Bourbon Producer IJW Whiskey to Build Distillery in Japan
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In a Potentially Brilliant Move, This Kentucky Bourbon Producer Is Building a Whisky Distillery in Japan

IJW Whiskey

Mechanics perform maintenance Oct. 9, 2014, on a government aircraft at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Special Airlift Group base in Chitose, the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, Japan. American bourbon producer IJW Whiskey plans to build a distillery in Chitose. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko).

Kentucky bourbon producer IJW Whiskey plans to build a distillery on the island of Hokkaido in Japan, Nikkei Asia reported.

Production is expected to start as soon as early 2024 on a 165,000-square-foot plot of land near New Chitose Airport. According to Nikkei Asia, the “scale of the facility will be on par” with Kirin’s Fuji Gotemba Distillery.

The Untapped Potential of Japanese Whisky

Japanese whisky has experienced an enormous boom in recent years. Unfortunately, the popularity of the spirit — sparked by ultra-rare bottles like Yamazaki 55 Year — far exceeds the amount of available quality Japanese whisky.

Until 2021, Japanese whiskies merely had to be bottled in Japan to be labeled as such. Thus, many prominent Japanese distilleries sourced their whisky from Scotland. As a result, the Japanese whisky category — with some exceptions — felt more like a pale, dull imitation of the scotch category than a unique and interesting category of spirit.

Now, Japanese whisky has to be fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in Japan, plus use Japanese water, which is a great step toward the development of a thriving, distinctive whisky category. However, because the regulations are so new and whisky takes so long to make, distilleries haven’t had time to build up enough stocks of Japanese whisky to meet the soaring demand, nor do most have the facilities to mass-produce Japanese whisky, since importing has always been a less-expensive and less-labor-intensive option.

It’s unclear if IJW is planning to make corn whisky in Japan, which is primarily what it makes in the U.S., or single malt (made of barley), which is what scotch and Japanese whisky contain.

The category’s inability to meet consumer demand makes this a really smart play for IJW Whiskey, which has a chance to get in near the ground floor of the next wave of Japanese whiskies. If IJW can build a successful Japanese whisky brand, this decision could pay enormous dividends down the road.

Nikkei Asia reported that the plant will have column stills for grain whisky.

About IJW Whiskey

IJW Whiskey has a reputation as somewhat of a mysterious player in the Kentucky whiskey game. In 2021, Whisky Advocate reported that IJW has quietly produced tens of thousands of barrels of bourbon and rye at its facility in Danville “without so much as a peep beyond the required public paperwork.”

In September, IJW Whiskey revealed plans to build a $200 million distillery in Shelbyville, which is about 50 miles north of Danville.

IJW’s production team is led by master distiller Kevin Curtis, who brings experience from Woodford Reserve, Michter’s and Angel’s Envy; and master blender Steve Hughes, who worked at Brown-Forman for 38 years.

IJW Whiskey has money and skilled heritage American whiskey-making talent. Bringing its resources to Japan might just end up being an absolutely brilliant move.

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David Morrow is the managing editor of Whiskey Raiders and has been with the company since September 2021. David has worked in journalism since 2015 and has had bylines at Sports Illustrated, Def Pen, the Des Moines Register and the Quad City Times. David holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Saint Louis University and a Master of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. When he’s not tasting the newest exciting whiskey releases, David enjoys spending time with his wife and dog, watching sports and traveling.