Hokkaido Corn Meets Niigata Distillery for Domestic Whisky

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Koji Yanagihara, left, and Koji Matsumoto stand in front of whisky casks at Yoshida Denzai Grain Whisky Distillery in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture.

A corn farm in Hokkaido and a distillery in Niigata Prefecture have partnered up with the goal of producing completely domestic origin whisky, when most Japanese whiskies rely on imported ingredients. The collaboration is drawing attention for increasing domestic grain production.

Distillery origins

Koji Matsumoto, 49, runs Yoshida Denzai Grain Whiskey Distillery in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture which started production last October. He is also the president of Yoshida Denzai Kogyo Co., a Tokyo-based medical equipment design company. The company had a subsidiary factory in Murakami, which suffered a decline in orders due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Being a whisky lover, Matsumoto decided to convert the factory to a distillery and obtained a liquor manufacturing license.

To make inroads in the whisky industry, he chose to produce grain whisky which is made mostly from corn or other grains.

Distilleries producing malt whisky, which is made only from malted barley, are found scattered throughout the country. As there is a limited amount of malted barley produced domestically, it is extremely difficult for a small distillery to secure enough for production. Matsumoto decided to make his distillery unique by focusing on domestic ingredients that are more readily available.

A meeting

Matsumoto met Koji Yanagihara while trying to find domestic ingredient suppliers.

Since 2011, Yanagihara, 43, has been cultivating grain corn made from high moisture shelled corn in Naganuma, Hokkaido. While sweet corn has a high sugar content, grain corn kernels are abundant in starch. The kernels, which are harvested after they are fully ripened, are also an essential for animal feed. Japan is heavily reliant on imports of grain corn as a staggering 99.99% of the cereal are imported from the United States, Brazil and elsewhere.

In 2015, Yanagihara formed Hokkaido Shijitsu Corn Kumiai (Hokkaido grain corn union) with other farms in the neighborhood. The group currently has a membership of 144 farming households, making the town and the surrounding areas the country’s leading region for grain corn production.

The distillery contacted the group in June 2021. Thus, a partnership between Matsumoto and Yanagihara was born. Yanagihara’s farm has delivered 80 tons of the main ingredient in the whisky, high moisture shelled corn, to Matsumoto’s distillery.

“For agricultural producers, securing sales is more vital than anything. I feel very grateful for this project,” Yanagihara said.

Avoiding risk with transport

Currently, 70% of the whisky ingredients used at the distillery are grain corns, all bought from the union. As for the remaining 30%, which includes malted barley, the distillery aims to switch to domestically produced ingredients in the future.

Imported ingredients can take nearly six months to arrive, while it takes several days for those grown in Hokkaido to arrive. There is also less risk of mold and taste deterioration.

One blender who tasted the distillate before maturing at the distillery said it has a rich taste with marked sweetness likely because the corn ingredients are fresh.

Ministry and food security

To improve food security, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Ministry is promoting domestic grain corn production by increasing subsidies for farmers. As a result, studies on grain corns’ breed selection and cultivation technologies have improved so that crop acreage has increased to 1,575 hectares, 14 times more than in 2014.

Japan is still dependent on imported corn, which is strongly influenced by international market prices. Prices have gone up in recent years due to China’s increasing corn imports and crop decline in Latin America. The price hikes have been further exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of major corn exporter Ukraine from last year and weaker yen, putting pressure on cattle farmers.

In December 2022, the government decided to draw up a new outline of a food security reinforcement policy to remedy Japan’s excessive dependence on imported food, including grain corns. As of fiscal 2021, the animal feed self-efficiency rate was 25%.

“The production base for grain corns will be stabilized once the use of domestically grown grain corns becomes a norm not only when the price of imported grain corns is too high but also when that price has leveled out. Producing domestic whisky could have major benefits as well,” a senior official of the ministry said.

“I hope I will be able to contribute to revitalizing agriculture by making whisky with domestic ingredients,” Matsumoto said.