Fuji Whisky and Jota Tanaka: Bridging Japan and America
February 6, 2023 –––––– Julia Higgins
If you’re a fan of Japanese whisky, you may recall the U.S. debut of a new label, Fuji Whisky, in late 2021 with two expressions—a single grain and a single blend. Comprised of Japanese grain and malt whisky, Fuji’s single blend includes whiskies as old as 20 years. Its single grain expression is composed of three different grain whiskies that are distilled using three different methods—an unusual style in whisky making, to say the least.
There is much more that is unusual—and often overlooked—about Fuji. Located in the southeastern foothills of Mount Fuji in the Japanese city of Gotemba, Fuji Gotemba Distillery is a massive complex encompassing 1.2 million square feet and producing over 3.1 million pure alcohol liters a year. Built in 1972 as part of a partnership between Japanese giant Kirin and drinks multinational Seagram Co. Ltd., the place has been wholly owned by Kirin since 2002. But those cross-cultural roots have given Fuji’s whiskies an interesting international twist.
Fuji’s scotch-style grain whisky is made using continuous distillation, while the bourbon-style grain whisky is made using a beer column and doubler. The Canadian-style grain whisky is distilled with a batch distillation method in kettle and column stills. For mashing and proofing, the distillery uses snowmelt from Mount Fuji, and all of its whiskies are aged in bourbon barrels from sister distillery Four Roses.“Other Japanese whiskies are more scotch-oriented,” says, Fuji master blender Jota Tanaka. “Our whisky is not only similar to scotch in style—we’re making bourbon-style and Canadian-style grain whiskies, both of which we learned about from our connection with Seagram. We’re multinational—we’re capturing different aspects from these whisky countries.”
Tanaka’s long career mirrors this eclectic mix, spanning the worlds of Japanese and American whiskey, as well as wine. Born in Kyoto, he first came to the U.S. in 1989 when Kirin sent him to work at its newly purchased Raymond Vineyard & Cellar in the Napa Valley. He later went on to earn a master’s degree in enology at the University of California, Davis, before returning to Japan to work on the wine side at Kirin. All of that helped establish a foundation for Tanaka’s future in whisky. “The sensory evaluation and flavor expression skills I developed in wine, the influence of yeast on fermentation, the impact of terroir and other environmental factors, and my experience in food pairing are just a few of the benefits [that would later impact my whisky career],” he says. While managing California wine imports for Kirin in Japan during the ‘90s, Tanaka started dabbling in brandy–first as an importer, and then as a blender. He also did some blending work at Fuji Gotemba.
While he now leads a major Japanese distillery, Tanaka got his whisky start at Four Roses in Kentucky. (Photo by Fuji Whisky)
In 2002, Kirin acquired Kentucky’s Four Roses Distillery from its former partner Seagram, which had exited the drinks business by then. Tanaka was sent to Kentucky almost immediately. “I didn’t even know where Kentucky was,” he says. “The only thing I knew was Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Derby, and bourbon, of course—but that was it. But I wanted to go back to the U.S., and Four Roses was a brand I already knew and enjoyed, so I readily volunteered to make the move.”
Tanaka lived in the Bluegrass State for seven years, working as the director of quality at Four Roses, a role that put him in close contact with legendary master distiller and blender Jim Rutledge. While Rutledge was a font of whiskey knowledge who taught him a lot, it was the Kentucky bourbon community’s mindset that left the biggest impression on Tanaka. “What I learned from working at Four Roses is fellowship—bourbon is a big industry, but a small community,” he says. “People are constantly talking to each other, and sometimes even working together.”
To illustrate the point, Tanaka describes a tasting event that occurred shortly after he started working at Four Roses. Each distillery had a booth in the usual fashion; some had long lines and saw constant foot traffic. But Four Roses, which suffered from a poor reputation in the U.S. during Seagram’s ownership, got little interest—until Wild Turkey distiller Jimmy Russell started recommending it to anyone who stopped by his own booth. “I thanked Jimmy for introducing us to people, and he told me it was no problem—we’re not competitors, we’re fellow distillers,” recalls Tanaka. “I was so impressed by this, the way they think and treat each other as fellows, with friendship.” It’s that fellowship that has kept Tanaka enamored with the whisky world for so long, and it became a major tenet he took home to Fuji Gotemba.
Returning to Japan in 2009, Tanaka set in motion the next—and current—phase of his career as Fuji Gotemba’s master blender. The formerly named Fuji Sanroku label, which was for Japan only, was rechristened as Fuji and is now making its way into international markets. “We were so domestically focused because we never realized there was such a huge opportunity abroad for our style of whisky,” says Tanaka.
Last November, Fuji unveiled a limited-release 30 year old single grain whisky. It includes stocks of single grain Japanese whisky that matured in first- and second-fill bourbon casks for at least 30 years. It’s a Canadian-style grain whisky distilled and matured in Japan from a mash of American corn and Scottish barley. Because of Fuji’s layered, delicate flavors across all of its bottlings, Tanaka hopes people will start enjoying it on different drinking occasions. “We want people to recognize Fuji as quickly as they would Four Roses, but even more importantly, we want them to enjoy the whisky—not just in a shot glass, but in different ways, with food, with friends and family,” he says. “Enjoy the aromas and flavor, enjoy the conversation they may inspire.”