Photos by Kelly Ishikawa
It's been 10 years since Yoko and I went to Japan for the Open Harvest project. We spent three jam-packed weeks with our pals from Ramen Shop, Rintaro, Kronner Burger, and The Perish Trust, visiting farms, markets, wineries, distilleries, and producers all over Japan. The trip culminated in a giant event at a museum in Tokyo. It was an unforgettable journey, where we made some of our closest friends, here in the Bay Area, and in Japan.
On this trip, I had the magnificent experience of touring Chichibu Distillery. It was an intimate tour, just a few of us from the Open Harvest crew, and Ichiro Akuto himself! I remember thinking about how special this was, even though I knew little about these whiskies back then. I suppose I'm ready to write about it now, after all these years.
It's as though it were a magical figment of my imagination, that fall day in 2011. I recall it was an overcast day, pulling into Chichibu station in a tiny local train. At this very station, many retired older women and men piled out of the train with us, in their hats and outdoor gear and walking sticks, excited for the adventures ahead. Just as we were. The air smelled fresh and piney – we had all been cooped up in Tokyo for too long at that point and this field trip was just what we needed. Giant trees surrounded the train station and we all got into a cab that would take us to the distillery.
Chichibu Distillery was founded by owner and master distiller Ichiro Akuto – his grandfather had owned and operated Hanyu Distillery in Chichibu, Saitama prefecture, which shuttered its doors in the 90s. Akuto kept the Hanyu inventory and began blending and rebottling it in the 2000s, released as his now legendary Card Series. In 2008, he built the current distillery, surrounded by vast fields and wooded hills. It felt rural and remote.
The distillery and team were small. I gathered it was a real hands-on operation just by the fact that Akuto himself made time to show us around.
Mr. Ichiro Akuto giving us the tour of the distillery
Chichibu has two copper stills and eight washbacks made of mizunara
Sasha Wizansky and Sam White smelling new make
Malted barley, grist, and either yeast or wort
After the tour, we were lucky enough to follow Akuto to the office where we tasted whiskies with him! It was a very informal set up – papers everywhere and random casks and bottles lying around. Sounds like the Umami Mart office! It may look different now, 10 years later.
I don't remember the specifics of the tasting – sorry! Here are some photos though that should give you an idea.
We tasted individual casks – from here Akuto decides what and how much to put together to make an impeccable blend.
Bottles from the Card series!
I treasure this visit in my memory and have thought a lot about it in the last decade. Akuto-san was so gracious and kind – he had a relaxed way about him, and was super reserved and quiet. But when he started talking about whisky, he became so animated. His passion for the craft of whisky was palpable, and you can really taste it in his whiskies. To me, Chichibu whiskies are so well-balanced, between the stonefruits, vanilla, and that touch of smoke. They are so special.
We hadn't even had a brick and mortar shop then, and never would have imagined that we would be selling his whiskies for hundreds of dollars. In fact, Chichibu whiskies only became available in the states in the past few years. As the demand for Japanese whisky continues to grow, we see a lot of imposter "Japanese" whiskies come through here. But I always tell people that Chichibu whiskies are my favorite on the shelves – mostly because I am so fond of Akuto-san and my visit to the distillery (and a little because I was born in Saitama haha).
Looking back, I doubt I'll have an experience like this again – the distillery is not open to the public, and Akuto-san is an international cult figure for whisky enthusiasts, at this point. It was a magical little tour and meeting and I'm glad I am finally able to memorialize the visit here, all these years later. Just imagine, The First Ten whisky was somewhere in these casks, just barely starting to rest, when I visited!
Special thanks to Kelly Ishikawa for these wonderful photos, and Chris Lane for some extra whisky education!