As the aging, emphatically not-a-bullet-train Seibu Red Arrow clattered west, double stacked highways and densely tangled power lines slowly gave way to the running streams and forest passes of the Kanto mountains. Even though our destination was only fifty miles from Tokyo, the landscape became increasingly remote, ghostly, and incredibly beautiful. As a rolling fog wended through the trees, it was easy to see why Saitama Prefecture has long attracted renegades, dissidents, poets and pilgrims.
My friend Yukari and I were on a pilgrimage, but we were not seeking salvation at one of Saitama’s many temples. We were pursuing a more worldly deliverance: whisky. Yukari is a chef, sommelier, tour guide and author of Food Sake Tokyo, without question the best culinary handbook to the world’s best food city. Just a few days earlier she’d taken a client to Jiro’s—yes, that Jiro, the one who dreams—and when she heard I was heading to Chichibu to meet Ichiro Akuto, she rearranged her schedule to join me. “This is the Ichiro I have been hearing so much about,” she emailed me as we discussed logistics. “They say his whisky is the best in Japan. So, so excited about this.”
Built for the 1964 Olympics, it has since hosted heads of state on its astonishing lot with a 400-yr-old Japanese garden on site. All that AND it’s a bargain.
She’s not alone. The whole whisky world is so, so excited about Ichiro, who is both leading and riding the global boom for high-end Japanese whisky. Japanese distillers, Ichiro’s included, now routinely outscore even Scotland’s best drams in international competitions, and collectors have bid bottles of rare Japanese single malts to all-time highs at auction houses and collectors’ websites. The two Japanese whisky behemoths—Suntory and Nikka—have ascended to the very highest ranks of international spirits makers, in both power and prestige. Just recently, Suntory announced a $16 billion takeover bid for Beam Inc., the maker of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark bourbons, Laphroaig and Ardmore Scotches, Canadian Club whiskey and Courvoisier cognac, among others. If successful, Suntory (which already owns Japanese brands Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki, as well as Bowmore Scotch) would become the world’s third largest spirits-maker behind Diageo and Pernod, and the world’s fifth-largest malt whisky maker, with combined annual sales of $4.3 billion.
Compared to the mighty oaks of Nikka and Suntory, Ichiro’s Chichibu Distillery is a mere acorn still fighting for the chance to take root (hence the company’s acorn logo). Meeting us at the front door of his offices as if we were old friends arriving at his home, Ichiro shows Yukari and me around his operation. He is humble yet confident, charming, and quick with a joke in the excellent English that he picked up during an apprenticeship at the BenRiach Distillery in Speyside and keeps current with annual trips to the UK to buy barley and other equipment. The distillery has all the signifiers of authentic Scottish-style whisky—the white walls and black roof topped by a pyramidal vented pagoda, the copper wash still and spirit still, the dial-laden spirit safe. But there are some marvelous Japanese touches: even in this industrial setting you have to change into a new set of shoes every time you move to a new room, and there’s a Shinto shrine (the offerings made to the gods are sake, not whisky) right next to the washbacks and mash tuns.
THERE’S A SHINTO SHRINE RIGHT NEXT TO THE WASHBACKS AND MASH TUNS
Founded in 2004 and operational since 2008, Chichibu is the first new Japanese distillery since 1973 and, after a devastating contraction of the whisky market in the 1990s, it’s one of only ten active distilleries in the entire country. With just nine full-time employees running two stills, Ichiro makes about 90,000 liters of whisky per year. But Ichiro’s influence reaches far beyond Chichibu’s miniscule output. Some whisky aficionados see him as the harbinger of a rebirth of craft distilling in Japan, a first move towards the rich and varied communities that have accompanied garage wineries, microbreweries and boutique spirits-makers in other countries. Others suspect he’s a white tiger—an interesting exception to the Suntory-Nikka hegemony, but an isolated and probably irreproducible phenomenon.
Ichiro is well aware of how many eyes are upon him, and he’d be delighted if a new, entrepreneurial distilling culture bloomed around him. “I do hope that people will follow my lead,” he says, as he walks us through the malting, grinding and fermentation processes, the air rich, meaty and fungal. But asking Ichiro to bear the burden of an entire industry is a bit much, since the family history he is carrying, and attempting to vindicate, is so heavy to begin with.
II: WAKON YOSAI
The history of whisky in Japan is in many ways the history of Japanese modernity. And Japan’s rendezvous with the modern world can be precisely dated: 1853, the year that US Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay with his four black-hulled gunships and an order that Japan open itself up to foreign trade. For more than two centuries before, Japan had been completely shuttered to the outside world (for some time, it was a capital offence for citizens to attempt to leave the country). Japan acquiesced to Perry’s superior firepower, and once the country’s ruling class realized just how far ahead the West was in virtually every category of human endeavor, panic set in. To stave off the colonization, or worse, that they thought was certain if Japan did not catch up, they dispatched ambassadors and scientists to Europe and the Americas with instructions to find and return with the very best systems of governance, education, science and technology. That’s why, to this day, you can see English influences on Japan’s Navy, French influences on its bureaucracy, and American influences on its central bank. The rallying cry during Japan’s late 19th and early 20th century crash course was: Wakon yosai! Japanese spirit, western learning. The notion that the Japanese could draw inspiration from the world’s best practices, study them carefully, improve upon them—and often surpass them—permeates much of Japanese industry and culture to this day.
3,500 ENLISTED MEN WERE STINKO 15 MINUTES AFTER THEY GOT TO SHORE
The wakon yosai impulse helped launch Japan’s whisky industry as well. In Drinking Japan, an excellent history of all types of Japanese tipples and a guide on where to enjoy them today, Chris Bunting notes that the history of whisky in Japan goes all the way back to those black ships of Matthew Perry, who gave a 110-gallon barrel of American whiskey to the emperor as a gift. Once Perry departed, however, the Japanese had no idea how to make the stuff themselves. While there were limited and expensive imports throughout the intervening decades, domestic producers made up for the shortfall with locally produced rotgut concocted with dubious means and ingredients. During one bizarre incident described by Bunting, a US Navy officer filed the following report in 1918 after his ship made a brief port of call in Hokkaido: “All the cheap bars have Scotch whiskey made in Japan. If you come across any, don’t touch it. It’s called Queen George, and it’s more bitched up than its name. It must be 86 percent corrosive sublimate proof, because 3,500 enlisted men were stinko 15 minutes after they got to shore. I never saw so many men get so drunk so fast.”
Japan clearly needed some wakon yosai in the whisky department. Around the same time that Queen George was incapacitating the US Navy, a young chemist named Masataka Taketsuru was boarding a Japanese liner destined for Europe. Taketsuru had been working for a drinks producer attempting to approximate foreign liquors by mixing grain alcohol with sugar, spices, fruit juices and perfumes. But his bosses realized that these toxic concoctions were unsustainable. If Japan’s whisky industry was going to survive, they needed to know the basics of distilling, so they loaded their most promising employee on a boat with orders to go learn from the best: the Scots.
Takestusru’s journey was arduous and epic. He was routinely turned away from hotels because he was foreign, and the first distiller he approached demanded an exorbitant fee. Undaunted, Takesturu finally secured apprenticeships at the Longmorn distillery in Speyside and Hazelburn in Campbeltown. While on site, he took meticulous notes of everything he saw. Temperatures, ratios, techniques, costs—no detail was too small.
HIS NOTEBOOKS CONTAINED THE BLUEPRINT FROM WHICH JAPAN’S ENTIRE WHISKY INDUSTRY WOULD BE LAUNCHED
In October of 1920, Taketsuru returned to Japan (with his new Scottish wife). His notebooks contained the blueprint from which Japan’s entire whisky industry would be launched. But the company that sent Taketsuru was surprisingly reluctant to act on his newfound knowledge. Frustrated, Taketsuru found refuge with Shinjiro Torii, a pharmaceutical wholesaler turned brewer who’d recently founded the company that would eventually be called Suntory. Torii employed Takesturu to set up Yamazaki, Japan’s first true whisky distillery, near Kyoto, in 1924. The Yamazaki distillery’s first whisky, Shirofuda (“White Label”) went on sale in 1929, a brand that is sold to this day.
In 1934, Takesturu struck out on his own, founding a distillery in Yoichi in Hokkaido. His company would come to be known as Nikka, and the two companies would form one of the most legendary rivalries in Japanese corporate history. Both companies survived during World War II only because they were military suppliers and thus garnered favorable rationing status. The Japanese Imperial Navy, in particular, consumed massive amounts of whisky, and the Yoichi distillery was, at one point, designated a Naval installation.
After WWII, both companies continued to thrive because they continued to be military suppliers, but this time to US occupying forces. As Japan began its spectacularly successful post-war reconstruction, whisky became a very fashionable drink. It was aspirational, Western, modern. Those who were actually wealthy drank imported Scotch or Japan’s own, increasingly high-quality malts. But the rank and file salarymen who drank late into the night with their colleagues in smoky izakayas were happy with cheap, easy-to-drink whiskey highballs made with one of Suntory’s or Nikka’s basic blended whiskies mixed with soda water and ice. As Japan’s economic might exploded, so did its thirst for whisky. Within four decades, Japan became the world’s third largest whisky producer behind the US and Scotland and boasted an annual consumption of more than three liters for every man, woman and child.
III: THE HANYU BLUES
Whisky may have been a novelty in 1853, but Japan had been brewing sake for more than a millennium, and Ichiro Akuto’s family was in the drinks business long before Commodore Perry showed up. The Akutos have made sake in the Chichibu area since 1625 and Ichiro is the 21st generation of his family to make alcoholic beverages. During the post-war whisky boom, Ichiro’s grandfather decided to diversify, built a new plant in the nearby town of Hanyu and acquired a distillery license. Whether it was Saitama’s climate, the clean and cold water from the Tone River, or the Akuto family expertise, no one could say, but the Hanyu distillery started making some excellent whisky and business was good.
As whisky consumption increased throughout the 1980s and high-end malts became more fashionable, Ichiro’s father doubled down on whisky. He imported copper stills from Scotland and started crafting single malts. Under the Golden Horse brand, the Hanyu distillery started producing outstanding single malts, noted for their light sherry notes and just a hint of peat.
Ichiro always planned to go into the family business, but after graduating from Tokyo University of Agriculture, he decided to get some outside work experience first. He applied to Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery program, but was offered a job in the marketing department instead. Japan is one of the largest and most competitive liquor markets in the world, a crucible where giants like Suntory, Kirin and Nikka develop some of the most varied, creative, and outrageous advertising and promotional campaigns around. Though Ichiro was disappointed not to move straight to distilling, this assignment would turn out to be a hidden blessing, because much of Ichiro’s current success undoubtedly rests on his marketing prowess.
SALARYMEN WERE NO LONGER SEEN AS THE HEROES OF THE JAPANESE INDUSTRIAL MIRACLE, BUT AS DRONES AND WAGE-SLAVES
As Ichiro was learning the trade from within the relatively well-buffered confines of Suntory, however, the Akuto family firm was reeling from a sudden market collapse. In the early 1990s, Japan’s economic bubble popped, leading to more than a decade of stagnation and national soul-searching. Salarymen were no longer seen as the heroes of the Japanese industrial miracle, but as drones and wage-slaves. In a few short years, the word “salaryman” went from everything college graduates aspired to become (good pay at a prestigious company, automatic raises and promotions, and a guaranteed pension), to an aspersion-filled shorthand for a wasted life. Younger Japanese turned away from what they thought of as their grandfathers’ drink and started ordering clear spirits, shochu, wine, beer, and even sake instead.
While this registered as an alarming slowdown for Suntory and Nikka, for much of the rest of the whisky industry it was cataclysmic. By 2000, after years of steep sales declines, the Akuto family had no choice but to sell the distillery. Ichiro returned to the company, not at all in the way he imagined, but to help sort out years’ worth of paperwork, sales and bankruptcy proceedings.
Hanyu’s buyer, a shochu manufacturer, had no interest in making whisky, so the works were dismantled. And it also had no interest in selling the 400 casks of Hanyu whisky, some of them nearly 30 years old, aging in its warehouses. With the new buyer all but threatening to pour his family’s work down the drain, Ichiro rounded up some new investors, bought the whole lot and plotted his return.
IV: FROM THE SMALLEST ACORN
Most dreamers scribble their reveries in notebooks or declare their affirmations to their bathroom mirror. But as he laid the very first plans to set up a new distillery, Ichiro declared his ambition to the world: He tapped the first of the Hanyu casks in 2005 and sold 600 numbered bottles of 16-year-old whisky. On the front label he printed this: Single Malt Whisky from the distillery once called “Chichibu.” The potstills were dismantled in 2004. Now only stocks are available. The founder’s grandson plans to set up a new distillery.
ICHIRO’S TIMING HAS BEEN AS FORTUNATE AS HIS FATHER’S WAS UNLUCKY
Less than a decade later, Ichiro has fulfilled his own prophecy and engineered one of the most remarkable comebacks in Japanese business history. He’s put those old Hanyu stocks at the very pinnacle of the whisky world and founded his own, much lauded new distillery which began bottling new whisky just three years ago. He brands all his releases, whether from the 400 casks or from his own distilling, under the name “Ichiro’s Malt” to reinforce the continuity of the family traditions.
In some regards, Ichiro’s timing has been as fortunate as his father’s was unlucky. Not long after he started plotting his comeback, Japanese whisky started winning the accolades and attention that had always eluded it internationally. In 2001, in an upheaval likened to the wine industry’s 1976’s “Judgment of Paris,” when California wines topped French ones in a blind tasting, a Yoichi 10-year-old single malt distilled by Nikka won the “Best of the Best” award in a blind tasting organized by Whisky Magazine that included the most famous and most prestigious Scotch whiskies.
This first victory proved to be no fluke. In 2003, Suntory’s Yamazaki 12 year won the gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge and its Hibiki 30 year won the same award in 2004. In 2008, Nikka’s Yoichi Single Malt 1987 and the Hibiki 30 year won the World’s Best Single Malt and World’s Best Blended categories, respectively, at the World Whisky Awards in Glasgow. Momentum has built since then. Japanese whiskies now routinely place—and sometimes sweep—international awards every year.
Unlike the Scottish whisky producers, Japanese distillers do not trade bulk unfinished whiskies between themselves to supplement and round out their blended whiskies. Each Japanese distiller manufactures every conceivable style of whisky it thinks it will need by itself, creating a multitude of minutely-calibrated variations to give its master blender as wide an array of blending components to work from. While single malts never get short shrift in Japan, Japanese distillers, with a dizzying array of whiskies under their own roofs, put a particular emphasis on their blends. More so than their global counterparts, Japanese blended whiskies are extremely specific to each house: individualized, idiosyncratic, even eccentric. But this is a limitation as much as a strength. Without inter-distiller trade, when a particular whisky-maker has a run of less than excellent seasons, there is no buffer to save a sub-standard product. These are high-risk operations. Thus while Japanese whiskies are now widely respected, and Western distillers appreciate the cultural and business reasons for their unique approach to blending, the rest of the world is understandably reluctant to emulate the Japanese system.
RETRO WHISKY HIGHBALL BARS HAVE BECOME ONE OF TOKYO’S BIGGEST TRENDS
Pleased, and more than a little surprised, that the world thought so highly of their native nectars, Japanese started returning to the stuff, sparking a domestic revival. And twenty years on, the bubble years were no longer an object of embarrassment, but a rich source of nostalgia. The 1980s and 90s are suddenly the good old days, and retro whisky highball bars have become one of Tokyo’s biggest trends.
With the market primed for a good product with a good story, Ichiro’s delivered in, literally, spades. Sitting on a trove of whiskeys with a variety of finishes and colorings, Ichiro decided to continue releasing the Hanyu casks in very limited bottlings every year. In 2005, he decided to release four different expressions of the Hanyu casks.
Over whiskies at one of his favorite bars in Tokyo, Ichiro batted ideas around with a graphic designer friend of his about things that come in sets of four. With the stimulation of a few quality drams, it came to them: the suits in a deck of cards. It was perfect: iconic, internationally understood, fun. They had their theme. The designer created simple line drawing labels for the bottling run: the 20-year-old Spanish oak sherry wood-finished Ace of Spades, the 17-year-old American oak sherry wood-finished King of Diamonds, the 16-year-old French oak cognac wood-finished Queen of Hearts, and the 15-year-old American oak sherry wood-finished Jack of Clubs. Emphasizing the scarcity of those 400 casks, Ichiro made no more than 330 bottles of each one.
The foursome electrified the whisky cognoscenti. The whisky was sublime (the King of Diamonds won an Editor’s Choice award from Whisky Magazine) and the labels became an instant must-have for collectors. With a hit like this on his hands, Ichiro had no choice but to continue, and over the next seven years he released 48 more expressions of the Hanyu casks, each with its own beautifully designed playing card label. Ichiro still seems a little stunned by all the fuss. “There was no plan to do all 52 cards,” he says. “At first we just chose four classic power cards, and we were going to move on to something different, but it took on a life of its own.”
THE LAST FOUR OF THE CARDS SERIES SOLD OUT IN JUST A FEW MINUTES WHEN THEY WERE RELEASED LAST JANUARY
The card series frenzy took even the most jaded whisky watchers by surprise. Ichiro’s very first bottling took a few years to sell out, but the last four of the cards series (5 of Diamonds, 6 of Hearts, 7 of Spades, and Ace of Clubs) sold out in just a few minutes when they were released last January. Prices have risen, too. The Queen of Hearts, one of the first four cards originally retailed for 4600 yen, whereas the King of Hearts and the 9 of Diamonds, both released in 2009, each retailed for 21,000 yen. Bonham’s recently auctioned a set of four card series bottles for $2,915 and on online auction sites, one bottle from can fetch upwards of $1,000. On February 23, Ichiro announced the release of two Jokers—one color, one black-and-white—that will officially bring the card series to an end. The 3,640-bottle color Joker will be a blend of several different vintages and cask-styles. But, in an inspired marketing flourish, there will be only 241 bottles of the 1985-vintage final card, the black-and-white Joker. Ichiro did not give details about the exact release date or price of either bottling.
Stefan van Eycken, editor of the obsessive and authoritative Japanese whisky blog Nonjatta.com thinks it’s hard to overestimate the importance of what Ichiro has accomplished. “The card series is hugely significant because it has ensured that a significant part of the narrative of the rise of top-quality Japanese whisky over the past 10 years or so has been about an independent producer,” he recently wrote. “Without Ichiro’s series, it is quite likely that the whole story would have been dominated by the huge makers, Suntory and Nikka. That would not only have made Japanese whisky a lot less interesting, but it would arguably have meant the minor resurgence of smaller makers (for example, Mars and White Oak) may never have happened. It almost certainly would have meant that Ichiro’s own new distillery Chichibu would probably have never started, because the money raised by the card series went directly into funding that enterprise.”
V: CHICHIBU DREAMS
Ichiro knows all too well that the Hanyu casks are a finite resource. And while rescuing his family’s reputation is a noble mission, he’s personally ambitious, too. If the whisky he’s making today doesn’t eventually live up to what’s in the Hanyu casks, he knows he’ll be judged a failure. But he says he thrives off the expectations now heaped upon him. “It’s a good kind of pressure,” he says with a smile.
IF THE WHISKY HE’S MAKING TODAY DOESN’T EVENTUALLY LIVE UP TO WHAT’S IN THE HANYU CASKS, HE KNOWS HE’LL BE JUDGED A FAILURE
Ichiro worked with Forsyths, the leading potstill manufacturer, in Scotland to design his two onion-shaped stills, and he fired up the works in 2008. When Ichiro sold Chichibu’s first bottling in 2011, which was called, appropriately, “The First,” all 7,400 bottles sold out in a day. David Broom, author of The World Atlas of Whisky and editor of Whisky Magazine wrote that Ichiro was off to a strong start. “It is of the quicker-maturing light style,” he noted, “and shows typical Japanese clarity along with genuinely ‘Eastern’ aromas of citrus and fragrant spices, and a soft, unctuous feel.”
Ichiro’s task now, he says, is to experiment relentlessly, to find a set of unmistakable notes that Ichiro’s Malt will become known for. “We have to develop our own character,” he says. He is floor malting some of his own barley (a once standard, but now rare technique), tweaking peat levels, and aging some of his whiskey in barrels made of Mizunara oak (a species native to Japan that almost no one else uses). Between the peat, the barley and the oak, he’s hoping to attempt a whisky made with 100% Japanese ingredients, but finding enough native barley is a challenge. (All Japanese distillers rely on imported barley; that’s why when they wax rhapsodic about their outstanding terroirs, they always talk about the water and the aging climate and skip right over the barley). But Ichiro is not a zealot about that notion either: If native products don’t produce the best taste, he won’t use them. “I just want to make great whisky,” he says. “Anything I need to do to accomplish that, I am willing to do.”
As we finish up our visit, Ichiro asks Yukari and me to taste one of his most recent releases, one he’s very proud of. Chichibu is a long way from a 12-year or 15-year whisky, an aged dram that will mark the real test of Ichiro’s ultimate status as a master distiller. But this year he’s got a 5-year single malt for the world to try. Its name, a commentary on not just the whisky’s age, but on Ichiro’s broader mission: “On the Way.”