As most of our readers know, Japan is famous for its culture, cuisine, and lifestyle. Over the last 20 years one newcomer to Japans global reputation has been Japanese Whisky.
Japanese Whisky is finding its way into some of the best restaurants, bars, and establishments around the world. So it comes as no surprise that there is a growing demand to know more about this golden beverage. Who better to bring than Mac from Kanpai Planet.
Mac is an expert in the field, and you may have heard of his name as he has produced many popular videos about Japanese Whisky and other beverages on his popular YouTube channel. Which is why we collaborated with Mac to share with you what Chichibu whisky is all about and let you in on a few secrets about the Chichibu Distillery.
Entrance of Chichibu Whisky Distillery | Photo Kanpai Planet
Chichibu is 80km northwest of Tokyo. It’s known for the Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage route, which links 34 temples across the surrounding mountain, and its famous yomatsuri (night festival) is one of Japan’s big three hikiyama (float) festivals.
Say the word ‘Chichibu’ to informed drinks fans around the world, and they will immediately think of the Chichibu Distillery, owned by Venture Whisky, makers of Ichiro’s Malt, named for the owner and Chief Blender, Ichiro Akuto.
Ichiro Akuto founder and Chief Blender | Photo Kanpai Planet
The Ichiro of Ichiro’s Malt and Grain is Ichiro Akuto, probably the most famous living personage in Japanese Whisky. He’s the heir to 21 generations of alcohol-making know-how, going back to 1625 when his many-times great grandfather founded Akuto Shzo, which began making sake in Chichibu, Saitama.
Ichiro’s grandfather Isouji Akuto orchestrated the pivot from sake to whisky, moving the company’s headquarters to Hanyu, Saitama, in 1941. Akuto Shuzo was renamed Toa Shuzo, and they launched “Golden Horse” in 1948, using imported whisky, and began distilling their own malt whisky in 1980.
Ichiro had no intention of taking over the family business, but in 1995 at the age of 28, he quit his sales job at Suntory, to help with the whisky operation.His timing looked unlucky at first—Whisky sales in Japan had been declining since 1983, and in 2004, the family decided to sell the company and its assets. The new owners had no interest in the Hanyu Distillery’s stock.
But Ichiro had a vision. He launched Venture Whisky to save the whisky stock and rescue the distilling equipment, with backing from Fukushima’s Sasanokawa Shuzo.
Ichiro’s Malt and Grain World Blended Whisky | Photo Kanpai Planet
This turned out to be a brilliant move. The aged Hanyu stocks were used in the iconic Card Series and gave the company a headstart in what was soon to become a very desirable new market. In February 2008, Ichiro started distilling at his own Chichibu Distillery, also in Saitama, kicking off what would become Japan’s craft whisky movement.
As befits a genuine craft tradition, a lot is done in-house and by hand – From growing barley to floor malting to their on-site cooperage using local mizunara. In fact, they do more in-house than any other Japanese whisky distillery. And tipplers have noticed. Demand has far exceeded supply at Chichibu since the beginning. As a result, a second distillery was built, which began operation in 2019, 5x the output of the first Chichibu operation.
It is great that so many countries are producing whisky now. The proliferation of craft production in pretty much every drinks category in the last 15 years has given consumers a level of choice which is unparalleled in human history. Tipplers live in interesting times for sure!
Japanese Whisky is, in the main, produced in the Scottish tradition. Masataka Taketsuru, the first distillery manager of Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery and the founder of Nikka Whisky, a man considered the godfather of Japanese Whisky, went to Scotland to learn how to make whisky, and he set up his dream distillery at Yoichi in Hokkaido because he felt it was as close to Scotland as he could get in Japan.
However, the industry has developed in a different way and the whiskies which I find most interesting are those that have arisen from those differences. For example, the fact the until recently companies did not swap stocks, meaning that if you wanted to create a blend, you can to make to the components that go into the blend yourself!
In Japan, unlike Scotland, there are no rules on cask types, so companies have been experimenting with ex-shochu casks, ex-sake casks, barrels made of Cherry Blossom wood.
Variety is the spice of life, and Japanese Whisky adds another dimension to a diverse drinks world.
Mac from Kanpai Planet reviewing Ichiro’s Malt and Grain | Photo Kanpai Planet
The Chichibu Distillery’s most accessible, widely available product Ichiro’s Malt and Grain, often referred to as “White Label”. This is a very reasonably priced world whisky blend, meaning that it contains components from Scotland, Ireland, the US, Canada and Japan,blended together by Ichiro Akuto. For more information about this release check out this video.
From there it is worth seeking out some of their other core range bottles Double Distilleries, MWR and Wine Wood Reserve.
If you can find them, the real jewels in the Ichiro crown are the single malts and single cask bottlings. These are highly sought after because of their quality, and their rarity.
One thing to be aware of is the recommended retail price of the whisky that you are after. Unfortunately, we live in a world with huge markups on Japanese whisky and the inflation of prices on Chichibu Single Casks is quite frankly astronomical. There are fakes out there too, so be careful!
Talking to Mac it became clear that there is much more to Japanese whisky than meets the eye. If you have not yet have had the chance to try any whiskies from the Chichibu Distillery, then the iconic Ichiro’s Malt “White Label” is a great place to start. Kanpai!
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I hope you enjoyed reading about this hidden gem just north of Tokyo, if you would like to know more about fun things to do and travel ideas, please continue to have a look at our must-see / must do things nearby Tokyo page.
To book unique activities in English, please see the Nearby Tokyo experience page.
Contributor: Cindy Bissig
Cindy is a writer and photographer living and documenting her Japan experience. As a Digital Nomad, she travels all around Japan to discover its beauty and share what she finds on her YouTube channel, as well as through her articles and photographs. She is particularly passionate about local culture, food and sake. Tune into her Podcast “Sake Unplugged” to learn more about it. Her goal is to show you an authentic Japan to make sure you have the best possible experience when you visit!
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