Think Japanese whisky and big names like Hibiki, Nikka and Yamazaki come to mind.
Whiskies from Japan are enjoying its time in the sun right now, thanks in no small part to the country’s reputation for quality craftsmanship – a key consideration for connoisseurs. And while the aforementioned major players have been doing a fine job upholding that mantle, little is being heard from the smaller producers. Especially not in the realm of whisky.
[Read more: Japanese whisky finally gets labelling guidelines]
It’s heartening to see then, that a small, independent outfit the likes of which we’ve never seen before enter the fray. From the unlikely southern region of Japan in Kyushu (most of Japan’s famed distilleries are found in the central and northern parts) emerges the aptly named Kyushu Spirits.
Though new, this new contender is determined to challenge the status quo with innovative products that are at once groundbreaking, yet firmly grounded deeply in provenance and tradition.
From Japan to Singapore
Kyushu Spirits is founded by Vikramm Chand. Born and raised in Japan, but having lived in Singapore for almost 30 years, he has decided to debut his first product, a koji whisky called Asakura Premium, first in the Lion City.
He thinks it’s the ideal place to debut such a unique, small batch whisky. “You have a lot of drinkers here who are happy to experiment,” Chand remarks.
Rather than launching first in Japan, he has decided to go this roundabout way to better position and market itself. “Singapore has put itself on the global map as a qualitative rather than quantitative country. So anything coming out of Singapore has that sort of merit.”
He adds: “As a craft producer, we don’t produce in quantity. So in limited amounts we hope to build up the brand. The idea is to have the boomerang effect. We first introduce the product to the world, they appreciate it, then hopefully it’ll eventually go back to Japan and they will appreciate it too.”
Meeting of old and new
The Asakura Premium is unique in many ways, being made very unlike how other Japanese distillers have done. While most take cue from Scottish distilling practices (which is perfectly fine in its own way), none have gone the extent Kyushu Spirits has done to make their products a truly Japanese whisky.
The most striking difference has got to be the use of koji. Instead of importing malted barley from Scotland, Asakura is made using 100% unmalted Japanese barley. Saccharification (the process of creating starch from grains) is then achieved by using koji rather than malting. It’s the same method used by sake brewers to create starch from rice.
The idea, according to Chand, was to aid the small, family-owned sake breweries in Kyushu, all while making good use of what they uniquely have: their own koji strains. This also has the benefit of giving an added layer of complexity to the whiskies.
“Kyushu Spirits was set up to help many of the family sake breweries in that region that were going bankrupt,” he says. “They have all the ingredients and equipment, but not much initiative in trying to create new products. So we help these brewers reinvent themselves, help them survive, and at the same time, create something completely Japanese.”
His goal is to promote the often-overlooked southern region as a place where uniquely local and new products can be found by exposing the producers there, all family businesses, first to the international market.
“So we’re kinda like disruptors to the industry. Asakura is quite hybrid as a whisky, so we’re not really competing but complementing the bigger boys. We’re offering something completely different in the market. This is not a malted barley whisky. It’s a single grain koji whisky. It’s a new category in that sense.”
Embodying Kyushu craft
Take a look at a bottle of Asakura Premium and you can see what Chand means. Though aged for a minimum of six years in sherry casks, there is no age statement on the label. The only thing hinting at what’s inside are the words ‘Single Grain Koji Whisky’ on the back.
He is definitely pushing boundaries here, but prefers to be proud of the fact that the whisky is “101% Japanese” and made in the humble southern region of the country, rather than banking on age statements and other arbitrary markers of quality.
Everything, other than the sherry casks (though mizunara casks are being used for other products), is produced in Japan. From the family-cultivated koji strains and soft spring water to the local barley, everything is sourced domestically. Even the bottle, from the glassware to the handmade papel label to the wooden top cap, are Japanese-made.
And for Kyushu Spirits, it’s not just Asakura Premium that’s coming up. Already, a trio of whiskies under the Kyushu Cowboy moniker, all made using koji as well, will soon hit the market. It’s meant to capture the rough and rugged nature of Kyushu in a bottle, with each expression being produced from different distilleries. There’s even one made using organic rice rather than barley.
A gin, we hear, that challenges conventional thoughts about the spirit, is also in the works. If it’s anything like how their whiskies are going against the grain (pun intended), then we can’t wait to see how it’ll turn out.
About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.