Distillery Focus

The new rising son (Chichibu)

Dave Broom takes a trip to Japan's latest distillery.
By Dave Broom
Despite its attractions, it is always a relief to escape from the gravitational pull of Tokyo.The 90 minutes it takes to get from the city to what I assumed to be the calm of rural Chichibu was therefore spent in the belief that this would be a chance to enjoy the placid, laid-back life of another Japan. This is a country, however, that specialises in confounding expectations. The closer we got to Chichibu the busier the train became.By the time we pulled into the station it was rammed, the crowd hustling us down the stairs to a plaza filled with the smells of cooking food: fish, noodles, dumplings, sweets. Garish signs and barkers cries. It may be that Chichibu is a quiet town for most of the year, but on the first week of December it goes crazy. It’s Night Festival, held to commemorate the meeting of the god of Mount Fuko with the goddess of the shrine of the town which has taken place for more than 300 years and trust me, the Japanese like a party.“Welcome!”says Ichiro Akuto as we finally find him among the throng.“It’s a bit crazy here, but we can do all of this later. First we must go to the distillery.” It seems only fair.The opening of a new Japanese distillery is of equal worth.The opening of one owned by someone who has been through as much as Akuto-san is enough to justify a new Chichibu Festival.Akuto-san’s name will be familiar to regular readers of Whisky Magazine.This is the man whose family has been in the drinks-making business since 1625, when his ancestors started producing sake, here in Chichibu.In the 1940s they had branched out and started blending and bottling whisky. By the 1980s his family had built its own whisky distillery in the city of Hanyu.“I suppose it is in my DNA,”he says as we wind out of Chichibu, across the river and zig-zagging up into the hills.Yet the story, as so often is the case in whisky, is not straightforward.The Hanyu distillery opened at the tail-end of the Japanese whisky boom and was making a style which at that time was not popular.“We started off wanting to make a Japanese style whisky, but ended up making one which was ‘Scottish’,”he says referring to the full-flavoured, bigbodied Hanyu single malts.Though, almost inevitably, these whiskies now have attained cult status, they appeared in Japan when whisky was the drink of middle-aged bosses and salarymen and the style that they preferred was a light sprit intended to be drunk mizuwari style: heavily diluted with ice and water (or soda).“Even our sales team didn’t think they were making good whisky!”he laughs.Akuto-san however saw things differently.“I felt that the Hanyu malt was distinctive in flavour, very individual and different from the big companies. It was an advantage.”He didn’t have a chance to prove his hunch. Only five years after he began working with his family’s whiskies, the Asian financial crisis hit and the Hanyu distillery had closed.In 2004 it was demolished.This was not the end of Akutosan.He managed to buy the last remaining stocks of the Hanyu single malt and began to dribble them out onto the market, either in his ‘Card Series’ or as occasional bottlings of ‘Ichiro’s Malt’.And so ended,many believed, another small Japanese producer.Then Akuto-san began to appear regularly in Scotland.He was spotted at any number of distilleries, seen talking business at Forsyth’s, checking casks at Speyside Cooperage. It was clear that rather than being an former whisky maker, his distilling days were just beginning, a new baby was being born.We pull into a hill-top site overlooking Chichibu. In front of us an open square of white buildings.“When did you start?” “July” “This year?” “Yes.” “And it’s...?” “Ready?.. yes.” That’s a distillery built in four months from the ground up.There are plans for new plants in Scotland that have been hanging around for four years, but that’s Japan for you, and that’s vision.The left-hand building is the distillery itself. It’s small, compact and sparklingly new and, ready to start production. A tiny mashtun which takes 400 kilos of grist, producing 2,000 litres of clear worts mixed with water from the Arakaba river which will head into the wooden washbacks.“Pine?” “No. Japanese oak.” Anyone who has experienced Q.mongolica becomes a prosletiser for its ability to infuse spirit with incense-like qualities, but that’s casks.Washbacks?“I thought I’d have a go!”he laughs.“It’s the first time they’ve ever been tried.” After a long fermentation the wash ends up in two small stills made to Akuto-san’s specifications by Forsyth’s of Rothes.“This is a small distillery,”he explains,“so even the stills are small! Actually, I want to make a heavy spirit, heavier than Hanyu was.You know, the distinctiveness of Hanyu was an accident, but I want to make distinctive whisky here at Chichibu, a whisky which is full-bodied and smoky. If you make a heavier style it’s easier to understand what distillery made it, and it has immediate personality.” We head out to a pagodatopped building which forms the base of the U-shaped configuration.This will be the maltings. Initially all the malt (as is typical in Japan) is being sourced from the UK, but it is Akuto-san’s intention to malt on site and use local Japanese peat.The spirit will be aged in the long low-slung warehouse in a mix of casks:hoggies mostly, but with a smattering of sherry, new oak, maybe ex-Cognac and, inevitably (and thankfully) Japanese oak.The sun is beginning to set, casting amber and purple shadows across the new buildings.Then there’s a flash of silver as Akuto-san’s new distiller appears.He’s Uchiburi Osami, the former master distiller at Karuizawa, the silver is from his ever-present bomber jacket.The fact that he’s clutching two bottles of his own grappa suggests that the party is about to start.We head back to Chichibu, following the Shinto shrines being carried around the streets, eating, laughing, chatting, caught up in the wild spirit of the festival as tiny yellow fans of gingko leaves fall like confetti on our heads.We drink late into the night, toasting the new spirit of Chichibu.