《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》

The producers of distinctive alcoholic beverages help to support the stagnating Hokkaido economy during the Coronavirus pandemic and perhaps possess the presence to refresh the region. In this ‘New styles of delicious alcohol from the north’ series, we explore the strengths and unique techniques of Hokkaido-produced alcohol, and its links with food.

July 2

Special feature

《New styles of delicious alcohol from the north》 Part 1 : Aiming for worldwide recognition 3 - The increasing value of ‘Hokkaido distillation’

“This summer too, we will carry out whisky ageing experiments here,” said Toita Keiichi (54), CEO of the whisky producer Kenten Co., Ltd. (Tokyo), in the city of Furano in mid-April.

■Furano is a candidate

There is ‘malt’ whisky, made from just barley, and ‘grain’ whisky made from grain such as corn and the like. In November 2016, Kenten began operating the Akkeshi Distillery in the town of Akkeshi in the Kushiro subprefecture, as a malt whisky production base, but it has no grain whisky production base.

However, even though the cultivation of grain is difficult in Akkeshi’s cool climate, six grain whiskies that went on sale throughout Japan in the past, sold out within the day and urgent, increased production was required. As a result, considerations are now being made to invest hundreds of millions of yen in the building of a new factory and expansion of business, with Furano – a region that produces both barley and corn – as a candidate.

■Rapid increase in sales to China

According to the National Tax Agency, Japan’s whisky export value has increased for 15 consecutive years since 2006. In 2020, in addition to conventional export destinations like the US and France, sales to China also saw a rapid increase to 27.1 billion yen, almost 40% more than the preceding year. This was the first time that whisky had topped the list of alcohol exports from Japan, since 1998.

Small-scale craft distilleries like Akkeshi are known for their attention to quality. Among them, the Chichibu Distillery (Chichibu City, Saitama prefecture) that produces ‘Ichiro’s Malt’ creates its original flavor by using barrels made from the wood of Hokkaido mizunara (Mongolian oak grown in Hokkaido). The whisky recently attracted attention when a case of 54 bottles sold for approximately 100 million yen at an auction in Hong Kong.

In late March, Hakkaisan Brewery Co. Ltd. (Minamiuonuma City, Niigata prefecture), known for its ‘Hakkaisan’ Japanese sake, began operating a malt craft distillery in the town of Niseko in the Shiribeshi subprefecture, which has grown into a global resort. Hakkaisan is exported to the United States and Singapore and, with whisky too, its strategy is to spread information overseas by means of overseas tourists in Niseko. “We want to dispatch to the world a high-quality product that matches the Hokkaido and Niseko brand,” emphasizes Company CEO Nagumo Jiro (62).

Domestically produced whisky is listed, along with Scotch, Irish and the like, as one of the world’s top 5 whiskies. With the aim of improving product quality, from April, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association (Tokyo) will establish a new standard that only allows products to display the term ‘Japanese whisky’ (JW) if the unblended whisky has been distilled and aged domestically.

‘JW’ would not apply to the ‘blended’ whisky previously sold by Kenten Jitsugyo, which was made from a blend of Akkeshi-produced malt whisky and UK-produced grain whisky. If the grain were to be produced in Furano, all of the products would become ‘JW’, distinguishing them from major brand products, many of which use imported grain whisky. CEO Toita envisages the company’s sales strategy by saying “We want to produce the world’s best product quality with Hokkaido-produced malt and grain whisky, and repay our debt of gratitude to Hokkaido.”

The Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery’s pot still that burns coal to distill the whisky, which is rare throughout the world. Mid-March, Yoichi

■Shortage of unblended whisky continues

As activities of companies in Hokkaido accelerate, the original Hokkaido whisky and leading manufacturer Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery (Yoichi Town, Shiribeshi subprefecture)decided to construct a new aging facility for the first time in 32 years. In addition to the popularity of the highball, the success of NHK’s TV drama ‘Massan’ in 2014-’15 meant that the shortage of unblended whisky continues, as does the full-capacity operation of its distillery.

Together with Suntory, Nikka is a regular recipient of the top prize at international contests in the UK. CEO Kishimoto Taketoshi (61) is confident that “the quality of Japan’s whisky is overwhelmingly superior to Scottish whisky.”

Hokkaido is a barley-producing region blessed with an environment ideal for ageing unblended whisky, and there are new movements regarding the production of whisky. Overcoming weaknesses, such as the costs incurred by being far from an area of mass consumption, and building-up internationally recognized alcohol quality will be the key to the success of the craft distilleries.

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