Japanese whiskey has been dominated by two producers over the past few decades in terms of quantity and quality. Nikka and Suntory are undoubtedly the torchbearers of the category with rich portfolios of highly respected malts.
Last year, Suntory’s Yamazaki topped Drinks International’s list of the world’s most admired whiskies; and most recently at the 2022 International Spirits Challenge, the two producers won 32 of the 42 gold medals awarded to the category. However, ongoing inventory issues combined with a widespread obsession with the West provide an opportunity for more high-end or craft brands to take market share.
Kyushu is the third largest of Japan’s four main islands and is famous for its shochu culture. Shochu means “burnt alcohol” in Japanese, is largely made from sweet potatoes, rice and wheat, and is a fundamental part of life for Kyushu’s 13 million people. However, while shochu sells in large volumes domestically, its international appeal outside of expat hotspots is relatively limited, leaving several companies to look to whiskey production as a more financially sustainable alternative for the future. .
Japan exported 46 billion yen ($340 million) worth of whiskey in 2021, according to government statistics released by Nikkei Asia, which is a 70% increase from the previous year and more than four times that of 2016. And while still in the dark, shochu exports grew only 19% over the same period.
The Kanosuke distillery was founded by shochu producer Komasa Jyozo in 2017 and in 2021 launched its first single malt. The parent company dates back to 1883 and is credited with pioneering the use of oak barrels for aging Japanese drink. Current and fourth-generation president Yoshitsugu Komasa realized that whiskey would be easier to sell than shochu in international markets, which led to the formation of Kanosuke. The brand uses both peated and unpeated malted barley imported from the UK to produce its single malt and in some cases has used the family business’s old shochu casks for maturation to create more unusual expressions.
create more unusual expressions. Kanosuke’s early success attracted financial backing from Diageo’s brand accelerator arm, Distill Ventures, which has also invested in other great New World whiskeys such as Australia’s Starward and Danish brand Stauning.
Charlie Steel, Whiskey Portfolio Manager at Disstill Ventures, said: “I think what makes Japanese whiskey so exciting right now is that consumers in Japan and overseas, as they learn more, look for new, more authentic Japanese whiskeys that have terrific liquids. and inspiring stories – which leaves a tremendous opportunity for new whiskey distilleries in Japan.
“Right now the focus is on Japan, but in the near future we will start opening up some key European markets such as the UK, France and Germany, before expanding into the US. United.”
Another example of a shochu producer turning to whiskey is Shindo Distillery. It started making whiskey in Asakura City, Fukuoka Prefecture in the summer of 2021 and the facility is owned by Shinozaki, a traditional barley shochu producer founded in 1922.
Eighth-generation family member Michiaki Shinozaki told Nikkei Asia the business is diversifying “because the demand for Japanese whiskey is skyrocketing.” He adds: “The whiskey is for the overseas market and we hope to sell around 70% of our product overseas.
Meanwhile, in Kijo City, Miyazaki Prefecture, Osuzuyama Distillery started selling an unaged single malt in 2020 called Osuzu Malt New Born, which sold out online within minutes. Osuzuyama president Shinsaku Kuroki also oversees parent company Kuroki Honten, which makes a shochu called Hyakunen no Kodoku.
“I was looking for new possibilities in shochu-making technology and our local products when I started to think it would be interesting to make whisky,” Kuroki explains.
The company’s president also adds that it will start increasing sales at the end of this year, once the whiskey has aged for at least three years. “I want to reach not only the domestic market, but also the world,” he says.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
As Kuroki suggests, it helps to follow Japanese whiskey regulations when entering overseas markets. Last year, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association announced a new set of bottling rules for Japanese whiskey that are similar to those for Scotch, albeit in a different location.
Although some Japanese distilleries have used indigenous ingredients such as koji to make their own whiskey for generations, the new regulations do not mention these traditional practices.
The general consensus is that the association seeks export consistency to bring clarity, confidence and assurance of quality to consumers around the world, thereby growing Japanese whiskey as a whole.
affect big players like Nikka and Suntory – or brands like Kanosuke following the new regulations – there are other products left in a potentially precarious position.
Shochu has been part of Kyushu culture for hundreds of years, dating back to the 16th century. Many local distilleries are steeped in tradition – their production methods remain unchanged – and, according to Kyushu Spirits, which produces a range of Japanese koji-based whiskeys, “every batch is as extraordinary as the people who distill them”.
Kyushu Spirits’ partner distilleries produce whiskeys and spirits by combining traditional Japanese fermentation techniques and Western aging methods to create what it calls a “new spirit of Japan.”
The company states: “A whiskey is only as good as the ingredients that go into it. This is why only locally sourced cereals such as barley, buckwheat and rice from Kyushu are used. Combined with wood aging and the same koji fermentation process pioneered by their ancestors before them, the resulting whiskeys are truly unique in terms of balance and flavor.
It looks like if Japanese whiskey continues to gain popularity overseas, the category is about to split. As Kanosuke’s Steel says, demand for new premium brands is growing rapidly in exports, especially in thirsty markets with a mature understanding of the category.
Therefore, in addition to some brand-new distilleries, some of Japan’s oldest shochu producers have stepped up to try and take advantage of this gap in the market, and in the long run, this may even bring fame to the ancient Japanese drink. abroad.
However, while international sales might be an open goal for these new brands coming to market, others using more traditional methods are unable to market themselves as Japanese whiskey outside of Japan and could therefore find themselves competing with shochu at the national level, alienated from its own category. .