The Hanyu Playing Cards

The Hanyu playing card labels are a limited editions of Ichiro’s malt whisky. Each and every label has a unique playing card motif, 58 in total. The story behind these labels is quite interesting.

The Hanyu distillery was founded back in 1941 by Isouji Akuto, whose family had actually been in the sake-making business since the 1700s. Located in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo, the distillery had been making blended grain whisky called the Golden Horse since the 1940s. The Golden Horse label was partially blended with Scotch whisky and as such it was not 100 percent authentic Japanese whisky.

By the 1980s Yutaka Akuto, then head of the family business, had become more ambitious and wanted to make authentic Japanese whisky. He decided to buy all necessary equipment and change the factory into a single malt factory. It was a risky gamble as it takes at least three years for the whisky to become marketable; until then the production would have to operate at a loss. Sadly the gamble did not pay off. The product was high quality all right, but market conditions were unfavorable, and in 2000 the company was forced to declare bankruptcy.

The new owners of the distillery were not interested in making whisky — they weren’t even sure what to do with the remaining stock, so they simply stored it in the basement. The story however does not end there. Ichiro Akuto, the grandson of Isouji, had been working for Suntory for some time. He wanted to continue the family legacy and found his own distillery, and he did. In the process, he bought the remaining stock from the Hanyu distillery, some 400 casks in all.

A question on his mind was, How do I make this stuff stick out? Sure, there were many specialists who would love the idea of having whisky from the Hanyu distillery, but apart from this limited group of whisky lovers, the drink was not widely known.

Akuto isn’t your average CEO. He is far more down to earth; in fact, one could say that he is obsessed with his trade. He began visiting bars and speaking with bartenders to get ideas. One of the bars he visited was Bar Salvador in Takadanobaba, a notable university area packed with thirsty students. The owner of this bar gave him an excellent idea: Why not print different labels on the bottles — say, playing cards?

Akuto did just this. He teamed up with a friend and created the labels, which are known as Hanafuda (literally, “flower cards”), 58 in total. Each label appears on ten bottles. He also decided to rename the whisky and call it Ichiro’s Malt instead of Hanyu. The idea was well received and the bottles have now become a bit of a collector’s item. As you can see, every bottle is unique: Some are simple, almost black and white, while others are far more colourful. There is no single motif. Since the bottles are rare, they are also valuable; a single flask can cost many thousands of dollars.

Dekantā is an avid collector of Ichiro’s Malt. At the time of this writing we have 26 bottles in stock which
you can take a look at here.