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SB meets… Ken Usami, Shinobu Distillery

We caught up with the master distiller of Shinobu Distillery to learn about his path from beer brewer to Japanese whisky producer, and the facility’s major expansion plans.

Shinobu Distillery’s master distiller, Ken Usami

Located in Niigata, Japan, Shinobu Distillery became the first whisky-making facility in the city when it was founded in 2018.

Master distiller Ken Usami is at the helm of the operation, creating a range of whiskies that includes The Shin Malt Whisky, The Shin Malt Whisky 10 Years Old and The Shin Malt Whisky 15 Years Old. He finishes each of these expressions in mizunara oak, developing a distinctive flavour profile that has put the producer on the world whisky map – the 10-year-old bottling even took home a Gold medal in our DB & SB Autumn Blind Tasting.

So what’s in store for Shinobu Distillery in 2022? We talked to Usami to discover more about the business and its big plans for expansion in the year ahead.

What is the story behind The Shin Whisky?
The Shin Malt Whisky: a best seller

“The Shin Whisky is a co-brand between Shinobu Distillery and our strategic partner, the Shin Group. Shin Group is one of the biggest Japanese liquor distribution companies focusing on unique and high-quality Japanese whisky. ‘Integrity’ is Shin Group’s company philosophy, and it perfectly matches with Shinobu Distillery’s principles. ‘Shinobu’ means forbearance in Japanese, symbolising the spirit of the Japanese warrior, or samurai. We believe that making great spirits takes time, patience and persistence.

“In this partnership with Shin Group, we believe we can come up with different ideas on distilling great Japanese whiskies together. After several years of discussion and trials, we launched The Shin Malt Whisky, a luxury whisky that represents both Shin Group and Shinobu Distillery’s company spirit. Soon after The Shin Malt Whisky series launched, we received several positive responses from whisky reviewers and awards, including a Gold medal in The DB & SB Autumn Tasting for the 10YO expression, and it’s a great honour for both of us. As far as I know, the Shin Group also cooperates with the Eigashima Distillery in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture, and I believe we could come up with more surprising and outstanding whiskies in the future.”

You’re also a brewer – why did you want to learn distillation, and what was your path to the whisky industry like?

“In 1997, I started the beer business and launched Niigata Beer, which was the first beer using the secondary bottle fermentation and ageing method in Japan. However, I’ve always dreamed of creating a local whisky distillery that is able to showcase the quality of local pure water and present it to the passionate community of spirits lovers. Finally in 2017, I obtained the first whisky license in Niigata, and launched the first Shinobu Whisky in 2018. Soon after the release, we received orders from several countries, including the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Europe, Australia and Canada. The Shinobu Whisky also obtained several awards from different competitions within these years. This is a great honour for me, and drives me to make more whiskies that correspond to the characteristics of Niigata and Japan. We also put a lot of effort into making The Shin Malt Whisky, and I am pleased that it has received awards and is beloved by whisky drinkers.”

The Koshi-No Shinobu Pure Malt Whisky, crafted at Shinobu Distillery
When is the new Shinobu Distillery due for completion? Can you tell us about the new facility and how it will impact production?

“Because of high demand, we are expanding the existing distillery and constructing another new distillery. The first one is right next to the existing Shinobu Distillery, and was completed recently. However, due to the Covid-19, the two tailor-made pot stills, 3,000-litre and 2,000-litre respectively ordered from Carl GmbH in Germany, were delayed. Fortunately we solved all the difficulties and just started to assemble and install the two stills. We expect to start the distillation from spring 2022 and to release newborn single malt whiskies soon. 

“The second Shinobu Distillery is located in the Tsugawa area in Niigata, which is about 50km away from the current distillery. We will install two smaller stills, 2,000-litres and 1,500-litres each, for the new distillery. We plan to use geothermal heat from nearby hot springs for distillation and we estimate that we will save 60%-70% of our total energy consumption. The new distillery will be the first Japanese whisky distillery using geothermal energy, and probably the first in the world. The aim of the new Shinobu Distillery is to produce single malts with true Japanese flavours, and to be environmentally sustainable to the land.”

Distillation at the expanded facility will begin in spring 2022
Which whisky is your biggest seller, and why do you think it’s so popular?

“Shinobu Blended and Pure Malt Whisky are our best-selling items. Meanwhile, the Shin Malt Whisky is selling very well in Europe, the United States and Australia. The shared characteristic of these whiskies is that they have all been matured in Japanese mizunara oak casks, one of the rarest and most expensive types of oak in the world. Mizunara oak offers complex notes of sandalwood, coconut, spice and Japanese incense, displaying the refinement of oriental flavour with a powerful yet velvety mouthfeel. We believe this is the main reason why our customers love the Shinobu and Shin whiskies.”

What are your future plans for Shinobu?

“We hope we can release more interesting whiskies with more ‘Japanese elements’ after we finish the new distillery. We also expect to bring the terroir of Niigata into the bottles. Niigata is well known locally for its ‘three white treasures’, namely snow, rice and sake. It is also a naturally blessed environment with a pure water source, and therefore we’ve chosen to set two distilleries in this beautiful land. With the two distilleries, we will be more focused on details, and bring more Shinobu whiskies to drinkers around the world.”

The near-finished new Shinobu Distillery faces the Japanese Sea

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