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.
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
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 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.