My latest world distillery adventure has landed me in Japan. My visit is to the Chichibu Distillery, a distillery that sits on a small hill in Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, about two hours from Tokyo. The distillery is owned by Venture Whisky and was founded by Ichiro Akuto who is the grandson of the founder of the now closed Hanyu Distillery.
Chichibu probably wasn’t the best distillery to start my Japanese Whisky tour at, because now not much can live up to it. My host for the visit was Ichiro’s brand ambassador Yumi Yoshikawa, not only is she an expert on the Chichibu brand, but also has quite a diverse whisky background. She has lived around the world and even spent two years working at the Highlander Inn Whisky Bar right next to the Craigellachie Hotel in Scotland. She definitely knows her way around a good dram.
As we mentioned, Ichiro Akuto is the owner of the distillery. He comes from a long family line of sake distillers. His grandfather built the Hanyu Distillery in 1941 and not only produced sake, but also whisky. Hanyu eventually was forced to close in 2000 after the whisky slump of the 80s and 90s. Casks were still resting and Ichiro took ownership of those in 2004. There are about 400 casks of Hanyu left and this is still being used for many of the blendings and bottling of the Ichiro whiskies we know today. It wasn’t until 2008 that production of new make spirit actually started at the Chichibu Distillery, and that puts us right at a time frame where we will see Chichibu only distillate being released.
Like many startup distilleries Ichiro decided to blend some whiskey stocks he was able to acquire to generate some revenue while his new whiskey was aging. Ichiro was smart enough to ration his older Hanyu whiskey stock while the newer Chichibu spirit could age properly. Ichiro also knew he had to be an excellent blender to make this work. When you walk into the log cabin welcome center, your eyes are immediately drawn to the sample wall to see some of the sources of his blends. You can scour the wall reading familiar names such as Angus Dundee, Girvan, MGP etc. These are just a handful of the many samples from around the world that Ichiro utilizes in his product launches.
One thing you will hear as you dig deeper into the whisky industry is that the Japanese Whisky makers don’t share very well. Unlike Scotland, where product is regularly and expected to be sold and transferred to create all of the blends we know and love, Japan’s two major whisky producers aren’t as open to this. These two companies are names you know including Suntory and Asahi (Nikka). Chichibu and Kirin are becoming much larger forces, but right now there is still very little sharing of distillate for both grain and malt between any of them. This makes it difficult for creating blended and vatted malt whiskies. To survive this situation, Ichiro had no choice but to go outside of the country for new flavors and styles of spirit.
Chichibu’s production capacity isn’t industrial by any means, but has the potential for growth. In 2015, they produced 90,000 liters (23,800 US gallons) of new make spirit using 152 tonnes of malted barley. Most of the malt is sourced from Crisp Maltings in Scotland. They receive not only their un-peated malt from here, but also highland peated malts from Port Gordon, Scotland. A few local farmers have begun growing barley specifically for Chichibu. Normally buckwheat is grown in this area, but farmers were easily persuaded to start growing barley for the distillery’s needs. Only about 10-15% of barley comes from this domestic production, but it is on the rise. Peated malt is only run through the distillery four months out of the year. The rest of the year the un-peated malt is mashed, fermented and distilled.
Their mash tun can hold about 2,400 liters and they run three waters through the grain just like Scotland. Water temperatures start at 64 degrees Celsius and run up to 96 degrees. The third water is run off and used for the first water in the next mash; again similar to Scotland. The spent grains or draff is then sold off to the local farmers.
Japanese Mizunara Oak Fermentation Tanks
They have eight Japanese Mizunara oak washbacks or fermentation tanks. You quickly realize part of the Chichibu secret is this magical Mizunara oak. Typically washbacks are made of American oaks or Douglas Fir, or even more common now, stainless steel. Yumi was sure to emphasize that they get unique bacteria (a certain amount of bacteria is a good thing) by using Mizunara for the washbacks and that is carried into their distillate. Ichiro is definitely in the forefront of changing the flavor profiles of malt whisky with this Japanese oak.
The fermentation period is about four days long and they are using yeast from Scotland. Each of the washbacks can hold about 3,100 liters of wort. When they began production in 2008 they had only five washbacks and now have eight.
Forsyth Stills from Scotland
You can see the wash and two spirit still just at the end of the long, warehouse building, sitting high above the washbacks. Each still can hold about 2,000 liters and are both imported from Forsyths Stills in Scotland. Their bottling line is right next to the stills and will need to be expanded soon. They are currently running production seven days a week with about 11 staff working full time.
There are four barrel warehouses onsite and three additional offsite each holding about 4,500 casks. They also aspire to have a cooperage on site and if they increase capacity as they say, they will definitely need more dunnage warehouses.
Maturation: Hot & Humid Summers / Cold & Snowy Winters
The environment for aging is unique. They have very hot and humid summers reaching over 35 degrees Celsius (95° F). In the winter and during my visit, there is snow and can get to 10 degrees below Celsius (14° F) at certain times. With the warehouses under no temperature control and all dunnage style, this has a huge effect of maturation.
A Combination of New and Used Barrels
The majority of their distillate is put into used bourbon barrels ranging from Buffalo Trace Distillery, Heaven Hill Distillery to Jack Daniel’s Distillery. They use specific American bourbon whiskey distillers for their unique characteristics. For example they find Heaven Hill to give a lot of vanilla characters and Jack Daniels to give more of a green apple/fruit characteristic. They utilize additional types of casks such as ex-sherry, port and even New Zealand wine casks, but they are of course known for their Mizunara casks. Mizunara is only grown in Japan and the Chichibu team goes to lumber auctions in Hokkaido to source it. It is not an easy wood to work with and leaks quite often, but the characteristics and flavors a virgin Mizunara cask gives to new distillate is incredible. It is known to be quite oily of an oak and has unique spices.
The Chichibu Distillery does not have a dedicated website but they do have a Facebook page with some additional information about the distillery and their releases. I have tried to simplify it. Anything that says Chichibu on the label means all distillate was produced and aged from Chichibu Distillery. Here are a few examples: On The Way, The 2016 peated Malt and The peated 2015 Cask Strength. These are all going to be NAS and about 4-6 years old. If it just says Ichiro’s and typically has a leaf design on it then it is some kind of blend of Chichibu spirit, Hanyu and/or any other global distillery they have partnered with. For example the: Malt and Grain Blended Whisky, Double Distilleries and The Wood Reserve are blends.
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The 2016 Peated is a new release and only sold in Japan at the moment. It is headed to Europe soon and hopefully launching in the states next. Medium to small distilleries like Chichibu, find it difficult to launch in the states. Not only because of our crazy distribution and three tier laws, but also because of our bottle size. Japan is like Europe with a 700 ml bottle size. They have to change their bottling line for our 750 ml size. It’s too bad, because I know a lot of people that would love this peated expression. It is only about four years old, but really has the sweetest peat flavors!
Yumi and Chichibu are going to do great things and I hope to be an advocate for their peated malts and whatever else they have in store for us back in the states. I will have to buy a bottle of the 2016 and get everyone on board before it arrives.
Get your palates ready, Chichibu’s Mizunara revolution is on its way.