With demand for Japanese whiskey skyrocketing around the world, Japanese whiskey makers have had difficulty ramping up supply. I recently visited Yamaga Distillery, located in northern Kumamoto Prefecture, to see how this newcomer is preparing to join the ranks of Japan’s famed whiskey industry.
Whiskey-Making in Kyushu
While the heavy hitters like Suntory and Kirin have been experimenting with new blends and lower/no age statements to help meet demand, the past couple years have seen a number of new microdistilleries opening around the country. One such distillery I’ve had on my radar is Kanosuke Distillery in Kagoshima Prefecture. Kanosuke is a completely new facility that went into production in 2018 and is built at a beautiful location along the Fukiagehama Shore in western Kagoshima. I did the translation for the tour info panels inside the distillery and visited shortly after it opened, when which I scored a bottle of their new pot unaged whiskey. I later got a bottle of their first new born release, and was lucky to receive a bottle of their second edition official release. All of their releases have been impressive so far and I am looking forward to future releases.
The warm climate of Kyushu makes whiskey distillers here able to age whiskey faster than in northern regions, making a quicker return on investment possible. Recent praise for young whiskeys produced in the warm climates of Taiwan and India has proven that quality whiskey is possible without the need to wait a decade or more to get product on the market.
Mars/Honbo Shuzo is probably Kyushu’s most well-known native whiskey distiller. The company is a shochu distiller first, but in recent years has been putting more effort into its whiskey production and has created some really good stuff. Including Honbo Shuzo, Kyushu has a total of 8 whiskey distilleries as of September 2022.
Kyushu is also home to Ariake Sangyo Cooperage, Japan’s only independent cooperage (barrel-maker). Ariake is keeping busy thanks to demand from whiskey, wine, and craft beer producers growing. Some of the distilleries in Kyushu may already be sourcing their barrels from Ariake.
A year or so ago, a fellow whiskey fan told me about a new distillery opening in Yamaga in the northern part of the prefecture, and while further information was scarce, I was excited for Kumamoto’s first whiskey distiller to begin operations.
As luck would have it, I was asked to do an interpreting job in downtown Yamaga in September 2022 and stopped by the brand new Yamaga Distillery beforehand. The distillery was completed in late 2021 and opened for business at the end of March 2022.
Inside the Distillery
Although guided tours are available with a reservation, I had a strict limit on my time so I was only able to check out the gift shop and observation walkway.
The walkway has windows overlooking each of the main processes in whiskey-making, with explanatory panels in Japanese and English. Visitors can see where the malted grain gets milled, the mashing area, and the two large stills (one straight, one with a boil ball/bulge). Barrels are stored in a separate building.
Merch & Goods
The distillery is fairly compact and it took me only a few minutes to see everything before heading down to the gift shop. As with any new distillery, they don’t yet have aged product, so the only whiskey available was their third new pot, an unpeated release, that had dropped just a few days prior.
The distillery also collaborates with a few local business and offers specialty coffee, ceramics, and authentic Yamaga Distillery glencairns for purchase.
Yamaga Distillery’s first official releases are scheduled for 2025 and, while they aren’t planning any early new born releases, according to the gift shop lady, they aren’t out of the question.
I’ve only tasted a few new pot whiskeys before and the Yamaga new pot is probably my favorite (“least undrinkable” is maybe a more accurate way to put it, as new pots are very rough before time the barrel). It has a very noticeable yeasty, almost shochu-like aroma to it, but not as banana estery as the new pot I tasted at Mars’ Tsunuki Distillery. The mouthfeel was silky smooth and was easier to drink than its 60% alcohol belied. The other new pots I have tasted were peated and, without the barrel to mellow out some of the smokiness, they can feel excessively hot and dominated by smoke.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to future releases from Yamaga and would really like to do a whiskey tour around Kyushu. Kyushu has a very strong culture of distilling and I’m really excited to see if any techniques for making shochu might influence the whiskey made here.
Address: 980-1 Kaomachi Aizato, Yamaga, Kumamoto, Japan 861-0565
Hours: 10AM-4PM (schedule is irregular, check website for details)