Japanese whisky is one of the hottest drink categories in the world, with plenty of innovation happening year to year. It’s wonderful to see the industry growing and a brand to look out for on the horizon is Kamui whisky K.K.
It was a pleasure to interview founder Casey Wahl about the journey of distilling whisky in the far north of Japan on Rishiri island, the uniqueness of local culture and how the whisky is going to be a champion for the region.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Casey. It’s been great to follow the development of Kamui Whisky K.K.
Before we get into the drink, what is your background, how did you end up in Japan and what inspired your journey into Japanese whisky?
I’ve been in Japan 20+ years. After growing up in the desert in Saudi Arabia I went to high school and university in the US. After that I came straight over to Japan; almost left at 2 years, like many do, but made it over that hump and been here since.
Japanese whisky was an organic development in my life. It was many of the dots lining up backwards. Like many of the best things in life it happened organically, not planned, and there was a moment after my wife and I visited Rishiri for the first time that it all came together.
That creative spirit, that creative energy that just needs to be released entrepreneurially got me again.
What do you find most exciting about the Japanese whisky space and where does Kamui K.K sit in the wider category?
We are super craft at Kamui Whisky K.K. We are looking to make lovingly, hand-crafted whisky that increasingly expresses the unique terroir of Rishiri. We are in it for love and in it for the long term.
One of our company values is “For Rishiri”, beyond building a new industry on a remote island, creating new, high-status jobs, we want to inspire people on the island and have a lot of experiences that create meaning for all of us.
The Japanese whisky space is a small one, but it’s getting bigger quickly. What I appreciate about this moment is how the larger players and the dons of Japanese whisky have been helpful and welcoming.
With the drink being distilled on Rishiri, what elements of the island are you bringing into the story of the whisky?
Certainly there will be the climate, the salt wind coming in over the ocean that will age our whisky. The wind blows fierce and will pound against our warehouse all the time we’re ageing the whisky.
The water on Rishiri is natural, volcanic spring water. It comes out in several different springs around the island, with some ranked as the best water in Japan. Each spring has its own flavour, PH, with hard and soft waters naturally occurring on Rishiri.
All of this we will work into our whisky to express Rishiri’s unique flavours.
Over time we would like to use the peat beds that are around the island to peat the whisky ourselves. That will add another layer to our already complex terroir.
My dream is to someday capture a naturally occurring yeast on Rishiri and use that in our process. That will add a unique step even within the high-quality world of Japanese whisky.
I love the idea that the Kamui name of sacred water is linked to the indigenous Ainu language of Northern Japan.
What are your thoughts on Ainu culture and will it become an important pillar in the narrative of the brand?
The name first comes from our location. Our address is Kamui. Part of the meaning of Kamui is God’s place. And when you visit us you will certainly experience it. It’s a power spot.
The Ainu culture isn’t our culture, and we wouldn’t look to appropriate it inappropriately. It’s a special culture, and we would certainly like to see more Ainu stories told on a bigger stage.
If there are stories that fit with what we’re doing and somehow overlap our own story then we may look to include those, while making it clear the origins of the story.
Being a regular reader of your newsletter, it’s been interesting to see the kind of challenges you’ve faced with getting the distillery off the ground.
What have some of the main challenges been?
The licensing process was a big hurdle. Thankfully we got over that, with the help of a bunch of different people and are now a legally licensed whisky distillery.
Our challenges are unique to our location. The main ones are land, hiring, and housing. There are no real estate agents on Rishiri, and there is no open land. Houses and land only change hands once in a while, and do so through word of mouth, primarily through trusted relationships.
It’s hard to hire on the island. As there is more demand for workers than supply. And even if you bring someone from off the island to live and work with us, getting them housing has proven to be difficult.
Our main challenges are local. As we get bigger we hope to be able to solve those on a more structural level.
You recently developed the label for Kamui and it looks beautiful thanks to Victor Queiroz. What was the process like for choosing the label and working with Queiroz?
Kintsugi was the main concept we wanted to bring into our initial label. It’s a concept of making something beautiful out of something that was broken.
It becomes unique. We are a bit like that. We aren’t broken, but we aren’t the perfect whisky pedigree. We were originally outsiders to the industry and Rishiri, with different thoughts, different perspectives and an innovative spirit.
We’ve become locals on Rishiri and are getting deep in the industry, so we are gaining that traditional Japanese whisky beauty, but with our own unique cracks.
Victor is fantastic. Always a joy to work with, and we’re lucky to have access to his talents.
You’ve spoken about sponsoring the work of other creative businesses and start-ups that are trying to create something better for themselves and the world.
A great example is DECEMBER by Anshul Chauhan. How do you see this sponsoring initiative evolving over time?
Slowly! First we need to do our job well. Make great whisky, create a fantastic culture, strong, sustainable operations and then when we’re on a profitable footing we want to help out those that are talented and could use a break and belief.
Where would you like to see Kamui Whisky K.K in 5 – 10 years?
In 5 years, we have a happy team that is growing and pushing their boundaries. We’ve made and sold whisky that we’re proud of, that expresses the unique place that is Rishiri.
We’d also like to see all 5000 people on the island believe that the whisky made by Kamui Whisky K.K. is theirs too. That they are proud of it and many are brand ambassadors.
In 10 years, we’d like the brand to be such that if someone from Rishiri were to go overseas, say to the opposite side of the world, South Africa, Chile, or somewhere, and they go to a whisky bar and when asked where they are from and reply “Rishiri”, they’ll get a “Wow, Rishiri! I love that place. You make such beautiful whisky.”
We’d also like to have expanded the size of our distillery significantly within 10 years.
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to get into whisky distilling?
As with anything entrepreneurial you should know why you’re doing it. Is it a deep need to do this? How deep does your energy go?
If you’re doing it for externally validating reasons, it’ll be tough to find the energy to overcome all the challenges and you’ll give up somewhere along your journey.
If you’re doing it for deeply personal reasons that should give you the energy to last for a long time; compounding is key.
Overtime you can make something truly special.