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Akkeshi Kanro and Usui Japanese Whisky

What you should know:

  • Akkeshi Distillery is a craft whisky distillery (or known locally as Ji-whisky) from Hokkaido, Japan, and looks to use ingredients sourced locally such as malt, peat and even Mizunara oak.
  • Its first series is called the “24 Solar Terms” which is the Japanese tradition of segmenting the four seasons into 24 parts, and is used by Akkeshi to showcase the effects of the local climate in different seasons on the whisky.
  • This plays into the increasingly in vogue theme of terroir.
  • The first two releases are Kanro and Usui, which refer to early winter “Cold Dew” and “Spring Showers”. Read below for tasting notes!
  • Akkeshi’s whiskies are moderately peaty, briny from the seawaters around Hokkaido, fruity like apples and strawberries, sweet like milk chocolates with a touch of pepper.
  • Ji-whiskies have been gaining in popularity with distilleries like Chichibu and more recently Akkeshi and Shizuoka (here).
  • We can’t wait to try some!

Hokkaido Is known for its gorgeous seasonal colours, the spring time foliage, to the plush snowcap peaks and cozy ski inns. Don’t forget the seafood! As a coastal island north off the main island of Japan, the prefecture has be thoroughly blessed with natural abundance. But did you know that it also happens to spot the perfect location for whisky to be distilled in. It has a cool humid climate, great access to fresh water and clean, crisp air, very similar to…the Scottish highlands!

 Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery was the first whisky distillery in Hokkaido. You can’t miss it, it looks like what Santa’s workshop would look like. (Image Source: MATCHA)

The first distillery to find its home in Hokkaido was none other than Nikka’s Yoichi Distillery, and for a long while the distillery had the beautiful island all to itself. However, as Japanese whisky soared in popularity, it was inevitable that it would find itself sharing some of its turf.

In comes Akkeshi Distillery, which started distilling in 2016. And if you know some quick whisky math, you’d figure that 2020 would be a momentous year for the young distillery. For whisky to be considered “legit”, it would have to meet Scotch whisky standards of 3 years of maturation. And as our math would have it, Akkeshi released its highly anticipated inaugural release Kanro in October of 2020.

Akeshi Kanro

 The Akkeshi Kanro meaning “Cold Dew”. (Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)

Kanro, which actually translates into “Cold Dew” in the early winter, is the first in a series of 24 bottles to be released by Akkeshi, titled “24 Solar Terms”. Now you might be wondering “what is this cryptic ancient term you’re using Akkeshi?”. Well Japan has a traditional way of expressing its seasons, which basically splits the longitude of the sun into 24 terms, or “solar terms”. Hence, Akkeshi’s series is an ode to the seasons experienced in Japan and will look to explore the effects of local climate, wildlife and farming on the whisky (this is linked to the idea of terroir which you can read here).

 Where the Beckies at? We need to know what the effect of Leo Sun and Sagittarius Rising has on the whisky. (Image Source: China Travel)

Back to Kanro, this single malt full-sized bottle (the distillery released 20ml bottles of its new-make in a series called Foundations) is a peated malt whisky matured in a combination of ex-bourbon, wine, mizunara and sherry wood.

The tasting notes we can expect are:

Nose: Strawberry, Orange, Apple, Cereal, Sour Lemon, Butter, Sweet Milk

Palate: White Pepper, Sweet Chocolate

The bottle comes in a 55% abv, with a total of 15,000 bottles released. If you’re keeping track, Kanro is actually the 17th Solar Term. Just some quick facts for you to flex about to your friends. 

Next up! Akkeshi has announced the upcoming release of the 2nd bottle in its Solar Terms series.

We have the Usui, 2nd solar term (LOL…as much as are into this whole whisky as an expression of its provenance movement, the solar term idea is just a tad much). So from 17th we’ve jumped to 2nd so you know they’re not ones for arithmetic order. Usui actually means “Spring Showers” and is the time when the climate becomes warmer and snow begins to melt and becomes rain.


  The Akkeshi Usui. Okay now what about Gemini Sun and Virgo Rising? (Image Source: Ultimate Spirits JP)

This one is going to be a blend, unlike the Kanro, which was a single malt, and will integrate non-Japanese grain whisky, which under the new rules (read here) would disqualify it from using the title “Japanese whisky” on its label.

It is bottled at 48% abv but we don’t know yet how many bottles will be released.

Our digging tells us we can expect tasting notes to be:

Nose: Smoky, Sweet, Butter Biscuits, Touches of Seabreeze Saltiness, Orchard Fruits (Apple, Peach, Apricot), Citrus Zest, Dark Cacao

Palate: Peaty, Sweet, Peppery, Tartness, Raspberries, Blueberries

Skiing in Hokkaido. I was too busy rolling down the side of the mountain to appreciate the mountain itself. (Image Source: Live Japan)

Our Take:

First off, Hokkaido is an amazing place, I remember spending holidays there when I was still in school. The weather was awesome, so cool and filled with plush snow that you could jump into and fall right through. In fact it was the first time I ever saw snow! The seafood is of course incredibly fresh as well. The skiing was fun even though I spent more time barreling down the slope and would not be remotely categorized as skiing by even an amateur. 

As such, I have a great affinity to the place with all these wonderful memories of first times. And I would imagine all the freshness of the place would bode well for anyone looking to produce anything on the island.

The Akkeshi Distillery almost looks like a little seaside cottage. (Image Source: Dekanta)

Akkeshi itself belongs to the revitalizing Ji-whisky movement. For those unfamiliar with term, Ji-whisky means craft whisky in Japan and was big in the 80’s where whisky was produced in small batches by hand with ingredients sourced locally as much as possible. If we look more broadly, it’s not too different from the popularity that craft beers are enjoying right now. Unfortunately, when Japan’s economy collapsed in the 90’s, it plunged the country in a deep recession that wiped out most of these small whisky producers. Perhaps the most popular Ji-whisky right now is Chichibu, but Akkeshi and peer Shizuoka are not far behind.

Akkeshi New Born Series

Akkeshi’s New Born series. (Image Source: Akkeshi)

Akkeshi, while fairly young, has been met with much fanfare. Prior to their full-sized bottlings, they released multiple batches of their new-make in the New Born Foundations series, which were very well received. Since then, they’ve also begun to move towards using more local ingredients, such as local Akkeshi malt, peat and Mizunara. This would give drinkers a true taste of the region which is obviously very exciting and plays into a greater interest in terroir.

While I can’t totally appreciate the Solar Term theme, which I feel is alittle melodramatic, I’m definitely interested in trying whisky that gives me a good representation of the local terrain. I find the idea of terroir incredibly interesting and locally sourced ingredients certainly make for a very unique whisky and therefore experience. To distill a big concept like provenance and everything unique about a place into a single bottle of local produce is simply irresistible to our human craving for something so one of a kind that cannot be replicated.

And my own melodrama aside, who can truly say I don’t like something floral like a potpourri, fruity like strawberries and apples, a wee touch of smoke, slight side of brininess, of citrus zest and dark cacao bitters. It has something for everybody.

Now only if we can get our hands on it.