I was as excited as everyone else when I heard the news that a brand new Japanese whisky distillery was to be built close to the Karuizawa area of Japan. This gorgeous, scenic town had once been home to Japan’s now most legendary distillery, so a return to whisky production in the area was indeed big news, however details of the new project were few and far between. Keen to learn more, I reached out to those behind Karuizawa Distillers and the Komoro Distillery and they were kind enough to talk me through this promising new venture. I’m happy to say that it is as exciting as first thought!
I caught up with Koji Shimaoka (the man behind the distillery), Ian Chang (Master Distiller) and Eddie Ludlow (founder of The Whisky Lounge) and their passion, dedication and work ethic for this project was obvious from the get-go.
Despite what you may first think, Karuizawa Distillers is completely unrelated to the Karuizawa Distillery, who’s bottlings now sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction houses around the world. Rather, Karuizawa Distillers is a passion project founded by Mr. Shimaoka, a man with an overwhelming love for both the area, and top quality whisky.
When asked about his reasons behind starting Karuizawa Distillers, Mr. Shimaoka stated, “I myself have been a resident of Karuizawa town for more than 20 years. In the early days, when I was commuting between Tokyo and Karuizawa, I used to pass by the old distillery, which was later closed down and demolished. I think that it is my duty and destiny, as a resident and whisky-lover, to bring distilling back to the area.”
In order to fulfil his goals, he first had to find a location for his brand new distillery. He settled on Komoro, a town neighbouring Karuizawa: “We were attracted to the area due to its beauty and proximity to my beloved Karuizawa, plus the required natural resources for making great whisky, which are in abundance here.”
The Komoro Distillery
With a goal and a location selected, Mr. Shimaoka knew he would need someone with a plethora of experience and an abundance of skill and knowledge to make the Komoro Distillery as successful as he would like it to be. Fortunately he was introduced to just the man – Ian Chang, the Master Distiller famed for his success in bringing Taiwan’s Kavalan Distillery to the world stage and winning a whole host of awards for his incredible creations in the process.
Mr. Shimaoka felt he was the perfect fit, “I know very well that Ian is the perfect person to be in charge for this project. This is his second time being involved with a brand-new distillery, built from scratch. The first was a huge success – as we all know – and his experience and fantastic track record will all come to bear on this project. More than 420 gold medals and personal titles – awarded by prestigious global competitions such as the IWSC in just 10 years – there is nobody better qualified than Ian for the job!”
In fact, Mr. Shimaoka can’t speak highly enough of Mr. Chang and his admiration for the Master Distiller’s pedigree, and what it will bring to Komoro, is clear. He went on, “Ian was the protégé of the late Dr. Jim Swan, for 12 full years, during which he learned hands-on from Jim, wood management, maturation and blending techniques. All of which will come extremely useful for our project here in Japan!”
Having a man in mind for the job is one thing, but attracting him to lead your project is another altogether. So what made Ian Chang feel that this was the right move for him?
He said, “I was very kindly introduced to Shimaoka-san through a mutual friend. When I met him for the first time, I was very impressed by his vision, even though he had no previous experience in the whisky industry. I was also very much attracted by the natural resources and the beautiful environment of the area, which I knew immediately and deep down inside that this will be the perfect place for whisky production.”
Getting such a well-respected Master Distiller is a real coup for the Komoro Distillery and, as mentioned by Mr. Shimaoka, the fact that he has experience building distilleries from the ground up will be invaluable in this venture.
So what of the whisky that will be produced at Komoro? What style will the distillery be looking to create and how will they go about it?
I was told the Komoro Distillery is aiming to produce single malt whisky that will fall into the “premium category” of Japanese whisky. However, despite what some of you may be thinking or may have heard, they are not intending to distil liquid in the style of the Karuizawa Distillery.
Rather, they aim to “Create an individual Japanese single malt whisky in the Komoro, Karuizawa region which will take advantage of our incredible location, talented team and local heritage.”
This may disappoint some ardent Karuizawa fans out there, but let me assure you, this is a good thing for Karuizawa Distillers, their distillery and Japanese whisky in general. Seldom are “copy-cat” whiskies as successful as the originals and when you have a man with the knowledge and experience of Ian Chang on your team, aiming to shoe-horn him into creating a particular style or character of whisky could, quite rightly, be deemed a waste.
After all, this is a man who learned first hand from one of the whisky industries most legendary figures, Dr. Jim Swan, and went on to produce many award-winning expressions at Kavalan, so giving him free reign to create the whisky that he wants seems like a no-brainer.
Whisky production is set to begin at Komoro in 2022 and it will likely be at least another 3 years after that before we see a first release from the distillery. They haven’t yet ruled out releasing new make spirit within that first three years, so that whisky-fans can get a taste for the distillery before the whisky is in fact ready, however Mr. Shimaoka did state that they “would probably prefer to only release it once it has had chance to mature for at least 3 years.”
One thing is for sure, all liquid distilled at Komoro will adhere to the new labelling standards for Japanese whisky that were put in place just last week, and Karuizawa Distillers shared their thoughts on the changes: “We are delighted that this has now been confirmed. We honestly believe this can only be a good thing for the Japanese whisky industry as a whole, and particularly the way it is perceived around the world.”
The Komoro Distillery Experience
While producing top quality whisky in a style of their own is clearly the main goal at the Komoro Distillery, they also want to build an impressive site that includes a visitors’ centre and a whisky academy.
For this, Shimaoka-san hired Eddie Ludlow, founder of The Whisky Lounge, a whisky events business which “Organises tasting events and festivals all over the UK. It is a company designed around educating and extolling the virtues of whisky to people who are ‘whisky-curious’ or are already enthusiasts.”
Eddie told me how he got involved, “I have known and been great friends with Ian Chang for over 10 years, since being introduced to him by our mutual friend and the sorely missed, Dr. Jim Swan. Ian approached me in August 2020 and told me of an exciting project he would like to talk to me about. He introduced me to Shimaoka-san and the two captivated both myself and
Amanda (my wife and also working on the project) with what they had planned. It really was a very easy decision to get involved!”
He then went on to explain exactly what the whisky academy at Komoro Distillery will entail, “We are planning to engage with all levels of whisky-lover. From those with a casual, or budding, interest, to those who might actually like to make spirit themselves at some point. With the resource of a working distillery on site and Ian Chang, plus visiting experts from around the world, we really feel it will be a most incredible experience and addition to the project.”
A Bright Future Ahead
With an incredible location, a world class Master Distiller and an engaging, educational on-site whisky experience, the Komoro Distillery really ticks all the boxes. Mr. Shimaoka has put together a team of passionate, experienced individuals who believe in his vision and his project and that bodes well for the success of this exciting new distillery.
In years to come, we are likely to see a number of outstanding releases coming out of the Karuizawa area once more and they will surely blaze a trail of their own across the Japanese whisky industry, and indeed the world.
This a project with a truly bright future and they have everything in place to be incredibly successful. It’s not often that the perfect storm comes together in the Japanese whisky world, but it would appear that is what we have in Karuizawa Distillers and the Komoro Distillery.
Ian Chang, quoting Dr. Jim Swan, summed it up perfectly: “As my mentor, the late Dr. Jim Swan always said to me, in order to produce quality whisky you need the “right people”, the “right place” and the “right time” and I have all three of them here now!”