A new distillery has been launched in the city of Komoro, Nagano Prefecture. That is where a world-renowned master blender is going to "bring a breath of fresh air into Japanese whisky." It is the Komoro Distillery, a Tokyo-based Karuizawa Distillers Inc division, producing the new brand, Komoro Whisky.
Distilling at the new facility has just begun. Meanwhile, Japanese whisky's recognition has been rising worldwide. What flavors will it develop in five or ten years of maturation in the cask? Many whisky lovers are anxiously waiting.
100 Years of Japanese Whisky
"I'm most delighted that we launched in the memorable 100th anniversary of Japanese whisky-making," said Koji Shimaoka, the distiller's CEO. In comments at a ceremony on June 18, Shimaoka compared the completion of the distillery to "launching into the next 100 years."
Traditional whisky brands like Scotch and English whiskies have long dominated the world's whisky scene. But since around 1980, when small distilleries began distilling the spirits in many parts of Europe, whisky has gradually evolved. Enjoying each brand's individuality and distinctive features has become a matter of celebration in taste, just like craft beer and wine.
Against such a background, Kavalan Distillery of Taiwan won a series of international awards in the 2010s for its single malt whisky. It was produced with a unique aging method compatible with the subtropical climate, opening new ground, called Asian whisky.
When the Komoro Distillery plan was launched three years ago, the world's whisky industry was stirred by one announcement: Ian Chang was coming on board as its master blender and vice president. Chang had long served as Kavalan Distillery's global ambassador and master blender. He was credited with boosting the Taiwan company into a world-class award-winning distillery. That was under the tutelage of the late Dr Jim Swan, the legendary whisky consultant for small-scale distilleries.
Rising Local Expectations
The Spirits Business, the London-based leading trade magazine, named Komoro as one of three brands to watch in 2022, the year the distillery was initially set to be completed. Furthermore, the Komoto Distillery was chosen as the venue for the World Whisky Forum scheduled for February 2024. It will be the first Asian site to host the gathering of renowned distillers from all over the world.
Nagano Governor Shuichi Abe spoke of the strong expectations for Komoro Whisky at the distillery's opening ceremony in June. It will give Nagano a strong advantage as he promotes the prefecture's sake, wine, and other products to the world, he said. In 2022, the prefecture certified the distillery for investment support.
Guests at the ceremony were served clear and colorless "new make"– just distilled, immature malt. Chang described its flavors as banana, pineapple, and green apple. Of course, it was just the first sampling and not the final product. Various-flavored malts are planned over the coming years.
Traditional Whisky-Making Method
Kavalan Distillery is in Taiwan's temperate region and its single malt whisky's flavor is called tropical. However, the climate in Komoro is cool and similar to that of Speyside, Scotland, the home of great Scotch distilleries. Therefore, according to Chang, Komoro whisky will be aged by the traditional, orthodox method of whisky-making.
At the same time, he points out that different microorganisms affect whisky-making at Komoro and Speyside. At Komoro, he wants to use Japanese trees like cherry, mizunara (Japanese oak), and chestnut for the casks used to mature the malt. Then, as he describes, "let the cold wind blowing down from Mount Asama slowly condense into the alcohol."
In that case, what distinctive features will Komoro Whisky have?, I asked. "I don't know either," Chang said. But his eyes were beaming with expectations for what will come after many years of maturation.
That is the very essence of single malts. The climate of the place where the distillery stands produces its distinctive features.
Future of the Karuizawa Brand
Speaking of Nagano whisky, the now extremely rare "Karuizawa" brand is gathering just as much attention. Karuizawa Whisky was produced at Mercian Karuizawa Whisky Distillery from 1955 until the distillery's closure in 2000. It was in Miyota, in the western part of Karuizawa, at the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano. And only eight kilometers from the Komoro Distillery.
Soon after its production was discontinued, Karuizawa whisky became one of the most sought-after and expensive whiskies. A bottle of 15-year-old Karuizawa malt fetches more than ￥100,000 JPY ($707 USD) on C2C websites, including Internet auction sites.
Expectations for the Karuizawa brand's revival have been rising so high that the Komoro Distillery's parent company calls itself Karuizawa Distilleries. In addition, another producer launched a whisky-making distillery within the town of Karuizawa in 2022 to revive the brand name Karuizawa Whisky.
Win-Win for Karuizawa
The proliferation of the Karuizawa brand was slowed temporarily when the then-Karuizawa mayor tried to apply strict rules to the use of the brand name. Businesses outside of Karuizawa town were asked to refrain from using Karuizawa for their company and product names. He aimed to avoid confusion among consumers because of the flood of company names and commercial goods under the Karuizawa brand.
However, the new town mayor has different, more flexible approaches to promoting his town. Michio Tsuchiya was elected mayor of Karuizawa in January 2023. In remarks at the distillery's opening, he promoted relaxing the commercial use of "Karuizawa power" ー promoting the resort town through name recognition.
About 17 years ago, Tsuchiya, began splitting his time between Karuizawa and Kawasaki. He used to take visitors to Mercian Karuizawa before the distillery was closed. And he was proud of having places to visit in and around Karuizawa, whether or not they were strictly within the town limits. He added that many more attractions are necessary to develop Karuizawa, where many of the summer house owners stay for extended periods.
Will the whisky produced at the Komoro Distillery be called Karuizawa? When asked, CEO Shimaoka said the parent company plans to keep Komoro as the brand name. That is partly because Komoro Whisky is already being marketed globally.
The distillery is open to visitors and sightseeing. Guided tours and tastings are available by reservation.
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(Read the report in Japanese.)
Author: Shigeki Harada, The Sankei Shimbun