Distillery Spotlight: Niseko Distillery
REGION: Niseko, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Before we begin, big shout out to Nomunication and Whisuki for their great resources on Japanese whiskies, some of their info helped make this WhiskyDex happen! Thank you! PSA: If you're into Japanese whiskies, please check them out!
The new Niseko Distillery is already open to the public, tucked away in the snowy ski slopes. (Image Source: Nomunication)
In Asia, a longtime favorite topic (especially when you’re on a lift to the 28th storey with a colleague you aren’t that close to) has always been holiday destinations. With the ungodly work ethic here, holidays are truly a utopian idea – a much needed break from the daily hustle and bustle. Everything about holiday destinations – where are you headed to this year end, where have you gone to in the past, where do you hope to be able to go to in the future; every iteration known to Man about the topic occupies daily conversations.
A crowd favorite has always been Niseko, Japan – a winter wonderland known for powdery snow and of course, skiing. Funnily, I had even recently read an article where the chief marketing officer of a popular online dating app used in Singapore had mentioned that any mention of “skiing” as a hobby on a guy’s profile would raise his odds of a match by more than 80%. It seems even having the “correct” holiday destination of choice is a determinant of one’s love life.
Located right in the heart of Asia, just 6-8 hours away from most key cities in the vicinity, it is easy to see why this little snow town is so popular. Given how difficult I’ve found skiing, I’d say it’s fun for the whole family – everyone gets their turn to fall on their tush. Over the years, Niseko has magnificently elevated itself into a destination of status, with big tourism names such as the Hilton, the Aman and Vale occupying the slopes with their luxurious inns.
With tourists coming in from all over, it would seem irresistible that a distillery, many of whom now have a dedicated visitor center which highlights the growing importance of tourism on the whisky industry, would look to tap onto that juicy natural traffic.
A peek behind the scenes. (Image Source: Niseko Distillery)
In Comes Niseko Distillery
That distillery is the Niseko Distillery, which comes from the same people behind well-known Niigata-based Sake producer Hakkaisan. The Sake brewers have located their new distillery, which will also produce gin and vodka, alongside Niseko Annupuri, one of the most popular ski areas in the region. Construction had started in 2019 and as of 2021 is now completed, with the distillery now open to the public for visits and tours.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen many Sake and Shochu brewers turn to whisky as a gateway to a broader global audience of drinkers, in hopes of tapping the massive demand for whisky and subsequently luring them into more traditional Japanese spirits. That’s certainly been the case for Kanosuke Distillery, Sakurao Distillery, Nagahama Distillery and Saburomaru Distillery just to name a few.
Look at 'em, elbows deep in rice, I'll bet they have skin as smooth as a baby's skin. (Image Source: Hakkaisan)
In this case, Hakkaisan has mentioned that the new distillery will not just retail whisky, but also gin, vodka and of course existing lines of sake, shochu and beer that they’re already producing. It looks like Hakkaisan is taking a leaf straight out of the “start with whisky and get back into sake/shochu” playbook. And it is indeed the case, as Sake sales have been shrinking over the last two decades, having fallen close to 50%. In stark contrast, whisky sales rose more than two-fold in the same period. These stats are enough to make any business reconsider their sales strategy, and diversification seems the most commonsensical option.
As popular as Hakkaisan's Sake is, you can't always be the flavor of the century. (Image Source: Hakkaisan)
For some context, Hakkaisan is famous for its Nihonshu Sake, boasting the second-highest sales figures for any Sake brewery in the Niigata region. With the brewery celebrating their 100th anniversary, it would seem like the appropriate time for some planning as to how the next century will pan out.
“I believe whisky will become a core product for our business 10 to 20 years from now,”
- Jiro Nagumo, President of Hakkaisan Brewery
Could the Taketsuru family be involved with the new distillery? (Image Source: Nippon)
Something pretty curious about this distillery in particular, which was uncovered by Nomunication, was that the trademark filed for Niseko Distillery was actually done by the grandson of Masataka Taketsuru, the man who helped build up Yamazaki Distillery and later founded Nikka Whisky. That said, Nomunication seems to have mentioned that as of yet, no formal link between the Taketsuru family and the distillery has been announced. Though, it would certainly be pretty interesting if indeed it was the case!
Let’s dig alittle more into what to expect from Niseko Distillery!
What You Should Know About Niseko Distillery
In terms of climate, while the area is synonymous with pillowy snow covered slopes, it isn’t winter all year round, it is actually fairly temperate from May till October, with temperatures at -7°C at the lower end and around 20°C on the high end. The area also experiences a good amount of rainfall throughout the year and is pretty humid as well. All this makes for a fairly good climate to distill and age whiskies, where it is able to age for much longer periods unlike most of its Asian counterparts.
A far less popular sight, Niseko is actually fairly temperate and is not always coated in snow. (Image Source: Elite Havens)
Recall that most Asian distilleries experience hot weather, large temperature swings or low humidity that causes the aging process to accelerate, disabling them from producing longer aged whiskies. Some examples that come to mind include Kavalan Distillery, Amrut Distillery, Kanosuke Distillery.
Ultimately this is potentially a boon or bane depending on how the distillery adapts to it and the profile of whiskies it is hoping to produce. That said, if you’re a malt maniac, you’ll recall that Hokkaido (the prefecture where Niseko is located in) was the location of choice for Masataka Taketsuru, who had studied whiskymaking in Scotland. And while he could not convince Suntory’s founder Shinjiro Torii to place Yamazaki Distillery there, he would eventually base his own distillery, Yoichi Distillery, in Hokkaido, which he found most similar to the climate he experienced in Scotland.
Yoichi Distillery isn't too far off from what Niseko Distillery looks like. Same white stuff all over. (Image Source: Nikka)
The new Niseko Distillery has mentioned that their first whiskies will be on the market in 2024, and they expect to age their whiskies for 3-5 years before deeming it ready for drinking. This plays well into the natural advantage they have being located in an area that is conducive for longer aging, though that said it is also now a necessity in order to comply with the new JLSMA regulations.
This is also probably possible because they’re supported by a financially well-heeled parent, Hakkaisan, which can allow the distillery to take its time to produce a solid well-aged whisky instead of having to rush to push bottles out in order to generate some revenue. Waiting some 10 years before selling any product is a tough ask of a new kid on the block fencing for himself!
When Niseko isn't covered in snow caps, all that water has got to go somewhere. This ensures the subprefecture is well furnished with clean, pure springs. (Image Source: Visit Niseko)
Climate aside, given all that ample snow, you can expect that the distillery is well-replete with soft spring water that is also high-grade in terms of purity, for whisky production, which certainly helps as well.
In terms of production numbers, the distillery has mentioned that it plans to produce some 90,000 liters of spirit per year which as Nomunication highlights, is pretty in-line with other Japanese craft whisky producers. Though that said, this amount extends to both whisky and gin, but I would imagine that perhaps at the start, gin will take precedence, but as its whiskies begin to hit maturity and can be sold, the proportion would shift in favor of higher margin whiskies.
So far, the distillery is already retailing its Ohoro Gin, which can also be purchased at the distillery’s shop.
While its whiskies are not out yet, you can already try their local specialty gin. (Image Source: Niseko Distillery)
While we’ve not been able to explore the distillery ourselves, our friends @Whisuki has, and if you’ve already read this far down, you must be pretty interested in the Niseko Distillery, in which case click here to check out their guided photo collage of their trip to the distillery.
According to @Whisuki, the distillery has also opted to go for the Rolls-Royce of pot stills, having been outfitted by Forsyths, and has begun distillation as of March 2021, using Scottish non-peated malt, with the hopes of importing peated malt for use subsequently.
The Rolls Royce of pot stills, you're gonna wanna get a Forsyth's. (Image Source: Niseko Distillery)
Washbacks used are made from Douglas Fir wood and fermentation lasts for up to 4 days. The distillery also currently operates one warehouse, where they’ve used a variety of casks, including virgin American Oak, French Oak, Sherry butts, Bourbon barrels and re-built Bourbon casks.
Thus far, only new make has been produced and those lucky enough to visit the distillery were able to try some. From @Whisuki, we’re told that the newmakes were fruity and smooth.
Douglas Fir washbacks used by the distillery. (Image Source: Niseko Distillery)
Given whisky’s soaring popularity, it seemed intuitive that at some point a distillery would place itself on a silver platter for tourists, and in Japan, Niseko stands out as one of the best candidates. After all, who wouldn’t go for a warming dram of whisky after a couple of runs on the snowy slopes?
Perhaps what interests me most is my hunch that Niseko will produce a whisky that more closely resembles Scotch than its local peers. It would seem like the climate and their “funding secured” from their well-heeled parent, make a conducive environment for that to happen. While that also means a potentially long wait, I’m certainly excited for their whiskies to show up!
Check back on this space in 2024! Kanpai!