The below list and map represent the most complete list of active Japanese distilleries, while a number of other distilleries have historically been active there are only 9 distilleries presently in operation including Suntory’s grain distillery.
The Yamazaki Distillery was founded in 1923 by Kotobukiya (now Suntory) under the ownership of Shinjiro Torii and the expertise of Masataka Taketsuru in Shimamoto, Osaka Prefecture. Shinjiro Torii’s conviction that “Good water produces good malts, and a good maturation completely depends on a good natural environment.” led to the distillery being built outside of Kyoto due to the access to soft water, high humidity and a diverse climate.
Although not actually the first distillery founded in Japan, distillation being reported as early as 1870, the Yamizake valley distillery was the first active commercial distillery in Japan and remains the countries longest functioning distillery. Most famously Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was awarded the title of World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s 2015 whisky bible.
The Hakushu Distillery was founded in 1973 by Suntory in Japan’s Southern Alps, despite being nicknamed “the forest distillery” at 700 meters above sea level Hakushu is among the highest single malt distilleries in the world (in contrast the Dalwhinnie distillery in Scotland the coldest place in the UK is only 324 meters above sea level.
Originally conceived during an upsurge in demand for whisky during the so called “salaryman boom” the distillery was at the time the largest distillery in the world, unfortunately the original distillery, now known as Hakushu west is no longer active, production was moved to the new larger Hakushu east location in 1981. As Hakushu east has a production capacity of 3 million litres a year the twenty-four stills now standing in Hakushu west are unlikely to be needed for some time.
The Yoichi Distillery was founded in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru after he parted ways with Shinjiro Torii on the island of Hokkaido. Originally founded as Dai Nippon Kaju K.K. or the Great Japan Fruit Juice Company the distillery produced apple juice and cider while the distilled spirits matured. Six years later the first whisky distilled was introduced as Nikka Whisky from which the company would later (in 1952) take its new name.
The survival of both Nikka and Suntory whisky brands was in large part due to the demand from the Japanese military, which resulted in the former being temporarily designated a Naval installation tasked to produce cheap whisky rations. Despite ongoing demand, and insistence from the companies investors the Yoichi distillery under the efforts of Masataka Taketsuru continued to craft “Scottish style” whisky, and managed to remain profitable enough for Nikka to establish a second distillery in 1969 on the main island of Honshu.
Founded in 1969 after some three years of searching the Miyagikyo Distillery is a stark contrast to the coastal Yoichi distillery being surrounded by the rolling hills and forests of the Miyagi region. Originally know as the Sendai distillery it now takes its name from the Miyagi Valley where the Nikkawa and Sendai rivers meet.
Having been expanded twice the distillery has more than twice the production capacity of the first Nikka distillery, featuring four pot stills and most interestingly two Coffey stills made by Blairs Limited of Glasgow moved from the Nikka Nishinomiya bottling plant. These early Coffey stills are a form of the continuous distillation stills used for grain distillation for Nikka malts.
Fuji Gotemba Distillery
The Fuji Gotemba Distillery, built 620 meters above sea level at the foot of mount Fuji in 1972 by Kirin. Its elevation ensures that the distillery’s temperatures range only a few degrees higher than the Scottish distilleries keeping both aging rate and alcohol loss within normal levels.
The distillery produces one single malt whisky released under two labels, the 18 year old Fuji Gotemba expression and the 24 & 18 year old blend (which carries the age statement of the youngest cask) called Fujisanrokuor “At the feet of Fuji”, along with three grain whiskies.
The Chichibu Distillery founded in 2004 by Ichiro’s Malt is Japans newest distillery and the first to be founded in 31 years. Production began in 2008 under the watchful eye of Ichiro Akuto the distillery owner, manager and Master Distiller who is also the grandson of the founder of the now-closed Hanyu distillery.
The current annual production of 60 000 liters is distilled in a pair of small 2,000 litre capacity copper pot stills, manufactured by Forsyths of Elgin, Scotland. While the majority of distilleries seperate peated and non-peated production the Chichibu distillery produces one months worth of malt peated to 50 ppm each year just before the distillery’s annual maintenance.
White Oak Distillery
The White Oak Distillery, sometimes known as the Eigashima distillery, located in Akashi City, Hyogo Prefecture, is primarily a sake and shochu producer but it is technically Japans oldest whisky distillery. I say technically because despite being founded in 1919 whisky production has been limited and only became regular in 1984 and the sites stills are presently used for whisky production only 2 months a year.
The domestic distillery output, which amounts for approximately 70% of the market, in many instances does not meet international whisky standards as these are made using molasses. Export varieties although inline with international standards have seen only slow uptake though the brand is beginning to penetrate European and American markets.
The Shinshu (or Mars Shinshu) Distillery founded in 1985 by Hombo Shuzo Co. Ltd is companies third distillery the previous two Yamanashi Distillery (1960-1969) and Mars Kagoshima Distillery (1978-1984) both having ceased operations. The current Mars Shinshu Distillery temporarily ceased operation between 1992 and 2011 but has resumed production with its first 3 year old being released as the The Revival 2011
The Chita Distillery grain distillery owned by Suntory operates from within the Port Nagoya Sun Grain complex and its individual offerings are rarely available outwith the Japanese domestic market though found within Suntory blends such as the Hibiki. Very little information about this distillery is presently available.
Information on a number of closed whisky distilleries can be found on WhiskyMag.jp