The Iiyama Mountain Farm Distillery is not one that many people outside of Japan have heard of, however their excellent work so far, attention to detail and the innovations being carried out at the distillery mean that is all about to change.
Situated high in the mountains of Iiyama in the Nagano Prefecture, close to Iiyama City, this idyllic, independent distillery has only been producing whisky since 2019, and is yet to release a single malt expression. Nestled among some of Japan’s most precious and untouched scenery, often referenced in songs and tales of folklore, this rich, natural landscape makes the most stunning location for a whisky distillery.
Like the Togari Onsen Distillery, Iiyama Farm Distillery is owned by Kiyokawa. They have already made great strides in the years since the distillery was built, looking to embody the concept of “Farm to Bottle”, something that has not been done in Japan until now. And soon, this concept will become a reality as they prepare to release their very first single malts, under the watchful eye of Japanese whisky fans everywhere.
Home Grown Barley
The idea of creating whisky directly from farm to bottle is a beautiful one, but one that is quite hard to achieve in Japan. Barley farming is not widespread, and given the whisky industry’s relative infancy, it’s not exactly easy for distilleries to acquire farmland (most of which is already in use) and start growing their own.
To do this, you must have the necessary expertise, the funds, the land, and be able to produce enough barley to fulfil your annual target volumes of distillate. All of these difficult challenges often result in distilleries choosing the easier route of importing barley from places like Scotland, Germany and the United States.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the latter method, it often results in some superb whiskies, as we have seen throughout the industry’s short but rich history, however there is something truly romantic and desirable about a Japanese whisky produced from scratch, all on one site, including growing and malting the cereal.
So when we heard that Kioykawa’s Iiyama Mountain Farm Distillery was aiming to go from farm to bottle, we felt a real sense of excitement.
Speaking to those at the distillery, it quickly became apparent that setting up farming at the Iiyama Distillery was not all plain sailing. The climate there gets extremely cold in winter, sometimes dropping below -10 celsius, and heavy snowfall is routine throughout the late autumn and winter months.
This somewhat extreme climate meant that the initial farming did not go to plan, with the harvest failing on two separate occasions. This forced the distillery workers to innovate – and innovate they did.
To get around the nightmare situation, those at Kiyokawa set about creating a crossbreed of barley, one that they felt was strong and durable enough to stand up to the cold temperatures and heavy snowfall, but also held the right characteristics for whisky production.
There was no doubt huge relief among those working on this crossbreed when, at the third time of asking, their harvest succeeded and whisky production could finally begin.
This passion and desire to stick to their principles, even when seemingly impossible challenges were thrown in their way, is a fantastic trait for a distillery and it surely stands them in particularly good stead going forward.
With success on the farming front finally achieved, and whisky production set to begin, the distillery installed two state of the art 5,000L potstills. The first was a custom made, traditional potstill, while the second was a Frilli potstill, imported from Italy. This second still was the first of its kind to be installed in Japan and the distillery believes it will help them to create a truly unique spirit like nothing else being produced in the country right now.
With both of these stills operational, Kiyokawa estimate that they will produce around 420,000 litres of liquid per year. This will be used to create a core range of single malts and blends that fans around the world will become familiar with, as well as a range of small batch and single cask releases that will focus on different aspects of cask maturation and local terroir, and will likely be much harder to come by.
With regards to cask maturation, the distillery is talking about another first in the industry – maturing their whisky in a bourbon barrel that was seasoned with orange liqueur. The Master Distillers have already been experimenting with this cask type and the results are said to be truly exquisite, so it’s one that we are particularly excited to try when it becomes available.
On top of that, Iiyama aims to produce Oloroso and PX sherry cask, bourbon barrel, marsala cask, rum cask and Mizunara cask matured whisky, and this selection may be expanded further as the venture progresses.
It gives us a lot to look forward to from this exciting young distillery, and in the long run, we should have plenty of exciting Kiyokawa single malt whiskies to choose from.
A Dedication to Substance & Style
It’s clear that Kiyokawa’s Iiyama Distillery is determined to innovate and help to move the Japanese whisky industry forward, and what they have already achieved at such a young age is truly commendable and owes a lot to their outside-the-box thinking, passion and desire.
Not happy with innovation and top quality whisky production alone, Kiyokawa also aims to ensure their bottlings have real style. To do this, they have committed to using washi paper labels on all of their bottlings, adding an elegant touch to some tremendous whisky.
In fact, a washi paper production plant is planned at the distillery, and this will allow lucky visitors to create their very own bottling, from choosing the cask right down to creating magnificent labels for their bottles.
Kiyokawa is really tearing up the script when it comes to operating a Japanese whisky distillery, innovating at every opportunity and aiming to provide superb customer experiences where possible.
This can only be a good thing for the Japanese whisky industry and fans around the world, who in due time will get to experience all of the joys of Japan’s first ever Farm to Bottle Japanese whiskies. We hope you’re as excited as we are.