Chichibu Distillery is not easy to get to, but that is by design. The two hour train ride to Seichichibu station in Saitama prefecture from central Tokyo is innocent enough, but as your car goes past the outskirts of Chichibu and winds through the rolling hills on the way to the distillery, you realize that something is different. Your Wi-Fi device will stop working, and your phone will go out of range of any cell phone towers. Perhaps you’ll get lost. But then you’ll realize that this area, an isolated, unadulterated swath across the middle of the island, is the perfect place to produce Japanese whisky.
The most famous family in Chichibu is undoubtedly the Akuto clan, a long line of sake brewers dating back to the 17th century. The family’s sake and shochu operation exists to this day and is considered extremely high quality. But we aren’t here to talk about sake and shochu.
In 1941, Isouji Akuto, a 19th-generation sake-brewer, established a new operation 50 kilometers away in Hanyu. Naming his new business after the town, Isouji acquired a distilling license by 1946 and began to manufacture grain whisky using a continuous column still, which he then blended with imported scotch. The product aligned with Japanese tastes at the time and sold accordingly.
By 1983, the family business was being headed up by Isouji’s son Yutaka Akuto, who decided to switch to a more single malt Scotch whisky style by bringing in two copper pot stills for production and aging the distillate for extended periods of time. The demands of production and a market that wasn’t ready for high quality single malt whisky caused this risky move to fail, and by 2000, the family business had begun selling off its whisky production unit. To help manage this transition, the family called on Yutaka’s son—and Isouji’s grandson—to assist.
From birth, Ichiro Akuto has lived in the world of whisky. The family business aside, he was a student at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, graduating with a degree in fermentation and distillation. He eventually settled into a job doing marketing for Suntory, hoping to eventually move into production and become a master distiller or blender at the famed Yamazaki Distillery.
Unfortunately for Ichiro, his superiors didn’t think that a move into whisky production was in the cards. So when Hanyu’s assets began to be sold and Ichiro was called upon by his family to manage and salvage what was left of its whisky distilling operation, he left Suntory and dealt himself a new hand.
After the family sold the entire Hanyu operation to a Kyoto-based shochu producer, Ichiro realized that the market for high-end whisky had begun to shift. In addition, the new owners had no interest in any of Hanyu’s assets that couldn’t contribute to the production of shochu. Thus, Ichiro began the process of re-acquiring the distilling equipment and the hundreds of casks of whisky that until that point had been aging for over a decade.
With the financial assistance of sake producer Sasanokawa Shuzo, Ichiro succeeded in his goal by 2004 and founded Venture Whisky Limited to market the product. His new “Ichiro’s Malt” line of whisky was released, one bottle at a time, as a series of 54 limited edition playing card themed bottles. The product was received enthusiastically by whisky nerds around the country, and ended up being some of the most collectible Japanese whisky ever.
Knowing that the stocks of Hanyu and other mothballed distilleries that he had acquired would eventually run out, Ichiro set his designs on a new distillery that would continue production and keep money flowing into the company. Chichibu Distillery was founded in 2007, and began producing whisky a year later.
The facilities at Chichibu Distillery are modern and efficiently organized. The distillery sources some barley locally and does its own malting, though as of November 2014 was working on a batch of already malted barley imported (a typical practice of whiskies produced in Japan) from the Aberdeen, Scotland region that was peated to 50ppm, putting it in the same class as “smoky” Scotch whiskies such as Laphroaig or Ardbeg. The recently released Ichiro’s Malt: The Peated had been a huge hit in Japan, and with an impending release in the United States, additional stocks were being produced.
Production size is small relative to other distilleries—the mash is produced in a 2400 liter tun, which then gets transferred to eight washbacks made of Mizunara oak that can hold over three thousand liters each (by comparison, a single washback at Yamazaki can hold over 100,000 liters.) The mash is then pumped into a pair of copper stills that can hold two thousand liters each. From there, the distillate is put into barrels that join three thousand others being aged in all sorts of casks—sherry, American oak, hogshead, madeira, etc.—across two warehouses. The distillery has set itself up to expand rapidly, with an in-house cooperage finishing its first barrel in late October 2014, and an additional aging warehouse nearing completion in November 2014.
While the whisky released thus far has been relatively young, Ichiro has been able to augment the whisky produced at the distillery with blends that combine leftover aged Hanyu juice with young Chichibu distillate. This creates a phenomenon not unlike the one experienced by Pappy Van Winkle bourbon in the United States, where even the slightest suggestion of a product containing juice from the famed mothballed Stitzel-Weller Distillery contributes to insane waiting lists at stores and radically inflated prices in the aftermarket.
Each of the young whiskies released thus far by Chichibu has sold out almost immediately, owing to both the aforementioned marketing tactic and the fact that Ichiro simply knows how to make very good whisky. As more mature spirits like the aptly named Ichiro’s Malt: On The Way arrive, and the last of the Hanyu, Kawasaki, and Karuizawa stocks continue to power the (much deserved) hype and mystique behind Chichibu Distillery, it would seem that Ichiro Akuto is now holding a winning hand.