The story of how the little Chichibu distillery came to be the most sought after Japanese whisky in the world [Part 2]
Distillery Spotlight: Chichibu Distillery
Region: Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
Chichibu’s private bottling for popular UK bar Sexy Fish.
(Image Source: The Spirits Business)
The different faces of Ichiro’s Malt
It should be noted that Ichiro Akuto markets his whiskies under a collective brand called “Ichiro’s Malt”, which comprises of 3 main lines of expressions.
In order of release, there is (1) the Hanyu Single Malt (a line that includes the “Playing Cards” series which we have mentioned in Part 1), (2) Ichiro’s Malt -Leaf series, and (3) the Chichibu Single Malt.
The essential difference between them is the source of the malt and distillate used.
- The Hanyu Single Malt expressions were the leftover 400 or so casks salvaged by Ichiro-san from Hanyu Distillery’s closure in 2000. It’s most well-known series is the Playing Cards series.
- The Leaf series typically comprise of a blend of Hanyu malt, Kawasaki grain, Chichibu’s single malt, as well as whisky sourced from various rye, bourbon, grain and malt whiskies from distilleries across Scotland, Canada and Ireland. In releasing a blended whisky, Ichiro-san offers his thoughtful selection of spirits which are then skillfully married by him to create great balance and harmony. This series of whiskies are also finished in high-quality and sometimes exotic casks (some of which are Mizunara and wine wood casks). Most popular ranges within the Leaf series include the “Malt and Grain” expressions and the “Double Distilleries” expression. Of course, by Double Distilleries, we are referring to a blend of only Hanyu Distillery and Chichibu Distillery’s single malts.
- Now we come to the Chichibu Distillery’s very own single malt, which is the focus of this spotlight.
Despite Chichibu’s premises being a fraction of giants Suntory and Nikka, it continues to keep the spirit of Ji-Whisky alive. (Image Source: Whisky Mag JP)
What is Ji-Whisky?
To understand the spirit of Chichibu Distillery, one must understand the dedication and ethos of the people behind “ji-whisky”.
The giants of the Japanese whisky industry (the Suntory’s and Nikka’s) have been enjoying decades of international renown. Yet the successes of these giants do not diminish the passion of smaller operations that quietly hone their craft to produce whisky using traditional methods in small batches. The bottles produced are known as “ji-whisky” or “local-origin whisky” (地元のウイスキー).
Chichibu’s visitors are treated to a mini tasting session at the end of the distillery’s tour at distillery’s little visitor’s centre located right next to the distillery’s warehouse. (Image Source: Whisky Saga)
Ji-whiskies are generally made in small batches, sold locally, difficult to procure outside Japan and surprisingly difficult to track down even within the country. While ji-whisky distilleries do not see the monetary successes seen by giants, their dedication to craft, quality and tradition have earned them the admiration and a place in the hearts of the Japanese people.
Chichibu Distillery is a brilliant exemplar of a ji-whisky distillery that has begun to receive international recognition.
What is Chichibu supposed to taste like then?
Port wine, Madeira wine, Fino sherry, rum, Belgian stout, Imperial stout, Burgundy wine, “Coedonado” beer and Hanyu’s single malt.
These are just some of the diverse cask styles that have been used for whisky maturation at Chichibu Distillery. One might as well ask “what hasn’t Chichibu’s whiskies been matured in yet?”
Ichiro-san and his team’s tireless experimentation has led to Chichibu’s release of an incredible variation of whisky styles, from the pedestrian bourbon and sherry casks to the refreshing use of beer casks and to other potentially puzzling and unprecedented cask styles.
For a tiny distillery that only throws out about 2 barrels of whisky a day, the above has given whisky spectators the impression that maybe the unassuming facility resembling a roadside inn is a cover for a covet massive underground operation.
Chichibu collections are as colourful as the rainbow, coming in almost every cask style known to man, woman, child and dog.
(Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)
This has also made it extraordinarily difficult to pin down the distinctive character of its whiskies, in spite of the distillery being in operation for at least a decade now. Perhaps that is the way Ichiro-san would have it. Perhaps Chichibu’s DNA is all about keeping its fans on their toes.
We remain undaunted from this. Today, we take a look into what is unique about Chichibu’s whisky-making process that may clue us in to the X-factor at Chichibu Distillery.
Inside Chichibu Distillery. (Image Source: Whisky Advocate)
How Chichibu perfects its craft
Chichibu is still a very small operation run by about 10 employees including Ichiro-san himself. The staff are very involved in every step of the process from inspecting the malt to the fermentation, distillation and maturation process.
Chichibu sources most of its barley from the UK. Increasingly, the distillery has begun to include local Japanese barley from the town of Chichibu, which currently makes up between 10-15% of barley used for making whisky.
A quarter of this malt is peated while the remaining three-quarters are unpeated.
The peated malt is peated to about the same intensity as Ardbeg (about 45 parts per million of peat phenols). The malting process generates maximum sugar, which combined with the peated malt to give Chichibu’s generally sweet yet lightly peated flavor.
Chichibu’s unique wooden Mizunara washbacks give its whiskies a fruity flavor. (Image Source: Whisky Wash)
Two stand-out elements are Chichibu’s long fermentation duration (twice as long as typical) and the use of Mizunara washbacks (fermentation vats) which create more intense fruity flavours.
While Mizunara oak is famed for its sandalwood flavor, it does not host Chichibu’s fermentation long enough to impart these flavors. Instead, Mizunara is selected because it is a host for specific strains of yeast and probiotics.
At Chichibu, fermentation of malt happens over 4 days instead of the usual 2. The first 2 days of fermentation allows sugars to be converted into alcohol (as is the usual case).
The additional 2 days is where the magic occurs: as the alcohol conversion grinds to a halt, the 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.
If you get the chance to visit the distillery, take a whiff of the whisky fermenting in the washbacks and you’ll instantly notice a strong fruity scent.
Chichibu’s distillation stills are responsible for the whisky’s well-structured body and richer flavors. (Image Source: Fun! Chichibu)
Another key differentiator is the use of mid-length stills that point downward, which serves to shorten the distillation process. The whisky thus retains more of its body, giving Chichibu a slightly heavier body and richer flavors.
Now that we’ve gone through the fermentation and distillation process, let’s wrap up the whisky-making process with the maturation! Chichibu’s on-premise dunnage warehouses allows for their whiskies to mature in the Saitama climate, further maintaining the provenance of the whisky produced.
Ichiro Akuto standing amongst casks of whiskies maturing in one of Chichibu’s dunnage warehouses. (Image Source: Wine Terroirs)
The Saitama weather is decidedly warmer and can get very hot during the summer, while the prefecture itself is located at a higher altitude, both of which contributes to faster maturation and more intense flavors despite otherwise youthful ages.
However, to allow for a more extensive and richer maturation, the maturation must be slowed down to allow the whisky to age more without getting over-oaked.
This is where the dunnage warehouses come in.
They are built using stone, bricks and other materials of high heat capacity. This absorbs the heat from the natural climate and keeps the casks in a cooler and more humid climate for longer maturation cycles.
TL;DR: Chichibu’s Mizunara washbacks gives the fruity flavors, the stills used for distillation provide a heavier and richer body, and the Saitama climate is conducive for faster maturation making for a richer and more intense whisky.
The quirks of Chichibu
Chichibu, being the wild child, has also attempted to take on other initiatives such as floor-malting, which is the process where the wet barley is spread across a smooth concrete floor to germinate before undergoing fermentation.
Floor-malting is known to give the whisky a sweeter, nuttier flavor that also retains peat smoke better. It is also a traditional and labour-intensive process that requires workers to rake the malt by manually and is also very hard to control which explains why many distilleries have turned to using an industrial malting process instead.
The laborious traditional floor malting process gives the whisky a sweeter, nuttier flavor.
Given the spectrum of Chichibu’s cask styles, the casks obtained and used by Chichibu is also another important part to the Chichibu story. To keep things local and managed to perfection, Chichibu took over a retiring cooper’s cooperage where they were taught the art of making their own casks.
Some interesting casks that Chichibu has notably used includes a French Oak egg-shaped cask which is used to make Ichiro’s Malt Wine Wood Reserve.
Another is the Chibidaru cask, directly translated as “cute cask”, which is a quarter of the size of a standard cask, to increase surface area-to-volume ratio in order to impart flavors more quickly.
The most recent beer cask releases were also made inhouse by Chichibu before being sent over to beer makers for use.
Chichibu fashion’s its own egg casks for its Wine Wood Reserve expression. (Image Source: Whisky Saga)
As mentioned, Chichibu has recently unveiled a second distillery in order to keep up with the insane demand for its whiskies. Some key differences in the second distillery that we can expect to reflect in the taste of its whiskies include the use of French Oak washbacks instead of Mizunara ones, and the use of direct firing of the distillation stills, which is expected to provide for a more robust and complex spirit.
Ichiro stares out of his second distillery, which will provide Chichibu’s next leg of expansion.
(Image Source: Whisky Magazine)
With Chichibu, one learns after some time to no longer be surprised by the bold daring whiskies featuring “Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu” on its label.
Yet Chichibu remains a ji-whisky in the eyes of Ichiro-san and he intends to keep it that way by giving the spirit personalised attention, retaining hundred-year-old traditional methods in the process and taking steps to ensure the whisky is truly made “locally”.
Ichiro-san’s understated subversion of convention can be observed from his use of locally-grown base ingredients.
Before Ichiro-san, it was unheard of to use local Japanese barley since there is so little available. More recently, Ichiro-san has been sourcing Mizunara oak grown in Saitama for cask maturation.
Ichiro-san will stop at nothing to make sure that in an expanding world of Chichibu whisky, it truly remains Ji-whisky at heart.
Chichibu’s home, Saitama, has lots to offer and Ichiro’s goal is to have the world love his home as much as he does, one bottle at a time.
(Image Source: Gaijin Pot Travel)
Flavors of Chichibu
Chichibu’s signature flavour profile and texture is the result of the use of local Japanese ingredients, Mizunara washbacks, long fermentation process, short distillation duration, and maturation in Saitama’s warmer climate.
Our general experiences with Chichibu gives us the following notes:
Color: Sunflower Oil to Amber/Mahogany
Nose: Sweet Tropical Fruits (Mangoes, Peaches, Apples), Floral
Kara (Sandalwood, Coconut, Citrus)
Peppery, Freshly Cut Grass
Malty Cinnamon Brioche
Alcohol Tinge (Younger Chichibus)
Palate: Medium to Heavy Body, Lots of Structure, Creamy Texture
Sweet Tropical Fruits (Mangoes, Peaches, Apples)
Kara, Aniseed, Five Spice Seasoning
Woody Oakiness, Musky, Freshly Brewed Black Coffee
Spicy, Bird’s Eye Chilli
Finish: Mid to Long Finish
Kara, Dash of Salty Seawater and Slight Nuttiness
Floral, Rose Water
Spicy and Refreshing
Who would have guessed the little picturesque town of Chichibu would be home to a distillery as bold and courageous as its namesake.
(Image Source: Japan Visitor)
What more can we say?
Chichibu’s story is nothing short of a K-drama epic and it’s difficult to even talk about Chichibu’s flavor without also mentioning the ethos of Ichiro-san and the admirable spirit of ji-whisky distilleries.
Chichibu is the man and the man is Chichibu. And like any person, with his or her quirks and eccentricities, to understand Chichibu’s whiskies is to come to know Ichiro-san himself.
Chichibu’s whiskies are simultaneously shockingly bold yet thoroughly respectful of heritage and tradition. In every glass is a bow to the past and a nod to the future. Its whiskies are nothing short of exceptional and never fails to excite and deliver.
Chichibu’s private bottling for La Maison Du Whisky.
(Image Source: Whisky Chief)
On the nose you are almost always struck by the intensity of flavour, the integration of the cask used, the complex floral fruity bouquet.
On the palate the intensity does not let up but yet delivers a fruit bomb that is creamy and smooth, rounding up with spiciness and a touch of nuttiness and splash of saltwater.
At its heart the characteristic kara we come to love about Japanese whiskies.
It has something in store for anyone. If you get a chance to try a Chichibu please do not hesitate to do so, we promise your only regret is you can’t get another glass.
The only trouble with Chichibu is just how inaccessible and rare its bottles are, as is true to its nature as a ji-whisky.
If the rarity, price and time taken to track down a bottle does not deter you, consider our top picks. We promise you you won’t regret it, and just maybe finding yourself queuing outside a little Austrian liquor shop for a 700ml bottle of whisky isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds anymore.
Entry Level: Ichiro’s Malt Mizunara Wood Reserve; Ichiro’s Malt Double Distilleries
Moderate: Chichibu The Peated; Chichibu On The Way; Chichibu Chibidaru
Top Shelf: Chichibu Single Cask Oloroso; Chichibu Malt Dream Cask (Any); Chichibu Kusuda
This WhiskyDex feature is part 2 of a 2-part series.