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A Japanese Whisky Legend Looks Beyond Borders

October 07, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Art: Marie Takahashi

With his latest “world whisky,” Chichibu’s master distiller, Ichiro Akuto takes a thoroughly modern approach to blending.

Night falls on Chichibu, a little city of 60,000 two hours by train slightly northwest of Tokyo, nestled between mountains and terraces formed by the Arakawa River as it wends through Saitama Prefecture. For centuries, this place has been synonymous with beverages, thanks to its famed artesian water wells, from which many renowned mountain sakes are brewed. Today, Chichibu is also home to one of the most famous, sought-after whisky distilleries on the planet—a generational success story few could have predicted would drive the international whisky market to new heights—and the man behind it all, Ichiro Akuto, is thirsty.

Akuto has beverages in his blood. In 2004, he found his niche by selling the renowned 20th century Hanyu whiskies made by his father and grandfather, part of a family beverage-making tradition that dates to the Edo period. Economic downturn led to the closure of his family’s business, leaving Ichiro with a stock of his family’s rare whiskies amid the ashes of a legacy. Akuto’s story is one of rebirth, attuned to the increased demand on Japanese whisky in the 21st century—indeed, helping to drive it.

These Japanese heritage whiskies created by Ichiro’s forebears have become the stuff of whisky geek legend, and among today’s online community of extremely-rare-spirits enthusiasts, they are some of the most highly sought-after bottlings in modern spirits. This is particularly true of Akuto’s famed “Playing Card” series—52 releases of just five bottles each, named for the traditional playing card deck (e.g., King of Hearts, Four of Clubs). They sell for upwards of $20,000 a bottle today, with a full set garnering nearly one million dollars at auction in Hong Kong in 2019.

This was just the start for Ichiro Akuto. In 2008 he launched a new distillery at Chichibu, the first new distillery to open in Japan since the 1970s. Informed by his family’s heritage and experience, Chichibu Distillery offers a range of releases, from small-production bottlings like The First 10 and On The Way, to single-cask expressions and special editions. But it is Ichiro’s Malt & Grain release that offers a glimpse of what’s to come for Akuto and his growing team. A true “world whisky” built from spirits sourced from Japan, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States, Malt & Grain’s standard release, known as White Label, is, as Akuto puts it, “a collection of individualities, created with gentle curves.” In other words, everything a modern blended whisky aspires to be.

We recently caught up with Akuto and his colleague, Yumi Yoshikawa, global brand ambassador of Chichibu Distillery, to talk about the future of Chichibu, the world whisky category, and the one glass of whisky Akuto would have if it were his last.

By way of introduction, let’s go back to 2008, when you opened the first new Japanese whisky distillery in a generation—the first to open in Japan since 1973. How does this “first” inform your work?

Of course, it wasn’t an easy task. But I felt it was my mission to bring out the Hanyu whisky left by my grandfather and my father, and at the same time pass down new whisky to future generations. I didn’t feel the size of the history at the time. But now, opening the door to the new history of the Japanese whisky industry is a great reward, not only for the new whisky makers that follow, but also for my own whisky life.

Do you consider your work a continuation of your family’s legacy? Or do you think of it as a completely new creation?

To be honest, when my father’s generation lost the history of the sake brewing company that has continued since the Edo period, I was very sorry for my ancestors. However, I felt that I was able to contribute to the history of my family by being able to connect the history of whisky making.

 The famed “Playing Card Series,” begun in 2004, has now passed from active project into whisky legend. What reflections can you share on this project?

When I released the card series, I wanted to let people know about Hanyu whisky, and [considered] what kind of label design would be interesting when sitting at a bar. At the moment, I have mixed feelings that the whisky is being traded at an unexpected price. After all, the idea that whisky is for drinking is always rooted [in me], so I’m happiest as a whisky producer if you open the seal and imagine with me the feelings for this whisky I felt at that time.

There is a sense of humility in how you name some of your bottlings—for example, “On The Way” is a very humble name to give a highly sought-after bottle. Can you tell us more about why you’ve chosen this name?

“On The Way” is always meant to show our way to the future. We only have young whisky at our new distillery, which hasn’t reached 20 or 30 years old yet, but we wanted to enjoy the progress of our whisky with everyone along the way, as whisky enthusiasts.

Can you tell us a little more about your colleague joining us for this interview, Yumi Yoshikawa, and her role in your work?

I met [Yumi] more than 10 years ago. She was a bartender then and came to the distillery as a whisky lover. After that, she moved to New York and Scotland for several years, and from those experiences, she returned to Japan with an objective and broad perspective on whisky. She has various thoughts about whisky from a global perspective… More than anyone else I’ve met, she wants to convey the joy that she has felt through whisky to other people. From such a perspective, I thought that a brand ambassador role—which is a job to convey Chichibu’s whisky to people not only in terms of taste, but also with the thoughts of the producer—is suitable for Yumi.

You have lived a life in whisky. Are you still able to find pleasure in drinking it? What’s your favorite way to drink it?

I still go around the Chichibu bars almost every night and try various whiskies, and of course, there are always new discoveries and encounters with whisky.

I try a whisky straight when I meet it for the first time, but I also enjoy it on the rocks, as a highball and oyuwari [mixed with hot water during the winter months]. A mint julep is one of my favorite whisky cocktails, but rather than demand something special at a bar, I would first ask for a cocktail that the barman specializes in.

I’m curious about the role geography plays in your work. What advantages does the city of Chichibu have for whisky making?

Chichibu is a basin surrounded by mountains and has a very large difference in temperature. The temperature difference is an essential condition for aging, and the climate of Chichibu allows whisky to ripen well.

Can you explain the role the Mizunara oak plays in your process, and why you chose to use it for your washbacks?

There are two major roles of Mizunara at the Chichibu Distillery. First, when used in a washback, it makes a difference in the lactic acid bacteria that settles there. Lactic acid bacteria produce aroma during fermentation, so if the type of bacteria changes, it will affect the flavor. The other is when used as an aged cask. It takes a long time to mature, but you can obtain a unique flavor not found in other oaks by aging whisky in a Mizunara cask.

Your distillery is home to quite a collection of barrels and even a cooperage—can you tell us about your collection?

We use various barrel types, but it’s only oak, with a focus on bourbon barrels, sherry casks and wine casks. Something unusual is the rum casks or beer casks. It’s more like exploring what you can do in a traditional process, rather than experimenting with something new.

It’s been said that in Japan, the master blender is the key leader in creating whisky, as opposed to the master distiller. Do you agree?

I think both are important. There is a good team of distillers who make spirits without compromise, and there is a good team of blenders that carefully grasp the aging process and connect it to future products. We can’t make good whisky if either one is missing.

Your Malt & Grain whisky is a blend of Japanese, Scottish, Irish, Canadian and American spirits. Can you tell us more about what role each origin plays in your building of the blend?

Using whisky from five different countries with different characters was a huge challenge. However, by tasting each whisky during the maturation on a regular basis and diligently grasping its individuality, it is possible to see how to combine them. American whiskey gives strength; Canadian has an enlivening freshness; Irish has a light, fruity character; and Scotch and Japanese whiskies give thickness and complexity to the taste.

What sensory descriptors come to mind for you when you taste your whiskies? Can you tell us about the profile you’re looking to achieve when you blend Malt & Grain?

It’s like a thorny ball. If there are a few thorns, it’s unbalanced. But if the thorns gather together and form a smooth circle, a collection of individuality is created with gentle curves.

Ichiro's Malt & Grain Whisky

This “All-World Blend” is the first of its kind. This build is primarily 10 year old Chichibu whisky blended with a selection of Scotch, Irish Whiskey, Canadian Rye and American Whiskey, aged in home country anywhere from 3-20 years, transferred to Chichibu and then aged again on site for an additional 2-3 years. Ichiro’s Malt & Grain is blended to balance a heart of Japanese whisky complemented by the major whisk(e)y regions of the world.

Nose: Apricot, Popcorn Toffee, Vanilla Cream, Meyer Lemon Zest
Palate: Light Texture Notes of Toffee, Roasted Chestnut, Gingerbread, Vanilla & Black Pepper
Finish: Medium-long with Honey & Black Pepper

  • Year: No age statement
  • From: High Road Spirits
  • ABV: 46.5%

You are a pioneer in the category of “world whisky.” What does this term mean to you?

Whisky is now made all over the world. Whisky has no borders. So I thought it would be possible to create new flavors by combining my favorite things beyond the concept of a country. I don’t know if it is necessary to make a solid definition for that category, but undoubtedly, transparency is important for any product. I don’t want to say that the details of the blend need to be open, but I think that the minimum information on the product, such as which country and how it was made, is necessary.

Do you check back often on some of your earliest products? For example, 2008’s The First has quite the following today. How does this bottling compare to what you make now?

I don’t taste past products often, but I go to the bar when I really need it.

Regarding the difference between the past and present, of course, if the equipment is used well, the taste of the spirits will change, and the individuality will differ depending on the distiller. Mine is a distillery with a short history, so I think it is more important not to change the taste of whisky, but to develop it every day. I think there will definitely be a difference between Chichibu The First and what we’ve made, say, over the last three years. But it is very difficult to say the difference between good and bad. Both are delicious.

It is your final day on earth—and you are enjoying your final glass of whisky. What are you drinking and why?

It is definitely Chichibu Cask #1, Mizunara Hogshead. This is the one which I filled into the cask in 2008 just after the operation was started, and I still keep it carefully in the warehouse.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.