillery (Right). Who you got?
Probably a big clue in figuring out the identity of the mystery Japanese distillery is that T & T Toyama have said that is made from whiskies aged for over 3 years, which means that whichever that distillery is has had to have been producing whisky locally for some time now, given that this bottle complies with the new JSLMA regulations for whisky labelling.
This leaves two prime suspects - Kanosuke and Akkeshi distilleries, as both have been pouring out whiskies for a while now. We know that Kanosuke is a partner of T & T Toyama and Akkeshi has of course been charging ahead full steam with their 24 Solar Terms debut series.
The five casks making up The Last Piece's Japanese Blend. Mystery cask sitting pretty in the center. (Image Source: PR Times)
Judging from the above image of the five casks used (this is probably the whisky version of the Power Rangers or Avengers, depending on which generation you're from), we're inclined to think that this is probably from Akkeshi Distillery, as the casks look fairly consistent with Akkeshi's, while Kanosuke has a habit of painting their cask heads white.
This is also consistent with the bottle's official tasting notes which highlights a fruity and peaty whisky, which sounds fairly similar to some of what we've seen from Akkeshi.
Official Tasting Notes
"Fruity and smoky. The individuality of each distillery is combined like a piece of a puzzle, and while each one insists, it is united into one, and you can enjoy a complex and rich taste."
Fruity, mild peat smoke reminiscent of pineapple and citrus.
Sweetness and malt flavor of yellow fruits, complex taste with swelling.
Smoky, bittersweet, long afterglow.
This bottling will also be released in conjunction with a World Edition Batch No. 1, which will feature the same five Japanese single malts and an additional Scotch malt, also bottled at 50% ABV, with a total of 800 bottles released.
Takahiko (Right), a big fan of collaboration. (Image Source: Maltoyama)
Takahiko is not alone in this endeavour, and will be joined by co-founder Tadaaki Shimono, who owns popular local whisky retailer Maltoyama, which is precisely the inspiration for the name of their new independent bottler, the T's in T & T representing Takahiko and Tadaaki, both of whom are based in Toyama Prefecture.
Their subsequent series will feature a lovely Iris floral motif, named "Breath of Japan". The motif is beloved in Japan for it's symbolism of luck and magic, and is often stylised as a lucky charm.
"Amid the global whiskey boom, many craft distilleries have been established in Japan, and the number is still increasing. We hope that the birth of this product will not only convey the appeal of new whiskey to enthusiasts, but will also lead to new possibilities for Japanese whiskey through collaboration between distilleries."
Talking About A Revolution Sounds Like A Whisper
The young and astute Takahiko may not be making a big splash, preferring to let his work show for it, but quietly, swiftly and decisively, his last five years in the whisky world has brought on important changes that will ripple through the generations of Japanese whiskies to come. It may not be the decades that his fellow whiskymakers have had under their belt, but perhaps a fresh set of eyes are what Japan's whisky scene desperately needs.
Takahiko, the quiet face of Japan's craft whisky revolution. (Image Source: Japan Times)
It is certainly still far too early to conclude how these experiments will pan out - will Saburomaru Distillery be able to overcome its production constraints with the help of its pioneering ZEMON pot still, will collaboration between distilleries thrive as the market becomes more saturated and competitive, does the Japanese market really need a local independent bottler - these questions remain. Only time will tell if our adventurous Takahiko-san will succeed.
One thing is for sure - Japan's whiskymaking landscape is due for a shake up and it will happen. Whether or not Takahiko-san's forays are the the spark that lights the flame, it certainly has paved the way for change to happen and has provided a vital stepping stone to inspire more to follow.
Right now, all the brave Takahiko-san wants is to drink a well-aged 30 year old whisky made by his own hand on the 100th anniversary of the distillery he's come to inherit.