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8 Things You Should Know About Chichibu Whisky

(Image Source: The Whisky Wash)

 

The Chichibu distillery is certainly one of those "if you know you know" producers in the whisky world. You've either heard of them and admire them in some way, or simply don't know what the other person ins blabbering about.

With a name that rolls off the tongue, the whiskies offered by this small distillery are quite coveted among Japanese whisky aficionados. With offerings that are rare as the night is long, let's dive into this mysterious little distillery that has made waves in the whisky world.

Here are 8 things you should know about Chichibu whisky.

1. Founded only in 2008, Chichibu is actually the first new whisky distillery in Japan since 1973.


When you think of expensive, highly-sought-after whiskies, what comes to mind is a sprawling operation with decades of rich history and hundreds of employees. Chichibu, ever the exception, was only founded in 2008. This makes it a fairly young distillery by general comparison. In fact, Chichibu has the honor of being the first new distillery in Japan since 1973. 

The distillery itself is a quaint roadside affair which looks a lot like your average motel. The precise square footage isn't widely publicized, but its small scale is part of its charm and appeal. And fancy this, they have a staff of no more than a dozen people managing the distilling process. Compared to whisky giants such as Suntory or Nikka, this is staggeringly small in comparison.

But judging by the esteem in which Chichibu is held, it sure seems to work.

2. There’s hardly enough Chichibu whisky to go around, and what little is produced is often snapped up by clients like Isetan and Takashimaya.

Unlike other distilleries that are sitting on stockpiles of their product and might release it in small batches, Chichibu's rarity and price isn't quite because they're limiting the releases. It's simply because they don't have that much whisky to go around.

Chichibu whisky is produced in very minute quantities, with a modest 60,000 litres of annual production. That may have since expanded with a second distillery, but it'll be some time before we see those whiskies ready!

 

Chichibu’s exclusive bottlings for Takashimaya (Top) and Singapore's Changi Airport DFS (Bottom)

 

Of these few hallowed bottles, most are pre-ordered by some clients that range from Japanese retailers Isetan and Takashimaya, to Singapore’s Changi Airport, which are then sold by these clients as exclusive offerings. This means that there isn't much left for Chichibu’s core range. With only so many bottles to go around, one would understand the feverish transfixion by collectors, or the lengths they'll go to to get their desired bottle. 

3. Chichibu Whisky Chichibu started as a grandson’s heroic bid to salvage his family's legacy.


 

Before Chichibu, there was Hanyu. 

For context, Chichibu's founder Ichiro Akuto was his family's 21st generation to be a maker of alcoholic beverages mainly based in Saitama, Japan. His grandfather had founded the legendary Hanyu distillery in the 1940’s, doing well until Japan’s economic bust in the 1990’s which forced the distillery to shutter.

At the time, Ichiro was actually in Suntory’s sales division and had no plans on becoming a distiller himself. Oddly enough, this changed when he found out that Hanyu distillery's new owners had no interest in its whisky reserves, and had decided to simply discard the whisky. Ichiro, understandably horrified by this notion, decided to start Venture Whisky (which owns Chichibu distillery) in 2004, in an attempt to salvage his family’s whisky equipment and reserves.

In the early days of Venture Whisky, Ichiro had primarily focused on bottling the some 400 casks of Hanyu whisky he managed to salvage. This was done to raise funds for a new distillery that Ichiro wanted to build (the now Chichibu distillery).

 
 

Some of the salvaged stocks were made into the famed The Playing Cards series, a 54-bottle (the standard 52 cards Poker deck with the addition of 2 Jokers) set. In 2020 at Bonham’s Fine and Rare Wine and Whisky auction in Hong Kong, one bottle went for a whopping $1.52 million.

4. Chichibu, the whisky with a palate older than it should have.

Before you think Chichibu's whisky has its hype solely from its rarity, let me politely interject and tell you there's more than meets the eye. Despite its youth in the whisky world, Chichibu has been making waves because of how it tastes.

Ichiro released Chichibu’s first single malt, “Chichibu the First”, at the Whisky Live in Paris event in 2010. While an alcoholic singe betrayed its youth, critics noticed how complex and flavorful it was.

 

 

Firstly, it was due to the immense presence of fruit notes. The whisky had notes of mangoes, pineapples and apples, a side of mint and mustard. Some even described it as wasabi, delivered in the form of a deliciously creamy malt that was simultaneously sweet, sour, spicy and fruity. Being a fruit bomb certainly was a feat, as esters (the chemical that gives it the fruitiness) are typically associated with more aged whiskies. But the star of the show was the subtle influence of the cask's Mizunara’s kara. Now, kara is essentially the unique properties and the distinctive flavors that Mizunara Oak imparts on what its filled with.

For context, Mizunara’s influence is so strong that it’s believed a whisky must mature for 20 years before it is not ruined by an overwhelming karaBut Chichibu the first had a creamy, smooth and tamed kara, nearly unprecedented for its age.

5. Chichibu has its own cooperage.

With the wish to make as much as they could themselves, Chichibu distillery built their own cooperage, where Mizunara Oak planks are made into barrels for the famed whisky. Mizunara logs are dried for three years after they are cut, and made into barrels where the whisky is aged for another three years.

They can make about a barrel every two days. Mizunara oak is an infamously leaky wood, and an additional day is dedicated to make sure nothing comes out of the barrel before its time. After a barrel is initially formed, leaks are tested for and the offending planks will be replace. This process repeats until the barrel is airtight.

Having its own cooperage also means Chichibu can make some pretty nifty, exclusive equipment, including an egg-shaped cask that is used to make their famed Wine Wood Malt whisky. They also created the Chibidaru cask ("cute cask”), which is a quarter of the size of a standard cask and aims to increase surface area-to-volume ratio in order to impart flavors speedily. The most recent beer cask releases were also made in-house before being sent over to beer makers for use.

 

 

6. Chichibu breaks the norm with specially made equipment.

One other thing that makes Chichibu the way it is goes beyond the level of care that Ichiro puts into his product. There's also a daringness to go against the typical.

Such elements includes Chichibu’s long fermentation duration (twice as long as typical) and the use of Mizunara washbacks (fermentation vats) which create more intense fruity flavours. As we know, Chichibu isn't fermented nearly long enough to have Mizunara oak's sandalwood flavor fully imparted into it. With an eye on science and ingenuity, Mizunara is instead selected because it is a host for specific strains of yeast and probiotics. 

As mentioned earlier, Chichibu ferments its malt over four days instead of the usual two. The first half lets the fermentation process take place, but that's not all.

 
 

In the remaining two days, the alcohol conversion grinds to a halt. This is when probiotics living in the Mizunara wood take over and add further acidity and flavorsome esters, creating Chichibu’s fruity flavors. This process is called lactic fermentation, which converts the malty alcohol into a fruitier one.

7. Chichibu does floor malting – a process atrociously hard to control.

Floor-malting is the process where wet barley is spread across a smooth concrete floor to germinate before undergoing fermentation.

   
   

This gives the whisky a sweeter, nuttier flavor that also retains peat smoke better. 

Thing is, it's as labour-intensive as it is traditional. Workers have to rake the malt manually and is atrociously hard to control. It's small wonder many distilleries have turned to using an industrial malting process instead.

8. Some well known cartoon like Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse have graced Chichibu’s bottle labels!

Unlike the same old bottle labels that you see on offerings from other distilleries, Chichibu has made it a point for no two bottle label to be the same.

Each release tends to have distinct label designs, which often feature detailed information about the cask type, maturation period, and other specifics.

Naturally, this practice not only adds to the appeal and collectability of Chichibu whiskies but also underscores the individuality and craftsmanship behind each bottle. 

 

Label Artwork by Kawanabe Kyosai

 

The label of the Chichibu US Edition 2024

 

More notable labels have included Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse as well as art by renowned artists such as Kawanabe Kyosai.

 

Kanpai!

 

Lok Bing Hong

A budding journalist that loves experiencing new things and telling people's stories. I have 30 seconds of coherence a day. I do not decide when they come. They are not consecutive.