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Why This Kentucky Bourbon Maker Is Opening Its Own Whisky Distillery in Japan

This is a big bet on the future of Japanese whisky.

copper whiskey stills in a distillery FocusEye/Getty Images

Japanese whisky continues to be one of the most popular and collectible spirits categories, with increasingly rare age statement expressions still commanding skyrocketing prices on the secondary market. So it’s no wonder that Kentucky whiskey company IJW wants to get in on the action, and has just announced plans to open its own distillery on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The worlds of Japanese whiskey and American whiskey have been intertwined to some degree for a while—arguably since Suntory purchased Jim Beam and became Beam Suntory, gaining control of both the biggest bourbon distillery and the largest Japanese whisky company. This is a different story, however, given that IJW is a relatively new Kentucky bourbon producer that is going to open a brand-new distillery in the city of Chitose. There’s not a whole lot of information out there about IJW, other than that the company doesn’t operate a distillery but sources whiskey from other operations and has been building warehouses in Kentucky for barrel storage. According to a recent article published at Nikkei Asia, IJW is attempting to capitalize on the surging demand for Japanese whisky worldwide. Construction of the new distillery will start next year and will be overseen by Cedarfield, a local subsidiary set up by IJW in Japan, near the Chitose Airport.

According to the Nikkei Asia report, the whisky made at the new distillery will meet the voluntary regulations set up by the Japanese Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association in 2021 to define Japanese whisky—all production from mashing to bottling must take place in Japan, it must be matured for a minimum of three years in wooden casks, and bottled at at a minimum of 40 person ABV. The scale of the new distillery will be on par with the large Fuji Gotemba distillery owned by Kirin, and will have both pot stills for producing malt whisky and column stills for grain whisky.

There have been some conceptual bourbon-Japanese whisky mashups over the past few years, including Jim Beam’s Legent Bourbon, a cask-finished whiskey blended by the Suntory master blender, and Kentucky Owl Takumi Edition which was blended by the Nagahama Distillery master blender. But there is little precedent for an American whiskey producer that isn’t part of a larger Japanese corporation to actually set up shop in the country.

Of course, it will be at least four to five years before we even get to taste any whiskey from this new distillery, and the market could have entirely cooled off by then. But hey, making whiskey is betting on the future, and it appears that IJW is going all in.

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