Interview

Birth of a legend

Ichiro Akuto has been a major player in the world of artisinal Japanese whisky for more than a decade, well known for bottling the successful Hanyu Card Series. Neil Ridleycatches up for a dram on the eve of his highly anticipated ‘Chichibu The First' release
By Neil Ridley
As legends in the whisky business go, Ichiro Akuto doesn’t adhere to stereotype. Meeting the modest and extremely polite Akuto-san for the first time is a refreshing change and rather like the whiskies he has been instrumental in bringing to the wider world, there are hidden layers to his genius and, unquestionably, a wealth of whisky-making knowledge.

As well as maintaining the continued success of the Card Series bottlings, Ichiro Akuto has been a little busy of late, putting the final touches to the first single malt release proper from his Chichibu distillery, built about 80km to the north west of Tokyo. As we sit down in The Coburg Bar at London’s Connaught Hotel to sample the newly bottled Chichibu 3 Years Old, I ask Akuto-san what it feels like to finally see and taste the fruits of such an undeniable labour of love.

“I feel extremely happy,” he laughs, perhaps with a slight sign of relief showing on his face. “I felt happy when I first discovered the unwanted casks of Hanyu we bottled as the Card Series, but this moment is certainly the best moment of my life; to see spirit run from the stills, mature and finally be bottled.”

How you noticed a significant change and development, now the spirit can legitimately be called a whisky?

“I’m delighted with the development that has occurred even in such a short space of time”, he points out. “There’s a lot more complexity to this bottling, but recently, when we launched the whisky in Paris, we had a lot of people noticing a distinct character developing, leading on from the earlier Chichibu Newborn bottlings we released.”

What plans do you have to continue the mantle of Japanese distillation?

“I’m very conscious of the fact that Japanese whisky has become much more high profile and as a result, what I’m trying to do is now very much on the global stage, so I feel a lot more conspicuous than if I was distilling perhaps 20 years ago.”

So do you feel a greater pressure on your shoulders?

“Maybe not pressure, but I’m very aware of the fact, so I’m going out of my way to source the best ingredients and done things the right way, so I can continue the success of the other successful brands out there.”

As a relatively new distiller, do you find it easier to be an innovator?

“Well the core part of making whisky, such as the actual fermentation and distillation are fairly fixed. But where I’ve been able to experiment is outside of that; from trying out floor maltings, working with farmers to grow local barley or sourcing my own casks and washbacks, made using Japanese oak.”

Is there a certain ‘terroir’ for the surrounding area around Chichibu?

“Certainly one thing I’ve noticed is that the temperature variations are quite extreme around the geography of the distillery. It gets down to around -9 degrees in the winter and it’s up in the 30s during the summer, so that’s reflected in the maturation.”

What are your plans are for further maturing Chichibu and how much Hanyu stock is still lying untouched?

“I’ve been filling into less active casks as well as first-fill to get a really good balance of maturation. It’s too early to tell exactly what age the optimum maturation point will be and it’s an exciting learning process! In terms of Hanyu, we have around 200 casks left, which will be released slowly, but sadly, when it’s gone, it’s gone forever!”