Flowers to Whisky

Hey, I’m Casey. Welcome to our weekly newsletter sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky. Each week Rusty or I will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan. We will transparently share our decision-making, the back stories on ingredients and distillation, and our mistakes (bound to be a ton as we are new to this). Send us a reply if you’d like to request a topic for our newsletter.

The Origin Story

5 years ago my wife wanted to visit Rebun, a super remote island way up at the top of Japan. We needed a break from Tokyo, and she proposed the adventure to isolated Rebun, to see the flowers and refresh.

We never made it.

The ferry we took from Wakkanai stopped first in Rishiri. Rishiri is a volcanic island a tad south of Rebun, just as remote, way up at the tippy-top of Japan, close to Sakhalin, Russia.

Rishiri is isolated.

On the ferry ride in we fell for the snow-capped volcano, Mt. Rishiri-Fuji, slowly, dramatically emerging out of the ocean. It’s the smaller, northern, island cousin to the Mt. Fuji that everyone knows. Much later, I learned that there is an occasional, direct flight from the Mt. Fuji airport to Rishiri airport; despite what you’d guess to be the most minor, uneconomical of routes, the mayors of the two “Fuji’s” desire to link up the two mountains directly overcame, and, surprisingly, in non-pandemic times, it flies full.

Anyways, we got off the ferry in Rishiri.

The plan was to spend a night or two there and then go on to the original goal, Rebun.

My wife loves her food. Once off the ferry, we made our way across the island to Rishiri-cho, my wife homing in on the best uni (sea urchin) place she could find.

After my wife savored the uni we walked around town. Not much there, so we decided to hop on the bus.

The bus runs a counter-clockwise circuit around the 52km island. Other than a couple of high school students we were the only ones on the bus. As the bus ambled down the road the high school kids jumped off, one by one, leaving just my wife and I.

The bus slowly slid down the western side of the island, the sun dropping lower in to the golden hour, and I was falling in love with the views over Senhoshi. Senhoshi is a small fishing village on the South Western corner of Rishiri. It’s about as remote as you can get in Japan. The sunset views, over the roughs of the beautiful fishing huts, tugged at my heart.

My wife, a tech entrepreneur, settling in to the slow bus ride asked, “If we lived here, what business would you start?” With barely a moment of though, I answered, “Alcohol. Has to be alcohol.” With the cold winters, the fishermen not able to get out for several months at a time, and limited in non-natural recreation options, I knew there would be a big demand for drink.

Over the next couple of days we continued to explor Rishiri. We visited a couple of the natural springs, springs flowing water that spends 30+ years underneath the volcano, finally to bubble out of the rocks. We learned that there were several free-flowing springs across the island, with the most famous one ranked in the top tasting springs of Japan. Knowing the water quality, the “alcohol” startup idea crept further towards whisky.

At the time, the only alcoholic drink my wife could handle was whisky. Even before learning the quality of Rishiri’s water, that had pulled the idea to making whisky. If she had more than half a glass of wine she was liable to “lie down” on the sidewalk “for a rest”. Beer had a worse effect. But she could put away the whisky.

In my teens, I’d had a good friend whose family lived on Islay. I’d fallen in love with the Islay landscapes. I even bought a ceremonial square foot of land when visiting Laphroig.

These long dormant feelings were the fertile ground for my germinating love of Rishiri.

Rishiri reminded me of Islay - the landscapes, the beauty, the ruggedness of the locals. There was something about Rishiri’s locals that wasn’t Japanese. Of course they spoke Japanese, but there was a bit of the cowboy, a bit of rule breaking, a bit of freedom that felt more like Texas than the rule-bound, kept-in-line-through-guilt social construct of Yamato Japan that had me further falling for the place.

For quite a while we’d been looking for somewhere more rural in Japan to refresh from the continual stimulus of Tokyo. Rishiri was quickly becoming the top candidate for our non-Tokyo base.

As we left Rishiri a couple of days later, never having caught a glimpse of Rebun’s flowers, all of this was coalescing in to a tightness of energy that would only be satiated through a creative release of entrepreneurialism.

When I’d written my first book, created Japan’s first startup-themed movie, it was the same feeling - a creative need that had to be released, somehow. Even if no-one read my book or watched the movie it was something that I had to do. And I did. Making whisky in Rishiri was the same feeling.

On the bumpy ferry ride back to Wakkanai, my wife started furiously making the pitch deck for a whisky distillery. By the end of the two hour journey, we’d planned our return to Rishiri for early next year, to try to buy a piece of land on which to build, and pitch the whisky distillery.

The adventure to create, what would later become Kamui Whisky, had begun.

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