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The story of how the little Chichibu distillery came to be the most sought after Japanese whisky in the world [Part 1]

Distillery Spotlight: Chichibu Distillery 

Region: Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, Japan

This WhiskyDex feature is part 1 of a 2-part series.

 

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

(Image Source: The Whisky Wash) 

 

When people talk about Japanese whiskies, the same names constantly pop up, Yamazaki this, Hibiki that, nah nah Nikka is more value for money, but every so often, and increasingly so, the name Chichibu comes up.

The obscure name “Chichibu” is a highly divisive one – mention it and you’d get one of three responses. The first is a puzzled look that is probably accompanied by a confused “Huh? Chihuahua?”.

The second is an agonized gasp, coupled with an exasperated “Ah damn! It’s so expensive now! It’s impossible to get!”.

Last but not least, on a rare occasion you are greeted with a wry smile complemented with a richly self-satisfied “Wanna see my collection?”.

So what’s the deal with this upstart name that we are only just recently hearing about?

Chichibu is the flagship whisky distilled at the Chichibu Distillery, located in the namesake town of Chichibu, in the Saitama prefecture. Having started operations in 2008, Chichibu has the honor of being the first new distillery in Japan since 1973.

It occupies a much smaller premise than other Japanese whisky makers such as Suntory, Nikka or even Mars, which are well regarded giants in the Japanese whisky landscape.

Unlike these giants, Chichibu’s expressions are released in very small batches (about 2 barrels are produced daily), and they’ve hardly even been able to consistently sustain a core range till date.

Yet the reason whisky lovers are obsessed with it is because the artisanal whisky ticks all the checkboxes of becoming a Japanese – and quite possibly an international – whisky icon.

 

Chichibu has all the makings of an icon

(Image Source: Saveur)

Checkbox 1: Have a passionate and charismatic founder.

Hailing from the Akuto family that has been in the alcohol business since the 1600s, Chichibu’s founder, Ichiro Akuto, can be said to come from a lineage of whisky royalty. In spite of his pedigree, the maverick ways of making whisky at his distillery is anything but traditional.

Whispers in the industry have claimed that Ichiro is bold, daring – something of a mad genius, except he’s a wonderfully nice down-to-earth guy who just wants to make whisky exciting whilst staying true to Japanese whisky-making elements. While most distilleries use sherry or bourbon oak casks which are standard protocol in Whiskyland, he has ventured to use everything from Indian Pale Ale (IPA) casks to Coedonado beer casks.

Yet at the same time he retains what is distinctively Japanese – not a specific ingredient or method, but rather an insanely methodical control over the entire whisky-making process.

Under Ichiro’s watch, every step of the process is carefully managed, every batch made to the most precise specifications.

While some larger distilleries may find it easier to automate the process, churning out hundreds of thousands of liters of whisky annually, Ichiro has staff at every step of the way. Every barrel of whisky is treated with the utmost care despite the amount of experimentation involved.

He’s even gone from producing his own proprietary strain of yeast for fermentation, to building his own onsite cooperage and malting floor. Increasingly even the barley used is sourced locally, and I don’t mean Japan, I mean Saitama.

Even the rarest of Japanese whisky ingredients, the haloed Mizunara oak – famed for its kara flavors, of sandalwood, coconut and citrus, now synonymous with Japanese whiskies, Ichiro has found a way to source from his local prefecture.

Not one milliliter of Chichibu whisky tasted is free of Ichiro’s touch.

 

If you were not told this was Chichibu’s distillery you might have just looked past it for being another inn on the side of the highway. (Image Source: Whisky.com)

 

Checkbox 2: If it’s hard to get, it must be worth getting.

As scarcity feeds into rarity, the fact that Chichibu’s whiskies have been so difficult to get has certainly added to its allure. Chichibu whisky is produced in very minute quantities and its distillery’s production capacity is tiny compared to what we’ve seen at giants like Suntory (who doesn’t like a David vs Goliath story?).

 

Top Row: Two of Chichibu’s exclusive bottlings for Takashimaya. Bottom Row: Chichibu’s exclusive bottlings for Changi’s DFS is one of the most sought after collections (Image Source: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Whisky Auctioneer)

 

Of this minute quantity produced yearly, most have already been earmarked for specific clients to satisfy orders made a long time ago, and therefore won’t make it to Chichibu’s core range.

Contrast this with most distilleries that reserve their stock for their own releases, Chichibu rarely has a sizeable amount left for its core range.

Consider how rarely do we see a Yamazaki or a Macallan bottled for a hotel or a departmental store (they exist but they are few and far between and are mostly vintage).

Most of Chichibu’s releases have been bottled for sale for a whole slew of customers, from Japanese retailers Isetan and Takashimaya, to Singapore’s Changi Airport, which are then sold by these clients as special product offerings.

 

(Image Source: The Straits Times)

So if you are intent on getting your hands on one, Ichiro is going to have you go on a mad treasure hunt all over the world where one minute you’re queuing outside an Austrian whisky shop 30 minutes out from Eindhoven, and the next you’re buying a flight ticket to bag the latest release at Changi Airport’s DFS liquor shop.

Ironically this has undeniably fueled the collector’s fever for Chichibu.

 

Checkbox 3: Last but not least, taste incredibly good.

Although the whisky comes from a distillery with a perfect story  on paper  with the right balance of experimentation and homage to the Akuto family’s heritage , the whisky still has to pass the taste test.

 

Chichibu gained worldwide recognition when its Matsuri 2017 bottling won the World Whisky Awards Best Single Cask Single Malt (Image Source: Dekanta)

 

And the results are in: Chichibu has made whisky so good it’ll make you forget who you are. For an upstart that is only now in its early teens, Chichibu has racked up accolades the world over.

Critics just simply cannot deny how complex yet distinctive Chichibu’s whiskies are, so much so that they’ve begrudgingly given the little craft distillery a free pass on the fact that most of its whiskies are still very young (at least in whisky years), for it to occupy the same top shelf as 50 year old Macallans and 25 year old Mizunara-aged Yamazakis.

 

Not your typical makeup wearing leather pants clad Rockstar. (Image Source: Punch)

As you slowly get the idea, Ichiro Akuto is no mere whisky-maker, in fact in the world of Japanese whiskies, he is something of a Rockstar, a Rockstar whose every riff may seem completely spontaneous and out of this world, but is in fact carefully selected to precision.

Ichiro is not only an icon of Japanese whisky, he is singlehandedly leading the charge of a renaissance of Japanese craft whisky (also known as Ji-Whisky, meaning local whisky). What better a way to be a cult classic than to be popular amongst the iykyk (if-you-know-you-know) crowd.

But alas we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s wind it back and take a look at Chichibu’s origin story.

 

Act 1: The turning point for office executive Ichiro Akuto

Ichiro Akuto came from a long line of makers (21 generations to be precise) of alcoholic beverages mainly based in Saitama, Japan. Most notably, his grandfather had founded the legendary Hanyu distillery in the 1940’s and had done well up till Japan’s economic bust in the 1990’s which forced the distillery to shutter.

At the time, Ichiro worked in Suntory’s sales division and had no plans on becoming a distiller himself. However, when Hanyu distillery was forced to shutter in 2000 and had to sell its whisky reserves, its new owners had no interest in them, and had decided to simply discard the whisky.

This was the turning point for Ichiro, who then decided to start Venture Whisky (which owns Chichibu distillery) in 2004, so as to salvage his family’s whisky equipment and reserves.

 

Visitors to Chichibu Distillery can still see remnants of Hanyu, where one of its pot stills used for whisky distillation sits at the entrance, a recognition of Chichibu’s legacy. (Image Source: Whisky Wash)

 

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 (which would become Chichibu distillery), and incidentally resulted in the cult hit of what is now known as the Playing Cards series.

 (Image Source: The Spirits Business)

The Playing Cards series was a 54-bottle (the standard 52 cards Poker deck with the addition of 2 Jokers) set of whiskies from the leftover Hanyu whisky stocks, with each bottle coming from a single cask dating from 1985 to 2014.

As you can tell, Ichiro has a thing with making his whiskies a collector’s dream, and his or her bank account’s perfect nightmare.

Till date only four complete sets (called Full Cards by whisky insiders) have surfaced at auctions and has continued to break records, last going in 2020 at Bonham’s Fine and Rare Wine and Whisky auction in Hong Kong for a whopping $1.52 million, beating it’s previous appearance at auction in 2019 by $600,000.

 

Act 2: Distilling his dreams of whisky into reality

But Hanyu was more than a source of funding for Ichiro, who knew he had impressive high quality aged Hanyu whisky on hand but at the time had no expertise in making whisky.

While Ichiro continued to bottle and market Hanyu, he simultaneously apprenticed at the legendary but unfortunately now-mothballed Karuizawa Distillery (if you would like to take a virtual look around head over to http://blog.sundaysgrocery.com/2017/11/final-look-karuizawa-distillery/).

 

A matter of poor timing, the now legendary Karuizawa distillery served as a training ground for an apprenticing Ichiro, laying the groundwork for Chichibu. (Image Source: Sunday’s Grocery)

During that period, Ichiro became aware of the impending closure of a sister distillery, the Kawasaki grain distillery. Ichiro was aware that grain whiskies are absolutely vital to a good blend as they provide a creamy, more neutral body, as opposed to strongly flavored barley malt whisky, that knits the blend cohesively.

Seizing the opportunity, Ichiro nabbed several remaining casks from the shuttering Kawasaki Distillery and subsequently used a blend of Kawasaki and Hanyu to produce another (much more affordable and accessible) series, the Leaf series, which is still currently in production.

As these were not whiskies from Chichibu, Ichiro has decided to market them under the brand Ichiro’s Malt instead.

(Image Source: Dekanta)

All this flurry of activity was not without reason, Ichiro had wanted Chichibu to be a whisky in its own right and so needed the whisky to meet the industry-wide requirement of 3 years of maturation.

Hence in the meantime, he needed an avenue to sustain a germinating Chichibu, and so rumor has it that Ichiro had pitched to more than 2,000 bars in Tokyo’s most famous night spot, Ginza, in hopes that the professional bartenders there would recognize his quality malts in lieu of a reputable brand name.

It took 2 years for Ichiro to sell his first 600 bottles of series such as the Playing Cards and the Leaf, both of which are now widely acclaimed.

 

 (Image Source: Whisky Intelligence)

By 2010, it was ready, Ichiro was ready to release Chichibu’s first single malt, “Chichibu the First”, which debuted at Whisky Live in Paris, the largest whisky event globally.

This was a whisky that was a thorough fruit bomb, with tropical fruits 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. And of course was complete with the subtle influence of Mizunara’s kara.

(Image Source: Difford’s Guide)

It was a big hit! No doubt it was a young whisky and suffered the drawbacks of its lack of age, such as the alcoholic singe, but what had really caught critics’ attention was just how flavorful and complex it was for its age.

Being a fruit bomb certainly was a feat, as esters (the chemical that gives it the fruitiness) are typically associated with more aged whiskies.

The creaminess, smoothness and tamed kara (Mizunara’s influence is so strong that it’s believed a whisky must mature for 20 years before it is not ruined by the overwhelming kara), were all unexpected for such a young whisky.

It was quickly and unanimously concluded that Chichibu was of much potential and was going to be a distillery to watch.

 

Act 3: Chichibu #1 and Chichibu #2 take flight

As the past decade would have it, release after release, bagged awards for Chichibu and the distillery was beginning to be recognized globally. By 2012, Chichibu was named Japanese Whisky of the Year by Whisky Advocate, and by 2017, Chichibu hit its crescendo when its Matsuri expression was named World’s Best Whisky in the Single Cask Single Malt category at the World Whisky Awards.

This was a whisky that was taking the world by storm.

 (Image Source: World Whisky Awards)

 

As it rose in popularity, Ichiro would have collectors go on a worldwide treasure hunt. To ensure the distillery had adequate funding, Ichiro had marked out many single casks for private buyers. The result was exceptionally small batches of Chichibu limited releases popping up all across the world for sale by early buyers, from departmental stores to airport duty free shops.

If you want to see a catalog of the Chichibu limited releases, you can head over to https://www.yabejojo.com/2020/07/10/chichibu-distillery/ (website is in German but you can use Google Chrome to translate it to your preferred language).

 

(Image Source: Must Share News)

 

Recent activity in the marketmade it clear that the demand for Chichibu whisky had reached fever pitch. Long queues of fans appeared at whisky events, looking to bag the latest bottle and turning unruly. Bottles are also increasingly surfacing at auctions at triple or quadruple their original retail price.

The phenomenal success that Chichibu had fought so hard for had unfortunately begun to bite back and whisky fans were increasingly unable to access Chichibu bottles that can be affordably opened. Most releases numbering in the hundreds of bottles were consistently sold out in a matter of seconds.

 

Chichibu #2. (Image Source: Whisky Magazine)

To say this fervent demand caught Ichiro off guard would be an understatement of his foresight – Ichiro had seen this coming from a mile away, and he was ready.

Since the mid 2010’s, less than 10 years since Chichibu started operations, Ichiro had already begun conceptualizing a second distillery. 

Now if you’ve read our other distillery spotlights, you’d notice a common theme amongst Japanese whisky groups, where they had sought to build new distilleries in completely different environments.

For Yamazaki’s more urbanized landscape, you had Hakushu’s forestry in the alps, for Yoichi’s island home in Hokkaido, you had landlocked Miyagikyo situated in the mainland.

Much of this is due to the desire for whisky distillers to capture varying climates in the form of different styles of whisky that can be used for blends, like Hibiki and Nikka’s Taketsuru.

Yet, Ichiro Akuto  wanted to firmly stay rooted to his hometown in Chichibu.

After 3 years of planning, Ichiro was able to procure equipment similar to the ones used in the first distillery and eventually found himself breaking ground on his second distillery just a two-minute drive away.

The new distillery started production in 2019 and is five times the size of the first distillery.

 

Chichibu uses its own cooperage and is why outrageous inventions such as an egg-shaped cask can exist to make Ichiro’s Wine Wood Malt whisky.

(Image Source: Whisky Saga) 

While the second distillery shares resemblance to the first, it does possess notable differences such as French oak washbacks instead of Mizunara ones, the stills used for distillation are now directly fired rather than indirectly heated, amongst other tweaks.

What will certainly stay the same is Ichiro’s experimental yet highly precise approach to making whiskies that are going to continue to surprise and delight.

You can’t spell Chichibu without Ichiro. You’ve got that right, it is indeed spelt “Ch-ichiro-bu”. To understand Chichibu and its quirks is to understand Ichiro himself.

(Image Source: Forbes)

Chichibu, and by definition Ichiro, may hail from Japan, but has certainly overcame a full Korean drama season’s worth of twists and turns to see his dream distillery built from scratch.

In the face of his family’s distillery shuttering, in having to be thrown off the deep-end in learning the art of whisky-making, and staring down Japan’s dominant whisky giants, he has bravely stood his ground as the enfant terrible of Japanese whisky, and arguably world whisky.

He’s paid his dues and has now re-established his lineage as the undisputed leader of Japan’s Ji-Whisky movement, and with Chichibu #2, it isn’t training island anymore. 

This time it’s show time.

 

This WhiskyDex feature is part 1 of a 2-part series.

@111hotpot



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