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Whisky Reviews

The Heart Of Ichiro's Malt: Leaf Series Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR), Double Distilleries, Wine Wood Reserve, Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky

 

Ichiro's Malt, or Chichibu Distillery, based in the Saitama Prefecture and established by Ichiro Akuto, has been inarguably the most successful Japanese distillery and arguably the most successful addition to the World Whisky category in the past decade. It's meteoric rise is of great envy to established players and is of equally great inspiration to many distilleries that have since joined the fray. Everyone wants to be Chichibu - pretty much sums up the whisky world the past few years.

Of course, today the landscape has shifted, there are that many more new and exciting distilleries coming to the fore, and Ichiro's Malt (the brand) and Chichibu (the distillery) is no longer the shiny new thing - but don't count them out, a re-invention just might be in the works. 

  

Ichiro Akuto.

 

Let's go over the story nonetheless - Ichiro Akuto comes from a family of alcohol makers going back many generations. However one particular family member, specifically his grandfather Isouji Akuto, probably had the most defining impact on Ichiro. Isouji had established what is perhaps the OG of craft distilleries, the Hanyu Distillery. However a broad decline of interest in Japanese-made whiskies saw the Hanyu Distillery shutter and when faced with the possibility of having all its whisky tossed out, Ichiro felt galvanised to save his grandfather's whisky and that led him into the whisky business. 

With some help, Ichiro was able to tuck away some of this Hanyu whisky while he began working on what would become the now powerhouse Chichibu Distillery. In the early days of Chichibu, Ichiro would sell the Hanyu whiskies, eventually also blending in the young whiskies from the new Chichibu Distillery, and thus would bottle these under the Ichiro's Malt brand, which would suffice until Chichibu could veritably bottle its own single malt under its own Chichibu brand.

While in the early days it was a tough sell given the lack of popularity of local whiskies with the Japanese market in the early 2000's, these would eventually take off alongside Chichibu's own brand and arguably contribute to the burgeoning Japanese whisky market in its entirety.

  

Chichibu Distillery.

 

Ironically that long awaited meteoric rise resulted in Chichibu being long unable to keep up with demand and thus the distillery has been notoriously sparse with its own official distillery bottlings, with far more private bottlings in existence. However, the early core range of Ichiro's Malts (which all contain a blend of whiskies sourced from beyond Chichibu, but do contain some Chichibu and even some bit of Hanyu), sometimes dubbed the Leaf Series, has sustained being a constant and remains available year round. What might have started as a temporary fix, has now become a beloved staple.

Today we're taste through a flight of the Ichiro's Malt Leaf Series - the Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR), the Wine Wood Reserve, the Double Distilleries and finally the Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky. 

Ichiro's Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) - Review

Mizunara or Japanese Oak is something that's held the public's interest and excitement for quite some time, with such an alluring exotic factor as it is said to be a wood that has unique incense like flavours but is also very difficult to work with as it is highly porous, and whose tree must be over 200 years old before it can be used for casks, and thus is said to be protected by the local government.

These days, admittedly we're seeing Mizunara pop up all over even in rums and mezcals, although we can't be too certain of their provenance and quality. But nevertheless for a good length of time, the only place you could reliably try proper Mizunara aged whisky rather accessibly was Ichiro's Malt's Mizunara Wood Reserve (MWR) - and till this day, I'd say it still is largely the case. If you want to try what that Mizunara profile is, this is a good place to start.

This is likely a world whisky blend (doesn't say specifically what, but does not specifically say Japanese whisky) that's been aged in Mizunara casks aged at Chichibu. 

 

Tasting Notes

Colour: Deep Gold, Amber

Aroma: Quite dense with lots of honey, and also freshly sawn oak and sawdust (IKEA furniture assembly vibes), there’s also some initial varnish that is a bit solvent-y.

Better give it some time, more mandarin candies, candied plums, some orchard fruits of apples and apricots, with some white florals. There’s also some surrounding bread-y notes of dough, as well as some black tea and maple syrup, lightly tangy but syrupy sweet and spiced with some cloves. Last bits of ginger candy and marzipan.

Taste: Alittle more apparent incense notes here, lightly ashy and of musty wood, it’s almost like aromatic woody ash, texturally almost gritty and slightly thin. There’s also honey, caramel, more of that polished wood, with some vanilla, poutpourri, ever so slightly of apple tea and coffee grounds. It’s quite aromatic, but at the same time somewhat tannic and bitter belying the honey sweetness.

Finish: As if it couldn’t get more aromatic, it does! More of that gritty but aromatic sandy incense note, here a more apparent bit of coconut flakes, which eventually recede into a light bitterness and drying quality.

  

My Thoughts

This was very interesting and abit of a head scratcher - the incense notes really come across more distinctively on the palate and almost deepens into the finish, like a fragrant almost floral sootiness of musty polished wood. On the nose this comes across more as a fresh wood shavings or sawdust - so completely different aspects of that Mizunara. 

Going back to the palate, it’s almost texturally gritty and can be abit overwhelming initially, but it does lighten up into the finish, taking more of an aromatic quality rather than a textural one. While its aromas and flavours initially made me brace for something more bitter and dry, thankfully that was not the case, and really only peaked on the palate before lightening up and becoming more forgiving.

On the whole, this was a very interesting whisky that quite frankly is something in of itself that you definitely ought to try at least once - I don’t think it’s something you’d drink all too often considering the ashiness, but it’s definitely a very unique expression. 

That said, it could use more body and sweetness, but big bonus points for honing in on that Mizunara whilst not letting it get overpowering.

My Rating: 6.5/10

Ichiro's Malt Wine Wood Reserve - Review

The Ichiro's Malt Wine Wood Reserve has always seem to hold the most fascination amongst the Ichiro's Malt Leaf Series - for it is aged in a very unique egg-shaped Ovum wine cask that was specially made for Ichiro by the Taransaud cooperage in Charentes, France, using French oak barrels.

It's said that Ichiro had seen this used by wine makers and thus wanted to adopy the process for his whiskies - which up till this day is completely novel. It holds a blend of Chichibu, Hanyu and Scotch whisky.

  

Tasting Notes

Color: Bright Amber

Aroma: Initially a little sharp - cranberries, cherries, brighter and more tart. Black pepper, and pencil shavings - still a little sharp and evocative of it being quite young. After some time the wine notes begin to show, but still quite bright and tart - grapes not yet ripe, something more vinous, wet oak - it's very gently sweet, but really more tart than sweet. There's some honey in there as well, and a light bit of fruit jam, nutmeg, anise and nuttiness. With more time field raspberries, and chocolate shavings, rosemary and pine.

Taste: Mellower on the palate than on the nose - more of spiced honey with gentle red fruits of raspberries, blackberries, cranberries macerated and left to infuse water - not the sort of fruit jam you might be used to. This is more fruit-infusion. There's a noticeable fizziness of lemon candy, alongside some honey. It's more buttery on the palate in terms of texture and reminds me of an baked apple pie actually. There's an oaky astringency as well. It's overall only lightly sweet, more mellow here but still tending towards the more tart citric side of things.

Finish: Clean, fairly short, but quite delightful. Reminiscent of raisin bread dough - more towards dried fruits, baking spices, butter and more maltier here.

   

My Thoughts

The youth here is very obvious - it's alot sharper than you'd hope and still alittle hot.

Which is one of main challenges when it comes to wine casks and also why you'll find that many drinkers don't take well to them - for a good wine cask whisky to work you really need the whisky to have a great hefty body and a longer maturation for the brighter more tart wine notes to integrate well with the whisky's typically richer, deeper notes. If the whisky is young, then you'd get a double combo of sharpness from the young whisky and the wine cask and also they won't get along as the whisky hasn't developed the richer, deeper notes to balance out the brighter wine cask notes.

In this case, the youth of the whisky doesn't help (especially if the Ovum wine cask is designed to be quite active) and so it unfortunately falls short - but that said, bear in mind that this is a far later batch of the expression. When I've spoken to folks who've tried the expression on multiple occasions over the years, they've lauded the older releases, which likely have more Hanyu content and also more aged Chichibu whisky in it, which then works spectacularly with the wine cask.

Still very decent in my books.

My Rating: 5/10 

Ichiro's Malt Double Distilleries - Review 

With the two previous expressions (the Mizunara Wood Reserve and the Wine Wood Reserve) showcasing various more unique cask maturations, we come to the Ichiro's Malt Double Distilleries expression which focuses instead on the use of two malt whiskies - Chichibu and Hanyu. 

Now your initial thoughts might be "What a steal!" Two incredibly sought after whiskies packed into one for about a US$150 (which while not exactly cheap, is definitely oodles cheaper than most of what you'd get from either distilleries). And then a secondary thought might be "How do they keep this up with finite Hanyu whiskies?" After all Hanyu shuttered proper in 2004, but had already ceased production in 2000, with Ichiro managing to salvage some 400 barrels of the stuff.

Given the fairly regular release of the Double Distilleries for almost a decade, it's definitely worth questioning how much Hanyu could even be left at this point. For starters I'll go ahead and make an assumption that this expression still keeps the integrity of being solely Chichibu and Hanyu whiskies and that nothing else has been added (I think with as much reputation as Ichiro has, this is entirely likely). And so the only other conclusion considering that one distillery is no more and the other has only increased production each year, is that the Double Distilleries carries a high proportion of Chichibu and a small amount of Hanyu - this can be done via a simple teaspoon practice or through something more along the lines of a solera vatting.

It is actually pretty accepted that early batches of the Double Distilleries had a more clear Hanyu expression versus what's released today, so you can probably go ahead and assume that it's a declining amount of Hanyu used so expect batch variations.

 

Tasting Notes

Colour: Darker Gold

On the nose. Very sweet! A floral, vanillic sweetness that is a mix of lavender, honey, honeysuckle and ixoras. There’s a deep maltiness of lavender early grey cookies. The aromas are very strong, almost like what you would expect with bourbon except without the spicy edges. 

On second nosing, I get fruitier notes, though these are alittle deeper and more in the backdrop, apples, peaches, nectarines, still very sweet. And then some woody oak which blends into the distinctive sandalwood that Japanese Oak is famous for, that agarwood incense that you find at temples. 

Taste: Fairly light bodied which is surprising given the nose, which would have led me to think it might have been syrupy. A nice surprise indeed! It’s definitely spicy and tingly upfront so you might have to make a conscious effort to let it cool down on the palate before finishing it. Honey sweetness and bright fruity notes, freshly cut apples, apricots, peaches. Very crisp and succulent.

Gentle maltiness that is just noticeable, butter biscuits, Ceylon black tea, alittle reminiscent of Tim Tams.

Finish: More honeyed sweetness that follows through, alittle honey stars like, with a slight bitter oaky note. Baking spices as well, light dusting of nutmeg, icing sugar, cinnamon, but very light. The finish does go on for awhile.

  

My Thoughts

Very enjoyable - this has all the easy buttery maltiness and sweetness that is very comforting and accessible, there's also a good amount of floral and fruity notes that are bright and almost cheerful. These are all notes that would almost seem to fit in with a hotel breakfast, brunch of just an afternoon set of tea and cakes. 

The oakiness is maybe the harshest of the notes in this bottle, with a slight twang of bitterness that surfaces as the whisky recedes. But it is one that adds some contrast to the sweetness, which would otherwise become somewhat one dimensional.

This combines a whole vibe of pastries, field florals and tea and scones, you'd be hard pressed to have a bone to pick with it. 

My Rating: 7.5/10 

Ichiro's Malt & Grain World Blended Whisky - Review

This expression here is a little more focused on the blending abilities of the team at Chichibu, making use of malt and grain whiskies from the key whisky producing countries across the world, namely Canada, Ireland, Scotland, US and Japan.

There are a few variants of this with one in particular being a blue coloured leaf label that focuses purely on Japanese Blended Whisky.

  

Tasting Notes

Color: Light Gold

Aroma: Bright notes of citrus blossoms - oranges, pomelo, grapefruit rinds, there’s a sweeter note of honey and caramel, and a distinct bit of varnish and polished wood.

There’s a somewhat deeper, sweeter but more gentle note of white chocolate, quite confectionary, sugared almonds, pears and plums. It also has a buttery, syrupy maltiness that’s alittle bit like sweet corn and fondant.

Taste: Very much flavour forward - honey, vanilla cream, lemon zest and lemon sherbet, yellow kiwis and a light bit of yellow banana flesh and custard apple. There’s a good hit of pepper here, sawdust, malt husk, ginger, and alittle bit of crushed walnuts. More of that buttery malt, butter cookies and then some lacquered oak.

Finish: It’s more drying here with more oaky woodiness that comes with a light bitterness on what is an otherwise long finish with quite abit of warmth. There’s receding notes of honey, peppercorns and vanilla cream.

  

My Thoughts

This was pretty decent! There’s a good vibrant burst of flavour when it hits the palate even if alittle soft on the nose. It has a good amount of complexity and is rather multi-faceted. To that end, the only drawback I find is that in trying to be everything, it almost loses any distinctiveness and is sort of neither here nor there - it’s alittle bit of everything and not a whole lot of something in that sense. There’s a good array of flavours sprinkled all about and don’t be mistaken - they are very cohesive and well rounded with no sharp edges to speak off, however I do find them vaguely connected and find it hard to see what the big picture is here.

Nonetheless, a solid all-rounder if you’re just looking for good whisky (and not a specific distillery’s profile).

My Rating: 6/10

Overall

A very decent and fun selection of whiskies expressed in a variety of key themes - interesting cask maturations, a throwback to Chichibu's history, and a demonstration of some blending skills. You get quite a varied experience across the four, and while admittedly they are clearly young and can sometimes be alittle rough around the edges, they are very solid, above average whiskies across the board. Now certainly they're not the cheapest, but I for one think they're well priced for someone looking to scale the ranks of the whisky world and is looking to expand beyond the everyday selection of whiskies. They really are a cut above the average and do push you in different directions - and you're most definitely going to enjoy them.

That said, the standout for me was the Double Distilleries which I really enjoy and find it to be very well-rounded and balanced, with really nice malty and floral flavours - the little tidbit of history is nice as well, definitely a storied expression. Special mention to the Mizunara Wood Reserve which is very unique and definitely an interesting eye opener, while the Ichiro's Malt & Grain World Whisky Blend is a solid blend altogether. The Wine Wood Reserve was alittle sharp for me and for that I'll say you can skip that.

  

Kanpai!I

 

@111hotpot