Visiting Chichibu Distillery

Visiting Chichibu Distillery

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The background

Visiting Chichibu Distillery - image 1Here at Whisky Saga we have long been fans of the (still young) whisky being distilled at Chichibu Distillery. The heart and soul of Chichibu is Ichiro Akuto. He is the owner, Distillery Manager and Master Distiller. He is also well-known for having acquired the Kawasaki and Hanyu stock, and releasing the lovely Hanyu Playing Card Series, and a number of fine blends and vatted blends under the brand Ichiro's Malt.

Chichibu does not have regular opening hours for visitors. You have to arrange the visit with them before you go. This should not be a problem, however, as they are very accommodating and friendly.

The trip

You have several options to reach Chichibu Distillery. Your starting point will probably be Tokyo, and you are then looking at about two hours travel each way. I will here list the main train options:

  • Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kumagaya Station, then the Chichibu Line from Kumagaya Station to Chichibu Station
  • Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line from Tokyo Station to Ikebukuro Station + Seibu Line “Chichibu Limited Express” from Ikebukuro Station to Seibu-Chichibu Station

Please note that the two options given above use two different train stations in Chichibu. Make sure you get back to the correct station when you go back to Tokyo, as there is no connection between the two. The walk between the stations is just a few minutes though.

Once you have reached Chichibu, you need to locate a taxi and get to the actual distillery. The drive is about 25 minutes. Getting the driver to understand where you want to go might be a challenge though. So here are a couple of tips:

  • Try name dropping first, mentioning Chichibu Whisky and Ichiro Akuto. If that fails,
  • Try giving the address which is: 49 Midorigaoka, Chichibu-shi, Saitama-ken, Japan. If this also fails,
  • Try giving the phone number to the taxi driver: 494 62 4601. In some of the taxi GPS systems they can find addresses based on phone number. If this also fails,
  • Try calling the phone number yourself and ask for Yumi Yoshikawa. She can help explain the address to the taxi driver.

We ended up with option four above, and that worked a charm!

Visiting Chichibu Distillery - map

The distillery

Chichibu in summer is hot, almost as hot as Tokyo. Which means it was a solid 33 degrees Celsius when we arrived! Also note that the month of August is maintenance season at Chichibu, which means there is no ongoing production.

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A few facts about the distillery:

  • Production is currently at about 60 000 liters pure alcohol per year
  • About 70 % of their sales is domestic, and 30 % is export
  • The angel's share varies throughout the year, due to cold winters and very hot summers, but average 3-5 % per year
  • They use mainly bourbon casks, but also have sherry casks, and new oak (American, French and Mizunara)
  • There are currently two warehouses in use, but they are close to full (approximately 1500 casks in each). A third warehouse will be in place later this year
  • They are currently running at 10 production batches per week, with one batch resulting in about 200 liters new make at about 70 % alcohol
  • They have two pot stills, about 2000 liters capacity, which have indirect heating from gas
  • At first they had 5 wash backs, but they are now up to 8
  • The wash backs are made from Mizunara oak! I believe this is rather unique (and expensive).
  • Fermentation time varies between 60-80 hours

Most of the production is unpeated spirit, but for one month per year they produce peated new make. They use malt peated to 50 ppm for the last month before maintenance season.

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The tour

We were met at the distillery by both their brand ambassador, Yumi Yoshikawa, and Ichiro Akuto himself. Yumi would then lead us through the distillery on a tour. We got to see everything we wanted, and we could take pictures everywhere.

It was quite impressive to see the whole distillery up close. It is still a relatively small distillery, with about 10 employees.

They have an approach much like that of Kilchoman on Islay, and Box Whisky in Sweden. They want to have control over everything themselves. You could possibly argue that Ichiro-san goes a few steps further than anyone else though. He is obviously a real whisky nerd. Just listen to this.

Earlier this year they started their own floor maltings. They have malted about 1 ton of malt so far, to get the process right, but the short term plan is to malt all the locally produced barley they buy. This amounts to about 15 tons per year.

They have also started setting up their own cooperage! They have been trained by an old local cooper, that is about to retire. Until now they have used this local cooperage for repairs and re-charring, but as he is closing down they wanted to do this themselves. One of the first projects they have is to make their own style of quarter casks from bourbon barrels, at 120-130 liters capacity.

In the production hall they have their own bottling facility, where they employ about five people doing all their bottling.

We also spotted a beautiful new marriage tank in the production hall. A wonderful 'egg' made from French oak, by Taransaud.

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The tasting

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After the tour we went back to the small and cozy Visitors Center, where we got to try a lot of different expressions and samples. Here is a short summary of what we tried:

  • Chichibu new make - unpeated, 63,5 %
  • Ichiro's Malt & Grain - Chichibu Blended Whisky (worldwide blend), 46 %
  • Ichiro's Malt & Grain - Premium Chichibu Blended Whisky (worldwide blend), 50 %
  • Kawasaki Grain 1982 / 2011 - cask sample, sherry butt, 65%
  • Ichiro's Malt Chichibu 2011/2014 - cask sample, Sherry Butt Cask #1284, bottle 3/12, 60,7%
  • Ichiro's Malt Pure Malt Whisky - Wine Wood Reserve, 46 %
  • Ichiro's Malt Chichibu On the Way, 58,5 %

Expect more in depth reviews of many of these over the next few weeks.

The return

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It was an absolute delight visiting Chichibu Distillery. Both Ichiro-san and Yumi-san are very knowledgeable, approachable and lovely people. Their English is also very good, and we really felt welcome there. We hope to go back to the distillery next time we are in Japan (in a few years). We will certainly keep up to date on any new releases from Ichiro's Malt, whether it is Chichibu whisky, great blends or old stock from Hanyu or Kawasaki.

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Sláinte! - Thomas

Glen Keith 1991 21 YO Jack Wiebers Whisky World

Glen Keith 1991 21 YO Jack Wiebers Whisky World

Glenlossie-Glenlivet 1993 18 YO Sherry Wood

Glenlossie-Glenlivet 1993 18 YO Sherry Wood