Exactly a century on from the founding of Japan’s first single malt distillery, Yamazaki, and the birth of its whisky industry, it’s a great time to be a Japanese whisky lover. Not only are we seeing the emergence of a number of new distilleries but one of Japan’s most respected whisky makers has co-founded – along with My Concierge Japan, a booking service for Michelin-starred and fine-dining restaurants in Japan – the Japanese Whisky Membership Community.
The brainchild of Seiichi Koshimizu, formerly Suntory’s chief blender, the salon will bring Japanese whisky lovers together in a convivial space. Koshimizu has the vision to reintroduce the category to whisky lovers around the world – with more depth, soul, and spirit than ever before.
Koshimizu has teamed up with a remarkable band of experts for the salon’s launch. Noted food writer Takeshi Kadokami; Kenichi Hashimoto, owner and chef at two Michelin-starred restaurant Ryozanpaku; and bartender and living legend Minoru Nishida have all become custodians of both culture and flavour with the advent of the Japanese Whisky Membership Community.
“It’s really about sharing the narrative behind the craft of Japanese whisky,” Koshimizu says. “There’s a need to increase awareness and be a platform for culture makers.” Members can expect exclusive content, interviews with the leading lights in their fields, deep dives into the philosophies of blending, opportunities to ask Koshimizu questions, and access to gatherings – virtual and in-person.
With its rich and fascinating history, Japanese whisky has won fans all around the world. But it can be misunderstood. “We developed by learning from Scotch whisky,” he continues. “But over time we’ve developed our own culture and ways of drinking – for example, pairing with food. That’s what we will centre with our new audience.”
A taste maker for the ages
Koshimizu is perhaps the only person who could found such a society. Simply put, Japanese whisky wouldn’t be what it is today without him. He started his career in Suntory’s research department in 1976, before moving to Yamazaki Distillery in 1985 and becoming a blender in 1991. He was named chief blender in 1999, before being awarded the title of chief blender Emeritus in 2014.
Under his watch, Suntory has been named ISC Distiller of the Year multiple times. Creations including Hibiki 30 Years Old and Yamazaki 12 Years Old have won countless trophies, with the latter becoming one of the world’s most sought-after and valuable whiskies. Koshimizu himself was inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame in 2015, becoming the first Japanese recipient of the honour.
His private creations include the Yamazaki Single Malt Premium Red Edition Genmu, a vatting of exquisitely rare Yamazaki parcels from the 1960s and 1980s. Casks include Port, French oak and mizunara. It sold for a remarkable HK$496,000 (£50,600) at auction.
Yet, he remains humble. When asked what his biggest achievement has been so far, he says: “Making good Japanese whiskey is not about one man, but also the many people supporting it. I’ve just loved being there.” And now he’s bringing more people into the fold with The Japanese Whisky Membership Community.
A celebration of culture
What’s so special about the new Community is that it represents a meeting of minds. Those who join will immerse themselves in not just the world of Japanese whisky, bars, and those who make it, but how it blends richly into other facets of Japan’s rich and abundant culture, too.
“We also want to encourage a collaboration between the many aspects of traditional crafts,” Koshimizu continues. As well as food, he’d like to explore music. He thinks ceramics are important, too, and wants to share the long tradition of ceramics being used as a spirits drinking vessel.
“Ceramic subtly changes the flavour,” he explains. “Compared to glass, ceramic will bring a really different drinking experience.” To this end, Koshimizu and the other co-founders have worked together with a traditional Japanese ceramic artisan of Bizen, a province famous for its pottery of the same name, to create a very special whisky cup that presents an alternative way for enthusiasts to enjoy their favourite spirit.
For Koshimizu, it’s indicative of how the Salon will enrich members’ experiences of whisky enjoyment. He speaks with a deep passion for the Japanese category. It’s about sharing and creating more custodians for the future. “We spent about 20 years establishing the reputation of Japanese whisky. Now we need to preserve it, keep improving the quality, and bring it to more people.”
Changemakers for the future
A central philosophy of the Japanese Whisky Membership Community is preserving the category for the future. To this end, the group will support two vital projects: the preservation of Japanese oak trees and research into the development of lower-alcohol whisky.
Known as mizunara, Japanese oak has become increasingly celebrated for the flavour it imparts to whisky. However, as distillers all around the world are increasingly using this precious material, cooperage-worthy mizunara has become increasingly rare. The situation is made more challenging as the trees take at least 200 years to reach maturity.
“Everyone’s looking for mizunara these days, meaning it could be easy to destroy the environment,” Koshimizu explains. “Conserving forests is a way of sustainably enjoying the whiskies.” A portion of Japanese Whisky Membership Community fees will be donated to tree-planting initiatives hosted by the local Agriculture and Forestry Promotion Office of Kofu City. It takes place in the Yamanashi prefecture, which is not only home to the Hakushu Distillery, but is also Koshimizu’s birthplace.
Fascinatingly, Koshimizu is also pursuing the development of lower-ABV whisky which offers the same flavour and, importantly, textural, qualities as a conventional dram. “The basis for starting the project is because I’m getting older,” he shares. “I’m not able to drink like I could when I was young. But I want the taste and texture.” There will be many others who are excluded from whisky because they don’t drink alcohol for a range of reasons.
Fees will also be used to support the work he’s founded in this area with a research institute in Yamanashi Prefecture. He notes that there’s no guarantee that studies will be successful – but he says he wants to support it in any way he can.
The social element
Shared experiences are part of the core Japanese Whisky Membership Community philosophy, and they are close to Koshimizu’s heart, too. He’s passionate that wherever members are in the world, they will have that sense of belonging. And not just through digital events, although they play an important part.
“I want to meet in person with whisky lovers – I really want to hold these kinds of events,” he says. While there’s a Q&A function which enables members to communicate with him digitally, there’s nothing quite like sharing whisky and its stories with each other in real life.
The Japanese Whisky Membership Community is open for new members now, with access to regular content, education and whisky inspiration priced at just ¥5,500yen/£34 per year.
For more information, visit:jwhisky.jp.