Today marks an extremely exciting day at dekanta as we bring one of our most interesting interviews to date!
Ichiro Akuto, known as the rockstar of the Japanese whisky industry, has allowed us to ask him a few questions about his distillery, Chichibu, and the amazing whiskies they are creating there. I doubt I’m alone in saying that Mr Akuto is, perhaps, the most influential person in Japanese whisky currently, having taken Chichibu, and his family’s shut-down distillery Hanyu, to new heights.
The man has single-handedly led the ji-whisky movement in Japan, which revolves around the smaller distilleries around Japan, as they attempt to distill and mature great whiskies, albeit, with limited capacity and thus, stock. Anything Chichibu sells out in a matter of days, and their bottles retail at pretty high prices nowadays.
While the distillery team consists of around 10 people, the distillery’s name has reached far beyond Japanese soil and is recognised in some of the farthest corners of the earth. The words “Ichiro’s Malt” are on every label or every bottle released by Venture Whisky Ltd, Mr Akuto’s company, which manages the last of Hanyu’s stock and Chichibu.
Many joke about Ichiro Akuto and Chichibu, claiming that the distillery resembles a cult, with so many die-hard fans following the distillery’s releases and events with obsessive enthusiasm. You should have been at this year’s Tokyo International BarShow. The minute the event kicked-off, the Chichibu queue was so long that the staff had to redirect it, so that other attendees could pass through to the other booths.
The people at Chichibu do great work, make great whisky, and passion and innovation can be seen in everything they do. Of course, their fans love their work, I mean, I’m one of those crazy fans. So you can imagine how happy I was to be able to interview the man and legend who started the whole thing!
Without further ado, our interview with Mr Ichiro Akuto himself.
How does Chichibu manage to create such balanced whiskies, despite such short maturation periods? Do you use smaller casks for quicker results?
Most of the casks we use are Bourbon Barrels which are 200L. We also use Quarter Casks at 130L as well, but we use a very limited number of those.
We believe that the climate in the Chichibu area of Japan works well for the maturation, as the temperature difference between summertime and wintertime gives us a greater angel’s share and slightly speeds up the maturation of the whisky. If the casks used are simply smaller,they can impart more colour and wood influence in a shorter period of time, but not complex flavour like esters.
We’ve seen some interesting releases matured in beer casks. How exactly is this done?
We started using beer casks some years ago, back in 2014. Back then barrel-aged beer was getting very popular in the US and some Japanese beer breweries were showing an interest in it the process.
However, it is quite difficult to get casks for beer in Japan from big companies. So to help some of our friends out at different breweries, we started supplying our casks to them.
After the casks had been used, we would get them back and experiment by aging our whiskies in them.
Chichibu releases many young bottlings that are instantly very popular. Do you believe aged whisky tastes better?
We are tasting some of our 8 and 9 year old whiskies just now and we are surprised at the flavours we are tasting. We think our 10 year old release will be truly great! But, generally speaking, age is not the only matter concerning the taste of the whisky.
There are many other factors to consider. A 50 year old whisky might taste better, but it also might not. It all depends on how you make and enjoy the whisky at hand.
What is your favourite cask for maturation and why?
It’s definitely Japanese Mizunara Oak. It imparts distinct and unique flavours that other types of oak simply do not.
As a very international distillery, do you place a lot of importance and focus on the Western market?
We are trying not to focus on any borders.
The domestic market is, of course, very important. However, population wise, it is really limited. Whisky is whisky everywhere and people are enjoying it globally. So, it’s a very natural thing to think about and consider different overseas markets.
We started with the European market and are gradually moving towards different continents and countries.
Other than Chichibu whisky, what is your go-to whisky?
It would have to be Japanese whisky, make by Suntory and Nikka.
Their history and products have mentored and led us to where we are today. We need to continue learning from the history of Japanese whisky, and pay respect to the whisky traditions that they opened up.
That concludes our interview with Mr Akuto. As you can see, it’s no wonder the Chichibu distillery has reached such huge, international success.
They pay close attention to the past, and respect the whisky legends like Suntory and Nikka, that have brought Japanese whisky to where it is today.
At the same time, they keep their eyes open and set on the horizon, always striving to create amazing whiskies, and bring them to people all around the world. Their team is young and passionate, and they strive daily to create new and amazing drams for all their fans.
We thank Ichiro Akuto for creating the great Chichibu Distillery, and for bringing Japanese whisky into the future.
We are extremely excited to see what the future hold for the Chichibu team and will continue to promote the great work they are doing to all our fans around the world.