Japan's newest and smallest distillery
It takes about one hour and a half to get to Chichibu from Tokyo by train. The Seibu Limited Express starts from the Ikebukuro station (Seibu line) every hour or so, and my train left at 12:30. After what looks like a long time speeding through endless suburbs or towns, you begin to climb into a mountain range, with its lot of tunnels and striking views on small wooden valleys with rivers running through them, and this itinerary makes you feel light years from Tokyo. I had selected this train through the useful train-schedule site Hyperdia.com which has an efficient English version.
Chichibu is a mid-size town with a population of 70 000 and it is home to a very recent and small whisky distillery with nonetheless deep roots in the trade : the Chichibu distillery was founded in 2007 by Ichiro Akuto, the ancestors of whom were making sake here in the early 1600s'. But even more important here, Ichiro's grandfather Isouji Akuto had opened a distillery in the nearby town of Hanyu around WW2, founding it in 1941 and getting the operation licence in 1946. Around 1980, the family distillery turned to single-malt whisky making but these high-quality whiskies needed long years of élevage and this was a difficult investment to support. Ichiro Akuto who when he was younger had been working for the beverage giant (and whisky maker) Suntory had come back to his family distillery first as sales manager then as president but that's when the company had to close down, in 2000, due to financial difficulties. Then, with the fortunate help of a sake maker named Sasanokawa Shuzou, he could repossess a large part (about 400 casks, from what I read) of the priceless whisky stock of the defunct distillery and begin sell it when ready. All the while he soon also made the steps to start a new distillery, right in the town where his ancestors had made sake, here in Chichibu. The new Chichibu distillery started its production in 2007 and we're still now in the early stage of a very promising distillery, bu if you're given the chance to drink some whiskies from the previous incarnation of Chichibu, namely Hanyu, which are now labelled Ichiro's Malt, you'll have a glimpse on what should taste like long-élevage Chichibu whiskies. these Card-series whiskies with intriguing labels going from Five of Spades to King of Heart are just outstandingly, intensely beautiful.
Her job is to check that the grist mill is working fine, that the crushing is well done, not too thin, not too gross. She tells me a few things too about what's important for the mashing, namely the saccharification, I'll not say I understood it all, I'm more familiar with winemaking-related terms, but I think I understood some similarities, with sugar, enzymes, temperature, Ph and alcohol playing their usual game together.
A religious ceremony was held before anything was built here of what is the Chichibu distillery, and you can see the fascinating images of that event on this Kitty's bar blog entry (a surprising photo blog centered on cats) where you can see lined bottles of sake waiting for the ceremony. You can find further comments in English on Chris Bunting's Nonjatta page. As Chris notices there's something delightful with this sake being poured in honor of a future whisky distillery. I would add that it shows the flexibility and pragmatism of the Japanese even when they do things the most seriously possible...
They have also plans to develop the malting and germination on their own in a specially-designed building, next to the cooperage one, this will be when the local crops gain in volume.. Right now they import malt from England, Scotland and Germany, but their farmers began to harvest locally-grown barley so they want to work from that too. Right now they've been using from 5 to 10 tons of Japanese-grown barley and it's set to increase in the future. It is important to notice that Chichibu would then be the first Japanese distillery to produce whisky with 100 % of local products, and not only local water.
Usually, they use non-peated malt but before the maintenance season (summer) they use peated malt for about a month. they tried both types of malts and found out that it's better to have the peated malt used at the end before the closing-time season otherwise the other way around, even the non-peated smells a bit like the peated one. Summer is when they clean the facility and in autumn they resume the production, starting with the non-peated again, without having peated aromas residues. They'll make separate whiskies from these malt types, some being blended together too.
You can see the mash tun container on the right. From what I understand the blend resulting from the milled malt is mixed with hot water and gets prepared for the fermentation stage. I read somewhere that this special-purpose container was bought from a brewery nearby. after some 30 minutes in there, enzymes are going to turn carbonhydrates into sugar. Then they filter the mash, cool it down to 30 ° C and pump it into the fermenters, the wash backs.
these wash backs (there are 8 of them here) are made of Japanese oak, named Mizunara in Japanese, which will yield different results from other types of oak I guess. The general outlook of these wash backs are also very different from what you see, say, in Scotland (see this page with pictures) and it has a definite Japanese character, it seems to me.
The fermentation will last 4 days in these wash backs, with the yeasts working the first two days, and the lactic bacteria working the following two days. When Chris Bunting of Nonjatta wrote his 2008 visit report shortly after the opening of the distillery, he said that because of the strong tannins of this new oak, Ichiro Akuto had to add more yeasts than usual at the beginning.
At one point, my host lifts the lid of a wash back (picture right), uncovering a generous foam with slow-rotating blades designed to prevent frothing, that is preventing the foam from overbuilding. This twin-blade tool is called a switcher. Like for a vat full of fermenting grape juice, you are also advised not to bend over the edge of the wash back as there's lots of CO2 in there.
Akuto-san says that at the end of this 4-day fermentation stage, the alcohol level is about 7 %, making it comparable to warm Belgium beer. That's when, from what I understood, the hard stuff is going to begin, namely, the distillation...
Another thing is the size : these wash backs make 3000 liters more or less and that's a really small size compared with other whisky distilleries, and Ichiro Akuto has made a clear choice here toward a restrained production size.
When I'm looking at these wash backs, I regret retrospectively not to have asked more on the house-cooperage project that Ichiro Akuto has in mind, I love the idea of this 80-year-old cooper who's sharing his skills to the energetic staff of Chichibu. This is really a multi-faceted adventure with plenty of blossoming results in the long term...
At one point Akuto-san showed me the shinto shrine which has its well-respected place hanging among the distillation machinery (picture on the right). Very early in the morning before any work has even begun, workers and Mr Akuto I'm sure bend with respect in front of it. In my mind the Japanese people embody this perfect balance between inspired talent, technology and sincere respect for tradition. Akuto san says that I should visit the Chichibu shrine too not far from here, as it is worth a visit.
Ichiro Akuto also says that the hot-water waste coming out of the still is given later to a farm because there are a lot of nutrients and vitamins in there.
There's no air-conditioning here, not yet at least, but when I visited it was naturally fresh even though the weather wasn't particularly cold outside. In summer they open hatches on the roof to let the air circulate. You find in this surface cask cellar the first Chichibu whiskies which are beginning their maturation and élevage, but you have also the priceless Hanyu barrels that Ichiro Akuto could salvage after his family distillery closed down. You need to taste some of these whiskies if you have the opportunity because they give a glimpse into what Chichibu is up to, after time will have left its imprint... My host says that for whisky maturation, the temperature changes between summer and winter is not a problem compared to what it would be with wine. About the need to top up to compensate the angels' share, Akuto-san says that usually they don't top up, the issue being that they don't want to add newer whisky in a barrel just for the sake of filling it back to the top. When it's really low they may regroup the barrels from the same year and use one of the casks to complete the others.
Asked about how he plans to manage the stock of barrels he's building and he he plans to relase the new whiskies in the near future, Ichiro Akuto says that if they released recently (last autumn) their first, three-year old Chichibu whisky, he'd like to keep a large stock of barrels so that he can release one day a 30-year Chichibu Single Malt....
At one point I ask Ichiro Akuto how the local authorities in Chichibu see his distillery and his business venture, as there was no such distillery in the area before. Akuto-san answers that now they're very happy, I guess because the success of the whiskies puts Chichibu on the map internationally. But back in 2007, he adds, the whisky market was terrible with the market shrinking continuously then, but deep inside he was sure that single malt whisky was going to be very popular, especially for old barrels. Overall, the whisky consumption in Japan, which had skyrocketed after WW2 had begun to go down in the 1980s' and the slimp reached the bottom precisely in 2007, after which it started going up again. I make the remark to him that when he started the distillery in 2008 he didn't know yet that a rebound would occur and that was certainly an act of faith or wisdom here. He says that actually even his own family was having doubts then about his business venture...
Asked about the locally-grown barley that they want to use more and more, he says that the fields are as close as 5 minutes from here, and that the harvest will take place in may/june, with a volume of maybe 10 tons. It's still at the experiment size but he plans to have this grow in the future.
Asked about the water issue after the Fukushima accident and the worry about water contamination, Akuto-san says that the local authorities as well as the city administration keep checking the water regularly and until now there's no consequence on the water. Plus, he says that when he exports the whisky he has to produce a certificate for the food safety of the product, and the European standards are very strict.
Before tasting that one I had a sip of the new spirit, a sample taken from the green vat before the filling into the casks. At 63,5 %, this whisky is a baby spirit with little complexity but I'd have it willingly as my daily apéritif (don't be mistaken, I don't drink whisky every day...)
Back to these nice card-themed labels : Akuto-san says that when years ago he was thinking about what labelling to use for the Hanyu whiskies, he asked advice to a good friend-designer of his who loves whisky. As the first release back then was about 4 different casks, his friend thought to the 4 card categories; at the time, he didn't plan to make this "card system" the rule, it was just thought for the very first casks to be bottled, not more, but his Ace of Spades, King of Diamonds, Queen of Hearts and Jack of Clubs made a hit among the whisky lovers who plebiscited the lguy who later desgned his labels at Panacée, a good whisky bar in Ebisu, Tokyo. I find this is a great real-life story... I found on Panacée's site a story about their taking part to a great Beaujolais-Nouveau party in another Ebisu venue. Whisky and (presumably-good) wine are not that far away from each other...
Akuto-san says that the export share for his whiskies is about 50 %, with Europe leading, first with France, then the UK and then Taiwan. There's not yet a market in the US from what I understand, one of the reasons being the bottle-size regulation there, as it has to be 75 cl while Chichibu bottles make 70 cl.
Thank you to Ichiro Akuto for his time, and to Nicolas Sikorski and David Croll for helping me organize this visit.
Satellite view of former Hanyu distillery
Ichiro Akuto's blog
John's photo set about a 2008 visit at the new Chichibu distillery
Great interview of Ichiro Akuto on the spot by Nicholas Coldicott.