Whiskey joins gin on the menu at Niseko Distillery

Niseko City, Hokkaido Prefecture wants to be known for more than its world-class powder. In recent years, an increasing number of bars and restaurants have been attracting visitors beyond the peak ski season.

Surrounded by lush forests at the foot of the Annupuri International Ski Area, the Niseko Distillery opened in early October. The project is the brainchild of Jiro Nagumo, president and CEO of the sake maker Hakkaisan Brewery, located in Niigata Prefecture. Although best known for its popular Hakkaisan brand, the company produces a range of beverages including beer, shōchū and now, in this new distillery, whiskey.

Takahiro Suzuki, who oversees operations at Niseko Distillery, says the transition from shōchū to whiskey was “a natural progression”. After experimenting with oak-aged rice shōchū, Hakkaisan obtained a whiskey-making license in 2016, establishing the Niseko Distillery as a subsidiary in 2019.

Ohoro Gin displays a light and clean flavor with aromas reminiscent of a walk in the forest. | COURTESY OF NISEKO DISTILLERY

“To be sold legally as shōchū, the alcohol must be clear. We knew we wanted to use casks to mature the spirit for long periods of time, which imparts color, so whiskey was the next logical step,” says Suzuki, explaining that the company’s lineup will also include ‘other spirits such as vodka, in addition to the distillery. recently released Ohoro Gin.

According to Suzuki, the Niseko site was chosen for its abundance of pristine fresh water. Last March, the distillery made its first batch of whiskey from malted barley in a new 9,900 square meter facility.

In the distillation area on the mezzanine floor of this minimalist concrete building, two copper stills gleam under the vaulted wooden ceiling. Local matsubara (larch) infuses the interior with warmth, and to the left of the entrance is a stylish tasting bar, where patrons can taste the wares. The center of the room doubles as a space selling friendly handicrafts: knives from the metalworking capital of Tsubame Sanjo in Niigata Prefecture, wooden cutlery, delicate glassware and elegant ceramics made by Japanese artisans. Sake and beer from the northern regions of Japan are also on sale.

Tours of the production plant, available by reservation only, are offered three times a day. When I visit the distillery, Suzuki leads me past 1,000 kilogram bags of malt from the UK and shows me the wooden vessels used to ferment the mash before distillation. Wooden fermenters, he explains, provide “richer aromas and flavors” because they create a favorable environment for lactic acid bacteria. After fermentation, the mash is distilled in Scottish Forsyth stills. German copper pot stills are used to make the gin.

After distillation, the whiskey is aged in barrels for at least three years. The goal is to create a “harmonious” spirit that expresses a “balance of several flavors”. The Niseko distillery uses bourbon and sherry casks, as well as Banyuls sweet wine and new American oak casks, but the company hopes to make original casks from Japanese casks. mizunara wood in the future.

The distillery's tasting bar resembles the famous wooden block game Jenga.  |  COURTESY OF NISEKO DISTILLERY
The distillery’s tasting bar resembles the famous wooden block game Jenga. | COURTESY OF NISEKO DISTILLERY

While the whiskey won’t be released until 2024, Niseko Distillery’s Ohoro Gin is already on the market. The name, which means “continue” in the Ainu language, reflects the regional character of the spirit. Made in a London dry gin style with local botanicals such as perfumes yachiyanagi (myrtle) and Japanese hackberry, Ohoro displays a light and clean flavor with aromas reminiscent of a walk in the forest and a hint of citrus on the nose. I first tried it with tonic, but preferred to drink the alcohol either over ice or with a little club soda to avoid overwhelming the delicate flavors of the gin.

“This is just the beginning,” says Suzuki. “We have a lot of ideas and I can’t wait to see what we can do.”

For more information, visit niseko-distillery.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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