Distillery Focus

Ichiro's new playground

A sneak preview of the second Chichibu distillery
By Stefan van Eycken
Japanese whisky, and Ichiro’s Malt in particular, is hot, but at this year’s Tokyo International Bar Show in early May, things got a bit too hot for comfort. Riots broke out on the morning of the first day of the show among those, genuine fans as well as line-sitters paid by a syndicate, hoping to score one of the 100 bottles of the single cask Chichibu release. The police had to get involved and the sale on the second day was cancelled.

It’s fair to say demand vastly outstrips supply, but Ichiro is the sort of person who is always way ahead of the curve, before anyone else even sees a curve, so he’s doing something about this state of affairs, in the only way he can: by getting ready to make more, at a brand-new, second distillery. “Production is so small at Chichibu Distillery,” Ichiro explains. “Even working in two shifts, we can only make about 320lpa a day, which is a little over two barrels. Around five years ago, I started thinking about building a second distillery.” Three years ago, he decided to get serious and got in touch with Forsyths, who had supplied the equipment for his first distillery.

Unlike Suntory, Nikka and even Hombo Shuzo, who built their second distilleries in locations that were very different in character from the environment of their first distilleries, Ichiro wanted to stay in his hometown of Chichibu. “It wasn’t easy to find land,” Ichiro says. “I looked at many sites for my second distillery, but I just couldn’t find the right one.” He eventually found it a stone’s throw from his first one. All it takes is a two-minute drive. “The plot was part of a parcel of land that was leased to a local company that makes parts for car manufacturers and so on,” Ichiro explains. “The president of the company loves whisky – in fact, he is a private cask owner at Chichibu Distillery – so we managed to arrange to take over the lease of the 15,000m2 of unused land next to their factory.”

Construction began in April of 2017. A little over a year later, the distillery is as good as ready. When we visit, most of the equipment is covered in blue tarp, there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. Ichiro is visibly proud of his new nest. “I reckon we’ll be ready to start test production in June and then after the summer break, we’ll start our first season.”

Ichiro has an inquisitive mind, but he knows there’s no point in varying all parameters, so there are quite a few features of the new distillery that are the same as at Chichibu Distillery. What’s markedly different is the scale. “The new distillery is five times as big as the first one, so the projected annual production volume is 240,000lpa, and that’s working in just one shift, which we are planning on doing for the first couple of years,” Ichiro points out.

Two tonnes of malted barley, mainly non-peated, with a few weeks of peated runs before the maintenance season, will be processed per batch. A state-of-the-art four-roll Alan Ruddock mill is ready to be put to work. The water will be the same as that used at Chichibu Distillery. The mashtun – stainless steel with a copper canopy – is obviously a different beast. No more hand-stirring the mash at the second distillery with the new semi-lauter tun, although the process will still be closely monitored. Asked about the long, vertical sideglass on the mashtun, Ichiro says, “That was my request, as I want to be able to check the grain bed and the filtration process.” Obsessive? Maybe a little.

For the fermentation process, Ichiro is sticking with wooden vessels, but with a twist. “I wanted to use Japanese oak, just like at Chichibu Distillery, but it’s extremely difficult to get mizunara staves of this size, so I decided to go for French oak. I visited Taransaud Cooperage in France a number of times and their wooden tanks are very good, so I commissioned them to make the washbacks for the new distillery.” At the moment, there are five washbacks (15kl capacity with 10kl of wort going in), but there’s room for a few more. “When we move to a two-shift system, we’ll add three more.” As far as the yeast is concerned, Ichiro is sticking with his proprietary strain.

In the still house, we have a déjà vu. The stills are much bigger, of course (10kl and 6.5kl, resp.), but they look eerily similar to those of Chichibu Distillery. “They are the same shape,” Ichiro smiles, “and even the lyne-arm angle is the same (12° downwards, if you need to know).” But appearances can be deceptive. Unlike at Chichibu Distillery, where the stills are indirectly heated, both the wash still and the spirit still at the new distillery are direct-fired. “It’s a very traditional way,” Ichiro says, “and this, I suspect, will have the biggest impact on the character of the spirit. I am expecting a more robust, more complex spirit… but I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

The distillation process will be harder to control. “That’s for sure, but that’s why we’re doing it. Experienced people will be working here. At the first distillery, we learned how to make whisky. Now, we’re experienced, so we’re ready for this.” Demonstrating the temperature control and the way in which the perfectly aligned pairs of sight glasses on the front and back with the natural backlight make it easy to monitor and control the first distillation, it’s clear Ichiro has given this some thought. “Just like at Chichibu Distillery, the cut will be made by nosing and tasting, not by numbers.” As elsewhere, the human element is important. “I know that distilleries can be operated by computers these days, but I want people working here to know exactly what is happening every single moment during each phase of
the whisky-making process.”

Sounds like he’ll need more people. Taking applications?

Ichiro looks out through the big glass wall in the still house. “In summer, the leaves cover the view and hide the distillery, but in winter, when the leaves are gone, it’s a really nice view.” It’s not a very picturesque distillery, it has to be said, but at least the eyes will take some pleasure from this view.

As we walk past the filling store, we turn to the thorny issue of naming. It’s a bit impractical to keep calling it “the second distillery”. You can tell he’s been asked before but you can also tell he is at a bit of a loss as to what to do. “Yamazaki distillery, for example, has many different types of stills but it’s considered one distillery. In our case, the stills have the same shape, but they are in different still houses, even though the distilleries are geographically very close. The spirit will be different, but Yamazaki also makes a wide variety of spirit types.” Ichiro keeps thinking out loud. “The second distillery required a new licence, so I guess it is a different distillery. Maybe I can take some inspiration from Hakushu, where they had Hakushu West and Hakushu East.” His two distilleries are not on an east-west axis, though. He pauses. “I should think about a new name, I guess…”

Before we leave the second distillery building, we ask about the issue of storage. Making much more whisky means more maturation space is needed. As he opens the door, Ichiro points out a huge new warehouse next to the new distillery. “Warehouse 6 – dunnage, like the others and when that’s full we have some land left to build more warehouses.” It’s clear: Ichiro’s ready for his new adventure.

Before we head back to Chichibu distillery, we drop by the cooperage where something new and exciting is happening, too. Ichiro points to a neatly-stacked pile of staves. “This is Chichibu mizunara,” he says beaming with pride. “We’ve been making mizunara casks for years but the wood we used was always sourced at the hardwood log auctions
in Hokkaido. This, however, is local mizunara.”

Ichiro inspects some staves and is pleased with the quality. It’s taken three years to get to this point, and maybe they’ll be able to make 10 or so casks out of this local Chichibu mizunara. The cost must be astronomic.

“Oh yes, it is much, much more expensive than sourcing mizunara in Hokkaido, and that’s expensive enough as it is, but there’s no point in calculating the cost. This is a kind of R&D.”

The idea for the second distillery was born five years ago and the stills are about to be fired up for the first time. Time to start thinking about a third distillery, we jokingly say. Ichiro sheepishly smiles, which can only mean one thing: watch this space.