Inside Japan’s Komoro Distillery – where whisky innovation is about to take off

Karuizawa Distillers’ budget-busting flagship Komoro Distillery has opened to much fanfare. But what can whisky lovers expect and what's next for the ambitious new drinks group? Kristiane Sherry gets up to speed with founder Koji Shimaoka, master distiller Ian Chang and Academy curator Eddie Ludlow

Words by Kristiane Sherry

The Komoro Distillery

Surrounded by forests and perched high above the Japanese city of Komoro, a new force in whisky has awakened. Komoro Distillery threw its sleek doors open to the public in late July, spirits lovers flooding into the building like the light through its dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows. The producer has been making headlines for some time – the name of parent company Karuizawa Distillers Inc (KDI) piquing interest and raising eyebrows around the world – but now spirit is flowing. Visitors can see for themselves what mark the distiller is set to leave on the Japanese – and global – whisky scene.

It’s a notable moment in the history of Japanese distilling. Exactly 100 years ago, Masataka Taketsuru brought the theory of Scotch single malt to the country and whisky-making as we know it kicked off in Japan. Enter Komoro, ready to write the next chapter.

The grand staircase inside the Komoro distillery
Inside the distillery, a striking staircase leads to a state-of-the-art education space

‘I can’t even put into words how excited we are,’ says Koji Shimaoka, KDI founder. He’s sat at the Mizunara oak bar inside the distillery, a pair of gleaming pot stills off to his right. We’re speaking just a couple of days before the grand opening.

‘This is not a normal distillery,’ he continues. From how the stills are set up to the warehouses, and even the production values, ‘it’s the first of its kind in the industry.’

Normally, the first distillation is bigger, the second distillation smaller: at Komoro Distillery, this is reversed

The design alone makes it remarkable. Tokyo-based architect firm Sogo Aud has more than met the brief, delivering modern luxury with aplomb. Inside the cathedral-like glass structure, every design element has been considered. Guests step inside and they’re greeted by a sleek retail space. The visitor centre unfurls before them, ergonomic wooden benches for comfort, an airy restaurant and bar area. A curving, copper-coloured metal staircase, leading to a state-of-the-art education space, is the striking focal point. That is, until your eye carries to the stillhouse, the beating heart of Komoro. The pair of copper pot stills are visible from almost every vantage point.

‘After all, we are making spirit,’ chimes in master blender and founder Ian Chang, the former Kavalan whisky maker. ‘That’s why we think that we should be proud and show off the pot stills.’

Ian Chang between stills
Ian Chang (second from left) between two of the distillery's unusually shaped stills

The stills themselves demonstrate the start of the whisky innovation; take a glance and all is not as expected. ‘Normally, the first distillation is bigger, second distillation is smaller,’ Chang explains. At Komoro, this is reversed. ‘This way it will ensure our distillation cycle is very small and very continuous.’ He draws attention to the still’s onion shape. ‘It is more versatile for the distiller to experiment with different components.’ He pauses. ‘These are all innovations Jim [Swan, the late whisky chemist] and I used to talk about when travelling around the world.’ This, coupled with the heavily descending long lyne arm on the spirit still and the different boiling points when distilling at Komoro’s altitude, sets the spirit production apart.

He’s clearly feeling the freedom of getting involved in a unique distillery at the early stages. ‘It is something that I couldn’t do previously but here, since it’s a brand new beginning,’ he nods to the unusual setup, ‘I’m very confident that the quality will be exceptional.’

A slider and cocktail at Komoror
The onsite restaurant will serve a range of light refreshments, including 'elevated sliders and innovative whisky cocktails'

Of course, whisky quality is front and centre. But the visitor experience isn’t an afterthought. For Koji, it seems the two cannot be separated. ‘We want people to come here and not just look at the production process,’ he states. ‘But to take advantage of the location, this gorgeous view, this incredible equipment, to enjoy this extraordinary experience.’

Chasing that holistic sense of excellence has seen Koji and the team blow the budget on the Komoro build three times over. But he is unfazed. ‘Quality comes first,’ he is adamant.

The bar and restaurant area alone is a thing to behold. Meticulously presented light meals (think Shinshu salmon, pickled oysters, local cheeses and elevated sliders made with local beef) are paired with innovative whisky cocktails. Award-winning bartenders offer the highest levels of Japanese hospitality. Every single detail is accounted for.

The education space at Komoro
The education space at the Komoro distillery, where a programme curated by Eddie Ludlow spans short Whisky Tasting 101 courses to more detailed sessions

It’s a philosophy that carries over into the rich education programme. Eddie Ludlow, co-founder of The Whisky Lounge, has curated a programme that spans short Whisky Tasting 101 courses to more detailed sessions on the ‘Art of Maturation’ and ‘The Story of Peat’. A whisky and cocktails course is available too. It’s unusual for a visitor centre to offer more formal education opportunities.

Award-winning bartenders offer the highest levels of Japanese hospitality

‘When visitors leave us, we want them to see whisky as we do, not just as a delicious beverage but as a passion,’ Ludlow says on the philosophy behind it all. It’s a remarkable part of the visitor experience that sets Komoro Distillery apart. It’s all easily accessible too – guests can hop on a shuttle bus from downtown Komoro, itself just a couple of hours from Tokyo on the fast train.

The warehouses at the Komoro Distillery
‘We want people to take advantage of the location, this gorgeous view,' says Komoro Distillery’s Koji Shimaoka

According to Koji, the vision is for Komoro Distillery to be seen as the pinnacle of not just Japanese whisky but global whisky. ‘We want to produce world-class whisky and provide extraordinary experiences for all whisky lovers.’ There are plans afoot to open more distilleries and not just in Japan. But for now, future developments are under wraps. ‘The completion of Komoro distillery is just the start of a journey that could last for generations, like many of those in Japan and Scotland,’ he says in a follow-up email.

What is on the horizon is the annual World Whisky Forum, which Komoro will host in February 2024. ‘It’s the first time it will be held not only in Japan but in Asia,’ Ludlow says. ‘It’s a really cool feeling for everyone here.’

Japanese whisky has a history that stretches back 100 years. For Koji, the last 15 of those have been spent dreaming about Komoro. ‘This is our dream-come-true moment,’ he says. Time to add Komoro to the distillery travel itinerary.