Now third major player in the Japanese whisky, Ichiro Akuto kindly opened the doors of his small distillery for a tour conducted with passion by Yumi Yoshikawa the Ichiro's Malt brand ambassador. Welcome to Chichibu !
Chichibu distillery was founded in 2008 from Ichiro Akuto's passion and will to extend his family history of sake and shochu producers since the 17th century. But his passion and know-how in whisky production were directly transmitted to him by his grandfather, the founder in 1941 of the legendary Hanyu distillery now closed and whose last casks are stored and bottled in Chichibu.
After working for Suntory, Ichiro Akuto decided to found his own whisky distillery, and launched into an ambitious project ; one day produce a whisky 100% Japanese, from barley to the wood of barrel. To reach his goal, he created Venture Whisky company in charge of distribution of the Ichiro's Malt brand.
Located in the heart of a mountainous region of Saitama Prefecture in the village of Chichibu, the distillery is only a little less than 2 hours by train from central Tokyo, and enjoys hot and heavy summers and cold and dry winters. These large differences in temperatures would be, among other things, the origin of the surprising maturity characterizing the young whiskies of the distillery.
The adventure of Ichiro's Malt brand starts with exclusive last stocks recovered from Hanyu, and thanks to his innate sense of marketing Ichiro Akuto created the "Hanyu Card Series", whose whiskies are now highly sought after by collectors. Subsequently, with the very first whiskies distilled in Chichibu and old ones from Hanyu, he created three pure malts ; the Mizunara Wood Reserve, Double Distilleries and Wine Wood Reserve, but also a blend called Malt and Grain White Label and the Premium version whose grain whisky comes from the last stocks of Kawasaki distillery.
In 2011, three years after the start of production, Chichibu first single malts are blended and bottled in limited series. Each one of the first vintages have their own features such as "The First" which is the very first Chichibu's single malt, "The Floor Malted" produced from traditionally malted barley, or a very peaty release simply called "The Peated".
After being charmed by Chichibu's whiskies since we tasted them, it was during a visit to Tokyo in early June this year that we had the chance to visit the distillery where they were produced.
So by a beautiful sunny morning we climbed into the train direction Seibu - Chichibu for a guided tour of the distillery scheduled at 1 pm. We must say that in Japan even a train ride is nice, it is air conditioned, clean and on time. After passing through the suburbs of Tokyo, then fields and some tunnels, to later find yourself in the mountains of Saitama Prefecture.
Seibu - Chichibu station hosts a small shopping center with a shop offering Ichiro's Malt whiskies, making us feeling that we gradually approach the distillery.. Having arrived at lunch time, we are tempted by delicious soba noodles in a traditional restaurant located opposite to the left of the station. Ideal to regain strength, especially in anticipation of the tasting session of the end of tour.
Japanese taxis are pricey, but it's the easiest way to get to the distillery from the station, and about 30 minutes of small roads later, the pagoda of the distillery is finally visible. When we arrived we were surprised by the size of the site that seems so much smaller than the Yamazaki distillery we had visited in 2013.
The facilities consist of several buildings, including a cottage that houses the offices, the library of Ichiro's samples and a whisky presentation and tasting corner, but also a malting area, storage warehouses, a winery, and the heart of the distillery ; the production room containing the pair of stills, mash tuns and wash backs.
We are warmly welcomed in the cottage by Ichiro Akuto and Yumi Yoshikawa who will be ensuring the visit tour. Both speak English, which greatly facilitates communication.
Inside the cottage is located ; administrative offices, a blending laboratory and the Ichiro's sample library, a reception area of the visitors with decorative bottles of whisky, barrels and a shelf on which are presented all the awards won by Ichiro's Malt.
After a brief presentation of the distillery and the visit, we unfortunately let Ichiro to his business obligations, and begin the tour with the first step in the development of a single malt ; crushing the malted barley.
Almost all of malted barley non peated is imported from England the rest from Germany, while the peated one is exclusively coming from Scottland. However a small portion is occasionally malted on site, as the distillery has its own kiln or drying oven, which will be soon powered by local peat.
But in the future malting operations on site should gradually increase and especially with Japanese barley, Ichiro is working with local producers to produce a single malt 100% Japanese, the first in history. The milling machine is located in the main building where you have to give up his shoes in favor of tap, hygiene oblige.
At the end of crushing, barley flour or grist is poured into large stainless steel tanks, called mash tuns, where it is brewed with hot water. During our visit, the distillery was currently producing and the heat was overwhelming.
The distillery has 8 fermentation tanks or wash backs, all made of mizunara wood (endemic Japanese oak), 2 traditional stills (wash still and spirit still) heated by indirect steam vapors system both manufactured by the most famous Scottish stills manufacturer, but also a labeling and packaging area.
When we visited the main building, we came face to face with a strange barrel that looks nothing like the traditional barrels used for aging whisky. This egg-shaped barrel manufactured by a French cooperage renowned named Taransaud, was being prepared for the first filling trials.
The tour continues through the fermentation step with the presentation of the wooden wash backs with a capacity of 3000 liters, made entirely in Japan, and in which the Chichibu's single malts ferment for about 72 hours and acquire their first aromas.
We are invited to follow Yumi to the heart of the business, distillation, to the two pot stills located in the hall. Directly imported from Scotland, they were heavily inspired by traditional Scottish shape, but they have mostly been designed according to Ichiro Akuto wishes.
With a capacity of 2000 liters, they are heated by an indirect vapors system completely manually managed. Samples of different distillation cuts are willing to make you feel olfactory evolution of whisky.
Malt is distilled twice, first in the wash still, where the alcohol level reaches 23% of the volume, then a second in the spirit still where the alcohol level reaches 70% of the volume. At the end of this step, the spirit is put in barrels to mature and gradually become whisky.
We leave the main room and go towards the cellar where the barrels are stored on four levels. Inside, the thermal contrast to the hot and heavy outside air is striking. Silence and relative coolness give the impression of entering a church. The floor of the building is in natural clay to promote local microbial action during maturation.
Many types of various origins casks are used for aging in Chichibu, and we could see among them, casks of ; sherry, port wine, mizunara, Bourbon and even French wines. And to top it off, Ichiro Akuto is currently working to manufacture its own mizunara barrels where it will age its 100% Japanese whisky.
The oldest aging whiskies are 2008 vintages which later will be used in the development of older single malts releases. But there are not only casks of whisky distilled in Chichibu, the distillery also keep and manages the bottlings of the last barrels of Hanyu, Kawasaki and the now legendary Karuizawa distillery.
The tour ends and we return already in the chalet for a tasting of the entire Ichiro's Malt range, but also some exclusive products including single casks from Hanyu, Chichibu, and some Kawasaki single grains, distilled into another closed Japanese distillery which used to produce only grain whisky.
Later, Ichiro Akuto joined us to discuss and provide us with his enthusiasm and passion for the whisky that he produces.
After a few samples tasted with moderation, Yumi kindly called a taxi for us, then we were invited to go outside for the traditional souvenir photo with Ichiro.
And with a head full of memories we stepped into the taxi back to Tokyo. Thank Ichiro Akuto, Yumi Yoshikawa and all employees present, for giving us a little of their time despite the full activity of the distillery.