Distillery Spotlight: Nagahama Distillery
Region: Shiga 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.
Few would associate spirits with romance, I mean do I like spirits? Sure, I certainly enjoy it enough to write obsessively about it. But would I go as far as to tie my feelings towards alcoholic beverages with romance? Now that’s a much harder ask.
Thankfully, I don’t have to. But I certainly know a distillery that does. In fact, for what they lack in size, they sure make up for it in exceptionally strong feelings towards alcoholic spirits. Let me introduce you to the Nagahama Distillery, the whiskymaking portion of the Nagahama Roman Beer Company.
The little distillery/brewery with a big heart. (Image Source: Nagahama Roman)
Offhand, you might be fooled to think “Roman” refers to the Roman Empire, y’know the people who created the first somewhat democratic republic of the world. Pioneered a new electric vehicle? Step aside, these guys invented democracy; heard of it? Or maybe you know them better as the guys in brass armor with a broom on their helmets. In any case, the “Roman” here doesn’t refer to any of that.
It’s actually short for “Romantic”. Which really tells you all you need to know about how much they enjoy producing alcoholic beverages.
They also happen to be the smallest whisky distillery in Japan, at a grand size of 26 square meters – the size of about two parking lots side by side. That said, its certainly done little to slow them down.
First and foremost a gastropub, Nagahama has retrofitted their cottage to house whiskymaking equipment. (Image Source: Japan Travel by NAVITIME)
Let’s take a deeper look at the tiny distillery that’s got a whole lot of heart.
Make Love, Not War
The town of Nagahama today looks like an idyllic, peaceful tourist town; sun shining, with a really well preserved traditional old-style Japanese architectural façade. The town has long been an attraction for tourists, and even locals, as it sits alongside Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, a scenic sight to behold. Yet, as you gaze across the town of Nagahama, one piece of architecture stands out – a white castle with blue roof tiles that emerges from the otherwise fairly level landscape. That’s Nagahama Castle.
A standout in the historical city, the Nagahama Castle rises above from the idyllic town. (Image Source: Wikipedia)
Now castles are no biggie in Japan. There’s more than a handful. But Nagahama Castle is just alittle more special. It was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a revered and legendary samurai feudal lord, the successor to Oda Nobunaga – Japan’s most renowned samurai, the man who unified Japan, allowing it to be the country that it is today. He was apparently so fearsome in battle, that he was given the nickname “Demon King”.
The face of the "Demon King", Oda Nobunaga. He doesn't look too scary does he? (Image Source: Wikipedia)
It was from these precise coordinates that the future of Japan was determined; a small little town that played a big role. In some ways, Nagahama Roman Brewery and Distillery shares that same energy, but we’ll get to that in abit.
Now fast forward some 400 years, Japan’s united, Nagahama is now a tourist town known for its traditional festivities, temples, and food. In 1994, a big change occurred – the Japanese government had loosened the rules on beer production. Up until then, the government had wanted to protect the domestic beer market, yet it did so by imposing prohibitive tax laws on beer companies, requiring them to produce huge minimum quantities of annual output. This basically made it impossible for smaller breweries to enter the market. When the restrictive rules were eased in 1994, and breweries wasted no time in getting back into the game, one of which was the Nagahama Roman Brewery.
Nagahama's Roman Beer were a big hit in no small part due to their use of Citra hops that were big in fruity flavors. (Image Source: Nagahama Roman)
Founded in 1996, Nagahama Brewery had aimed to make more western-styled beer, amping up the full flavors of the beer by using Citra hops. For those less imbibed with craft beers, Citra hops is a big thing in the craft beer scene because of its fruity citrus profile which remains fairly unique amongst available hops varietals. Some might even credit Citra hops with the resurgence in popularity of craft beers as it made beers more light, aromatic and overall accessible to consumers who otherwise may not be into heavier beers.
Nagahama's Roman Beer fueled their lively gastropub. (Image Source: Nagahama Roman)
Well Nagahama Brewery was all in on the fruity Citra hops, using it for their flagship IPA beer, as such the brewery rode the wave of craft beer resurgence – Roman beer was a hit! It grew in popularity and contributed to the vibrant gastro-tourism scene of Nagahama town.
The gorgeous Lake Biwa is Japan's largest freshwater lake, where Nagahama town sits on the side of. (Image Source: Tokyo Weekender)
Good beer, old school architecture, gorgeous lake – what’s not to like! How things change when you just give it 400 years.
Great at beer, why not great at whisky too?
A 2016 trip to Scotland by the Nagahama Brewery team would see them visit Eden Mill distillery – a single site brewery and distillery, it struck a chord with the team from Nagahama. A visit to one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Strathearn, also helped cement the team’s confidence that they could operate a whisky distillery as well.
Eden Mill's single site brewery/distillery operations struck confidence with the Nagahama team, who believed they could pull off something similar. (Image Source: Alexander PM)
Combining the influence of Eden Mill’s operations as a single site brewery and distillery (considering that up until the fermentation phase, the process for making beers and whiskies are mostly similar), and Strathearn’s unconventional use of tiny Hoga pot stills, fitted with alembic heads typically used for making other types of spirits such as Calvados or Cognac, the Nagahama team took just seven months to get their whisky production up.
The first order of business was to get the necessary pot stills ordered. Rather than wait four years for a still from Forsyths (the gold standard of distillation pot stills), Nagahama went with the same stills used by both Strathearn and Eden Mill – the Hoga stills from Portugal. These were designed to be fitted with a larger head for better reflux and a clean spirit, it is also cheaper and can be delivered in months.
Nagahama's choice to go with the Hoga alembic pot stills may prove to be the biggest determinant of their whisky's taste profile. (Image Source: Nagahama)
To be precise, a single distillation run results in about 100 litres or new make at roughly 68% ABV, which is then watered to 59% ABV before being filled into ex-Bourbon barrels.
Once the stills arrived, it was fitted into a small room behind the bar counter, separated by a glass wall that allows visitors to the restaurant to check out the whiskymaking process. Mashing and fermentation is done with the same equipment used for beermaking (located on the second floor), after which a hose transports the wash into the stills on the first floor for distillation.
The size of less than two side-by-side parking lots, Nagahama has creatively found a way to fit a whisky distillery into their existing brewery operations. (Image Source: Guru Navi)
By the November of 2016, it was ready. When Nagahama Distillery had announced to the public their new whiskymaking capabilities, it had certainly caught the public by surprise, as up till that point, there was no mention of the exciting endeavor. The first distillation subsequently took place mid of November 2016.
To prepare for their whiskymaking ambitions, the team at Nagahama Distillery, helmed by Takashi Kiyoi, the man who had first conceived the idea of travelling to Scotland to visit Eden Mill and Strathearn distilleries, first started off by sharpening their blending techniques, while they waited for their whiskies to be ready. The result of which is a series of blended whiskies (some of which are world blends) named Amahagan (“Nagahama” spelt backwards).
Why wait? Let's just flip Nagahama around and there we have Amahagan. (Image Source: Nagahama)
“Aiming to make whiskey that will be appreciated 100 years from now.
Japan's smallest Nagahama Distillery in the northern part of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture has a craft beer brewery and a restaurant, and the unique shape of the pot stills installed makes you feel the very origin of whiskey making.
Please visit Nagahama, which is full of historical atmosphere, and enjoy the live feeling of Nagahama Craft Whiskey and Nagahama Distillery. All the staff are looking forward to your visit.”
- Nagahama Distillery Manufacturing Headquarters / Master Blender Takashi Kiyoi
Move Fast, Break Things
Since it started distillation in 2016, the distillery has been on a tear, releasing close to 20 single malts matured in more than 10 different types of casks (including even an Islay quarter casks), even mixing different mash bills including the use of rye for some releases, all while bagging awards with their Amahagan world blends.
Nagahama Distillery will even let you age your own new make. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
Consider that with such small stills, each round of production is really quite little – in fact, a single fermentation yields a one batch of distillation that yields only one cask, which is then bottled at cask strength as a single cask release. Yet that’s done little to slow down the distillery. The distillery is so excited in fact, that they’ve used their retail channel, Liquor Mountain, a popular and commonplace bottle store across Japan, to distribute mini-casks made of American Oak, and is even charred, to fans who can age the whiskies themselves and try it in a matter of weeks.
It’s worth noting that the distillery is even attempting to produce both styles of peated and non-peated whiskies throughout the year to add to their repertoire. The distillery currently uses imported barley, non-peated from Germany and medium-peated from UK. They’ve also mixed the two for some mashes to create a lightly-peated style.
The first whisky stock swap in Japan, between Nagahama and Saburomaru distilleries. (Image Source: Nagahama)
Another way the distillery has sought to do to expand the styles of whiskies they can produce has been through an innovative practice known as “stock swapping” – ie. swapping whiskies produced with another distillery. While this practice is sometimes done in Scotland, it certainly hasn’t been done in Japan (or at least on any scale). Which makes it worth noting that Nagahama Distillery did the first-ever stock swap with Saburomaru Distillery, which resulted in a line of whiskies called Inazuma for the little Nagahama. This looks to be something Nagahama plans on doing regularly as they’ve now released the fruits of their second stock swap partnership, this time with Eigashima Distillery (or better known as White Oak Distillery, with their flagship Akashi whisky).
The Inazuma blends always feature a cut-out in the label of Lake Biwa as homage to Nagahama Town and a bird of their partner's home prefecture, in this case the Bulbul bird native to Saburomaru Distillery's Toyama City. (Image Source: Nagahama)
Insofar as Nagahama’s production capacity remains small, the pioneering of stock swapping in Japan seems to be a great idea for giving the distillery much more in terms of breadth of styles and also potentially much needed grain whiskies for making blended whiskies. It certainly demonstrates the distillery’s creativity and willingness to try new things, all to feed their insatiable appetite to figure out how to make great whiskies – so great, they’ll still be appreciated a 100 years from now.
In Silicon Valley, an often thrown around saying goes “move fast, break things”, used as a credo almost as to how the fastest way to grow is to worry less about making mistakes and instead to focus one’s attention on doing as much as one possibly can. The logic being that the only way to learn is to do, and do a lot Nagahama has.
The two-floor operations of Nagahama Roman's single site brewery/distillery. (Image Source: Nagahama)
What Does It Taste Like? One Word: FlavorTown
With a whole spectrum of peated/non-peated whiskies matured in a variety of casks and some even sporting different mash bills, it’s nothing less than of a challenge to pinpoint what Nagahama’s defining characteristics are.
Make no mistake, the most crucial factor to determining Nagahama’s spirit is most certainly the alembic Hoga stills used, which is designed to improve reflux and create much richer and deeper flavors. The use of mineral-rich glacier waters from Mount Ibuki should also play some role in creating a smoother, cleaner spirit.
The bulb-shaped alembic pot stills were designed for Calvados and Cognac, and for certain will weigh heaviest on the profile of Nagahama's whiskies. (Image Source: Nagahama)
Other early reviews have also pointed out that Nagahama’s whiskies have an exceptionally long finish, with notes of fruit, honey, chocolate, and baking spices. Other secondary notes includes a light smokiness and oaky notes. The texture has also been a stand out in its buttery maltiness and velvety texture.
Once again, we see that Nagahama has gone for a much more amped up intensity in terms of flavors, similar to the way they’ve approached their popular craft beers. In fact, in one of their bottles, specifically the Mizunara Cask Batch #0002 Single Malt, the distillery/brewery even described the whisky’s nose as “Latin passion”. Truly putting the romance into Roman.
Nagahama's single malts span an extensive spectrum, which is unbelievable considering how small the distillery is. (Image Source: Nagahama)
For a small distillery/brewery, they’re certainly big on passion. The team, led by Takashi Kiyoi, has placed a heavy emphasis on doing in order to learn, rather than waiting for the stars to align and to have it all theorised to a T.
The man behind it all, Takashi Kiyoi. (Image Source: Nagahama)
This has led the small distillery to produce an effectively large spectrum of output – from their Amahagan world blends, to a variety of single cask single malts and even several bottlings from their local stock swaps. Like I said, they’re really a passionate bunch. And if for one second you might think it was a matter of quantity rather than quality, you’d be fooled – their releases have garnered high praise and have quickly gone on to bag several industry awards.
The small team with a big heart has certainly not gone unnoticed! (Image Source: Nagahama)
The distillery’s preference to go big on flavors have largely been well-received even if their youthfulness does show from time to time. It would certainly be interesting to see where the years will take them, both in terms of the distillery as well as their whiskies in terms of age. But for now, fans have certainly fallen head over heels for the little distillery and their single malts (which to be fair, have been small in terms of outturns), which have become fairly difficult to get hands on.
That said, do try the Amahagan world blends which are really good tasting in their own right (I’ve had a couple and have found them great, particularly the Mizunara and Webinar Editions) and have remained fairly accessible in terms of price and the ability to pick one up. As for the results of their stock swaps, they have faced a similar fate to their single malts – gone in a matter of seconds, so if you do spot one, you’re probably better off picking it up.
One can hope for the day these little gems become more readily accessible. (Image Source: Nagahama)
Having tried several other whiskies made using alembic stills, I can attest that they are certainly big on flavor, smooth and velvety as butter, and sport long finishes. I’ve enjoyed them, safe to say. I’ll only hope that as time progresses, their single malts become more accessible and I too can fall in love with them.