Over the past decade, Japanese whisky has become increasingly popular, and as I touched down on Japanese soil, I couldn’t wait to visit my first distillery. My first point of call was to be Ichiro Akuto’s Chichibu distillery in Saitama Prefecture, a couple of hours away from Tokyo. I had been in touch with Ichiro’s brand ambassador, Yumi, about making a visit to Chichibu Distillery. Chichibu normally isn’t open to the public, but luckily I was granted access and made my way there on a sunny Monday afternoon.
To understand why Chichibu is such an important distillery, you firstly have to look at its history. Chichibu is actually relatively new, having only begun production in 2008, however its owner, Ichiro, is something of a legend when it comes to whisky-making. Coming from a long line of Sake brewers in Chichibu dating back to the 17th Century, craft alcohol is clearly in Ichiro’s blood. His grandfather, Isouji Akuto, famously built Hanyu distillery in 1941, before obtaining a license to distill spirits in 1946. He subsequently bought 2 copper pot stills from Scotland during the 80s with which to produce whisky. As is the case with many distilleries, Hanyu sadly closed in 2000, however the stock from its warehouse was procured by Ichiro, which is where his story really begins.
Ichiro independently bottled and sold some of his Hanyu whisky stock through his limited company, Venture Whisky Ltd, under the name “Ichiro’s Malt”. In a move that proved incredibly popular with consumers and collectors, he released 54 bottlings, each branded with a different playing card design. These poker-set bottles became not only iconic, but also synonymous with high-priced Japanese whisky, and the prices are constantly rising. The Hanyu 20yo Ace of Spades, for example, has 3 valuations listed on whisky stats.net: firstly in January 2015 for 4,655 Euros, then in February 2015 for 7,210 Euros, and thirdly in January 2016 when one sold for 11,400 Euros (a full set would set you back around half a million dollars). These sorts of staggering prices are rarely seen outside of Scotland, and in Japan it is largely Karuizawa whiskies (bottled from another closed distillery) that seem to be able to rival the values of Ichiro’s poker cards. Well, funnily enough, Ichiro also rescued stock from this distillery after its closure, and sold his own 51 year old Karuizawa bottling at a Bonhams auction in 2015 for for $118,543.
The next step for Ichiro was to start his own distillery. Using his experience from working for Suntory and some capital from the success of his independent bottlings (as well as a bit of investment), Venture Whisky Ltd’s first distillery was born just outside Chichibu. The production capabilities in this distillery are very small (only 90,000 litres per year), so it is unlikely that you will see mass produced bottlings from Ichiro, but on the plus side it means each whisky is made with incredible care and precision.
This firstly starts with the barley. Most of Venture Whisky Distillery’s barley and malt is imported from the UK, but they are now beginning to grow barley in Chichibu and malt it on their own traditional malting floor (although home-malting can only take place between Autumn and spring when the temperatures are lower). And it isn’t just the barley that is to be locally sourced; Mizunara Oak and Peat can both be cut in Saitama Prefecture, meaning that Ichiro’s Malt will eventually be produced entirely from local Japanese produce, from water to wood. While Kilchoman and Springbank both hold varying claims to being the only distilleries to be able to produce a 100% local product, I think Chichibu will be the first to take this idea all the way.
Japanese whisky, as a general rule, models itself on Scottish production methodology, which is evident from the 2 copper pots that stand pride of place in Chichibu distillery, both of which have “Scotland” embossed on the front. However, Ichiro has pioneered his own production techniques, which are very much Japanese. And I’m not talking about the no shoes rule in the production area (slippers are provided at the door), but about the oak fermentation tanks, otherwise known as washbacks. Washbacks are traditionally either stainless steel, and therefore inert, or wooden, and usually made from Douglas fir or Oregon pine and occasionally Siberian Larch or Cypress. The type of oak Ichiro uses is the aforementioned Mizunara Oak (Quercus Mongolia), a native oak to Japan - unlike American Oak (Quercus Alba) or European Oak (Quercus Robus) which are more commonly used in maturation.
So, why use wooden washbacks? Well, for a start, they look slightly more pleasing than stainless steel, but at a distillery that isn’t open to the public, that makes little difference. The main reason that Chichibu Distillery uses them is for bacterial fermentation. Wood is a great host for wild yeasts and bacteria, specifically Lactic Acid Bacteria (which inhabit the malt). In simple terms, once the yeast has completed its primary alcohol-producing fermentation (which takes about 48 hours), the Lactic Acid Bacteria undergo lactic fermentation, producing fruity esthers and aldehydes. It can generally be assumed that the longer the fermentation process, the fruitier the final product. The additional strains of bacteria found in Mizunara wood is something that is relatively unresearched when it comes to wort fermentation, so Ichiro is exploring new territory here.
Not only is Mizunara used for fermentation at Chichibu distillery, but also for some of the maturation. In fact, Mizunara is now being used not only in Japanese distilleries, but also by Scotch Malt producers such as Bowmore and even blenders like Chivas Regal. Due to being such a young distillery, Ichiro is constantly experimenting with different oak casks, and a walk through the dunnage warehouse shows this. Barrels of various different sizes are stacked on open soil, and display the names of every style of cask you can imagine, from ex-bourbon hogsheads to port pipes to ex-rum barrels and even an egg-shaped wine vat.
I was lucky enough to try a total of 12 drams from this distillery including both their peated and unpeated new make. I can safely say that the 2017 Ichiro’s Malt IPA Cask Finish is one of the most interesting drams I have ever tasted. While it may not be for everyone, it’s bold character is undeniable. The whisky is finished in what were originally ex-bourbon barrels used to house Chichibu’s new make spirit. These barrels are then sent to a nearby craft brewery to mature their IPA, and finally return to Chichibu to finish this whisky. On the nose there is a pronounced citrus and hoppy aroma with discernible IPA notes, and on the palate a fruity tang and acidity that I found absolutely bewitching.
Unfortunately, Venture Whisky aren’t licensed to sell their whiskies at the distillery, but thanks to the experience and the knowledge of Ichiro’s staff I didn’t leave completely empty handed, but with a newly inspired appreciation for Japanese whisky. Although I’m still on the hunt for a bottle of that 2017 IPA finish…