Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs
There’s a aspect of Japanese culture which appeals to me a lot – the concept of kaizen, or slow, patient, incremental improvement of a thing or a task, by constant repetition and miniscule refinement, that over time can lead to spectacular results and quality. Consider Toyota’s manufacturing processes as an example. Or the master chef Jiro Ono, who has been making sushi for decades, constantly making his work simpler, more elegant…and better, much better, Michelin-3-star better. Or the filmmaker Ozu, who always seemed to make exactly the same film, until his repeated, specific observations on Japanese life became universal generalities (look no further than 1955’s “Tokyo Story” if you are interested).
Given the length of time Japanese stay in their professions, or the years lavished by them on their artistic endeavours before even pretending to any kind of expertise, it may be too early to include Nine Leaves distillery in this august company – yet there’s something in the stated long term philosophy of its founder and sole employee (for now), who began the operation in 2013, which reminded me of this idea and how it is a part of Japanese thinking. And I enjoyed all three of the micro-distillery’s products when I tried them in October 2014, and wanted to know more about the company.
There have, of course, been other Japanese rum producers and brands: Ryoma (Kikusui), Yokosuka, Ogasawara, Midorinishima, Cor-cor come to mind, and most of these are in the south, or in Okinawa, where climate favours the production of sugar. However, none of them have ever made a real splash on the world scene. And all are relatively modest affairs, much like Nine Leaves is, though one could argue Nine Leaves markets itself somewhat better.
Nine Leaves Distillery is located in the Shiga Prefecture on Honshu island, at the south end along the river Seta. It sits at the foot of a privately owned, nameless mountain, which is mined for anorthite (feldspar), the glaze used in high-end porcelain. When the bottom fell out of the market as a result of cheaper glaze from China, the owners started bottling the water from a spring under the ground level, which was unusually soft, and it was the prescence of this water which convinced the man behind Nine Leaves to ground his new operation there.
Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs
Much like all startups, the short history of this outfit cannot be separated from that of its owner: Mr. Yoshiharu Takeuchi. As I remarked in my review of the French Oak Cask Angel’s Half, nothing in his background or that of his family would suggest that this was a passion of his. The family business was one of those small sub-contracting firms that manufactured precision car parts for the big car companies, and located in Nagoya; it was started by Mr. Takeuchi’s grandfather. Mr. Takeuchi himself was dissatisfied with the life, and casting around for some creative endeavour of his own — something he could make and control from start to finish, which showcased a long tradition of Japanese craftsmanship – and was drawn to the possibilities of distilling whiskey. However he was soon diverted more towards rum, because unlike the highly regulated Scottish drink, rum was (and remains) remarkably free of any kind of global standards…which he saw as an opportunity to put his own stamp on the process and end-product. And also unlike the craft makers — like Cadenhead, G&M, Velier, Rum Nation, etc — Nine Leaves never intended to rebottle from pre-purchased casks sourced in the West Indies or wherever, but is a one stop shop from almost-beginning to end.
There was not a whole lot of rum distilling expertise in Japan, yet Mr. Takeuchi did manage to spend a whole three days (!!) soaking up the advice of another small distillery owner, Mr. Ichiro Akuto of Chichibu (he was the grandson of the founder of the now-defunct Hanyu Distillery), which had been operating since 2008, and used small copper stills from Forsythe’s to make a range of whiskies. On the advice of Mr. Akuto, he ordered a wash and spirit still from Forsythe’s as well, and when they arrived in Japan, assembled them himself; he dispensed with wooden washbacks and went with stainless steel instead, figuring that if it was good enough for Glenfarclas, it was good enough for him. Having found his water supply, established his site close by, and having assembled his equipment (personally), he next sourced his brown sugar from Tarama-jima (a small island in the Okinawa archipelago) …one can only wonder what would have happened had he found the perfect water next to a sugar plantation in the south of Japan. Most likely he would have gotten into cane cultivation, and made his own sugar as well.
Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs
All preparations complete, Mr. Takeuchi was ready to commence operations in 2013, two years after having made his initial decision, without hiring any staff…and without quitting his day job.
The source of the fermented wash is neither molasses nor cane juice, but brown sugar (muscavado) and water, which may explain something of the rums’ interesting profiles, seeming to be somewhat of a hybrid of both agricoles and molasses-based rum, without exactly being either. Mr. Takeuchi has noted on his website that this was a deliberate choice: “[I aimed]… to discard the variable of bitterness or off-flavor from sugar cane juice and molasses, and to enhance the clear, refined sweetness and… [lingering tastes] that I had in mind.” After the first distillation of the wash – fermentation takes about four days — Mr. Takeuchi’s process for making rum relies heavily on the second distillation, where careful monitoring of the spirit quality and the cut phases to reduce the amount of undesirable feints (he sometimes tastes every few minutes). Usually in the three standard cuts (‘heads’, ‘hearts’ and ‘tails’), it’s the ‘heart’ you want to keep – the skill comes in knowing when to start taking out the distillate from that middle phase, before which you throw away the ‘head’ and after which you dispense with the ‘tails’ (unless in the latter case you’re after some interesting effects, or wish to use them both to redistill later). It would appear that Mr. Takeuchi has a flair for making his cuts just right, which he rather drily attributes to an appreciation for his wife and other’s home cooking in developing his sense of taste and smell. However, one can also assume that something more personal is at work here, as evinced in a remark Mr. Takeuchi made, oddly similar to one Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation also expounded: it comes down to “trusting your nose and your instinct…we all know what’s good and what isn’t.”
Photograph Copyright © Niko Neefs
Because bottle shape in Japan is highly standardized – depending on the bottle one can tell immediately whether it contains local tipples like nihonshu (sake) or shochu – Nine Leaves sourced its glassware from France, and bottles the non-chill-filtered by hand, as well as manually affixing the labels (sometimes the family chips in to help). At the time when the company began in 2013, it issued an unaged ‘Clear’ rum, bottled at 50% (it’s the same as a ‘white’ – the name was chosen to reference the glaze mined in the mountain). In that same year Mr. Takeuchi, thinking beyond making just a localized white lightning, sourced 225 liter virgin oak casks, of American and French oak, one of each. His intention was to set aside perhaps 60% of his production, create two gold variations aged for perhaps six months, and move on to ageing 20% more into a dark set of rums aged for more than two years (the remainder will be white rum). And there are already plans to use ex-sherry, ex-bourbon and ex-wine barrels (this last from California) as well, so certainly we can expect to see the range of Nine Leaves expand in the years to come.
The question is how much, and how soon. Nine Leaves lacks warehousing space, though plans are afoot to build some. In speaking to Mr. Takeuchi last year he told me he’ll keep his output minimal for a while, enough to retain his distilling license from the Japanese Government, and to allow him to progressively age his rums, tweak with the taste profiles, perhaps even build some inventory. A regular release of the six-month-aged gold rums would occur – another batch was set to be bottled around the same time we met (of course, since he was talking to me, he couldn’t be bottling anything…). A lot would depend on the reaction of the rum drinkers in the world to the products he had already issued in early 2014 – the French and American oak Gold “Angel’s Half” rums and the “Clear”, and he was certainly doing his best to attend the various rum and whisky expos in order to build awareness and find potential distributors.
Photo (c) Nine Leaves
Mr. Takeuchi also sees that the process of building a brand name is one that will take years, if not decades, and intends to make this a family operation spanning the generations. It’s not something to be hurried, and since ageing of spirits is intimately involved, having a timeline of years is perhaps not so unusual.
You kind of have to admire that kind of persistence and determination in a man who not too long ago was making machine parts for cars.
So here’s an opinion (as opposed to the more straightforward facts above).
I thought his rums were atypical. They were clearly young, but quite well made for all that. There was a certain clarity and cleanliness to the taste reminiscent of the agricoles, yet some of the slightly darker notes coming from the residual molasses notes in the brown sugar. I considered the French Oak rum slightly better than the American oak version, and the Clear reminded me somewhat of Rum Nation’s 57% White Pot Still rum…not quite as good, but not too far behind it either (they are both recognizably pot still products, for example). My opinion aside, it bears mention that the “Clear” won an award for “Innovation de l’année” in Paris in 2014 for the silver category and the American Oak won “Best Newcomer” at the 2014 Berlin Rumfest. The difference in Nine Leaves’ products to this point seems to be that western/Caribbean rums, aside from being aged longer, have many things going on all at the same time, often in a kind of zen harmony, while Nine Leaves’s philosophy is more to accentuate individual notes, a sort of central core dominant, supported by lighter, subtler tastes that don’t detract or distract from the central note of character. Of course as these rums age for longer periods, I fully expect to see the profile evolve: but there was no denying that at the time I was quite impressed with the first batch (and said so, in my review of the French Oak, even if I had my qualifiers).
The Nine Leaves logo (also source of the company title) is a modified samurai crest (“kamon”) of the Takeuchi family…nine bamboo leaves. It is no coincidence that “Take” in Japanese means ‘bamboo’. As a student of history, I’d love to know how that all came about. In an interview with AboutDrinks website in 2014, Mr. Takeuchi noted his family was once involved in the timber/wood industry. If this was bamboo, the question is answered.
I am indebted to Stefan van Eycken of nonjatta.com, whose five part series on Nine Leaves I drew on for many of the points regarding distillation technique. Hat tip and acknowledgement to Niko Neefs for permission to use some of his photographs.
Arigato to Mr. Takeuchi himself, who patiently endured my pestering questions for half an hour straight even as my wife was trying to drag me away. And then responded to more questions by email.
Below is a list of some products issued by Nine Leaves. It’s incomplete because of the swift six month cycle of releases, but I’ll try to keep it up to date.