Moto In Japan Ep.2: Geeking Out with Tatsumi Distillery

Tatsumi Distillery

Welcome back to another episode of ‘Moto in Japan,’ a highlight-reel of our adventures in the homeland. Today, we look back on our trip to Gifu Prefecture, Japan, when we visited our favourite gin and absinthe producer, Tatsumi Distillery.

What had first piqued our interest about Tatsumi Distillery was just how unique the products were, from a Dandelion Chocolate Gin to a Wasabi Gin! The distillery also differentiates itself from the crowd by using shochu (a Japanese distillate) as the base spirit in the production process, instead of using a diluted neutral spirit as per the norm. For these reasons, Tatsumi had begun to garner a small yet cult-like following amongst spirits enthusiasts in Japan. We realized this was a trailblazer of a producer worth investigating – and with our visit, we were happy to discover that our hunch could not have been more accurate.

While a quick bullet train journey from Tokyo to Gifu-Hashima station, it took us another hour and a half drive through winding mountainous roads to reach our destination in the small town of Gujo Hachiman, nestled deep in the Japanese Alps.

Tatsumi Distillery Outside

Outside Tatsumi Distillery.

As soon as we arrived, Mr. Tatsumi stepped out to greet us. Mr. Tatsumi is not only the CEO, but the master distiller and sole employee of the distillery! As you can only imagine, running every aspect of a distillery on one’s own is no easy feat. Distilling is no mere job for Mr. Tatsumi – it is his life. Yet when meeting the man, we quickly came to the understanding that he would not have it any other way, as his love for spirits was infinite. And while he may find the business side of the operation to be somewhat of a chore, he could probably spend the rest of his life concocting his unique distillates and he would be one happy man.

Which is why it made sense that upon our arrival, we did not spend long exchanging pleasantries. Instead, Mr. Tatsumi jumped straight into educating us about his distillery. He first led us inside the forest, just a few steps behind the distillery. While we stood facing a running creek, Mr. Tatsumi explained that Gujo’s drinking water, collected from unadulterated mountain spring water, was a source of local pride. And that the use of such fine quality water was one of the secrets behind his gorgeous distillates.

Inside Tatsumi Distillery

Inside Tatsumi Distillery.

Once inside the distillery, we discovered his other secret to success: the kabutogama still. The kabutogama is a wooden still developed all the way back in the late 17th century during Japan’s Edo Period. If you wanted to learn about the kabutogama still and its differences from the modern pot still, have a read here. If not, just know that while it was widely used by Japanese shochu distillers until the late 19th century, it is only used by a handful of producers in present-day Japan given its small production capacity. It is extremely inefficient, especially considering the amount of work required to use it! However, Mr. Tatsumi is convinced that the extra effort is worth it given the still’s impact on the quality of the final product. That is why Tatsumi Distillery remains to be one of the few to keep this ancient distillation method alive within Japan and is actually the only distillery in the world using it to make Western-style spirits! 

Mr. Tatsumi’s pride and joy, the kabutogama wooden still, on the left. At times, he also uses the ordinary pot still on the right, depending on the product.

Mr. Tatsumi then shared his final secret: the power of collaboration. As briefly mentioned before, the distillery is renown for unprecedented choices when it comes to botanicals, leading to novel creations like yuzu gin, lavender absinthe, and even a strawberry gin with jasmine and green tea. Yum! In deciding what botanicals to choose, Mr. Tatsumi consults local farmers to see what is currently in season and if they happen to have some to share with Mr. Tatsumi to use for his distillates. Thanks to his collaborative nature, Mr. Tatsumi has managed to create extremely rare concoctions while helping out local businesses. His distillates have also become one of the most terroir-driven in the market today!

After the distillery tour, we made our way to the tasting room; a space Mr. Tatsumi converts into a bar for locals to gather every Friday and Saturday evening.

Tatsumi Distillery Bar

The local watering hole – built from scratch by Mr. Tatsumi. What can the man not do?!

Mr. Tatsumi

Mr. Tatsumi himself! His T-shirt design is taken from one of his most popular gin labels.

Some of the distillery’s beautiful products. We immediately fell in love with the label designs and eventually ended up showcasing the artist’s wood-tiled prints at Moto!

It was great having the mastermind himself talk us through his beloved spirits. We ended up purchasing the Alchemiae Innaki Gin and Alchemiae Innaki Absinthe for Moto, but we would have happily snatched up the whole range if we could have!

Naturally, we only expected to find the distillery’s own products in the tasting room, yet we were in for quite a surprise. What we found instead were almost 2,000 bottles of alcohol from Mr. Tatsumi’s private collection that he had gathered over the years! Everything from sake, to western spirits, to his favourite tipple of all – shochu. Before getting absorbed in the world of western distillates, Mr. Tatsumi had apparently been a die-hard shochu fan. He had even worked at a number of different shochu distilleries, which is where his skills as a distiller were honed, where he came across the kabutogama still, and where his inspiration to produce shochu-based gins and absinthes were born. Not to mention where he gathered much of his expansive shochu collection!

Sharing is caring, so they say, so instead of hoarding his drinks for himself, he now happily sells them by the glass at his bar at extremely reasonable prices. I cannot think of any other small, country-side neighbourhood bar where you’ll find such a wide and finely curated selection of beverages! Needless to say, we then geeked out for a very long time over as many bottles as we could! Until the time came when, unfortunately, we had to say our goodbyes as we had a train to catch back to Tokyo.

Water. Respect for ancient distillation methods. Bringing up local farmers through collaboration… All of these factors most definitely contribute to Tatsumi Distillery’s ever-growing fan base. Through our visit however, we found that the ultimate secret to the distillery’s success lay with Mr. Tatsumi himself. That none of it was possible without his passion, dedication, and relentless love for spirits.