Chichibu, a legend is born

12 novembre 2021

The rise of Japanese whisky

Twenty years have gone by since the world realized that, when it comes to allure and quality, Japanese whisky is second to none. Indeed, the spirit will soon celebrate one hundred years of history, as it was back in 1923 when a very young Masataka Taketsuru on his return from Scotland founded, together with Shinjiro Tori, Yamazaki Distillery, the first whisky distillery of the Rising Sun. And yet, before that fateful year 2001, the path of Japanese whisky with its ups and downs was entirely confined to its birth country. There, it charmed its way into the habits of the Japanese - for example with Mizuwari, a drink made by mixing whisky, fresh water and ice usually drunk as aperitif and at meals - and, starting from the 1960s, saw dozens of whisky bars popping up all over urban areas. 

Then came the breakthrough, incidentally at a time when domestic consumption had been dropping for years. Yoichi 10 year old is named 'Best of the Best' at the prestigious Whisky Magazine Awards, bringing the whole Japanese whisky movement to the fore. Two years later, Hibiki 30 year old and Yamazaki 12 year old are awarded two Gold Medals at the International Spirits Challenge: it was the beginning of a dramatic ascent that would profoundly change the industry and still shows no signs of slowing down. 

The larger groups, Nikka and Suntory in the lead, geared up to keep up with the boom: they increased production, acquired distilleries in different countries and revised their whisky recipes to reduce the average ageing period, as demand for certain bottlings far exceeds the amount of product distilleries can place on the market without draining their cellars. Fortunately, so far average quality doesn't seem to have suffered.

Indeed, this upheaval has not only caused major adjustments in the mass market, it also created a new niche populated by a host of small new producers, often family-run craft distilleries. Unsurprisingly, the new movement was shaped by the same cultural background that has always distinguished Japanese whisky – an obsession for detail and the preservation of traditional production methods now abandoned even in Scotland, the undisputed birthplace of whisky. We could say that the Japanese whisky philosophy – whether Single Malt or the more popular Blended – has the pursuit of quality and harmony as its lodestar, a striving toward perfection that is also found in many aspects of Japanese society. 

It is in this scenario that in 2004 Ichiro Akuto founded Chichibu Distillery in the eponymous town in the Saitama Prefecture. Ichiro trained at Hanyu, a distillery owned by his grandfather Isouji Akuto who founded it in 1941. As an employee, Ichiro witnessed Hanyu's sad end in 2000, considered the year of "Japan's whisky loch" just as 1983 was for Scotland, when many distilleries closed due to lack of demand. At the dawn of the new millennium two more distilleries, Karuizawa and Kawasaki, also turned off their stills for good. Undeterred, Ichiro starts building back up from the ashes of the defunct distilleries, buys cheap Hanyu and Kawasaki casks lending financial soundness to the enterprise and begins to conceive his visionary dream of a micro whisky distillery with a microscopic annual production of around 80 thousand liters, where he can keep everything under his watchful eye. At Chichibu, craftsmanship is reflected in every detail, including the small number of employees: as Ichiro himself proudly points out, "we have 27 full-time and a dozen part-time employees, for a total of about forty people." In addition, with a view to ensuring the full involvement of all workers, "most of them started out in production, then were periodically assigned to different jobs in the distillery," Ichiro always says. 

Mashing is done by hand with the help of ladles, fermentation can last for up to 100 hours, and the heart of each distillation is even tasted right out of the still. Ichiro always gets involved in the tasting, but also has other people from his staff take care of this quality assessment. In addition, a small team of master coopers ensures cask quality remains very high. The casks are aged in 3 traditional dunnage warehouses each accommodating 1500 casks. 

The rest of the story is familiar to anyone who has had an interest in Japanese whisky in recent years. Chichibu's Single Malts were immediately a huge success – at first in their homeland, where the thirst of whisky bars absorbed most of production, necessarily limited to a few thousand bottles. However, they soon hit the global market with as much as 30% of production exported around the world every year. Chichibu whiskys quickly became a cult item among whisky enthusiasts. While the skyrocketing prices of closed distilleries like Hanyu and Karuizawa in the secondary auction market over the last five years are generally understandable and, in a way, reflect the fate of similar Scottish producers like Port Ellen and Brora, Chichibu's seemingly unstoppable upward curve continues to astonish. To some extent, this success may be due to speculative maneuvers having little to do with the qualities of these superb whiskys, but there are many factors underlying this sensational boom. 

In the next few paragraphs, we will try to understand what lies behind the Chichibu mania.

Climate and casks accelerate maturation

Lying about 90 kilometers west of Tokyo, the town of Chichibu has hot summers and cold winters. Very hot highs and significant temperature fluctuations dilate and stress the oak casks, accelerating the ageing process and increasing the angel's share – the amount of alcohol and water that evaporates – to 3-4% per year, almost double that of Scottish whisky. This mainly results in accelerated maturation, which makes it possible to appreciate complex flavors even in 3-year-old Single Malts. According to prominent Japanese whisky expert and backbone of La Maison du Whiskey Salvatore Mannino, when ten years ago Ichiro started traveling the world giving people blind tastings of very young whisky samples, everyone marveled at how mature and well-balanced his spirits were. "Now there's a lot of hype and everything is going up, but the market was very different when ten years ago they came out with an amazing quality whisky aged just three years. The main thing to say about it is that it’s an extraordinary product." Sometimes it wasn't even whisky, as it was aged under three years. Salvatore believes this is how Ichiro laid the foundations for Chichibu’s remarkable growth: he created a spirit with great structure using squat stills with short necks and descending lyne arms, and refined it even further with an intensive ageing process. This is clear in many single casks aged only 4 or 5 years, which sell for astronomical prices. Even Chichibu The First, aged just 3 years, fetches constantly rising prices. 

The malting floor

Designing a new distillery boasting a traditional malting floor and oven – which have fallen into disuse just about everywhere – certainly adds a unique charm to the project. Since 2015, Chichibu has been malting 15-20% of all barley in-house, with this particular processing method being reserved to locally grown barley only. The main varieties, Myogi Nijyo and Sai-no-hoshi, originate from the Saitama prefecture. The remaining malt is sourced from England, Scotland and Germany. Ichiro perfected his floor malting skills in different places – at Simpson's Malt, his malt supplier until 2016, and at his current supplier Crisp Malting Group. But if Chichibu only started malting on-site in 2015, where did the malt used for his first “Floor Malted” whisky, distilled in 2009 and bottled in 2012, come from? According to Salvatore Mannino, at the time the distillery was working with Warminster-based England's Malt Stars, which operated "under Ichiro's specifications." The auction market seems to appreciate the traditional production methods indicated on the labels and Chichibu The Floor Malted, produced in 8000 bottles, has been seeing a dramatic rise in value, as clearly shown in the graph below. However, over the years Chichibu's growth has been quite limited, as if enthusiasts were still waiting to get their hands on a real Chichibu made only from barley malted on-site. 


Mizunara wood

The two types of oak commonly used for ageing wine and spirits are Quercus Alba and Quercus Robur, widespread in North America and Europe respectively. There is a third type called Quercus Crispula, known as Mizunara in Japan. Widely used in furniture, its characteristics make it less than ideal for ageing spirits. Mizunara wood is very knotty, difficult to work and prone to cracking, which results in leaky casks. Despite this, Ichiro Akuto seems bent on adding this particular local touch to his products. He's had a few Mizunara oaks planted near the distillery (although he will probably never see the fruits of his efforts), but he mostly buys expensive Mizunara lots at auctions and has set up a small cooperage inside the distillery to make casks from scratch. “Today we have four people working in cask production. Our coopers don't just produce Mizunara casks, they also select timber lots at auctions in northern Japan. They normally make 250-liter all-Mizunara casks, as well as Mizunara cask ends. Their job is to protect the wood and improve yield, plus repair the casks. Buying white oak casks is much easier than buying Mizunara casks, so we only produce the latter,” explains Ichiro. The cooperage is overseen by Mitsuo Saito, former master cooper at Maruesu Cooperage. Chichibu's 8 washbacks and one of the marrying vats are also made from Mizunara wood. Far from being just a marketing gimmick, Ichiro believes this wood provides the perfect environment for a unique kind of bacterial flora that is ideal to develop specific organoleptic qualities in whisky. The very few bottlings that show the word 'Mizunara' on the label see huge interest from the market with prices often doubling over just a short time, like this single cask made for Number One Drinks.

Casks: does experimenting pay?

Before distillation even started at Chichibu, Ichiro Akuto has been nurturing a thick network of connections which would eventually prove a key asset for his creation. He personally visited Bourbon producers in the United States and wine producers around the world, acquiring a vast knowledge base and, more importantly, buying many different kinds of casks. A spot-on example of his creative approach is the partnership with Japanese craft breweries, which today allows Chichibu to produce truly amazing single casks ex-IPA or ex-Imperial Stout. Today, half the ageing casks are ex-Bourbon (mainly Heaven Hill), but experimenting is certainly a key pillar in Chichibu's production philosophy and the distillery’s warehouses are packed with many ex-dry red and white wine casks, ex-fortified wine casks like Madeira and Marsala, as well as ex-Cognac and rum casks. The in-house cooperage also churns out so-called Chibidaru casks, obtained by reducing the capacity of former 200-liter Bourbon casks to just 130 liters, thus accelerating the ageing process. As attractive as the results of these experiments often are, the secondary market doesn't seem inclined to reward Ichiro's efforts to diversify Chichibu's style. Prices for the 2017 official bottling of ex-IPA casks, which totaled 6700 bottles, have been stationary; another good example is a 2012 single cask ex-Pinot Noir, often subject to downward fluctuations.

Relationship with indie bottlers

In 2019 Chichibu 2 was opened next to the first distillery and promises to increase production capacity fivefold. As Ichiro reveals, “2021 is the first year we'll be able to taste our whisky, and yet we still haven't decided whether to market the 3 YO edition in 2022 or not. We hope it will happen between 2022 and 2023.” Whatever the case, the installation of direct-fire stills has dispelled all doubt that Ichiro will continue to do extraordinary things. In the meantime, we are left to wonder if this new whisky will give rise to another Single Malt brand or contribute to the production of Ichiro's Malt & Grain Blended Whiskey. So far, with a production of just 80,000 liters a year Chichibu hasn't been able to develop a full-fledged core range, with the first ten-year-old whisky only coming out this year. Official bottlings are actually limited editions of no more than 8000 bottles, and over the years the distillery’s growing tendency has been to bottle single casks. What is even more surprising is the fact that in over ten years releases by independent bottlers have numbered just 23, which indicates strong protection of cask stocks. These choices have clearly been beneficial for business and reinforced the idea of an exclusive, authentically craft whisky which by nature is produced in limited quantities. Some of the single casks sold outside of Japan commanded mind-blowing prices. A perfect example of this is the Intergalactic Series, the ultimate object of desire for those infected with the Chichibu mania.