Chichibu Distillery is rapidly becoming an iconic example of a David and Goliath story. In just seven years, the whiskies emerging from this tiny distillery are winning international competitions against both foreign as well as the two big distilleries in Japan. Remarkably, with no clear advantage, either in methodology or history, is creating top whiskies that are far better than most.
That's the good news. The bad news is, of course, that low production and sensational demand makes the best of both hard to find as well as extremely expensive.
"Our single malt products have already sold out," said company spokesperson Yumi Yoshikawa. "However our pure malt are not sold out."
While Chichibu was founded officially as a distillery in just 2008, by Ichiro Akuto, the actual history preceding the foundation of making alcoholic beverages goes back much further. As is true with most products in Japan, whether it's chef's knives or single malt whiskies, there is improvisation on a tradition that pre-existed yashoku (Western) modernisation. With Chichibu the story begins in 1625 when Akuto's family started the production of sake, and continues to 1941, when the family founded the Hanyu Distillery in order to produce shochu. Then to 1946 when his grandfather got a license from the government (still under US military occupation) to make whisky. Whisky was popular with the foreign troops who preferred it over sake.
Akuto's grandfather's first attempt to produce whisky resulted in a blended whisky, a mixture of imported Scotch whisky and locally produced grain whisky, and was launched as the 'Golden Horse'. The whiskies did not attract competitive attention, and in 2000 the last distillation took place.
In 2004, the Hanyu Distillery was closed, and whatever was of value sold to a shochu producer in Kyoto. But with a family tradition, some infrastructure, and confidence as well as experience in the business, Akuto took over in 2004 and formed a company he decided to call, Venture Whisky Limited. With the financial backing of Sasanokawa Shuzo, a sake producer still based in Fukushima, he was then able to start his own whisky production. The company notes that, "An old second hand European mill manufactured by Meura and previously owned by Sapporo brewery was used initially."
At first, in 2005, Akuto started selling what was left in the Hanyu casks and then in 2008, began making his own whisky. To differentiate from the past and the family name, Akuto named the whisky after the town where it was produced. He also has a number of bottles named after his investor, Sasanokawa Shuzo. He began with two copper pot stills and possession of the remaining 400 casks of Hanyu whisky (which was intended to have been turned into shochu). The company website notes that, 'The plethora of casks, oldest from 1985 and youngest from 2000, are all age expressions held here as a treasure trove.' From it stems the famous and prize winning line of single cask whiskies like the 'Playing Card series', all selected by Ichiro Akuto himself. His goal, now reached, was to create a range of 52 + 1 'Playing card' versions. The first release was 'King of Diamonds' in 2005 (re-released in 2006) winning the Editor's choice at a Whisky Magazine tasting.
The company notes further that, 'First maturation occurred on a mixture of Spanish sherry shipping butts (volume 500 litres), American Bourbon hogshead (volume 250 litres) and unused freshly made American whisky casks of puncheon size (450 litres). All three types are made from American white oak (Quercus alba). Time spent on the primary casks varied.'
'For the Playing Card series a second maturation, or finishing, was performed. It lasted for varying periods of six to 24 months and the finishing time was spent on a rich variety of standard as well as exotic casks. This second maturation occurred in Sasanokawa warehouse as well as at the new Chichibu warehouse.'
Akuto has started a joint venture between David Croll, a Tokyo-based whisky importer and distributor, and Marcin Miller of Quercus Communications in the UK, 'to import previously unavailable whiskies from smaller independent companies in Japan to the Eurozone.'
From the original production of whiskies are Ichiro's Malt 15 Years Old finished in Cognac cask (two editions) , Ichiro's Malt 20 Years Old finished in Sherry cask, Ichiro's Choice Peated Golden Promise 1994 - 2006 (made at Karuizawa), Ichiro's Malt - Gu Brath 1985 (2005) Hogshead #379, Ichiro's Malt - Gu Brath 2000 (2005) Bourbon barrel #9400, Ichiro[s Single Malt Cask 2000, and Ichiro[s Single Malt Cask 1998.
Due to its small size, Chichibu faced an uphill battle to establish its name and broaden its distribution. Akuto seems to have decided to leverage the disadvantages of entering the whisky trade, especially in 2008 when there was a global fiscal crisis following the Lehmann Brothers collapse and the near-crashes of banks, and he took on a very local approach.
Chichibu, for example, is building its own cooperage. There are also plans to sell the casks to other distillers; in the future they plan to use local peat. Their chief stillman, Masashi Watanabe, has been with the company since the beginning; he also is in charge of the cooperage and warehouses. And while the amount of local barley used is only 10 per cent, with the rest coming from Germany, England, and Scotland, more local ingredients may be used in the future. Historically, the company has relied upon, Crisps Maltings in Norfolk for barley with the preference being Optic, lightly peated at 2 - 10 ppm.'
The distillery, which offers tours by appointment only, is two hours by train from Tokyo, and can be reached via the Seichibu station in Saitama prefecture. It's not exactly the easiest place to get to, but the remoteness can mean that the distillers can focus on their task without distractions.